Chad fears rising tribal tensions if RSF wins, as up to 20,000 Sudanese refugees crossed its border

A Sudanese refugee camp in eastern Chad (file photo: social media)

KHARTOUM / N’DJAMENA – April 24, 2023

The clashes in Sudan are worrying its neighbour, Chad. The two countries share a complicated past and leaders fear rising ethnic tensions as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) commander has important ties to Chadian Arab tribesmen. As many as 20,000 people from Darfur have fled to neighbouring Chad in the past week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.

United Nations refugee agency “is greatly alarmed by the escalating violence as the first refugees fleeing the fighting have found safety in Chad,” the deputy spokesman for the UN Secretary-General reported.

The majority of the estimated 10,000 to 20,000 people who have fled the conflict in the Darfur region to seek refuge in Chad are women and children, the agency reported.

People from the Tendelti area in West Darfur were amongst those who sought refuge in Chad out of fear of the ongoing battles between the army and the RSF.

Sudanese soldiers in Chad

Not long after the outbreak of the violence on Saturday April 15, Chad closed its border with Sudan. It later announced that it had received more than 320 defecting Sudanese military soldiers who fled the violence inside its territory.

N’Djamena reported last Wednesday that the soldiers of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) had fled to Chad on Sunday after the eruption of the clashes between the SAF and RSF. They had crossed the border and surrendered to the Chadian army.

In a press conference, Chadian Defence Minister Gen Daoud Ibrahim said that the Sudanese military “entered our lands”. “They have all been disarmed and sheltered.”

He added that “those who surrendered to our forces are 320 members of the Sudanese Armed Forces, from the gendarmerie, police and army. They fled fearing they would be killed by the RSF.”

“The situation in Sudan is worrying and deplorable, we have taken all the necessary measures in the face of this crisis,” the minister said.

In the press statement on Wednesday, the defence minister stressed that this war “does not concern” Chad. “It is between the Sudanese, and we must remain vigilant against all eventualities.”

In January, Chadian President Mahamat Déby received both SAF Commander Lt Gen Abdelfattah El Burhan and RSF Commander Hemeti, one day after the other, in N’Djamena with the aim of ‘displaying an air of neutrality’.

Chadian tribal tensions

French newspaper Le Monde reported that the Chadian authorities are not officially taking sides in this war but that they are clearly leaning to one side.

“We are on the side of the institution,” a high-placed source told the news outlet. “The government is keeping silent because the situation is still uncertain, but for us the seizure of power by an irregular force in which many Arabs from the Chadian-Sudanese border find themselves would be a threat to our stability”, detailed another source at the Chadian presidency.

The RSF commander, a member of the janjaweed groups that were armed by the Al Bashir regime to terrorise the people of Darfur, has solid connections to Chadian elites and important networks in the country. President Déby’s private chief of staff is a direct cousin of Hemedti, for example, and his Rizeigat clan moved to Darfur from Chad.

The Rizeigat are part of the Baggara Arab nomads.

According to Le Monde, there is a fear within the Chadian authorities that a victory for the RSF will strengthen political and military ambitions within the large Chadian Arab community.

It is feared that the powerful militia leader will promote the rise of his Rizeigat clan if he comes to control Sudan, to the detriment of the Zaghawa, a non-Arab African nomadic herding tribe based in Chad and Darfur, who have constituted the heart of Chadian power for over 30 years.

“The biggest challenge for us is the Arab equation. Many of our brothers here are with him and if he were to win, they think they will be supported and armed,” another member of the state apparatus explained to Le Monde.

‘The biggest challenge for us is the Arab equation’

At the same time, however, the Council of Arab Tribes in Chad issued a statement in which they consoled Chadian clans over the death of hundreds of their sons in a “nonsensical war” driven by the Hemeti’s “personal greed”. It slammed the RSF’s exploitation of economic hardship in Chad to recruit thousands of Chadian tribesmen, reportedly under the pretext of sending them to Yemen.

Instead “they were taken to their death in this humiliating and undignified way”, the statement read. The council called on the RSF to surrender to the SAF but appealed to El Burhan and Minni Minawi to grant Chadian recruits amnesty and a safe passage back to Chad.

Dire situation

As the fighting continues, the humanitarian situation is becoming more dire, especially in Sudanese cities.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) said that nearly a third of Sudan’s population was suffering from hunger, and the program warned on Twitter that the continuation of the violence would lead to millions more being thrown into the cycle of starvation.

The WFP had to halt its support operations in Sudan after three of its employees were killed in the clashes.

The UNICEF representative in Sudan, Mandeep O’Brien, explained that millions of children in Khartoum and other areas are living in distress due to the armed confrontations, food and water shortages, and the shelling and looting of homes and hospitals. It called on all parties to protect the lives of the Sudanese.

Residents in Nyala are reportedly barricading streets to prevent looting. Youth inthe neighbourhoods have formed groups to patrol and protect the areas from the frequent looting by both SAF and RSF personnel.

A Radio Dabanga correspondent explained that the Specialised Children’s Hospital in El Fasher, capital of North Darfur, was plundered last Wednesday, and so were many homes and market stalls.