DARFUR: Another African Crisis

THE GENOCIDE in Darfur was long in the making and is a result of many factors, including population explosion, distribution of resources, marginalization and politicization of the people. Although there are no sectarian differences among the Sudanese, the conflict is largely seen as “Arab” versus “African,” in the Muslim world as well as within Sudan. The solution? The Sudanese can work it out, but in Darfur, there is desperate need for humanitarian aid.

There is a terrible genocidal war going on in Darfur – a war that began slowly in the 1980s, accelerated in the 1990s, and burst forth in 2003. Over 400,000 people have died or been killed, while some 2.5 million are in IDP (Internally Displaced Peoples) camps. Virtually every one of Darfur’s 6.5 million people is at risk as I write. The Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Angola, etc. – Darfur joins the rank of the black holes in Africa where thousands die unrecorded and uncared for, or cared for by very few. Why?

Let me begin with some background. Darfur is a slice of Sudan from north to south of the great swathe of territory south of the Sahara and north of the tropical regions of western and central Africa, known to Arab geographers in medieval times (al-Idrisi and his successors) as the Bilad al-Sudan, “the land of the blacks,” or Sudanic Africa to historians of Africa.

Darfur is about the size of France (about 1 14,000 square miles) and can be crudely divided into three occupational zones, largely defined by ecology and rainfall: camel nomads in the north, farmers in the center and cattle-keepers in the south.

In all three zones there are tribes (the operative unit in Darfur) who identify themselves as either Arab – that is they speak Arabic and trace their ancestry ultimately to the Arabian peninsula – or African, who speak African languages such as Fur, Maslati, etc. There are others who speak Arabic but do not primarily identify themselves as Arabs.

All are Muslim and there is absolutely no difference in religious practice between the different groups. The dominant school of Islamic jurisprudence (madhhab) is Maliki and the main Sufi brotherhood affiliation is the Tijaniyya. Many are now in fact followers of the Nyasiyya branch of the Tijaniyya based at Kaolak in Senegal. Sadly, there has been a recent tendency for attendance at mosques to be along ethnic lines, a form of apartheid.

From about the 13th century ce, Darfur has been the home of primarily Muslim states. From the mid-17th century, Darfur was a powerful sultanate that traded with Egypt and combined a complex synthesis of African and Islamic traditions of government. In 1874, it was conquered by a northern Sudanese slave trader and briefly incorporated into the Egyptian-ruled Sudan, but after the British conquest of the Sudan in 1898, the sultanate was re-established by its last sultan, ‘Ali Dinar. In 1916, during the First World War, the British – for reasons that had little to do with Darfur per se – invaded the sultanate, killed ‘Ali Dinar and annexed Darfur to the Sudan. Having conquered Darfur, the British promptly forgot about it. There was no development and its administration was essentially a modified continuation of the sultanate. This neglect continued after 1956, when the British left the Sudan and handed over power to a small, Western-educated, northern Sudanese elite – products of the University of Khartoum.

When I first went to Darfur in 1968, it was a colonial backwater. It was as if the British had left the day before I arrived. Being Inglizi (English) doing research in Darfur was no disadvantage. Darfurians generally had positive memories of the English, who did not bother them much. But in retrospect, developments that underlay the current catastrophe were present under the surface.

There are two fundamental factors at the root of the problem: demography and ecology

The population of Darfur has grown from 1.5 million in 1956 to 2.8 million in 1983 to 6.5 million today; a growth rate of about 4.5 percent, far above a normal (2.3 percent to 5 percent) growth rate. I have not come across a satisfactory explanation for this phenomenon.

Ecology provides the counterpoint: desertification – namely the southward movement of the desert, soil erosion, loss of fertility and pressure on water supplies. Any analysis of the crisis in Darfur has to take these factors into account, while global warming promises a grim future.

The key word in any discussion of the politicization of the latent conflict in Darfur is marginalization. The history of the Sudan since independence in 1956 has been marked by an overweening concentration of resources within the “Three Towns” – Khartoum, Khartoum North and Omdurman, as well as the surrounding area, at the expense of the rest of the country (which is not much smaller than India). To visit Khartoum today is to see a process of Dubaiization, in the midst of abject deprivation, creation of an island of plenty largely due to oil and Chinese investment. This serves a Northern elite whose links are outward into the large and complex Sudanese mahjar (worldwide diaspora).

Where does Darfur figure in this?

In the mid-1960s, a small group of Darfurian students and tribal leaders formed the Darfur Development Front in an attempt to bring Darfur onto the national stage. They were not very successful. Two factors began to change the realities on the ground – one was the environmental and demographic realities described above, the other was the decision by the then Khartoum government of Ja’far al-Numayri to abolish tribal rule in Darfur as unmodern. This was a disastrous mistake since it meant that when the great famines came in the mid-1980s, there was none with the authority to mediate between center and periphery.

This loosening of government control was compounded by two additional factors: the drastic hike in oil prices in the mid-1970s basically immobilized the local administration (in 1976, 1 borrowed the Province Governor’s Land Rover to do some research because he was the only person who had any petrol), and the Khartoum government’s very naive involvement in the politics of Chad and Libya – an involvement that still persists in Chad.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, Darfur was essentially at war with itself; there were bandits/ freedom fighters everywhere. By the mid 1990s, Darfur was out of control.

When I visited Darfur again in 1993, the only way to get out of town safely was to have an Irish nurse in the car from “Save the Children”; a female white face next to the driver was an effective protection from the bandits, who knew the passengers were visiting rural clinics. By then the Khartoum government had very little effectual control outside the towns where power was in the hands of the security forces. One government initiative during this period was to divide Darfur into three states (wilaya): North, South and East. This simply multiplied government inefficiency and outraged Darfur sentiment.

The overt politicization of the conflict began in the late 1990s with the emergence of two political movements: the Sudan Liberation Army or SLA (not to be confused with the Southern Sudanese People’s Liberation Army/Movement, SPLA/M) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). The latter had links in its earlier phase with Dr. Hasan al-Turabi, the Islamist leader behind the coup of 1989 that brought the present government to power in Khartoum, but who has now been sidelined by his erstwhile followers.

Hostilities “began” in February 2003 with an attack on al-Fashir airport. Khartoum’s response was to arm the northern Arab camel nomads (abbaia) a continuation of a policy initiated in the mid-8os when Khartoum armed the southern cattle nomads (baqqara) as militia (murahilin) to fight the SPLA who were attempting to push into southern Darfur. The chiefs of the Arab cattle nomads have learnt their lesson and have done their best to keep their young men (shabab) out of the present conflict.

From 2003 to the present, Darfur has been subject to all the biblical woes: war, famine, rape (on a horrendous scale), looting, etc., carried out by the Arab nomad militias, the notorious janjaweed (“devils on horseback”), in conjunction with the Sudanese army. Small mountain villages built out of stone and millet stalks have been repeatedly attacked with oil barrel bombs filled with stones and pieces of metal. These are tossed from Antonov transports into the center of the villages, killing or maiming mainly women and children. These attacks are then followed by a posse of Janjaweed horsemen charging in to rape or kill survivors, a policy that has been absolutely lethal.

It is difficult for outsiders to comprehend the sheer scale of death, destruction and misery in Darfur. Visiting the IDP camps in 2005 was traumatic; I have a 5-year-old Sudanese grandson in Oslo, Norway, but the 5-year olds in the camps looked nothing like my Bushra.

Khartoum has kept the Western media largely out while the Arab media seems to be generally indifferent. Why is the latter the case? Why are Muslims not more vocal about what is happening in Darfur?

Sadly, racism has become a potent factor

The conflict is presented both locally and in the wider media as one between Arabs and Africans. This fits into the dominant ideology of the northern Sudanese elite who see themselves as Arab and Muslim, despite the fact that many have experienced color-based racism in the Arab heartlands. This ideology is practiced by the janjaweed who burn mosques, kill imams and desecrate the Holy Qur’an.

Although well-documented, I admit to finding this very difficult to understand. After 40 years of involvement with Darfurians, I still cannot tell the difference between an Arab and an African there; and, as I noted above, there are no doctrinal differences whatsoever and all the religious leaders I have known over the years, including a charismatic shaykh of the Tijaniyya, the late Ibrahim Sidi (d. 1999), would have emphatically set their faces against such nonsense.

Then there is the international dimension, and this is where matters become complicated. Ironically, Darfur became the victim of a peace process.

In the late 90s, the Khartoum government was now run by pragmatists, especially Vice President ‘Ali Osman Taha. It needed peace with the SPLA, whose position in the South was consolidated under the leadership of the late Dr. John Garang. The reason was oil; Khartoum could not export it in the face of SPLA opposition and vice versa.

Talks were opened in Kenya in 2002, with the backing of the U.S., UK, Norway and others. By the following year, Darfur was in the news. The question then arose whether the Darfurian movements, SLA and JEM, should join the negotiations in Kenya. Should they sit at the same negotiating table as Khartoum and the SPLA?

The answer was no. Darfur was referred to the U.N. Security Council, which passed a three-part resolution. It established an international commission of jurists who would go to Darfur to investigate the atrocities, identify the culprits. The commission would then pass peacekeeping into the responsibility of the African Union (AU) – the recently formed successor of Organization of African Unity (OAU). The AU authorized the sending of some 7,000 peacekeeping troops with a very limited mandate, basically only self-defense. The third leg of the resolution was that the AU Secretariat would host talks between the Darfur movements and the Khartoum government in Abuja, federal capital of Nigeria.

Things happened. The international commission went to Darfur and a list of 52 culprits guilty of crimes against humanity – a lesser charge than genocide; everyone has shied away from the ‘g’ word apart from one statement by former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell – was forwarded to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which is still preparing indictments. African peacekeepers, mainly from Rwanda and Nigeria, went to Darfur, where, lacking any serious logistical backup and often without pay, have proved to be largely ineffectual. I imply no criticism of them. When I visited them in 2005, they were determined but frustrated.

The Abuja talks proceeded as a kind of minuet between the leaders of the Darfur movements, now hopelessly factionalized, and the Khartoum government. The main problem, as I discovered during a stay in Abuja in 2006, was that the Darfurians had no clear agenda. This incoherence was exacerbated by the fact that in January 2005, a Comprehensive Peace Agreeent (CPA) was signed in Nairobi, Kenya, between the Khartoum government and the SPLA. Eventually, under a great deal of American pressure, a Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) was signed by one of the SLA Darfur groups led by Minni Minnawi Arku and the Khartoum government in May 2006.
The DPA now is basically dead. InJuIy 2006, a new Darfur grouping, the National Redemption Front (NRF), was formed in Asmara (Eritrea) bringing together most of the “big” names in Darfur. Much of the subsequent serious fighting is the work of the NRF, while Minni Minnawi presides over committees and the like in Khartoum.

I write this in November 2006; what is the situation in Darfur now?

Judging by reports I see from the U.N., World Bank, and elsewhere, I can only describe it as one of inexorable deterioration. The Security Council, in resolution 1706, has authorized a peacekeeping force with a robust mandate of some 17,000 soldiers plus some 3,000 police. The catch is that they can only enter Darfur with the agreement of the Khartoum government, which has utterly refused to countenance such a force. In fact, it is a moot point whether First World countries – the traditional suppliers of such troops – could, even if they would, provide such numbers. Iraq and Afghanistan have siphoned off most available manpower. The peacekeeping force would have to consist of troops from industrialized countries, if only for logistical reasons. This was brought home to me as I watched a Hercules transport plane in al-Fashir in 2005 offloading some 30 tons of bottled water.

So what is happening on the ground?

Conflicts proliferate. Each tribe has its own militia. What I have termed “retribalization” elsewhere is afoot, as communities withdraw into themselves to survive. Where tribal leadership is strong, some kind of local peace (aman) can be agreed upon among neighbors.

The war is spilling over into Chad and the Central African Republic.

There has been a massive and brutal process of urbanization. Nyala in southern Darfur has grown from 300,000 in 1999 to 1.5 million in 2006, and my guess is that few of these people will ever go back whence they came despite the policy plans of the U.N. and related agencies.

Still, I refuse to end on a pessimistic note. The Darfurians live in a harsh land but are resourceful and strong. The best way the world can help is to let them sort out their differences undisturbed by outsiders, and here I include the Khartoum government, which has very little legitimacy in Darfur. Given the chance, Darfurians, “Arabs” and “Africans,” nomads and farmers, can hammer out their differences. But they will need humanitarian help.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at islamicamagazine.com as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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