Disaster in Darfur
2004: The war in the west of Sudan is the outcome of a ruthless divide-and-rule policy pursued by successive national governments in Khartoum. It reveals the decay of the state, the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of violence, and fatal inconsistencies in the policies of western countries.
Darfur is a 160,000-square-mile expanse of desert and savannah, an area the size of Texas or Spain, with five or six million inhabitants, that spreads out from the fertile slopes of Jebel Marra, the mountainous zone in Sudan’s far west. Remote from the country’s political heartland on the Nile, it is linked to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, by several hundred miles of rough dirt road and an intermittently functional single-track railway.
Over the last sixteen months a disaster has been unfolding in Darfur, one that is agonizingly familiar to observers of Sudan during the past two decades. In response to an insurgency on the part of rebel groups demanding greater political representation in Khartoum, the government of General Omar al-Bashir has unleashed a scorched-earth policy across large tracts of the province. Locally recruited militias—armed and often commanded by Sudan army officers in combined operations with helicopter gunships—burn and loot villages in rebel areas, raping women and killing men, forcing the survivors to flee west across the border into Chad, or else to seek refuge in government-controlled towns and camps in Sudan, where they are under the control of those responsible for their degradation.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by the conflict. Over 100,000 of them are in camps in Chad. Thirty thousand may already have died. Many more still inside Sudan—trapped in the impending seasonal rains without assistance—are likely to perish from malnutrition and epidemic disease. Recent visitors to rebel-held areas report seeing the remains of young men, shot at close range, the victims of extra-judicial executions by Sudanese troops. A cease-fire between the government in Khartoum and the rebels has broken down; the international aid effort has been put in jeopardy by government obstruction and the delay of emergency relief. Despite much-publicized visits by Colin Powell and Kofi Annan to Sudan in June, demands by the UN and other international bodies that the militias be disarmed have not been met.
End to conflict in the south; start of war in the west
The crisis in Darfur comes at a time when Sudan’s other war, the war in the south, seems to be on the point of resolution. In May, after two years of sustained diplomatic pressure, primarily from the United States, the government of Sudan signed a preliminary peace agreement in Naivasha, Kenya, with the southern rebels, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), to end the twenty-one-year conflict in the south. (This is a war in which, to date, the death toll has well exceeded that of Darfur.)
For the US administration the Naivasha Agreement promised a rare foreign policy achievement, one that could offset growing doubts about Iraq and bring some luster to the 2004 election campaign. But success in southern Sudan, such as it is, has been eclipsed by the international outcry over the events in Darfur, which a number of human rights organizations are characterizing as genocide. Today the US administration is in the awkward position of commending the Khartoum government for the Naivasha Agreement, while threatening it with sanctions over Darfur. Yet the conflicts are similar. Both have their origin in the decay of the Sudanese state; and in each case the Sudan government’s response has been the same.
The US administration’s present difficulty is the result of a policy that has been shaped not by any analysis of the long-term problems of Sudan but rather by considerations of domestic US politics. The impetus behind the decision to revive the north-south peace process was the need to satisfy two opposing points of view in the Bush administration: that of the evangelical Christian lobby, which regarded the north-south civil war as an attack by an Islamist dictatorship on the Christian population of southern Sudan (most southerners are non-Muslims), and that of the State Department, where officials saw a chance to do business with a regime that, while remaining Islamist in name, had purged itself of some of the hard-core ideologues that had guided it up until the late 1990s (and of such foreign guests of the government as Osama bin Laden and Carlos the Jackal). State Department officials argued that this strategy of engagement would deter Sudan from cooperating in future with international terrorist groups.
To reconcile the two views—that of the evangelical lobby and that of the State Department—the war in the south had to be brought to an end. And this is what a succession of high-level US officials, with assistance from the UK, Norway, and the regional organization IGAD (the Intergovernmental Authority on Development) have managed to achieve, for now at least. The Naivasha Agreement is the result not of war weariness on the part of the belligerents, but of sedulous carrot-and-stick negotiation by the United States. As John Garang, the leader of the SPLM, recently told the Voice of America, “This peace agreement was reached, not necessarily because the parties wanted to, but because both parties were forced to.”
The agreement is a diplomatic achievement. But it does little to tackle the wider political problems that have afflicted Sudan since independence: the neglect of areas such as Darfur that lie outside the central zone of the Nile valley, the decay of the national judicial system, and the subversion of administration by the security agencies that have proliferated since the present government seized power in 1989. The price of the agreement in the south, furthermore, has been the exclusion from the peace process of all but the two warring parties, the government and the SPLM, both of which came to power by force of arms. Other political forces and regional interests in Sudan and other conflicts, north and south, have been sidelined, including those in Darfur.
In this respect, the timing of the insurgency in Darfur was dictated by the Naivasha Agreement. Low-level fighting among communities in western Sudan (all of which are Muslim, apart from some groups of recently displaced southerners) has been endemic since the late 1980s, when a war broke out between Arabs and Fur, two of the ethnic groups involved in the present conflict. During the 1990s, the apparent impunity enjoyed by militias drawn from the Arab communities in Darfur—and the growth of their political influence—confirmed anxieties on the part of the Fur and other non-Arab groups that they were losing political ground. In particular, they feared that a peace agreement in the south would strengthen the government in Khartoum domestically and internationally, locking them out of the national political process altogether.
In early 2003 two loosely allied armed groups, the Sudan Liberation Movement (the SLM, not to be confused with the SPLM, the Southern rebel group) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), mounted a series of attacks on government posts in Darfur. The government response was to rapidly escalate its support to the Arab militias—bands of horsemen known pejoratively in Darfur Arabic as Janjawiid—with the results to be seen in Darfur today.
The crisis is connected to the Khartoum government’s war with the SPLM in another key respect. In the harrowing of Darfur there is a clear continuity with the government’s earlier military strategy in the south. Darfur has been described as “Rwanda in slow motion.” But more significantly, perhaps, it is southern Sudan speeded up. For two decades in the south successive Khartoum governments have employed the same counterinsurgency techniques as in Darfur today, with similar results. During the 1980s and 1990s Arab militias from Darfur and neighboring Kordofan—similar to the Janjawiid but known by the term murahaliin (a word for a nomadic advance guard)—were deployed against communities in SPLM-controlled areas of Bahr-el-Ghazal, the province to the south of Darfur. The famines that afflicted Bahr-el-Ghazal in 1987–1988 and 1998–1999 were, to a significant extent, the result of these attacks and those of other Government-backed militias. Mortality figures can only be guessed at, but they were in the hundreds of thousands, comparable with those projected for Darfur in the coming months.
These attacks were coordinated by Sudan government military intelligence and sometimes accompanied by aerial bombardment, as in Darfur. An ideology of Muslim religious and Arab racial superiority was used to justify them. Similar tactics, including mass rape, were used against the Nuba of Kordofan, another group involved in the southern rebellion. And as recently as last March, well after the cease-fire in the south, government-backed militias launched systematic attacks on villages in SPLM-controlled areas of the Upper Nile.
In the case of the south, where the victims were non-Muslims, the official rhetoric justifying the attacks used the vocabulary of holy war, of jihad. Murahaliin were transformed into Mujahideen. But the unofficial rhetoric of the conflict was racial, employing the terms abid (slave) and zurga (from a root-word meaning “blue,” a word that is a euphemism for blackness, used in Sudanese Arabic to refer to non-Arabs). This terminology bears the weight of a history of discrimination and exploitation in Sudan, where ethnic groups claiming Arab descent have assumed superiority over others.
Arabs and Africans: a questionable dichotomy
In the case of Darfur, the inhabitants are all Muslim (with the exception of the comparatively recently displaced southerners), but the province is a patchwork of Arab and non-Arab groups, of which the Fur are one of many. In the present conflict, in the absence of religious difference, it is racial rhetoric that has come to the fore. Adherents of the two rebel movements, the SLA and JEM, are drawn, in varying proportions, from the three major non-Arab, so-called “African” groups in the province, the eponymous Fur, the Massaleit and the Zaghawa, while the Janjawiid are drawn from a number of pastoral Arab tribes who move in the same territory and compete for natural resources and political power.
It is only recently, however, that the division between “Arab” and “African” has achieved its present level of political significance in Darfur. The distinction is not a straightforward one. The Islamic presence in Sudan as a whole originates from the Arabian peninsula: over centuries of Islamization many indigenous peoples in the Nile valley came to claim Arab ancestry, to speak Arabic rather than their own languages, and to embrace the culture of Arabia. Thus about half the inhabitants of northern Sudan (a term which includes the western provinces such as Darfur) are, by their own definition, Arabs. Non-Arabs — who, despite the term “zurga”, may well be physically indistinguishable from Arabs — retain their indigenous languages, though Arabic is the national lingua franca. From this point of view Sudan can be said to be an Arab country only to the extent that United States is an Anglo-Saxon country, if that.
The nomadic Arabs of Darfur, who provide the recruits for the government-controlled militias, are a world away from the settled Arab elites who control the state. They are closer, in most ways, to their non-Arab neighbors, even in the Arabic they speak. (The word “Janjawiid”, for instance, by which the militias are known, and which has achieved global currency in international coverage of the crisis, was unknown elsewhere in the country until the present crisis.) In Darfur, moreover, ethnic distinctions are changeable: nomads and farmers share the same territory; they may intermarry even as they compete for land and water; individual Fur and others who acquire cattle can be incorporated into Baggara lineages, becoming Arabs within a generation.