Musa Hilal’s prophetic words in Darfur

“The government call to arms is carried out through the tribal leaders,” Hilal said. “Every government comes and finds us here. When they leave, we will still be here. When they come back, we will still be here. We will always be here.”

From time to time, I still go back and read Samantha Power’s New Yorker piece Dying in Darfur. Published in August 2004, just as the world was waking up to the bloodshed in Sudan’s western desert region, it is credited by Mia Farrow as one of the key pieces that turned her on to the unfolding humanitarian crisis.

And it remains a perceptive piece of writing.

It is the final paragraph, and the quotation above from Musa Hilal, that makes it so illuminating. Every time I do one of the “why have we forgotten about Darfur?” radio pieces, I scribble out his words in preparation. But I never seem to be able to squeeze them in on air.

Hilal is generally referred to as a – sometimes THE – Janjaweed leader, whose militias carried out the bloody bidding of the government in Khartoum.

But his words show a more complex relationship, one that I find instructive for considering any broadly tribal society and its political relationships with the centre – whether in Pakistan’s border lands, or in Afghanistan or in the Middle East.

Because Hilal is still there. Darfur was his country before it was Omar al-Bashir’s. And his deadly campaign of 2003 onwards was part of his deal to make sure he stayed there.

Consider that when you hear that his militias are being incorporated into Sudan’s armed forces. Is it part of a programme to exterminate non-Arab tribes? Or is it Khartoum’s way of trying to rein in Hilal himself?

Then earlier this year he turned against Khartoum, urging his followers not to vote or even to disrupt elections. Of course he relented, no doubt after a lucrative deal was struck, and his men “were seen forcing voters who were boycotting to vote for the ruling party candidates and Bashir”, according to Sudan Democracy First Group (PDF here, and it is well worth reading the whole thing).

The dramatic reversal has raised doubts about Hilal’s sincerity and real intentions and concerns about how far the Government might go to contain his growing political ambitions without relinquishing ultimate control on its manipulative policies in Darfur.

Understanding this dynamic is crucial to understanding how Darfur and Sudan work. For as Hilal said 11 years ago, “We will always be here.” Proxies have a habit of sticking around long after they are wanted or needed. Something you suspect he knew well.

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