A dozen Arab tribal leaders from Sudan’s western region of Darfur have pledged allegiance to paramilitaries fighting with the army — a move analysts warn could tip the scales in the months-long conflict.
The war between army chief Abdel Fattah al Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who commands the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, has wreaked havoc on Darfur, where experts fear a widening ethnic divide could spell more violence.
In a video released on Monday, leaders from seven of South Darfur state’s main tribes urged their members to desert the army and fight instead for the rivalling RSF.
“This announcement will have a massive impact” on the conflict in Sudan, which has killed nearly 3,000 people, said veteran local journalist Abdelmoneim Madibo.
“Like in El Geneina, it will divide South Darfur between Arabs and non-Arabs,” he told AFP news, referring to the West Darfur capital which has been the scene of major bloodshed and ethnically targeted attacks.
The RSF is largely made up of Arabs who formerly served in the Popular Defence Forces, government-linked militia known as the Janjaweed, recruited by the now ousted government of president Omar al Bashir to suppress an armed rebellion launched among Darfur’s non-Arab minorities in 2003.
Many fear a repeat of history in the latest fighting, with residents and the United Nations reporting civilians being targeted and killed for their ethnicity in the conflict.
Both sides have long courted young men in Darfur, which is home to a quarter of Sudan’s population.
But experts point out that while the conflict has already taken on an ethnic dimension in the region, it has yet to impact the makeup of the forces, which are comprised of both Arab and non-Arab groups.
The army’s second-in-command in both Nyala and neighbouring East Darfur are generals from the Arab Misseriya tribe.
Meanwhile, the armed forces count several officers from the Rizeigat tribe — Daglo’s own — among their ranks.
The leaders of both tribes appeared in Monday’s video, rallying support for the RSF.
There has yet to be an exodus from the army’s ranks. However, analysts fear the tribal push could bring about further ethnic stratification.
Darfur specialist Adam Mahdi said the announcement carries tremendous weight, saying the tribal leaders represent “the real government” in the region and without them, “the army holds no respect or legitimacy”.
The point of Monday’s video, he told AFP, was to draw a line in the sand, cut off army recruitment and “clearly state the allegiance” of these tribes to the RSF.
The army could find itself facing a broad united front “pushing it out of South Darfur, where most of its bases have fallen,” Mahdi told AFP.
The temptation could be “to arm other tribes and launch a proxy war,” he added.