Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Sudan’s Tribal Tensions: Uncertain Future

Sudan’s tribal tensions put the country's social fabric at risk, with potentially dire consequences for all Sudanese.

Sudan's Tribal Tensions
A Sudanese in tribal clothes celebrates the peace treaty signed between Khartoum and Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) that ended 21 years of clashes, 14 January 2005 in Nyala town in Sudan’s South Darfur region. JOSE CENDON / AFP

Youssef M. Sharqawi

In recent years, Sudan has experienced numerous tribal conflicts, resulting in hundreds of deaths and injuries all over the country.

These conflicts have escalated over time, posing new challenges for Sudan, including political and economic crises and issues related to political stability, state-building and peaceful coexistence.

Tribalism in Sudan

The tribal structure is a fundamental aspect of Sudanese society. It has maintained its identity as a psychological and cultural framework that shapes behavioural patterns, including political behaviour. Abdo Mukhtar Musa, a professor of political sociology at Omdurman Islamic University, believes that the influence of the tribal structure in Sudan extends to political culture and processes prevailing in the country.

Tribes serve as the primary social units in Sudan, playing significant roles in historical, social, political and economic contexts. Despite the establishment of a modern state in Sudan, the state’s existence remains intertwined with the tribal composition of Sudanese society.

Since no other institution can compare to the tribe, throughout Sudan’s history, it has been the foundation of political, religious, security, economic and cultural strength. In fact, the country’s institutions are a result of tribes, which are the true driving force behind Sudanese history.

Therefore, Sudanese tribes have historically been the primary force shaping the state and society. As such, one cannot discuss political, social and economic life in the country without considering the tribal context.

Origins of Tribal Conflict

Recently, Sudan has witnessed an increase in the severity of tribal conflicts. Among the factors contributing to this surge are the corruption of successive political regimes and the complex period following the overthrow of former Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s regime.

Nonetheless, the origins of the tribal conflict can be traced back to circumstances that have accumulated over time and have created Sudan’s grim reality. As noted by researcher Akram al-Sayyid, tribal conflict first appeared in 1932 in the North Darfur region, involving animosity between the Ziyadiya and Midob tribes and the Kababish and Kawahla tribes. The conflict persisted for years, ultimately reaching a significant turning point in 1983.

According to al-Sayyid, in that year, conflicts between pastoralists and farmers occurred, marking a pivotal moment in Sudanese tribal tensions.

The war between Libya and Chad in the 1970s and 1980s and the Chadian civil war also significantly impacted the complexity of the Sudanese tribal conflict. During this period, the warring tribes in Chad sought assistance from kindred tribes in Sudan, which naturally had adverse repercussions among Sudanese tribal communities.

The causes of tribal conflicts in Sudan are multifaceted, encompassing issues related to livelihoods and disputes over land and water resources. Acknowledging how the absence of institutions and government has exacerbated these conflicts is crucial.

Politicising Tribalism

Tribes have acknowledged and legitimised the modern state as a framework for organising society, overseeing public affairs and as a source of official authority and power. Simultaneously, these tribes have retained the authority to address conflicts within their territories. They also took on responsibilities such as tax collection, recruitment for the Popular Defense Forces and the pursuit of criminals.

Sudanese tribes still exercise self-sovereignty, governing themselves and their resources according to their laws and traditions. This situation has naturally prompted experts to question the division of sovereignty between the tribe and the state.

In answering these questions, it is crucial to recognise that the politicisation of tribal dynamics is a key factor contributing to the escalation of tribal conflicts, especially since tribalism involves intense fanaticism and carries significant connotations related to identity. In the Sudanese context, tribal affiliation is fundamental to an individual’s identity, often taking precedence over other identities, including the national identity. This perception leads tribespeople to regard the tribe as the foundational unit of society.

In this context, the tribe adopts the characteristics of a political institution or entity, leading to a tumultuous relationship with the political authority, marked by complexities and challenges.

Researcher Amani al-Taweel points out that the use of political conflict by tribes in Sudan has lengthy historical precedents.

However, according to Musa, the escalation of conflict becomes evident through the Sudanese government’s involvement, which has been perceived as non-neutral by certain ethnic groups.

Furthermore, the transformation of the traditional native administration has given rise to entities that exploit conflicts for partisan or electoral advantages or to take part in the arms trade. As a result, these groups aim to fuel discord among tribes to perpetuate the conflict and maintain their interests.

Consequently, this misguided political intervention has led to the politicisation of tribes and tribal dynamics. Additionally, political polarisation has developed, exploiting tribal conflicts.

Even if the initial cause of the conflict was non-political, the political exploitation, as noted by al-Sayyid, has played a significant role in its prevalence, intensification and continuation from its inception to the present day. Al-Sayyid emphasises that “political factors have both paved the way for non-political conflicts and failed to provide effective solutions for them.”

The Darfur Question

Sudan's Tribal Tensions
Fighters ride in a vehicle moving in a military convoy accompanying the governor of Sudan’s Darfur State during a stopover in the eastern city of Gedaref on August 30, 2023. AFP

Darfur’s population, encompassing 115 out of the 570 Sudanese tribes, is divided into two main ethnic groups: the first has Semitic Arab origins, while the second has African Hamitic roots.

Between 1916 and 1956, Darfur was considered an integral part of modern Sudan. During this time, it was a “region with limited development, administered by British officials who relied on the native administration system.”

The Darfur region’s population, which encompasses 115 out of the 570 Sudanese tribes, is divided into two main ethnic groups: the first group has Semitic Arab origins, while the second group has African Hamitic origins.

Between 1916 and 1956, Darfur was considered an integral part of modern Sudan. During this time, it was described as a “region with limited development, administered by British officials who relied on the native administration system.”

Following Sudan’s independence, political and economic power shifted into the hands of the northern Arabs, commonly referred to as Nile Arabs, who were predominantly Muslim.

Conflict erupted among local tribal groups, starting at the time of the country’s independence in 1956 until the implementation of the regional government system in 1980.

Over time, between 1983 and 1993, the nature of these conflicts evolved into a war between tribal and ethnic groups in Darfur and the central government, involving the use of modern weapons.

Between 1992 and 2002, ethnic polarisation intensified, leading to tensions between Arab and non-Arab tribes. With the government’s intervention in favour of the Arab tribes, the conflict took on a national dimension.

Many people in Darfur trace the conflict that erupted in the early 2000s back to its origins in 1982. It is worth noting that the state of the conflict in the early 1980s took on a new dimension in 1986 when Sadiq al-Mahdi, the leader of the National Umma Party, assumed the position of prime minister in Sudan.

During this year, several Arab tribes formed a coalition known as the Tajammu al-Arabi or the Arab Gathering, receiving support from the National Umma Party against the non-Arab Fur tribe, which was backed by the Democratic Unionist Party.

Some observers believe that this phase, marked by the rise of the National Salvation Government and the Islamic Movement, witnessed the intersection of political Islam with ethnic polarisation.

Priorly, Darfur’s tribes – which were closely interconnected socially, economically and developmentally within the broader Sudanese society, thereby creating a tightly woven social fabric – had coexisted peacefully.

However, the situation became more complicated in the 1990s, particularly following the publication of The Black Book, in which Darfur’s educated elite quantified the injustices their region had suffered since independence.

From that point forward, issues related to land ownership, hawakir or land allocations, and tribal homes became significant drivers of tribal conflict in Sudan. Elements of ancestral land ownership became integral to the legacy of Darfur’s people and the region’s social and cultural structure, evolving into vested rights with profound political implications that cannot be overlooked.

Hassan al-Turabi, the founder of the National Islamic Front and the orchestrator of its military coup in 1989, played a pivotal role in the outbreak and subsequent expansion of the Darfur crisis. President al-Bashir removed al-Turabi from power in 1999.

Primarily in response to this, al-Turabi incited several Darfuri tribes against al-Bashir along ethnic and tribal lines, according to al-Taweel. He also notes that al-Turabi “established an armed Darfuri movement, the Justice and Equality Movement.

The conflict escalated into violent confrontations between tribes of Arab origin and other tribes of African descent, resulting in the formation of alliances along ethnic lines. This dynamic was tied to the regional tribal connections of the Zaghawa people in both Chad and Sudan.

Various Scenarios

Researchers have outlined various scenarios for the Sudanese tribal conflict, some pessimistic and some optimistic.

The pessimistic scenario anticipates that the conflict will persist. Proponents of this view attribute the continued conflict to two key factors.

First, they point to the fact that peace agreements concerning tribal conflicts are negotiated with certain tribes while other tribes are neglected, creating difficulties for conflict resolution. Second, they highlight the involvement of regional actors that seek to regain influence in specific Sudanese regions.

The optimistic scenario offers a different perspective, suggesting that the tribal conflict can be resolved through government actions addressing the root causes. This entails establishing developmental justice and creating the foundation for a civil state free from racism and discrimination.

This resolution, however, relies on genuine political will that refrains from exploiting or politicising the conflict. It requires viewing tribespeople as citizens of a nation rather than members of a particular tribe and prioritising legal resolutions over traditional or customary ones.

In this context, researcher Asmahan Ibrahim emphasises that the ultimate solution lies in “addressing the crisis’ underlying causes, particularly by promoting balanced development to eliminate injustice and foster positive interactions among Sudan’s diverse population.”

She underscores the importance of advocating a reconciliation discourse, rejecting tribalism, ensuring representation from all regions in governance, facilitating reconciliation between warring tribes, compensating those affected by conflicts, and preventing politicians from using tribalism in politics.

Researcher Abu Hurayra Abdulrahman attributes the proliferation of tribal violence to several factors, including political instability, intensified power struggles, shortcomings in the state’s performance, and the inefficiency of the political system in maintaining control and satisfying the population.

Given the tribal, economic and political disparities in Sudan, the country’s social fabric is undoubtedly at risk, with potentially dire consequences for all Sudanese.

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