On February 27, 2004, in the Tawilla area of North Darfur, 30 villages were burned to the ground, over 200 were people killed, over 200 girls and women raped (some by up to 14 assailants at a time, in front of their soon-to-be-murdered husbands and fathers), and 150 women and 200 children were abducted. The man who directed this atrocity–and many others of similar barbarity–was Musa Hilal, the most notorious of the Janjaweed militia leaders who have done the genocidal bidding of Khartoum’s National Islamic Front regime for the past five years. The U.S. State Department has publicly identified Hilal as one of six figures most responsible for the Darfur genocide; Human Rights Watch has labeled him the central Janjaweed leader in atrocity crimes. The brutal attack in Tawilla was part of a systematic campaign by the Janjaweed militias, including those led by Hilal, to “change the demography of Darfur and empty it of African tribes,” as Hilal explained in a memo sent to his commanders and to Khartoum’s intelligence services.
And so it follows that Musa Hilal has been appointed to an important position within the Khartoum regime. Hilal now serves as senior advisor to the Ministry of Federal Affairs, which coordinates the regime’s relations with outlying regions of Sudan as well as with the country’s myriad tribal groups. It works closely with the Interior Ministry to guide most of the government’s major economic and military decisions. The position is designed to help Hilal consolidate his authority throughout Darfur, allowing him to wield the power of Khartoum in controlling the decisions by, and incentives for, Arab groups contemplating joining–or defecting–from Khartoum’s counter-insurgency campaign. While he holds this position, he is still subject to U.N. sanctions for his previous atrocities and will very likely be charged with numerous crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC) when its prosecutors announce their next set of indictments in the coming weeks.
Why would Khartoum make an appointment guaranteed to incense the international community, however impotent that ire may prove to be? There can hardly be any doubt that the regime takes grim pleasure in offending Western human rights sensibilities. Take the example of Ahmed Haroun, the former State Minister of the Interior. Since being indicted by the ICC for numerous crimes against humanity in Darfur–including publicly directing the Janjaweed to “kill the Fur” tribespeople in the ravaged Mukjar area of West Darfur–he has served as the State Minister of Humanitarian Affairs; sits on a Khartoum-appointed commission to investigate human rights abuses in Darfur; and functions as the regime’s liaison with the UN/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). It is difficult to say which of these appointments is the most grotesquely ironic.
But Hilal’s appointment is more about Khartoum’s internal strategy than it is a jab at the sensitivities of the international community. In a critical development over the past year, Arab tribal groups–even those such as the Mahamid clan to which Hilal belongs–have become deeply disaffected with the Khartoum regime. Many Arab tribal groups, though a minority in Darfur, have provided soldiers for Khartoum’s genocidal violence. They have been paid primarily in the form of booty from villages they have destroyed, and have counted on the “changed demography” that Hilal encouraged as a way of sustaining their nomadic way of life. But Arab groups are increasingly feeling that they have been betrayed by Khartoum–in particular, that the land they have been promised has gone to too few. The vast majority of African villages have been destroyed, and there is little left to loot. So, while the majority of Arab groups have attempted to stay neutral in the conflict, all now suffer from the consequences of the scorched-earth policies that have been central to the regime’s tactics in confronting the rebellion.
As a consequence, some Janjaweed have simply left the genocidal campaign, attempting to resume their former lives or make their way as bandits; others have actively switched their support to the rebel groups. It was precisely to stanch these losses that Hilal was appointed. Khartoum well knows that if their Arab militia allies continue to changes sides–and they give strong evidence of doing so–then military control of any but the major towns of Darfur will be impossible. To Khartoum, the situation is a military problem, so they have appointed a military man to solve it.
Armed struggle, however, may not be the most pressing concern for civilian Darfuris. This fall, the harvests across Darfur were disastrous, and as the broader agricultural economy continues its collapse, markets that once thrived and defined the economic geography of Darfur no longer exist; the traditional opportunities for bartering and trade have been largely lost. A way of life that was in key respects symbiotic has been destroyed. Tens of thousands of displaced Africans from Darfur are predicted to migrate to camps for displaced persons in the coming months–not for security, as has been the case, but for food. Many within the nomadic Arab populations will inevitably follow.
The appointment of a military man like Musa Hilal will do nothing to address these humanitarian concerns, which currently pose the greatest threat to civilians throughout Darfur, African and Arab alike. On the contrary, years of concerted violence have turned vast regions of Darfur into wastelands that are unable to sustain anything resembling the previous agricultural economy. This is Khartoum’s unspeakably grim “genocide by attrition.”
To be sure, there may be little reason to believe that Hilal will be able to re-enlist the support of the Arab tribes who have made up the Janjaweed militias. In fact, the Northern Rizeigat, to which Hilal’s Mahamid belong, have little influence among Arab groups in southern Darfur, with which they have clashed violently in recent months. So Hilal constitutes Khartoum’s bid for a kind of savage insurance policy on the success of its genocide.
Though the appointment of a war criminal like Hilal to serve as the regime’s liaison with the various populations of Darfur is certainly reprehensible, the decision is more significant as an illustration of how viciously desperate the regime’s grip on power has become. Khartoum is frantically trying to undermine UNAMID’s efforts to bring humanitarian aid and restore peace in Darfur. Hilal–the most ruthless and powerful of their Arab militia allies in Darfur, the most skilful in mobilizing Arab support for Khartoum’s genocidal endeavor–is one of the last cards they have left. At the same time, domestic political pressure on Khartoum appears to be rising in all quarters. The appointment of Hilal is part of the regime’s last desperate attempt to complete the Darfur genocide before domestic and international pressures have any chance to bring about regime change.
[Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College and author of “A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide”]