Op-ed: Tribal alignment in Sudan raises concerns over civilian involvement in armed conflict

Displaced in Kadugli, capital of South Kordofan, in 2018 (File photo: social media / Martin Griffiths)


Recent developments in Sudan have caused the emergence of a tribal mobilisation effort and an alignment between certain tribes, particularly in the war-scarred regions of Darfur and South Kordofan, sparking concerns. Arab groups, such as the Fallata tribe in South Darfur, have openly backed the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

The Fallata’s recent alignment has raised alarms, as it potentially spells the renewal of tribal mobilisation which has espoused ethnic and inter-communal divisions for decades in the region.

In a coordinated statement on Monday, Arab tribes in Darfur expressed their support for the RSF: “We announce our support for the Rapid Support Forces in their current battle to achieve the will of the Sudanese people and their aspiration for democratic, civil rule. We also call on our sons in the armed forces to join the Rapid Support Forces.”

In June, the leaders of the tribes of Beni Halba, Tarjam, Habaniya, Fallata, Misseriya, Taaysha, and Rizeigat in South Darfur already declared their support for the RSF in a video statement.

The RSF welcomed Monday’s statement and underlined its promise to the Sudanese people’s choice for democratic rule and peace, adding that they will “confront the forces of the remnants and the putschists”.

Tribal mobilisation

While some ventured that the war would progressively diminish due to the devastation of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), both sides seem determined to exacerbate the conflict, leading to attempts from the SAF and RSF to mobilise civilians and fan the flames of war.

Journalist Fatima El Ghazali told Radio Dabanga of the dangers of tribal and partisan alignment, cautioning that it could lead “towards a holocaust impacting not only Sudan”, but also bordering countries like Chad, given the tribal relations and overlap across the two countries.

She said that before the general mobilisation call, President of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council and SAF Commander-in-Chief Lt Gen Abdelfattah El Burhan already tried to galvanise a tribal mobilisation before the clashes began on April 15. “El Burhan delivered a speech, for instance, to the Nile River tribes that was widely condemned by those concerned about the nation’s interests.”

Civilian participation in the ongoing clashes has already been reported, with a group of civilians belonging to an Islamist organisation reportedly fighting alongside the army in the battle of the Yarmouk military complex in El Shajara in west Khartoum.

Intensive promotional campaigns have also emerged on social media “revealing a tribal and ethnic rally in support of this or that team”.

The establishment of alliances, such as the Sudanese National Front by tribesmen in eastern Sudan who explicitly support the SAF, demonstrates the widening impact of tribal alignment, taking hold in the form of “sovereign demands” and calls to end the mission of the United Nations envoy.

While it continues to be uncertain whether civilians associated with the tribes backing the RSF will be wholly involved in fighting, the presence of tribal and ethnic dimensions in the conflict persists.

Journalist El Ghazali appealed to both the SAF and RSF heads to “halt the involvement of civilians in military battles“, highlighting “the violation of international and humanitarian law and the classification of such acts as war crimes”.