Blood-Letting in the Blue Nile: ‘Tribal Wars’ Triggered for the Survival of Sudan’s Military Junta

Pavan Kulkarni
Sudan tribal conflictsDisplaced from their houses during the violence that was largely in Roseires, many have arrived in Blue Nile’s capital Damazine. (Mohamed Mustafa/Twitter

The junta in Sudan is deliberately dragging the country toward civil war by provoking tribal conflicts across the border States, warn communist activists and members of resistance committees

Demonstrations were held in different cities of Sudan all of last week calling for peace in the country’s restive border States. The protesters also condemned the military junta and its ally, a former armed rebel group, for provoking violence between two ethnic communities – Funj and Hausa– in the southeastern Blue Nile State.

A young protester, Abu Bakr Ismail, died during the country-wide actions on July 21. He was hit in the chest when security forces fired live bullets to disperse a demonstration in Omdurman city in Khartoum State.

He was the 115th protester to be killed since the military coup in Sudan on October 25, 2021. His lawyer, Saleh Bushra, who sought an autopsy into his murder, was harassed and interrogated by the security forces who ostensibly suspected him of being Ismail’s killer. Another protester, 21-year-old Hussam Al-Sayadh, who was “kidnapped” by the security forces, is feared to have been forcibly disappeared.

The security forces also injured several protesters by firing rubber bullets, shooting tear gas canisters directly at the protesters’ heads, and attacking them with stones and batons, the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors (CCSD) reported on July 23. Live bullets and tear gas were also used on Sunday, July 24, against the demonstration in Omdurman.

At least 105 killed in Blue Nile, almost 20,000 displaced

In a stark contrast to this crackdown on anti-coup peace demonstrations, the army is accused of standing back and allowing armed violence to unfold for three days, from July 14-17, in the Blue Nile State bordering Ethiopia and South Sudan. Roseires, Blue Nile’s largest city along the Ethiopian border, was the epicenter of the violence. Clashes were also reported from the town of Quainsan and the State capital Damazine.

The official death toll acknowledged by the Federal Health Ministry rose to 105 on July 20. According to the Coalition of Medical and Health Organizations in Blue Nile, 242 people have been declared dead in the Teaching hospital in Damazine, and 41 others in Roseires.

By July 16, the CCSD had reported that these hospitals were running short of even basic prescription medicines and emergency drugs. Several of the injured are in a critical condition and require surgeries. “Doctors and health personnel are working under complex conditions in the complete absence of the state’s health ministry,” added the CCSD statement.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated on July 22 that at least 19,500 were displaced in this violence. 1,500 of them are in Roseires and Geisan, 14,000 in Damazine, and another 4,000 have fled north to the neighboring Sennar State.

The local Resistance Committees (RCs) in these areas have been on the frontlines of organizing aid and relief for the displaced, while those in other regions have been raising funds from their respective areas. A network of over 5,000 such committees, organized in neighborhoods across the country, have been the backbone of Sudan’s pro-democracy movement with protests organized nearly every day for the past eight months since the coup.

The pro-democracy movement has observed that confronted by these protests that threaten its grip over power in the center, the junta has been pushing all the peripheral regions of Sudan, rich in mineral wealth and fertile lands, into the throes of manufactured tribal conflicts as another resort to divide-and-rule.

The RCs have also acknowledged that promoting peace and harmony between tribes and diffusing tensions provoked between them is imperative to defeat the junta by disarming it of the key weapon in its arsenal. Hence, they have been directing all their anti-coup activities towards this end.

The security forces injured at least 94 protesters, including by running several of them over with armored vehicles, during the peace demonstrations on July 17. The ‘March of Millions’ – which has been taking place country-wide several times every month since the coup – on that day focussed their central message on calling for brotherhood between tribes. Placards hailed unity against the junta which benefits from “tribalism”.

Slogans were also raised against the 2020 Juba Peace agreement. Without addressing the disputes over land and resources or the rehabilitation of millions who have been displaced in the war, the agreement, critics say, was merely a power-sharing deal between the leaders of armed rebel groups and the army. These leaders went on to support the military coup.

Instigation by former rebel leader Malik Agar, now an ally of the junta

Among the leaders who supported the coup is Malik Agar, who heads a faction of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N). Given control over Blue Nile after signing the Juba agreement, Agar has since been sharing power with the coup leaders in the Sovereignty Council, the highest body under the junta’s regime.

The Sudanese Communist Party (SCP), which is a key component of the grassroots resistance to the junta, has accused Agar of being the main instigator in this spate of violence between the Hausa and Funj tribes.

“The Funj tribes are regarded as natives of the Blue Nile region, while the Hausa migrated here in different periods over the centuries from West Africa, predominantly from Nigeria,” said Osama Saeed of the SCP.

“However,” he added, “there is no history of such clashes between the two. The Hausa largely kept to themselves and their agriculture. Fissures between the two began to appear only under (the rule of former dictator) Omar al Bashir, when the sections of Hausa were recruited into security forces to put down the rebellion by the Funj tribes.”

Fathi Elfadl, national spokesperson of the SCP, said, “While Bashir’s regime played on the contradictions due to competition over land and resources between the migratory and native tribes, the tensions between the Hausa and Funj had never before escalated to the point of such bloody clashes. This violence was instigated by the Agar faction of the SPLM-N who tried to set his former rivals against his own people who were withdrawing their support from him.”

The Funj people had supported the united SPLM-N since its formation in 2011. It was among the many armed rebel groups in the war against Bashir’s Islamist regime under which tribes in border regions of Sudan felt marginalized.

In 2017, SPLM-N split into two factions – one led by Agar and the other by Abdelaziz al-Hilu. The December Revolution, which started in 2018, forced Bashir out of power in 2019. Following these events, Agar’s faction signed the Juba peace agreement, while Al-Hilu’s faction refused.

“Ever since, Agar has been losing support of the Funj. They are increasingly opposing his administration over Blue Nile, especially after the coup,” Elfadl explained. He told Peoples Dispatch that in a desperate attempt to now woo the Hausa into supporting him, Agar instigated the Hausa leaders to claim chiefdom in a territory that had hitherto been under the administration of the Funj.

Earlier this year, Agar arbitrarily appointed his relative as the supreme chief of all the Blue Nile tribes. The latter, in turn, appointed a Hausa chief and drew up the geographical boundary of the land that was placed under his administration, reported a Darfur-based news page.

In May, the chief was reportedly imprisoned by the King of Blue Nile tribes after he banned Hausa girls from working in the market and his enforcers beat up several of them at checkpoints. Following his imprisonment, sections of the Hausa tribe supporting the new chief were extremely agitated. Fear that violence could breakout anytime was palpable in the State, according to several reports.

Instead of taking measures to diffuse these tensions, the junta allegedly pumped weapons to the Hausa tribe. When a Hausa youth was killed in Roseires on July 14, armed attacks followed. The Al-Hilu faction of the SPLM-N retaliated on the side of the Funj, and an armed conflict erupted.

Rapid Support Forces (RSF) collaborating with Malik Agar?

On July 18 and 19, in the aftermath of the three-day long blood-letting, several members of the Hausa tribe went to the army base with weapons that they sought to hand over. They explained that they did not want war and were given these arms by Agar.

“It is well-known that the source of these weapons was the Rapid Support Forces (RSF),” said Saeed. The RSF is a notorious militia that was cultivated in Darfur under Bashir to suppress the armed rebel groups of marginalized tribes in this region in Sudan’s northwest. The RSF operates outside the official Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and its commander, General Mohamad Hamdan Dagalo, aka Hemeti, is the military junta’s deputy chairman.

By committing an alleged genocide and war crimes in Darfur, the RSF forced the displacement of millions from their lands and took control over the bulk of the gold in the region. “The Blue Nile is (also) very rich in gold, chrome and other minerals, and Hemeti, wherever he finds gold, he must have a foothold,” observed Darfur News.

“Hemeti and his group are buying lands up and down the whole country,” said Elfadl. He added that different tribal leaders are being used at different times in different places by Hemeti in pursuit of his “interest in controlling land – especially farming lands and the farmers he is trying to turn into supporters of RSF.”

The people of Darfur – who have suffered the most under the RSF, whose uniformed and armed men are accused of continuing to loot, kill and rape in the region – have held demonstrations calling for peace in Blue Nile and cautioning fighting groups against falling prey to Hemeti’s machinations.

Peace demonstrations started in El Obeid, capital of North Darfur State, on June 19. On July 21, demonstrations were reported from El Geneina, capital of West Darfur State which in April had witnessed the massacre of over 200 people along with the displacement of about 100,000. Involvement of the RSF in this massacre, which was also declared as a “tribal conflict”, is well-documented.

Sudan at risk of territorial disintegration

While the SAF remains preoccupied in its crackdown on unarmed pro-democracy protests against the coup leaders attempt to retain power by pitting tribes against each other, the RSF has been deployed in the Blue Nile, ostensibly to prevent “tribal clashes.”

While an uneasy and fearful calm now hangs over Blue Nile, RCs in Roseires said in a statement on July 23 that the city is suffering from “lack of emergency medications, medical personnel, and food supply, as well as a total absence of hospital security, which has caused many medical personnel to withdraw.. out of fear for their lives.”

Further, with an electrical transformer burnt down, Blue Nile faced massive power outages since July 21, impacting other utilities, “such as drinking water supply, mills and other services, which has made life in the state.. unbearable for its residents,” the statement noted. While the fighting has stopped, many pro-democracy activists, in no way connected to the violence triggered by the ruling powers, have been arrested by the security forces deployed to stop the violence.

What is happening in Blue Nile is the same as what is unfolding in all the peripheries of the country – “in the East, in the North, in Darfur and elsewhere. I have never seen security deteriorate across the country to the extent it has in the eight months since the coup last October,” said the 80 year-old communist veteran.

“Sudan is witnessing a very destructive wave of killings that is gradually dragging the country into a civil-war. This will make way either for a more brutal Islamist dictatorship, or for the disintegration of the country. Division of the country into three main planks – the East, the Center and West – is already being advocated by the imperialist forces,” he warned, in a reference to the US-Saudi-sponsored negotiations. The interests of the regional forces  –  the armed former rebel groups now in alliance with the army and the state-sponsored tribal chiefdoms – are also in confluence with such a division, he added.

Under these circumstances, Elfadl argues, “it is the primary task of all forces which agree at least on the defense of the country’s territorial integrity to firstly organize to stop this bloodshed, and secondly to direct all its strength to overthrow the military junta and make way for a civilian transitional government.”

Massacres in West Darfur: Depopulation Campaign on Mineral-Rich Lands by Sudan’s Military Junta?

Sudan: “Security Situation in Darfur Remains Very Dangerous”