The Dangerous Web of Misinformation and Othering in the Darfur Conflict
Editor’s note: The first post in our Spotlight on Sudan series is written by Mohamed Abdo, President of the Sudanese American Community Development Organization (SACDO), a diaspora group based in the greater Washington, D.C. area. Humanity United is lending our platform to share these perspectives, however the views and opinions expressed are those of the author.
The conflict in Darfur, which began in 2003, is a complex and devastating chapter in Sudanese history. It unfolded as a result of various factors, including historical neglect of the Darfur region, political disputes, and economic disparities. However, what made this conflict even more catastrophic was the spread of misinformation and disinformation that fueled divisions among ethnic groups.
The conflict began when armed groups in the region decided to confront the Sudanese government, led by the National Congress Party (NCP) under the leadership of Omar al-Bashir. These groups believed that Darfur had long been marginalized and neglected by successive governments in Khartoum. The initial intention of these Darfurian rebel groups was to demand regional development and a fair share of resources, not to wage an ethnic war.
The situation escalated when the government responded to the Darfurian rebel forces with violence. President Omar al-Bashir issued warnings that anyone who took up arms to protest or demand development would be met with military force. As the clashes between the Sudanese Armed forces (SAF) and Darfurian rebel forces intensified, the SAF faced significant challenges on the battlefield, suffering defeats in numerous battles.
In response to these setbacks, the NCP made a fateful decision. They sought to bolster their forces by creating a proxy militia composed of members of the Darfurian Arab ethnic group. This militia, known as the Janjaweed, was led by Mousa Helal. However, the most dangerous aspect of this development was the misinformation and disinformation that the NCP used to manipulate and radicalize the Janjaweed.
The Janjaweed were manipulated through the dissemination of false narratives that framed the conflict as an ethnic struggle between Arab and African ethnicities in Darfur. They were led to believe that the rebels were solely fighting because they wanted to eliminate the Arab ethnic group from the region. This false narrative fueled the Janjaweed’s sense of purpose and justified their actions in their minds.
Armed with a vast array of weapons, financial resources, and military vehicles, the Janjaweed enjoyed a status that granted them immense power and privilege over the Darfurian population. They operated with impunity, committing heinous crimes against civilians, including murder, rape, and the burning of villages. Furthermore, they systematically discriminated against Darfurians of African descent, often labeling them as slaves.
As the conflict unfolded, the Janjaweed escalated their brutal campaign against the people of Darfur, ultimately leading to genocide. Villages were razed to the ground, countless innocent civilians were killed, and a humanitarian catastrophe unfolded as thousands fled their homes in search of safety, with many finding refuge in neighboring Chad.
Twenty years later, the conflict in Darfur has not ceased, and Darfur’s refugees have not returned to their original homes, despite numerous peace agreements between Darfur rebel forces and the NCP. After pressure was exerted on the Sudanese government by regional powers and Western countries to disband the Janjaweed, NCP leaders rebranded it as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) to legitimize its existence. The conflict in Darfur was further complicated during the Obama administration when negotiations between the Army movement in Juba and the NCP made progress, culminating in the 2011 South Sudan referendum.
During the glorious December revolution in Sudan, SAF, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the RSF, led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (also known as Hemetti), declared their support for the democratic transition and stood with the revolutionaries to achieve the goals of the Sudanese revolution and the formation of a civilian democratic government. However, it later became apparent that there were disagreements and escalating tensions between the civilian and military components in the transitional government. The RSF were accused of committing crimes in Darfur, making them undesirable in the eyes of the revolutionaries and protesters. Disputes and protests between the two components continued, ultimately leading to the resignation of the transitional government and further developments in the Sudanese political landscape.
Despite the RSF and SAF’s attempts to rally the people’s support for the transitional government, the Framework Agreement was a failure and resulted in the eruption of conflict that started on April 15th. It later became clear, that the war between the RSF and the SAF involved another party, the National Congress Party (NCP), which had been working against the revolution since the fall of President Bashir’s government. Members of the NCP were the ones who initiated the conflict through their leaders within the SAF.
NCP members used misleading propaganda to manipulate the Sudanese people. They spread rumors that the RSF were a non-Sudanese mercenary force from Chad, Niger, and Mali, supposedly sent to occupy Sudan. They urged the Sudanese people to support the SAF in this war to eliminate the RSF.
Unfortunately, Sudanese society has tribal divisions and racial biases, and when NCP members spread these false rumors, some Sudanese people did indeed support the SAF just based on regional and ethnic grounds. The racial fires ignited by the leaders of the SAF and members of the NCP to defeat the RSF did not spare Sudanese society, especially in Darfur and Kordofan.
Sudanese society has become divided into two groups: one supporting the continuation of the war, advocating for the complete defeat of the RSF, and another group standing against the war, demanding an immediate end to conflicts and the transition of power to a civilian transitional government.
Unfortunately, this division within society has evolved into a quasi-racial divide. For example, I, being from western Sudan, have faced accusations from some people who claim that I do not belong to Sudan, accuse me of coming from Chad, and suggesting that I should return there. Some of these individuals even resort to racist remarks.
Despite all these rumors and challenges, it is crucial to stand against the war to preserve Sudan and prevent it from experiencing another secession, as witnessed in 2011 when a significant part of southern Sudan became an independent country. If these rumors and divisions persist, Sudan risks becoming an unknown and uncertain state with an uncertain future.