What does fighting in Darfur mean for Sudan’s western frontier?
The power vacuum in western Darfur state risks drawing in fighters and weapons from Libya, CAR and Chad, analysts say.
As the conflict intensifies in Sudan, experts caution that the power vacuum in Darfur, its western province, may attract fighters and weapons from neighbouring countries, including Libya, the Central African Republic (CAR), and Chad.
The region’s security has been compromised due to an ongoing power struggle between the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group led by Mohamad Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, a tribal leader from the Mahariya clan of Darfur’s Rizeigat tribe.
Numerous regional actors have interests aligned with the RSF, such as renegade Libyan commander General Khalifa Haftar, who leads the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) – a force comprising family and tribal militias, as well as mercenaries, according to Jalel Harchaoui, a Libyan expert with the Clingendael Institute, a Dutch think tank.
According to Harchaoui, in recent years, Arab groups with direct links to Haftar’s family have consolidated control over lucrative smuggling routes in the desert city of Kufra, which borders Darfur, Chad and Egypt.
Drugs, cars and, often, refugees and migrants are moved through Kufra, making the RSF one of the LNA’s main trade partners and incentivising Haftar to back Hemedti, Harchaoui added.
“If you are a bad guy and do business for years and years with another bad guy, then you will want that bad guy to survive because you want your business to survive,” said Harchaoui.
But Hemedti is not the only tribal leader who has weight in Darfur. His rival, Musa Hilal of the Mahamid clan of Rizeigat, was the original leader of the feared Arab tribal militias backed by the government, known as the Janjaweed, that spearheaded state-backed mass killings against mostly non-Arab communities who were revolting against the centre.
So armed groups from Sudan’s western frontier could go either way, support or undercut Hemedti, to preserve the lucrative smuggling routes, settle scores with rival groups or come to the aid of their kin in Darfur.
Like the 128th brigade, a mercenary group fighting for the LNA, which comprises many Sudanese Mahamid fighters who have profited from war and smuggling in Libyan cities such as Sirte, Sebha and Orabi for years.
Since Haftar’s failed bid to capture Libya’s capital Tripoli in 2019, the 128th brigade has enriched itself through the illicit trafficking of commodities like drugs and fuel.
But with a war now brewing in Darfur, they may return to fight in support of Hilal.
“The 128 [brigade] contains a lot of Sudanese, but those people kind of forgot their past. They didn’t [care about Darfur]. But maybe now they’re going to care. This is a question,” Harchaoui said.
More than a decade after the Janjaweed spread terror in Darfur under Hilal, the Sudanese government empowered Hemedti to sideline and arrest Hilal in 2017 and take over his gold mines. Now, Mahamid fighters could look to settle scores by helping the Sudanese army weaken Hemedti in Darfur, Harchoui told Al Jazeera.
“The [Sudanese] fighters in Libya could be reactivated as opponents of Hemedti,” he said. “Maybe they might look at Haftar as a political friend of Hemedti and that could be a problem.”
From Chad, fighters friendly to Hemedti might come to his aide. His cousin, Bichara Issa Djadallah, is an adviser to Chadian President Mahmat Idriss Deby and the head of the Chad-Sudan joint task force that monitors the Darfur border.
Two months ago, the CIA warned that Hemedti was helping plan a coup against Deby, who hails from the Zaghawa tribe which has long consolidated power in Chad at the expense of its Arab population, according to Africa Intelligence, a leading source of intel on the continent.
Despite the CIA’s intelligence, Deby appears reluctant to back the Sudanese army or Hemedti in Darfur for fear of supporting the losing side, said Remadji Hoinathy, an expert on Chad for the Institute for Security Studies.
That does not mean Chadian Arab or Zaghawa fighters will not intervene to support their kin in Darfur, said Hoinathy. Local residents previously told Al Jazeera that the Sudanese army and Hemedti are pushing non-Arabs and Arabs to align with them, respectively.
“In the coming days depending on how the situation evolves, we could have more people in Chad positioning themselves in one camp or in the other [in Darfur] regardless of the position of the [Chadian] state,” said Hoinathy.
The government of Faustin-Archange Touadéra from the CAR is also trying to remain neutral, said John Lechner, an expert on the Russian mercenary group Wagner and rebel groups in the Sahel. He added that a number of CAR armed groups have accrued weapons and recruits from Darfur in the past.
“I think [CAR] armed groups will largely stay out of the actual fight [between RSF and SAF]. But if some of the [Darfur] communities that these armed groups in CAR recruit from become involved in the conflict, then we could see people going back to fight – not necessarily in the name of the armed groups – but on an individual basis,” he said.
Lechner stressed that the conflict in Darfur is unlikely to strengthen CAR armed groups to the point of toppling Touadéra in the capital of Bangui. However, if the RSF is significantly weakened in Darfur, it may push a lot of its fighters to join armed groups in the region, including in the CAR.
However, few people believe Hemedti will be defeated in his stronghold.
“I don’t think Hemedti will fully lose in Darfur. I think you will see a lot of sponsorship [of armed groups] from the RSF and army, which could lead to spillover in CAR’s northeast. That’s what the government is worried about,” Lechner said.