Sudan or Chad?Why Darfur Sudan regrets the turn of colonial fortunes

Displaced Masalit people in Darfur, Sudan

In our series of letters from African journalists, Zeinab Mohammed Salih writes that some face attacks again in the troubled region of Darfur on the day they joined Sudan a century ago.

short grey lines

short grey lines

“I wish we could join Chad instead of Sudan,” said Saad Bahar Adin, who holds the title of Sultan of Dalmasalit, a vast area that stretches along the border between the two countries.

Wearing a headscarf and sultan robes, the traditional leader made the remarks while addressing dozens of Masalit, mostly black farmers, who were sitting under a neem tree for the summer, overlooking Chad’s Adecon town.

Earlier this month, they fled an attack on the town and neighboring villages by Arab militias known as the Janjaweed, which are linked to the Sudanese government’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

About five people were killed and 37,000 were made homeless in the violence, part of a long-running dispute between black Darfur farmers and Arab nomads.

The conflict was racist and many Arabs used the derogatory term “nawab” to refer to Masalit, referring to slaves.

“We don’t let the nawab go down the mountain, we can’t go up, and when we find them, we shoot them,” said the 23-year-old wife of an RSF officer from the village of Sanidadi. Many Arab militias launched attacks there. “But when they find our cattle, they grab and eat them.”

french conquistador

Dalmasalit is located in Western Darfur, but parts of it are located in eastern Chad due to the borders drawn during the colonial era.

Most of the sultanate was incorporated into Sudan 100 years ago, in 1922, following an agreement between its then leader, Sultan Bahar Adin, the French government, and the British government, which ruled the rest of Sudan.

Jean-Joseph Fiegenschuh French officer and explorer killed in an ambush in Bir Taouil on 4 January 1910 during an armed reconnaissance in the Masalit region (now Darfur)

French officer Jean-Joseph Fiegenschuh and most of his men killed in the Masalit region, January 1910

Dalmasalit is the only region in Sudan that has never been colonized. The Masalites twice defeated the French army in January 1910 and November 1910 as it attempted to expand its empire east from what is now Chad.

One of the symbols of the Masalite resistance to the invaders at that time was the town of Krenik.

But last month, the towns home to many displaced Masalit communities were brutally attacked. RSF is accused of carrying out the raid that killed more than 200 people, including children and the elderly.

The smoldering remains of the village of Chero Kasi are seen here on September 8, 2004, a day after Janjaweed set fire to the village during violence in Sudan's Darfur region

Many villages burned in protracted conflict in parts of Darfur

In the town, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) east of the city of Geneina, nearly all houses were burned – even livestock.

This is the latest outbreak of violence that has devastated Darfur since 2003.

Hundreds of thousands were killed and more than 3 million fled their homes – some of them displaced five times, living in camps or government buildings.

‘Sad and bad for unity’

For some in Masalit, this was the final straw.

“Many people I know are going to Chad. It’s sad and bad for Sudan’s reunification, but I understand how people are feeling, especially after the last massacre,” said Khatim Kadim, an activist from Kreinik. Hatim Abdallah said.

A Masalit woman in Darfur, Sudan

Masalit community says they have faced racism for years

The once majestic Masalit was deeply indignant, saying successive governments had promoted “Arabism” — neglecting blacks in basic services such as education, health care and electricity.

French conquistadors, whose power is gradually weakening, have accused Omar al-Bashir, who was ousted as president in 2019 after nearly 30 years in power, of weakening them militarily.

While arming Arab militias, his regime made a concerted effort to confiscate their weapons.

“They lack arms and that is why they are in this situation,” said Mohamed Abdallah Addouma, a human rights lawyer and former West Darfur governor.

There are indeed some armed groups in Masalit, but they are not part of a peace deal signed by the government and other groups in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, in 2020 – now they all share power and access to Darfur’s mineral wealth.

“Former rebels as part of JPA [Juba Peace Agreement] Most belong to the Zachuan community. They live in northern Darfur and want the Masalits under their command, rather than independently arm and lead themselves,” Mr Aduma said.

Referendum forgotten at war

In the case of the 1919 agreement with France and Great Britain, 75 years later, in 1994, there will be a referendum that will let the Masalites decide whether they want to stay in Sudan, join Chad or choose independence – it is the people After nearly three years of military operations, South Sudan conducted exercises in 2011 against what they see as successive Arab-led governments politically and economically marginalized.



But the Masalit referendum failed – they didn’t push because “Bashir’s government has created so many wars in the region and people forget about it”, said Dr Tawheeda Yousif, a senior Darfur state government official.

As he now reflects on the plight of his people, Sultan Saad Bahar Adin said joining Chad would be a safer option because it has “strong security institutions”.

“People know this and the government there will protect them. But there is no state and very weak protection here,” he said.

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