The Darfur region of western Sudan is beset by numerous layers of violence: rebel groups fighting against Sudanese government forces, irregular militias fighting against rebel groups, and nomad groups fighting other nomad groups over limited resources.
During more than a decade of open conflict, the horrors of Darfur have been symbolized by the rifle-wielding, horse-riding Janjaweed, a largely Arab nomad militia backed by the Sudanese government in its fight against the rebellion. While Janjaweed fighters constitute only a tiny fraction of Darfur’s nomad and seminomad peoples, tribes in the region have long been unfairly associated en masse with the group.
In response, nomad tribal leaders have been promoting the role of the Ajaweed: tribal elders responsible for administering Judiyya – indigenous Sudanese practices of peacemaking and reconciliation.
In the past few years, Arab nomads in each of Darfur’s five states have organized five interlocking conflict resolution networks. They are loose organizations that aim to identify and address local disputes throughout the region before they escalate – both between nomad tribes and between nomads and others. Theirs is a promising initiative in a difficult environment with the potential to help bring lasting grass-roots peace to a region plagued by decades of violence. But it requires stronger international support if it is to play a broader role in managing Darfur’s overlapping conflicts.
Obstacles to peace
Throughout periodic attempts to resolve Darfur’s strife, these tribes have been offered little more than mere “token representation,” as one nomad leader who took part in four rounds of peace talks described it.
True, the United Nations rushed to assemble a tribal delegation to attend the various rounds of peace talks on Darfur held in Qatar in July 2010. Though the talks ultimately led to the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur in May 2011, Arab nomads unanimously look at the Doha process as a failure. Their representatives felt frozen out of the process, unable to engage in negotiations and largely excluded from the agreement’s compensation packages and reconstruction funds. Nomad tribal leaders hold that their communities continue to be associated with the Janjaweed militia above all else.
In response, they point out the role their networks play in managing conflict and facilitating reconciliation as both mediators and arbiters. They work in several stages: an initial goodwill committee, a technical committee to document grievances and estimate compensation, an administrative committee to arrange a Judiyya meeting, and finally a neutral committee from outside the tribe or community to oversee the implementation of the committee’s decision.
But these networks face many difficulties. One is the generational gap: Young militia and rebel fighters do not afford tribal norms of conflict resolution the same level of respect as older generations. Leaders also suffer from limited finances, making it difficult to facilitate dialogue. In addition, parties are often unable to afford the Diya, or “blood money” compensation, required for reconciliation. Agreements can also be hard to sustain: An Ajaweed-brokered peace accord between warring tribes in central Darfur last July fell apart because of a lack of support from Sudanese authorities, with scores killed in renewed fighting.
Local efforts support international goals
Despite these challenges, the international community must engage with local Darfuri actors and support their peacemaking efforts for several key reasons. First, these individuals have access to some of the conflict’s most hard-to-reach actors. Arab nomad civil society and tribal leaders hail from many of the same towns and communities as the Janjaweed and rebel militias and therefore represent a crucial opportunity to engage these groups when international efforts have failed.
Second, these networks offer a chance to revitalize a mediation effort widely perceived within Darfur as having failed. While various Quick Impact Projects administered by the UN have been well received, many Arab nomads hold a dim view of the UN, particularly the joint African Union and UN mission in Darfur. In the words of one nomad elder, “all we get from the peacekeeping troops is the dust from their vehicles.”
Third, resolving the Darfur conflict requires investment in local conflict resolution rather than relying on outside intervention. As the International Crisis Group noted in a January report, “reconciliation cannot succeed without sustained involvement of the local parties to the conflicts.” The nomad networks stand to play a key part in this process, and have already shown initial successes.
How to brighten a glimmer of light
To play an effective role, though, these networks require adequate backing. Sudanese state governorates should help strengthen locally administered agreements by offering financial support to improve the networks’ monitoring capacity and extend their reach. The tribes’ Ajaweed peace conferences and their decisions should also be accepted as an official part of the Sudanese judicial system.
Sudanese agencies and global partners can work to develop communications strategies and project-management skills among nomad leaders. Likewise, targeted training in conflict analysis and resolution should be given to those working in the region to improve their understanding of local culture and context. And all groups should work to avoid co-opting tribal networks for political gain or aid distribution, which would undermine their impartial image.
The prospect of supporting local actors in Darfur and their peacebuilding networks offers a glimmer of light in an otherwise bleak situation. International donors and other interested parties should seize on this important opportunity to address the roots of conflict in Darfur rather than simply treating its symptoms.
Sultan Barakat is a senior fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Doha, Qatar, and chairman of the Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit at the University of York in York, England.