Polarization increases as UN mission is underway

— the piece was written in September 2020 and was not updated.

As recruitment begins for the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) which is under establishment through UNSC resolution 2524 of June 4th, deadly confrontations between unarmed civilians protesting against the ongoing insecurity and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Darfur continues to raise the mounting death toll in civilian victims since the conflict broke out in 2003.

Once again, Sudan will become a precarious situation in which two UN missions overlap in one country as the United Nations African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) is still operating in the country since 2007 after it replaced the two-year old African Union peacekeeping mission. UNAMID has previously operated alongside the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) which came into existence after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in 2005 to bring an end to the conflict in South Sudan and departed the country shortly after the independence of South Sudan in 2011.

UNMAID was born under difficult circumstances. For starters, it is the first joint mission by the UN and AU which makes its processes even more bureaucratic and less effective in addition to the constant ‘no peace to keep’ situation on the ground.

‘UNAMID has a dual reporting mandate to the UN and the AU and this paralyzes it as an entity,’ said a diplomat in Khartoum.

Internal whistleblowers such as Aicha Al-Basri said it ‘failed to stop attacks’ while Sudanese civil society activists saw it as shackled by the Sudanese government.

‘They were constantly cornered by the Sudanese government that wanted them out of the country at all times because their presence indicates that the catastrophic humanitarian crisis in Sudan is still present,’ Salih Mahmoud, a human rights advocate in Khartoum.

The RSF are now constitutional

For years, the Sudanese government hired the Janjaweed known as men on horsebacks to kill, pillage and burn the people of Darfur and their villages. Mohamed Hamadan Dalgo, known as Hemedti, was one of their leaders until Bashir clashed with Musa Hilal, the de-facto leader of the Janjaweed and strengthened Hemedti’s position by funding him to initiate the Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

The RSF were brutal and launched an extreme counter-surgency in 2013 that severely weakened the armed groups in Darfur and wreaked havoc on communities. In the months since the fall of Omer Al-Bashir in April 2019 due to popular protests, the RSF and its leader, Hemedti, have taken the center stage of the political scene. The signing of a constitutional declaration in August 2019 between the coalition that led the protests, the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) and the military wing which included the Sudanese armed forces and the RSF brought Prime Minister, Dr. Abdullah Hamdok, a former UN and AU official to power as Sudan’s first civilian leader in thirty years.

‘The RSF were best described as paramilitary, but the way they were placed in the constitutional declaration and acknowledged as a military force alongside the Sudanese armed forces has now completely legitimized their presence in Darfur and in Sudan as a whole’ said Mahmoud.

In June, the Darfur Bar Association which is the largest human rights body representing Darfur, said in a statement that the mission’s work is not up to the standards , but emphasized that keeping the UNAMID under the current chapter 7 is important and is one of the guarantees for stabilizing the transitional period and the ongoing peace process.

But recent events in Darfur just show how much UNAMID has not been emboldened by the regime-change.

Darfur has witnessed violence in recent months most recently in Fata Borno and Nertiti. Infact in both areas, in North and Central Darfur, respectively, local communities organized peaceful sit-ins to protest the widespread insecurity that impacts their daily lives and their access to farmlands. Both sit-ins called for the removal of security officials affiliated with the former regime.

The recent events in Fata Borno demonstrate how the senior leadership of UNAMID are still self-censoring and taking the government’s line,’ said the diplomat.

Due to the ongoing violence, UNAMID has built a large base in Nertiti, but has not shown teeth in protecting civilians.

‘Where is UNAMID when people are killed and women are rapped in Nertiti and other places? They are seeking to enrich themselves and are offering the people of Darfur very little in return.’ said Azza Al-Rasheed, an activist from Zalinjei in Central Darfur

Earlier this month, the transitional government sent a high-level delegation to the Nertiti sit-in and expressed ‘solidarity’, but the process shows how the constitutional declaration does disadvantage Hamdok’s civilian wing when it comes to issues of security as it does not give him the power to appoint the Ministers of Interior and Defense.

The transitional government dealt with the situation by sending forces and the attacks have largely subsided for now, but the problem remains in place.

‘The central issue is land tenure as the attacks are launched by armed communities from other regions and other countries in the Sahel that now control large lands that historically belonged to farmers who now live in IDP camps around Darfur due to the fighting. Those communities are are unable to return and farm their lands,’ said Al-Rasheed.

Both historical and contemporary complications related to the changing nature of the landscape due to conflict and the way cross-border tribes live and move are difficult to translate into solutions for all parties.

They contribute to making the situation on the ground for UNITAM and the work of UNAMID very challenging.

Human rights organizations agree about UNAMID’s almost symbolic and non- confrontational role.

‘UNAMID’s departure is an opportunity for the military to consolidate power. They need to stay for the duration of the transition in some shape and form and not get pulled out. It is evident that there is still violence in Darfur such as the last attack on the sit-in in Kutum and the events in Al-Geneina last September.’ said Jehanne Henry, a former associate director in Human Rights Watch’s Africa division.

The cry against UNITAM

In January 2020, Sudan’s prime minister, Dr. Abdullah Hamdok, drafted a letter asking the UN for a peace-building and political mission. A month later, Hamdok had to revise the letter.

‘The military generals were upset about the letter and there was a joint meeting that brought them together and the letter was revised and the UNSC was asked to only consider the revised letter,’ said Hussein Saad who is on the editorial board of Madania news website.

A crucial revision states that the new mission does not address the security sector reform.

The meddling of the military to make the call on the features of the mission did not stop there. Two concurrent campaigns were working simultaneously to weaken the upcoming mission from its inception and to polarize the situation on the ground.

One of the first battles is where to situate the mission, chapter six or seven.

“The Germans and the British wanted chapter 7 but the military pushed hard for a Chapter 6 mandate with no peacekeepers. Eventually the military and close aides made Hamdok believe that there was no choice but to accept a chapter 6 mission. The Foreign Ministry still has a lot of former NCP members who don’t like the UN. But civil society leaders and the resistance committees were pretty clear in their desire for protection.” said a diplomat in Khartoum.

Inside the halls of the UNSC, the situation was even more polarized. The diplomat adds that the Russian and Chinese officials watered down the resolution and even tried to take out human rights monitoring.

Russia has interests in Africa and especially in Sudan. In his final days, Al-Bashir visited Moscow to appeal for support as the west continued to turn its back on him. Last year, leaks showed that Russian specialists worked on a political and economic reform program to keep Al-Bashir in power and Russian nationals became a normal sight in Khartoum during the protests.

The case of Jean Christophe Belliard

On June 18th, Al-Intibaha, a pro Bashir political newspaper claimed in an article that Jean Christope Belliard, a French national was named as head of UNITAM.

This particular piece of information was circulated on different platforms connected to Al-Bashir’s regime such as Al-Nileen.

‘The NCP are also working on the UNITAM issue. The cyber-jihad unit is successful in disseminating fake news and rumors and many people are following this and this is because they have many platforms. Their deep state starts a new newspaper everyday just to distribute this kind of fake news and misguided news,’ said Hussein Saad, a journalist and analyst in Khartoum.

Belliard is currently the Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS) and he has strong connections to Sudan as he was in the embassy in Khartoum in the 1980s and continued to work on the Sudan file through the Africa desk at the Foreign office.

A few days ago, Al-Ain, an Emirati news platform, quoted a Sudanese official stating that Belliard has lost the race as some countries have voted against him.

An activist who wishes to remain anonymous states that the military wing did communicate with those countries to block the recruitment of Jean Christopher Belliard, however, no other confirmation was made.

‘The Russians have operations in Central African Republic and have a military presence in Darfur. They’ve also helped to water down the UN resolution and blocked Belliard. At a certain point we need to all recognize that Sudanese should decide their own destiny and not let Russian financial and military interests dictate the democratic transition,” said the diplomat

The diplomat added that there are strong sentiments against the mission within the government by former NCP party members and the NCP circulated information that this mission is a snub at its sovereignty. In fact, NCP protestors chanted against the mission in a large protest organized during the covid-19 pandemic.

On the ground, the first year of the transitional period is coming to an end next month and observers confirm that it was strained with challenges and many of the milestones such as forming the legislative council within three months and signing a peace agreement within six months have not materialized.

‘The FFC which is the political coalition supporting the civilian government is weak and the armed groups are also weak and they’ve held back the peace process. Internally, the deep state is at work to destabilize the transition and regionally, the Arab countries do not want a democratic transformation and could try to impact the work of this mission,’ said Saad.

Last week, Hamdok formed an executive committee to coordinate with UNTIMAS and appointed its national coordinator, Amb. Omer Al-Sheikh.

‘We still have not held a meeting to officially start our work, but we will start preparing to guarantee that there is a reasonable transition for UNAMID and the mandate it represents ,’ said Samia Nahar, one of the members of the committee.

Mahmoud is worried about the prospects and hopes that UNAMID will remain as long as there is no peace on the ground.

Azza Al-Rasheed is worried that the ongoing peace process in Juba between the armed groups from Darfur and the other areas and the transitional government will yield the same shortcomings as the previous peace agreements and will not materialize into an improved humanitarian situation.

‘In the other peace agreements, the gains were limited to the release of detainees and some youth benefiting from the DDR process, but people in Darfur continue to die. No one understands how tired we are after 17 years of war,’ said Al-Rasheed who was a former fighter in an armed movement.

‏‏‏‏‏Sudanese freelance journalist, writer, blogger and researcher.