Local Mediation Leading the Way in Darfur

In early November 2023, approximately seven months after the outbreak of war in Sudan the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) stood on the brink of a major battle for control of El Fasher, the historical capital of the Greater Darfur region and the capital of the current North Darfur State. This looming possibility raised international concern, as evidenced by warnings issued by the United Nations and the United States government, cautioning that the anticipated attack by the RSF on the Sixth Infantry Division of the SAF in the heart of El Fasher would lead to significant human casualties and trigger new waves of displacement of both the city’s residents and hundreds of thousands of displaced persons who had sought refuge in the city since the 2003 genocide.

Fortunately, the attack did not occur. This was primarily thanks to the efforts of a local mediation committee formed by the dignitaries of El Fasher, including leaders of civil administration, professionals, civil society organizations, and associations of women and youth. The committee successfully brokered a ceasefire between the warring parties, providing the city with relative calm, despite numerous ceasefire violations. Thanks to the committee’s efforts to maintain a balanced position towards all armed factions and prioritize the protection of civilians, El Fasher now appears as the only stage in Sudan’s destructive war where three armed parties, i.e., SAF, RSF, and the signatories of Juba Peace Agreement 2020, now known as the Joint Forces of Darfur Movements (JFDMs), coexist.

Local mediation efforts like that in El Fasher have presented a glimmer of hope for peace in Sudan even as national efforts with regional support founder. This paper documents the unique experience of the North Darfur Elders Mediation Committee (EMC) in El Fasher and North Darfur State, with a view to exploring what has, and has not, worked. This offers lessons both for similar local mediation initiatives that have come to encompass all other Darfur states, West and North Kordofan and further afield.

El Fasher’s security context

The security situation in El Fasher has been characterized by fragility, with the city witnessing recurring tensions. Hardly a week passes without an incident, such as disputes between herders and farmers in adjacent rural areas. Previously, these disputes were simple and could be resolved through civil conflict resolution mechanisms. However, interventions by RSF forces in favor of the herders, and interventions by Juba Peace Agreement forces in favor of the farmers, have led to an increase in the frequency and violence of the clashes.

El Fasher is unique in that it hosts numerous armed forces, including the armed forces of five armed rebel movements who signed the Juba Peace Agreement, the SAF and the RSF. These diverse forces lack unified leadership and coordination. Weapons proliferate in El Fasher. SAF troops are stationed in the western part of the city, the RSF in the east, and the forces of the armed movements in the far west of the city, in the former headquarters of the joint United Nations and African Union mission (UNAMID).

A history of social cohesion and mediation

Darfur has a rich and deeply rooted social heritage, reinforced from the era of the Sultanate of Darfur by economic interdependence and intermarriage. The region also boasts traditional mechanisms for dispute resolution, leaning towards resolving conflicts amicably through mediation. One of the prominent forms of grassroots conflict resolution is the traditional “Judea Committees,” typically consisting of local dignitaries and civil administrators, whose decisions were respected by the disputing parties. As conflicts evolved, so did the committees, expanding to take the form of “Reconciliation Conferences.” These committees and conferences helped to contain numerous conflicts. This experience provided a strong foundation for the work of the EMC in El Fasher and North Darfur.

El Fasher is known for its high degree of social cohesion, although this is undermined by connections to kin in rural areas who are in conflict.

The formation of the Elder’s Mediation Committee

Fighting in El Fasher broke out less than an hour after hostilities began in Khartoum. The fighting began within the Joint Sudanese Armed Forces Command in El Fasher, where the RSF initiated an attack on the SAF headquarters and the SAF command refused to surrender. This was followed by skirmishes and heavy gunfire in the west, east, and center of the city. Casualties occurred on both sides. More than 60 civilians were killed or injured on the first day of the war.

The ongoing fighting caused additional damage, including stray bullet strikes and the disruption of essential health and vital services. On the third day of the war, April 17, dignitaries and members of the civil administration of El Fasher formed a committee (the Elders and Mediation Committee in El Fasher, EMC) to coordinate with health committees to address the potential health threat of corpses in the city, seeking to bury them, especially in relatively safe areas, and assist civilians struggling to receive medical treatment to reach the only functioning hospital in the city. Considering the dire circumstances, the committee proposed engagement with the belligerents to reach a ceasefire. The committee agreed on the importance of contacting the leadership of the SAF, the RSF, and the executive government of North Darfur State. The governor of North Darfur State endorsed the committee’s initiative, committing to facilitating its work.

The first meeting between the EMC and the SAF leadership took place on April 18, 2023. The SAF commander in El Fasher committed to a ceasefire, halting hostilities in civilian areas, pledging his forces would stay in their positions in western El Fasher. SAF also committed not to initiate combat unless provoked, to enable the EMC efforts to bury bodies and ensure the wounded could access hospitals. On the same day, communication was established with the RSF leadership in the city. They also agreed to a ceasefire, allowing the burial of bodies and the transportation of wounded civilians to the hospital. RSF also agreed to remain in their designated area to the east of El Fasher. Both parties agreed that the committee would oversee the implementation of the ceasefire and consented to the deployment of police forces along a demarcation line in the city center. As a result, the shelling effectively ceased. Following this significant achievement, the committee members, who initially numbered 12, agreed to organize the committee’s work, distribute tasks and adopt the name “Elders Mediation Committee in El Fasher”.

The structure and organization of the EMC

In its first meeting after the ceasefire, the committee drew in five additional members from among lawyers, academics, civil society activists, and women representatives, bringing it membership to 17. Additionally, the name of the committee was modified to become the Elders and Mediators Committee (EMC) for North Darfur State, encompassing all cities and villages of North Darfur State in its activities due to the understanding that any fighting in any area of the state would have a direct impact on the ceasefire, given the social connections within the state.

The committee consists of the president, vice president, rapporteur/communication and coordination officer, spokesperson, complaints coordinator, media office, and members. Coordination and communication tasks fall within the purview of the rapporteur, who, in turn, contacts other parties at the EMC’s request for meetings or to address ceasefire violations. The committee also adopted, in its first meeting, the general principles governing its work, tasks, and responsibilities, as follows:

  • neutrality, independence, and transparency, and refraining from favoring any party to the conflict.
  • the committee’s primary task is to protect civilians, irrespective of their ethnic, political, or ideological affiliations.
  • the ongoing war was defined as a “conflict between the SAF and the RSF.” It should not be characterized as a civil war, and no party should be allowed to involve civilians in the conflict or drag the region into a civil war.
  • the committee’s top priorities are maintaining the ceasefire and ending the fighting, which necessitates monitoring each party’s compliance with its designated position in the city.
  • community support, engaging all segments of society, and creating the broadest popular bloc to support an end the war in El Fasher and North Darfur State are needed to support the work of the EMC.
  • facilitating the delivery of humanitarian, relief, and healthcare aid, facilitating the operation of hospitals and healthcare centers, and accommodating displaced persons in shelters in North Darfur State.

To carry out its designated tasks, the EMC relies on direct and frequent meetings with the warring parties. During the first two months of armed clashes, meetings were held every two days. The committee adopted a policy of continuous communication with the warring parties to sustain the ceasefire.

Challenges for the EMC

The EMC faced a variety of challenges. The most significant are the violations committed by both parties which lead to renewed clashes and civilian casualties. The EMC faces significant difficulty in restoring the ceasefire through communication with the warring parties, holding meetings with them, and confronting them with the violations that had occurred. The committee’s tasks are complicated by its lack of robust monitoring mechanisms.

In the initial stages of the EMC’s communication with the warring parties, it found full trust and support from both sides. The committee relied on the ethical commitment of the parties, and meetings were conducted smoothly. However, after four months of work, challenges arose. Questions about the neutrality of the committee and accusations of bias surfaced. Consequently, the relationship between the EMC and the warring parties became unstable, oscillating between openness and avoidance, according to the committee’s opinion on violations. These problems continued to occur intermittently, especially when the parties were confronted about violations that they had committed or appeared to have committed.

To overcome these obstacles, the EMC tasked new members from the armed movements with communicating with the SAF and RSF on security challenges. In August 2023, coordinating bodies were established between the JFDMs and the SAF on one side, and the RSF on the other. The JFDMs assumed the role of separating the warring parties which exposed them to risk, but succeeded in reducing violence and facilitated the passage of humanitarian and commercial convoys to El Fasher.

El Fasher: current situation and prospects for peace

When some of the armed movements abandoned neutrality in November this created new tensions, with the RSF renewing threats against the SAF and aligned movements. Prompt action by the committee prevented this tension from erupting into violence, and restored relative calm in the city, though humanitarian flows were disrupted.

The current situation in El Fasher is one of cautious calm tinged with tension as grievances accumulate and weapons proliferate. El Fasher has become home to a large number of internally displaced persons from elsewhere in Darfur, including those displaced from within the city itself whose fates hang in the balance. Consequently, any collapse of the ceasefire would have dire consequences.

The committee hopes that international and regional interventions can bring the warring parties to negotiations and eventually end the war. In the meantime, the EMC needs technical and logistical support. It also calls on all parties to draw inspiration from its experience and seek their own solutions to the challenges facing Sudan.

The committee urges the warring parties to adhere to the commitments they made in the “Jeddah Declaration,” which is a preliminary agreement that commits the belligerents to refrain from any military attack that could cause harm to civilians, respect international humanitarian law and human rights, allow civilians to leave conflict areas and ensure their basic needs, protect all private and public facilities, and refrain from using them for military purposes and allow unobstructed flow of humanitarian aid.

Sudan Transparency and Policy Tracker calls for:

  • the leadership of the SAF and the RSF to reach an immediate ceasefire. Local solutions, while important, are not comprehensive. The EMC began its work in El Fasher but quickly decided to expand its scope to include all of North Darfur realizing that fighting in any part of the state would directly impact the ceasefire in El Fasher, due to the social ties between the region’s components. The same logic can be applied at the national level.
  • communities to draw inspiration from the experience of the EMC, which was based on maximizing social capital and respecting social networks and customs, providing a good ground for devising new solutions to the challenges facing local communities. Local communities have a unique ability to understand and analyze conflicts, actors, and interests, and possess a vast reservoir of local sensitivity that is difficult for external parties to match. This constitutes a crucial asset for mediation efforts and conflict resolution.
  • the warring parties to respect leaders who have the trust of the community as an important tool for building trust.
  • local mediation committees and parties to the conflict engaged in local ceasefire initiatives to maintain regular communication channels and exchange information.
  • local leadership involved in mediation efforts between the warring parties to maintain communication with their communities and a high degree of transparency. Mediation efforts entail real risks to the participants, but can be mitigated to some extent by community trust. Therefore, it is critically important to ensure mediation work is inclusiveness to reinforce legitimacy, and through it, protection.

This article was adapted from
a paper produced by the Sudan Transparency and Policy Tracker.

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