Home | News    Monday 8 November 2004

Tribal leader’s actions underscore complexity of Sudan’s Darfur conflict

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By SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN, Knight Ridder Newspapers

ED DAEN, Sudan, Nov 7, 2004 (KRT) — For more than a century, Saeed Madibo’s family has led the Rizeigat tribe in this rugged, remote land. He is linked maternally to the Shaigiya, one of Sudan’s ruling tribes, making him a natural ally of the Arab-led government.

Hadj Suleiman shouts from a cell inside the court in Nyala, September 30, 2004. He is one of six Sudanese men accused of belonging to the Janjaweed militia (Reuters).

But Madibo, 74, is unlike most Arab chieftains in the Darfur region. When Sudan’s leaders called on his tribesmen to join its Janjaweed militias to fight against black African rebels, he turned them down. Then, he placed thousands of African villagers - the targets of the Janjaweed - under his protection.

"No government or anyone can order us to send our people to war," said the snow-haired patriarch in a rare interview. "We come from different tribes, but we are all Sudanese."

As the international community searches for a solution to end the crisis here, it is tribal leaders like Madibo who could play a crucial role in bringing peace and reconciliation to fractured Darfur. By not joining the conflict, they have both the credibility and the authority to defuse tensions between Arab and African tribes.

"Saeed Madibo is a good man who is trying to solve Darfur’s problems," said Yahya Hassan, a rebel commander in the south Darfur town of Labodo. "He’s the only Arab that respects peace."

In this part of the world, the tribe is held accountable for an individual’s crimes, and that makes tribal leaders vital to repairing Darfur’s torn social fabric.

But men like Madibo also find themselves caught under competing pressures - from the government, from the rebels, from their tribe - that threaten their quest for peace, perhaps their very survival. How they deal with these pressures will likely shape the destiny of Darfur, said analysts.

"This is a political conflict, and all the tribes, Arab and Africans, are the victims of it," said Ghazi Suleiman, a well-known human rights lawyer. "The way to resolve this conflict is to call for a tribal conference. Tribal leaders in Darfur are competent to resolve their problems, if they will sit together without any political interference."

Madibo’s choice underscores the complexity of the war in this region the size of France, where the United Nations says more than 70,000 have been killed and 1.6 million chased from their villages. It is not entirely Arab against black African.

There are some Arabs, including Rizeigat members, who are fighting with the rebels, who seek a share of political power and economic development for Darfur. There are two African tribes in the north who are fighting alongside the Janjaweed.

And while the Rizeigat tribe here has refused to answer the government’s call to war, its northern Rizeigat cousins have bred brutal Janjaweed leaders.

In Ed Daen, the ethnic patchwork is tangled. Unified by Islam, the Rizeigat have intermarried with black African tribes such as the Birgit and the Zaghawa, crisscrossing their bloodlines for generations.

They have trading and agricultural agreements that allow Rizeigat herders to travel through African tribal lands. They speak the same dialects. Disputes were solved over cups of tea.

"From the time of our grandfathers, our tribes have mixed," said Saeed Abubakr Ahmed, 58, a Birgit tribal leader in Ed Daen.

"Had I sent my people to war it would have created problems with all the tribes in my area," said Madibo.

Madibo himself is a product of tangled ethnicity. His grandfather married into a Zaghawa clan, and the local leader of the Masalit, another African tribe, married his sister. Now, Madibo’s mixed-race nephews often visit him.

Born in the village of Abjara 18 miles north of Ed Daen, Madibo stopped his studies before high school because "at that time, education was not important in our tribe." A father of six children, he traded crops and cattle, often with Africans. In 1990, at the age of 60, he inherited the leadership of the Rizeigat when his elder brother died. Today, Madibo heads a 16-member, Arab-African tribal commission that runs Ed Daen.

"From the beginning Madibo has been good to us," said Mohammed Abakr, another Birgit leader. "He has met us. He has visited us in our camps. He has promised us he would work hard to stop the war."

Madibo is not anti-state. He’s a pragmatist who supports Khartoum’s policies if it fits the interests of his tribe. In the 1990s his tribesmen formed the core of the Murahaleen militias who fought against southern rebels, killing thousands, and enslaving Christian children from the Dinka tribe.

In the current conflict, the government has tried to win him over with cash but he has stood firm, said his advisers. So now, the government is promoting another Rizeigat, a cabinet minister named Abdelhamid Musa Kasha, in an effort to split the tribe. Musa Kasha is on a U.S. congressional list of senior Sudanese officials allegedly controlling the Janjaweed.

After months of avoiding war, Rizeigats under Kasha’s command have attacked nearby Birgit villages in recent weeks, sending thousands fleeing to Ed Daen to seek Madibo’s protection. The rebels, too, have stepped up attacks, adding more pressure on Madibo.

Madibo voices optimism that he will prevail.

"Musa Kasha may be a minister in the government, but he is in my administration and he’s a member of my tribe," said Madibo, throwing a steel gaze.

"I am able to control him."

Still, in recent weeks, a blanket of fear has enveloped Ed Daen. On the dust-swept streets, menacing men clutch firearms as casually as cigarettes. Refugees fear being attacked if they step outside their camps to gather firewood. Some are losing faith in Madibo’s powers.

"The Janjaweed are all around the city, and Madibo has no army," said Fatih Usman, 28, an unemployed agriculturalist who nervously looked over his shoulder to see if anyone was listening. "Who can protect us? Only God."

But Madibo shows no signs of buckling. He is meeting tribal leaders throughout Darfur, trying to persuade them to restore peace.

"We can convince Darfur not to fight," he said with confidence.

For now, Madibo has convinced some. Ask Shwathi Terab Kamis. She was gang raped by the Janjaweed when they raided her village of Yassin, and abducted.

When they reached Ed Daen, an Arab elder saw her and ordered the Janjaweed to hand her over. They obeyed, thinking he wanted her for himself, said Kamis.

But then, the elder took an unusual step: He brought her to a Birgit leader, and the Birgit tribe helped her reunite with her family in Kalma refugee camp, near the town of Nyala.

"I was surprised," said Kamis, 21, shaking her head. "They were all Arabs.

"I never thought they would release me."

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The Sudan Tribune editorial team.

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