On Thursday, South African President Jacob Zuma made a surprise announcement that he had decided to withdraw the 800-odd South African National Defence Force (SANDF) troops who have been participating in UNAMID -- the hybrid United Nations-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur, Sudan -- and its predecessor AMIS (the African Union Mission in Sudan) since 2004. Zuma gave no explicit reason for his decision.
Since he announced it on the day of South Africa's budget speech, perhaps it was essentially a cost-cutting measure. Or perhaps he intends redeploying the overstretched SANDF elsewhere. But the announcement would surely have been welcomed most enthusiastically by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.
One could say Zuma thus did him, wittingly or unwittingly, another big favour -- following on the refusal of the South African government to arrest al-Bashir on International Criminal Court (ICC) charges last June when he participated in the African Union (AU) summit in Johannesburg.
For al-Bashir has been trying hard to persuade the United Nations (UN) to terminate UNAMID and has gone further by making its life as difficult as possible.
This has included restricting its movements and its armaments -- which has often prevented it from protecting itself, let alone civilians -- and denying visas to replacements.
This is in line with Khartoum's insistence, for the past few years, that the war is over in Darfur and so the peacekeepers are no longer necessary. Zuma apparently bought this line because the statement from the presidency ended by saying; "President Zuma has thanked all members of the SANDF for their participation in bringing peace in Darfur."
That peace has broken out in Darfur is not a view shared by the UN or much of Sudanese civil society. Just this week, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid (OCHA) issued a new appeal for assistance for a new flood of internally displaced people (IDPs) from the latest fighting.
Late last month, OCHA's Sudan chief Marta Ruedas had "expressed grave concern over the impact of the ongoing hostilities in Darfur on thousands of civilians who have been forced to flee their homes amid the conflict that began two weeks ago.
Initial reports indicate that about 19 000 civilians have fled into North Darfur state, and up to 15 000 into Central Darfur state, following fighting in the mountainous Jebel Marra region that straddles three Darfur states."
And there are still about two million IDPs in Darfur, of which over 200 000 were displaced in 2015 alone, according to the Sudan Democracy First Group (SDFG), a coalition of civil society organisations. It says there has been a steady increase in violence against civilians during the last months of 2015.
And UNAMID itself had expressed concern about the "alarming escalation of violence" in 2014. In particular, it identified attacks by the government's Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia -- a successor to the notorious Janjaweed -- as a factor in the displacement of 215 000 civilians in just three months.
In a report last September, Human Rights Watch said: "The RSF has killed, raped and tortured civilians in scores of villages in an organised, deliberate, and systematic way."
The SDFG believes al-Bashir is taking advantage of "Darfur fatigue" -- regional and international exhaustion with the seeming never-ending crisis there and the distraction of newer crises, especially that in neighbouring South Sudan -- to try to resolve the Darfur question in its own very violent way while the world is not looking.
On December 28 2015, Sudanese Vice President Hassabo Abdel Rahman, who is in charge of the Darfur portfolio, was reported by the Sudan Tribune as telling a meeting of IDPs that "the year 2016 will see the end of displacement in Darfur".
He gave them two options; to move out of the camps to other areas, or to go home. The IDPs met in January and expressed their concern that they could not leave the camps until their safety from attack by the RSF and other forces could be guaranteed.
"The government's determination to dismantle the camps of the internally displaced persons and push out the UN and AU hybrid mission in Darfur is intended to create a cover for further crimes against civilians," says the SDFG.
Khartoum is fighting three main rebel groups in Darfur: the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), Sudan Liberation Movement-Minni Minnawi (SLM-MM) and the Abdul Wahid faction of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA-AW). The latest fighting has been with the SLA-AW in its stronghold of Jebel Marra.
The SDFG says overall violence in Darfur intensified after the breakdown in peace talks between the government and JEM and SLM-MM last November.
It believes the government is conducting a scorched earth campaign of indiscriminate aerial, artillery and tank bombardment of villages in Darfur to make them completely inhospitable to the rebels.
These tactics, described by Sudan expert Eric Reeves of Smith College in the United States as "genocidal counter-insurgency" in Huffington Post, have been a signature of government military operations wherever it is fighting rebels.
Getting rid of the IDP camps appears to be a related tactic as the government considers them to be safe havens for rebels too. And when there are no more IDP camps, there will also be no more pesky international humanitarian workers present to see what the government is up to.
Likewise with UNAMID, even though it has never been effective anyway. In its report last month titled "Walking the talk or fleeing the scene: The pressing need for an effective role of UNAMID in Darfur", the SDFG lamented that "the lack of the political willingness to back the use of military force resulted in the catastrophic failure to perform the civilian protection part of UNAMID mandate".
Al-Bashir probably hopes that when the South African troops pull out of UNAMID, other troop-contributing countries will follow suit, collapsing the mission altogether.
The SDFG also believes that Khartoum intends to remove Darfur from the administrative map of Sudan in a re-districting (or some would say, gerrymandering) exercise that will be justified by the referendum on the region's status, which al-Bashir has said will take place in April. How a credible, legitimate referendum is supposed to take place in such turmoil is hard to say. But perhaps those are not the attributes that Khartoum is aiming for.
The AU seems to be one of those suffering "Darfur fatigue". Darfur has fallen way off the agenda and does not seem to have been discussed by the AU Peace and Security Council for some time. It could be said that by so forcefully taking up the cudgels for al-Bashir against the ICC, the AU has given him de facto immunity for as long as he is president, against any repercussions for handling Darfur just as he sees fit.
It was of course precisely because of his alleged orchestration of gross human rights violations in Darfur by government troops and militia that the ICC issued an arrest warrant for al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity in 2009, and subsequently for genocide in 2010. The SDFG will likely be dismayed by Zuma's decision to withdraw the SANDF contingent from UNAMID and will surely see it as a particularly egregious example of "Darfur fatigue, that plays right into al-Bashir's hands. It would indeed be perversely ironic if Zuma were now letting him off the hook twice on Darfur, the second time by removing 800 watchdogs over the actions of his forces.
Military expert Helmoed Romer Heitman, however, believes a good case could be made for withdrawing the SANDF from Darfur.
The SANDF is already overstretched financially and in troop strength, and might again be needed in areas of greater priority closer to home, such as Burundi, Central African Republic and South Sudan. -- Institute for Security Studies.