“Comprehensive, forcible disarmament is hazardous at best, impossible at worst. Before effective disarmament (or more realistically, regulation of armaments) can take place, a workable definition of the Janjawiid is needed.”

The Justice Africa human rights organisation [1]

“In Darfur, Janjaweed is a word that means everything and nothing.”

The Reuters Sudan Correspondent [2]

One of the biggest problems facing any analysis of the Darfur conflict, and subsequently any attempt to resolve it, is the extent to which the international community, responding to a combination of poor analysis, shallow media reporting or, in some instances, straightforward propaganda projections of one sort or another, has reduced the crisis to one or two images and demands. The “Janjaweed” phenomena is one such image and with it comes a demand, that the government of Sudan immediately stop all Janjaweed activity and disarm these people.

The term “Janjaweed” has been used as a blanket term to describe most of the “Arab” fighters active in Darfur today. The UN has described the “Janjaweed” as being made up of “Sudanese and Chadian horse and camel-riding Arab nomads, opportunists and ‘criminals’”. [3] The team leader for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in North Darfur, Niels Scott, commented in November 2004: “This Janjaweed business – I shy away a bit from it. Janjaweed – as an historical concept – has been around for years. What we are seeing now is…criminality.” [4] There can be no simple reading of the issue. [5] Darfur is an ecologically fragile area and had already been subject to growing – and often armed – conflict over access to water and pastures. The war has greatly exacerbated previously-existing tensions. In perhaps the most objective reading of the crisis in Darfur, the UN media service observed: “The conflict pits farming communities against nomads who have aligned themselves with the militia groups – for whom the raids are a way of life – in stiff competition for land and resources. The militias, known as the Janjaweed, attack in large numbers on horseback and camels and are driving the farmers from their land, often pushing them towards town centres.” [6] There is also no doubt that these militias, and criminal gangs, have exploited the security gap which opened up in Darfur following the murder by rebels of over 400 policemen and the destruction of dozens of police stations in a region the size of France or California in which law enforcement infrastructure was already badly stretched.

The scale of the violence in Darfur, even before the outbreak of rebellion in 2003, had led to Khartoum introducing special measures, including the declaration of a state of emergency [7] and the establishment by presidential decree of eight special criminal courts to deal with offences such as murder, tribal clashes, armed robbery, arson and the smuggling of weapons.

The UN media service has reported “that there was nothing new about tribal clashes between nomads of Arabic extraction and village farmers belonging to local African tribes in Darfur, but these days they have become much more deadly because the raiders were better armed.” A foreign diplomat noted: “The Janjawid have kept their traditional values and ways of living. They do the same as they used to: they steal to get. Only this time, their weapons are more sophisticated.” [8]

It has also become apparent that the Darfur issue has been caught up in the sort of propaganda and misinformation that has characterised previous coverage of Sudan. Several commentators appear to have opted for a partisan or lazy analysis of events in Darfur, seemingly unable to resist projecting the image of government-supported “Arab” – “Janjaweed” – militias attacking “African” villagers (and in doing so often merely echoing questionable rebel claims).

The Sudanese authorities have repeatedly and consistently denied that they are sponsoring “Janjaweed” gunmen in Darfur. Sudanese leaders from the President and ministers downwards have described “Janjaweed” gunmen as “outlaws”. [9] The Sudanese foreign minister, Dr Mustapha Osman Ismail, has noted: “The problem is the word Janjaweed has become a coverall for so many things. There are militias that are outside the rule of law, and this is one of the things we are going to crack down on.” [10] Simplistic readings of events in Darfur claim that Khartoum is in control of all those groups labelled as “Janjaweed” - this despite increasing evidence that these forces are out of control. [11]

Assertions that the government controls the “Janjaweed” – and that it can turn their activities off and on like a tap – have distorted the reality of events. Human rights groups, for example, have confirmed Janjaweed attacks on policemen and police stations. Amnesty International has noted the fact that policemen are often targeted for attack by Janjaweed gangs. [12] “Janjaweed” gangs are also reported to have attacked Arab tribes. [13]

A May 2004 United Nations media report stated that diplomats and Chadian government officials “question how much control Khartoum has over these nomadic horsemen”. [14] That the militiamen that have come to be known as “Janjaweed” are out of control is clear. Many of these gunmen have on several occasions attacked civilians in Chad. [15] That Sudan would have had very little to gain from attacks on Chad is clear. Chad is a mediator in the Darfur conflict. Chadian President Déby has in fact been accused of being sympathetic towards Khartoum, having, for example, previously committed several hundred Chadian soldiers to joint operations with the Sudanese army. [16] Ahmad Allami, President Idriss Déby’s official spokesman, stated: “Now, there is the feeling that Sudan does not have control over the militia and needs assistance.” [17] Chad’s acting Defence Minister, Emmanuel Nadingar, announced that, on 5 May 2004, the Chadian army clashed with a raiding party of Janjaweed 25 kilometres inside Chadian territory and killed 60 of them. One Chadian soldier was killed and seven others were wounded in the battle. The UN report stated that “One captured Janjaweed fighter who was presented to the press in Chad this week confirmed fears that the militia were operating on their own initiative without necessarily following orders from Khartoum.” The gunman stated: “Nobody sent us to Chad.” [18] The idea that the Khartoum authorities would have directed militiamen under its control to attack Chadian civilians and President Déby’s forces would make no sense - and clearly demonstrates the anarchy associated with those groups labelled as “Janjaweed”.

The Khartoum authorities have taken several steps to end abuses in Darfur. In June 2004, the Sudanese President ordered security forces to disarm all groups, including rebels and progovernment militia, in the conflict-ridden region of Darfur: “What happened in Darfur is bloody and severe for all Sudanese people, not only the Darfurians.” [19] The Sudanese President announced a few days later that both Sudan and Chad had agreed to cooperate in the disarming of militias on both sides of their border: “We have completed an agreement with Chad to collect arms in Darfur and the Chadian lands neighbouring Darfur at the same time…To disarm the groups in one area without the other would not help in resolving the problem.” [20] Khartoum’s commitment to crack down on armed groups and gunmen in Darfur has been repeated on several occasions, including during the visit to Sudan by American Secretary of State Colin Powell. [21]

In its response to the January 2005 Report of the International Commission of Inquiry to Darfur to the United Nations Secretary-General, the Government of Sudan pointed to the central flaw in the report, that “The Commission failed in the single most important task it should have set itself – an accurate and adequate definition of the term “Janjaweed”…The irretrievable flaw in the Commission’s report was its inability or unwillingness to differentiate between operations within civilian areas, including military operations against rebel positions within villages, carried out by regular and irregular Government forces – for which the Government accepts full responsibility – and a pattern of attacks within civilian areas and villages carried out by groups unconnected in any way to the Government of Sudan. This intrinsic flaw is in large part the result of the Commission’s inability to adequately or accurately analyse or define the term Janjaweed.” The Government pointed out that by way of definition the Commission stated: “Victims of attacks consistently refer to their attackers as Janjaweed…When asked to provide further details, victims report that the Janjaweed attackers are from Arab tribes and, in most instances, attacked on horseback or on camels an were armed with automatic weapons of various types.” The Commission notes as “precisions” that their attackers were Arab and armed with modern weapons central to defining “Janjaweed”. The Commission said outside of these “precisions” it is “probably impossible to define the ‘Janjaweed’”. The imprecision of the definition is glaring [emphasis added]. The Commission additionally states that “where victims describe their attackers as Janjaweed, these persons might be from a tribal Arab militia, from the PDF or from some other entity…”.

The Government also pointed out that: “In most cases…victims did not differentiate between Government armed forces on the one hand, and militias and other groups acting, or perceived to be acting, with the support of Government authorities, on the other. When asked whether the perpetrators were Government armed forces or Janjaweed, one victim stated that ‘for us, these are one and the same’.” [emphasis added] This is significant for three reasons. Firstly, it is clear that rather than seeking to adequately differentiate between operations by Government forces and attacks by non-Government forces, the Commission would appear to have taken the easy option of saying that these are one and the same thing when it clear there are reasonable grounds for doubt…Most significantly of all is that given that the definition of ‘Janjaweed’ at the heart of the Commission’s report basically reflects the above view, it is clear that the report reflects a subjective rather and an objective view. The Commission has, by its own admission, consciously reflected subjective perceptions of what constitutes the ‘Janjaweed’ rather than reaching an objective and legally sustainable finding on this controversial issue.” [emphasis added] [22]

The Reuters correspondent in Sudan, Nima el-Baghir, has outlined the difficulties in defining the term “Janjaweed”: “In Darfur, Janjaweed is a word that means everything and nothing. It is a composite word deriving literally from jinn – which in Arabic means devils or spirits, carrying G-3 rifles on a jowad (horse).” [23] Her conclusion has also been echoed by other journalists. The Los Angeles Times, for example, has noted that “[t]he word ‘janjaweed’ means different things to different people. The term, traditionally used to refer to bandits and criminals, is a combination of Arabic words that convey the idea of evil gunmen on horseback.”

In her article Ms el-Baghir interviewed an Arab tribal leader and asked him if he would call himself a Janjaweed leader.

He responds furiously: ‘What is this word “militia”? What are “Janjaweed”? These words mean nothing.’ For years, he says, his people have defended themselves without government help. ‘Would you entrust those you are responsible for, your women and children, to a government which is so far away?’ He pauses as the voices of his men chorus around him in agreement. ‘When they came to us and said we will give you weapons to fight against the rebels, we said: keep your weapons. Let us use our own.’ Abdullah falls quiet, while some of the men with him proudly show me their guns. One says, ‘The government rifles were old but ours are from abroad and they are better. We bought them from Zagawa traders.’

In a different interview, Musa Hilal, a Darfurian tribal leader accused of being a Janjaweed leader, also addressed the use of the term. “Janjaweed means nothing, but it is a word used to encompass all evil, a convenient way for Americans to understand who are the good guys and who are the bad. When the rebellion began last year, the government approached us and armed us. My sons were armed by the government and joined the Border Intelligence. Some tribesmen joined the Popular Defense Force.” [24] He has also pointed to the vagueness of the term: “The rebels spread the word Janjaweed as if it were an organisation. As a political group there is no specific concept called Janjaweed…It means nothing, but has been used to mean everything.” Hilal explained his tribe’s involvement in the fighting as an inter-tribal conflict. He stated that his clan had suffered from “acts of banditry”, including the murder of young men and livestock theft, carried out by the neighbouring Zaghawa tribe. The Zaghawa and Fur then entered into an alliance against Arab tribes. Human Rights Groups and the UN have confirmed that there was tit-for-tat violence in the lead up to the rebellion. [25] There is no doubt that Hilal is the leader of paramilitary forces raised by the government in response to the rebellion, forces separate from those groups of criminal opportunists that have increased their activities since the destruction of the police force in 2003. That some of these organised paramilitaries have been involved in questionable activities is clear. Their activities must be divorced from the other essentially criminal activities which have gone on in Darfur since before the rebellion and which have escalated since. One can only hope that the government is able to control the sorts of forces seemingly commanded by people like Hilal. He has stated his view with regard to disarmament: “As far as we as a tribe are concerned, whenever we feel the situation is completely secure and the ceasefire is being respected, we will hand in our weapons. The reality is that this is a country where everyone has weapons.” [26]

One Janjaweed leader, interviewed by the London Sunday Times, denied any alignment with the government: “We are not with the rebels, we are not with the government…we look for our due…We fight all governments in Sudan. We get nothing from the government.” When asked about possible international intervention by the UN, the USA or Britain, the Janjaweed stated: “We will fight them. We hate them and we will attack the foreigners. We refuse to be like Iraq – surrendered, confused and occupied. We will fight them more than the mujaheddin in Afghanistan.” [27] The Sunday Times also outlined some of the difficulties facing the government: “Disarming these warring factions may be impossible. If Khartoum dispatches more troops to Darfur, it will be in violation of its ceasefire with the two main rebel groups. Disarmament would in any case enrage the Janjaweed and the African and Arab tribal militias, who may turn their guns on aid workers and Sudanese soldiers alike, detonating any chance of relief efforts.” [28]

A largely sensationalist, and on occasion disingenuous, media has lumped together as “Janjaweed” regular army forces, popular defence forces, police units, tribal militias, vigilantes and armed robbers through to any armed “Arab” tribesman. It is a bit like claiming that the British government controls not only all army and army reserve units and police and police reserve units in Northern Ireland but is also controls and is also responsible for all antirepublican or anti-Catholic loyalist organisations, paramilitaries, gunmen and criminal rackets in the province. The simple fact is that virtually all of Darfur’s 80 tribes and groups will have members who are armed, some with members on both sides of the conflict. Some tribal militias will not disarm unless rival tribes also do so. A western diplomat in Khartoum has noted: “There are many gangs or groups that (the Sudanese government) doesn’t control or who may be partly under their control or controlled by the local authorities. So this is not a clear-cut picture. That makes you understand how difficult (disarmament) is logistically.” [29] According to the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mr Jan Egeland “There are many armed groups and many armed criminal gangs in Darfur.” He referred to the Janjaweed as “a monster that nobody seems to be able to control”. [30] In early November 2004, the UN Envoy to Sudan also observed: “The government does not control its own forces fully. It co-opted paramilitary forces and now cannot count on their obedience…The border lines between the military, the paramilitary and the police are being blurred.” [31] Additionally, in any instance, there are a number of Arab tribes in Darfur who are not in any way involved in the conflict. Seeking to disarm those tribes could itself result in considerable armed conflict with the central government.

Those who attribute every single act of violence or criminality to the “Janjaweed” and claim that all these acts are on the instructions of the Sudanese government are either naïve or are seeking to deliberately mislead the international community. In either instance they ill serve the people of Darfur. It is essential to cut away the propaganda that is already clouding the Darfur issue. That Khartoum must address the criminality and armed banditry that has undermined law and order in Darfur is obvious. At the same time, however, lazy commentators and human rights organisations cannot have it both ways in criticising the Sudanese government for inaction and then attacking Khartoum for responding firmly to terrorism and lawlessness.

Claims That All Militias in Darfur can be Disarmed in 30 Days
Unrealistic expectations, often based upon naïve claims, have not assisted with a resolution of the problem. One issue has been the problem of disarming the many armed groups and individuals in Darfur. In July 2004, for example, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1556 threatening action against Sudan if it did not disarm gunmen in Darfur within 30 days. [32] Charles Snyder, a former United States acting assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, and the US State Department’s senior representative on Sudan, has stated, however, that there are no “30-day, 90-day quick fixes” to the problem. He also admitted: “This is going to take, in my view, 18 months to two years to conclude the first phase” of making the region safe for people to return to their homes. [33] De Waal has also warned of international naivety with regard to “disarming” the Janjaweed:

On July 30, the UN Security Council gave Khartoum 30 days to disarm the Janjawid. But how? There are many different militia groups, ranging from entire nomadic clans that have armed themselves to protect their herds, to brigades of trained fighters headed by Musa Hilal and some of his Chadian Arab comrades in arms. The Janjawid paramilitaries are the direct responsibility of Khartoum and can be demobilized, but the armed nomads will be more difficult. In a region where every community has armed itself, confiscating all arms is frankly impossible: what can be done is community-based regulated of arms, gradually marginalizing criminal elements through a process of political reconstruction. [34]

The international community appears to have realised the problems inherent in the 30-day “fixall” demands. As much was noted by the UN Secretary-General in a report on 30 August 2004: “Making an area the size of Darfur, with the amount of armed men and violent recent history, safe and secure for all civilians takes more than 30 days.” [35] The government committed itself to three steps: ending all offensive military operations; identifying parts of Darfur that could be made safe within 30 days; and identifying those militias over whom it had control and instructing them to lay down their weapons. The UN reported that the government had, nonetheless, started a process of disarming those militias that were under its command. [36] Janjaweed members have been both arrested and convicted. [37] Four hundred had been arrested by July. [38]

Justice Africa, the human rights organisation, has outlined realistic measures that can be undertaken with regard to disarmament:

The most realistic option is twofold. On the one hand, [the government] can control the paramilitary forces it has established under the command of Musa Hilal and other commanders. Secondly, it can initiate a process of arms regulation, whereby communities are permitted to hold arms for legitimate self-defence, in accordance with norms and procedures agreed by all groups, and they themselves become partners in disarming the illegitimately armed groups. This kind of disarmament will be gradual, founded on community-based security provision, and will take place concurrently with political negotiations, reconciliation and reconstruction. [39]

It is obvious that every effort must be made to remove both weapons and the motivation or need to carry weapons, from the Darfur situation. Increasingly shrill demands for an immediate disarmament of armed forces within Darfur in the face of the reality outlined by the United Nations, Charles Snyder and Dr de Waal serve no purpose other than enflaming an already fraught situation.


1 “Prospects for Peace”, Justice Africa Briefing, London, July 2004, <http://justiceafrica.org>
2 Nima el-Baghir, “What’s in a Name?”, Focus on Africa, BBC, London, October-December 2004, London.
3 “The Escalating Crisis in Darfur”, News Article by Integrated Regional Information Networks, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Nairobi, 31 December 2003.
4 Meeting with journalists, Al-Fasher, 30 November 2004.
5 See, for example, The Darfur Crisis: Looking Beyond the Propaganda, European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council, London, March 2004, available at <http://www.espac.org>.
6 “Widespread Insecurity in Darfur Despite Ceasefire”, News Article by Integrated Regional Information Networks, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Nairobi, 3 October 2003.
7 See, for example, “Sudan: State of Emergency after Southern Darfur Tribal Clashes”, News Article by Integrated Regional Information Network, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Nairobi, 22 May 2002.
8 “Janjawid Militia in Western Sudan Appears to be Out of Control”, News Article by United Nations Integrated Regional Information Networks, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Nairobi, 14 May 2004.
9 “Sudan and Chad Agree to Disarm Militias”, News Article by Reuters, 23 June 2004.
10 “The Last Straw”, Al-Haram (Cairo), Issue No. 686, 15 - 21 April 2004.
11 See, for example, “Janjawid Militia in Darfur Appears to be out of Control”, News Article by Integrated Regional Information Network, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Nairobi, 14 May 2004.
12 See, for example, Human Rights Watch’s Julie Flint, “Sudan’s New Killing Fields”, Middle East International (London), 27 May 2004. Flint reported on a Janjaweed attack on the police station at Terbeba. She does not mention what happened to the eight policemen inside, but states the police station was burned down. See, also, Darfur: What Hope for the Future? Civilians in Urgent Need of Protection, Amnesty International, London, 15 December 2004.
13 See, for example, “Tora Bora Army Strikes Back at the Janjaweed”, The Independent (London), 16 August 2004. This article mentions Janjaweed attacks on the Arab Ma’aliyah tribe.
14 “Janjawid Militia in Western Sudan Appears to be Out of Control”, News Article by United Nations Integrated Regional Information Network, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Nairobi, 14 May 2004.
15 “Chadian Soldiers Kill 69 Sudanese Arab Militiamen”, News Article by Associated Press, 18 June 2004.
16 “Special Report II: Chad and the Darfur Conflict”, News Article by UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Nairobi, 16 February 2004.
17 “Janjawid Militia in Western Sudan Appears to be Out of Control”, News Article by United Nations Integrated Regional Information Network, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Nairobi, 14 May 2004.
18 “Janjawid Militia in Western Sudan Appears to be Out of Control”, News Article by United Nations Integrated Regional Information Network, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Nairobi, 14 May 2004.
19 “Sudan’s President Orders Darfur Crackdown on Armed Groups, Including Militia”, News Article by Agence France Presse, 19 June 2004.
20 “Sudan and Chad Agree to Disarm Militias”, News Article by Reuters, 23 June 2004.
21 See, for example “Sudan, US Agree to Crush Militia”, News Article by Sudan Vision (Khartoum), 1 July 2004.
22 Response to the Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to the United Nations Secretary-General, Government of Sudan, Khartoum, January 2005, Paragraphs 44, 46-48, 50-51.
23 Nima el-Baghir, “What’s in a Name?”, Focus on Africa, BBC, October-December 2004, London.
24 “Squabble Over Words Obscures Sudan Violence”, The Los Angeles Times, 6 November 2004.
25 “Militia Chief Scorns Slaughter Charge”, The Guardian (London), 16 July 2004.
26 “Militia Chief Scorns Slaughter Charge”, The Guardian (London), 16 July 2004.
27 “We Fight On, Says the Demon of Darfur”, The Sunday Times (London) 25 July 2004. These warnings were also echoed in another article, “Janjaweed Vow to Fight Any Intervention by ‘Infidels’”, The Sunday Telegraph (London), 15 August 2004.
28 “We Fight On, Says the Demon of Darfur”, The Sunday Times (London) 25 July 2004.
29 “Squabble Over Words Obscures Sudan Violence”, The Los Angeles Times, 6 November 2004.
30 “Sudan: Interview with UN’s Jan Egeland on the Situation in Darfur”, News Article by UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, Nairobi, 5 July 2004.
31 “Tensions Rise in Sudan as Rebels and Government Begin to Lose Control, UN Says”, News Article by the UN News Centre, New York, 4
November 2004.
32 See, for example, “Sudan Must Act on Darfur in 30 Days or Face Measures, Security Council Warns”, News Article by the United Nations News Center, New York, 30 July 2004.
33 “U.S. Diplomat Says it May Take 2 Years to Disarm Militias in Sudan”, News Article by Associated Press, 24 September 2004.
34 Alex de Waal, “Tragedy in Darfur: On Understanding and Ending the Horror”, Boston Review, Volume 29, Number 5, October-November 2004.
35 Report of the Secretary-General Pursuant to Paragraphs 6 and 13 of Security Council Resolution 1556 (2004), S/2004, United Nations, New York, 30 August 2004.
36 Report of the Secretary-General Pursuant to Paragraphs 6 and 13 of Security Council Resolution 1556 (2004), S/2004, United Nations, New York, 30 August 2004. See also, for example, “Sudan Says Disarmament of Militias Taking Place in Darfur”, News Article by Deutsche Press Agentur, 19 August 2004; “UN Witnesses Arms Handover by Government-backed Group in Darfur”, News Article by United Nations News Service, 27 August 2004.
37 See, for example, “Sudan Jails Darfur Militiamen”, News Article by Reuters, 19 July 2004.
38 “We Fight On, Says the Demon of Darfur”, The Sunday Times (London) 25 July 2004.
39 “Prospects for Peace”, Justice Africa Briefing, London, July 2004, <http://justiceafrica.org>.

Espac Published by The European - Sudanese Public Affairs Council Copyright © David Hoile 2005
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