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Darfur’s slow burn

Katharine Houreld
9 May 2006

Last week Sudanese rebels and diplomats struggled to hammer out a peace agreement as midnight deadlines slipped by and journalists slept on marble floors outside. But even as the largest faction of the rebel Sudan Liberation Army led by Minni Minawi announced it had started implementing the peace agreement it signed with the Khartoum government on Sunday 7 May, observers were already expressing fears that the spillover from the Sudanese region of Darfur conflict threatens two of Sudan's neighbours and the new peace deal.

"Now is not the time to celebrate too loudly", warned Colin Thomas-Jensen of the International Crisis Group. "We already have reports of rebels in Chad rearming and preparing for another attack. The collapse of the Chadian government could well draw Darfur back into conflict."

Also on Darfur and the region in openDemocracy:

Caspar Henderson, "Rwanda, Sudan and beyond: lessons from Africa" (April 2004)

Gareth Evans, "Who is accountable for Darfur? An interview"
(August 2004)

Stephen Ellis,
"Darfur: countdown to catastrophe"
(June 2004)

Lyndall Stein,
"Darfur journal"
(November 2004)

Since the war in Sudan erupted in 2003, both refugees and rebels have found sanctuary in neighbouring Chad. A series of defections from the army drew the landlocked central African country into civil war six months ago. Now rebels are also beginning to emerge in the Central African Republic (CAR), which shares a border with both Sudan and Chad.

The victims of the widening conflict are people such as Khadija Yaya Moussa, a Chadian woman who fled her home after an attack by Sudanese Arabic-speaking militias known as the janjaweed. "I hid the children in the house during the attack", she said softly, speaking through a translator. "The janjaweed came on cattle raids before, but now they are killing people."

Now she welcomes strangers into her front room by rolling out a mat under a tree. On a vine to her left hang sunglasses and a kettle; to her right her three children huddle on a bare bedstead. It's all they have left after fleeing the janjaweed attacks. Moussa believes the community was punished because it offered to shelter Sudanese refugees.

Humanitarian workers say that in addition to more than 2 million people in Sudan who have fled the fighting, cross-border raids and civil war have displaced more than 65,000 people within Chad. Since war broke out in Darfur, three major rebel groups have emerged and the government has armed the janjaweed that fight alongside the regular armed forces.

Many of the Sudanese rebels come from the same tribe as Idriss Déby, the Chadian president. For the first few years of the rebellion, Déby tried to avoid antagonising his powerful neighbour by openly supporting the rebels, yet turned a blind eye if members of his government chose to do so. But in 2005, relations between Chad and Sudan soured, with each country accusing the other of supporting rebel groups based in the other's territory.

The situation is complicated by defections by members of Déby's inner circle who have formed their own rebel group in Chad and accuse Déby of not doing enough to support their kinsmen in Sudan. Observers also say the defectors were angered by his decision to seek a third term in the 3 May elections. Since Chad began exporting oil in 2003, many of his own family had been eyeing the presidency. Despite an opposition boycott which resulted in deserted polling booths and few voters, the government announced an improbably high turnout.

"This government is not a democracy and these elections…(are) just about covering the eyes of the international community", insisted Lol Mahmat Choua, the head of the largest opposition group and a former president. Although he publicly espouses non-violence, he says that frustration with corruption and the slow pace of reform have left some groups little choice but to take up arms.

Also by Katharine Houreld in openDemocracy:

"A taste of freedom" (September 2005)

"'I am woman, hear my roar'" (October 2005)

"Liberia's elections: striving for peace" (November 2005)

"Liberians' payback hour" (January 2006)

"The cost of peace in Ivory Coast"
(February 2006)

Since gaining independence from France in 1960, power has yet to change hands through the ballot box. In April, a major rebel assault on the Chadian capital, N'Djamena, the capital left hundreds dead. Adam Rakiss, a 41-year-old who says he is a colonel in the CAR, is one of about 235 rebels taken prisoner. He says Sudan promised the CAR fighters that if they helped topple Déby, they would be provided bases from which to launch their own rebellion.

"If we help Mohamet Nour [a rebel leader] take power in Chad, Sudan will help us", Rakiss said, adding that he had arrived with about twenty fighters from the CAR. Francois Bozize, the president of the CAR, came to power three years ago in March 2003 backed by Chad. On 14 April his foreign minister, Jean-Paul Ngoupande lodged an official complaint with Sudan regarding two planes that had allegedly landed in the north of the country carrying 100 mercenaries.

Military experts believe that the lawless northern region of CAR is being used as a base by Sudanese-backed rebels for incursions into Chad. The United Nations secretary-general, Kofi Annan, has expressed concern over the escalation of the conflict, but Olivier Bercault of Human Rights Watch says the availability of automatic weapons, porous borders and weak government has helped to spread the Darfur conflict.

"The dynamic is unfortunately something we know very well. We already saw in eastern Congo with the war in Rwanda coming to Congo and in west Africa", Bercault said. "One country sets an entire region afire... In western Sudan and eastern Chad, and CAR, it's exactly the same pattern."

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