Darfur: The Origins & Diagnosis of the Crisis

Darfur: The Origins & Diagnosis of the Crisis

Darfur: The Origins & Diagnosis of the Crisis

The Darfur region in western Sudan is experiencing one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. The region is among the richest in terms of unexploited natural wealth, albeit among the most underdeveloped regions of Sudan. It is the largest region (or post-Independence province) of the country which stretches over a large area with a land mass estimated at about 160,000 sq. miles (548,000 sq. kilometres) between longitudes 22°E – 27°E and latitudes 10°N – 16°N. Darfur is a remotely located region, at the extreme west of the country, adjacent to Sudan’s borders with Chad, Central African Republic and Libya. It should be recalled that Darfur was an independent kingdom known as the Fur Sultanate for a period of about 448 years (1450 – 1916) with a short interval of an alien rule during the Mahdist State (1885 – 1899). The Sultanate of Darfur was a well-established Kingdom with its own written laws, a system of government and external diplomatic relationships with some of the major political capitals of the world at that time. By the beginning of 1917 the independent Sultanate of Darfur was finally annexed to present-day Sudan by the British colonial rulers of the country.

Darfur is a promising region where large parts of it are blessed with fertile soil, huge water sources and a rich fauna and flora. As such, the region is host to considerable domestic and wild livestock populations. Domestic livestock includes sheep, goats, cows and camels estimated at over 25% of Sudan’s livestock population and accounts to about 30% of the country’s livestock trade representing a meaningful share in Sudan’s economy, especially in its foreign export earnings. The region is also suitable for investment especially in agriculture, horticulture, tourism and livestock development with an experienced and relatively cheap labour force in most of these fields. The region’s prospective underground mineral wealth including crude oil reserves and other valuable mineral wealth is yet to be exploited. The government is reluctant to embark on major oil exploration projects in the region despite the fact that commercial quantities of crude oil are expected in the region. With suitable development of some basic infrastructure, investment in Darfur in particular in the fields of mineral exploration, agriculture and animal husbandry would be a highly profitable enterprise.

Sudan, the largest country in Africa, with about one million square miles in area, is a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious country. Despite its natural richness in resources the country is severely underdeveloped due to political and social instability, mismanagement of the economy and natural resources, social injustice, as well as bigotry and intolerance. Sudan’s social ills are best manifested in the country’s long history of violence and civil strife in the South and the Nuba Mountains in mid-western Sudan. Adding to Sudan’s manmade difficulties are some natural calamities that hit some parts of the country in its recent past, such as drought and desertification, mostly at non-riverine north and north-western parts of the country which form a natural extension of Western Sahara.

Darfur (literally meaning ‘homeland of the Fur’) is host to approximately one fifth of Sudan’s population of about 39.47 million. The people of Darfur are divided into two main ethnic groups namely the indigenous, black-African sedentary groups; and the migrant, nomadic groups of mixed quasi-Arab origin. Within these broad ethnic groupings the Fur people makeup the majority of the inhabitants of the region. Among the largest tribes of the region the Fur, Massaleet and Zaggawa are indigenous Africans while the Rezigat, Missiriya, Bani Halaba and Ta’aisha are nomad tribal people of Arab origin. Together with these main groups many other distinct tribal groups live in Darfur such as the Tama, Berti, Tunjour, Dajou, Bergou and Bergid, which are considered as indigenous Africans, and Mahriya, Ma’alia, Bani Hussien, Mahameed, Um Jallool, which are considered as Arab nomads. Historically, all migrant ethnic groups in Darfur, including those of Arab origin, accepted to live under the Fur rule and accordingly each one of them has been accorded a piece of land known as “Dar” (homeland) where they lived and organised their affairs. This mosaic of indigenous, agrarian African tribes and migrant, nomadic Arabised tribal groups co-existed peacefully in the region for many centuries. With some few exceptions, the different tribal groups of the region have developed homogenous and relatively common socio-cultural systems. Almost all the people of the region practice Sunni Islam and use Arabic as their lingua franca.

Attacks by the Arab militias collectively known as the “Janjaweed” – that are widely believed to be armed and supported by the government of Sudan – are at the origin of the current crisis. These attacks were so coordinated, organised and so widespread that they caused unimaginable agony and suffering to the indigenous African tribes throughout the 1980s and the 1990s. The situation became so dramatic to the extent that it was characterised as ethnic cleansing by highly authoritative reports by United Nations agencies and officials.

As a natural act of defence against this direct challenge, and as an expression of lack of confidence in the willingness of national and local governments to protect them against attacks of the Janjaweed militias, the indigenous people of Darfur have developed their own militia groups for self-defence, resistance and recovery of stolen objects and livestock. This process continued throughout the years preceding the full-fledged rebellion which officially erupted in February 2003. It should be noted, however, that rebellion against the government policies in Darfur had in reality started back in 1991 when the late Mr. Daoud Yahya Bolad, a one time leading member of the ruling party that brought General El Bashier to power, broke away, organised members of his Fur clan and thought to forge a link with the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army and Movement (SPLA/M). He was able to establish a western faction of the SPLA/M and get the support of some followers in the southern parts of Darfur. Mr. Bolad was speedily arrested and summarily executed in 1991 and consequently his movement ceased to exist.

Factors Contributing to the Crisis
It is possible to outline four interrelated factors which have played a major role in the exacerbation of the current deterioration of human rights and humanitarian situation in the Darfur region. These are:

1- The 1980s drought and desertification in Darfur have resulted in famine, mostly affecting western, northern and central areas of the region. This has consequently enthused a massive migration of people from the arid and semi-arid northern parts southward to the rich parts of the region, which are inhabited in the majority by sedentary agriculturalist African tribes. Those affected by the famine and forced to move southward are Arab nomads and other pastoral tribes. Movement of nomads into areas occupied by sedentary groups brought skirmishes and disputes over water sources and pasture.

2- Darfur has been politically and developmentally neglected by successive national governments, which explains the lack of sustainable development projects that could have mitigated the negative effects of natural calamities and ecological decline caused by drought and desertification. Persistent underdevelopment of the region and neglect of its just demands left a deep feeling of marginalization and exclusion among the people of Darfur.

3- A deliberate policy by the central government to dismantle the well-established and historically preserved traditional structures and leadership system in the Darfur region. Traditional chieftains have played a cardinal role in organising the life of the people and in solving inter-communal disputes. These structures are especially important in African regions where tribal allegiance is deep-rooted in the social and economic schemes. Of particular concern was the Sudan government’s decision in 1995 to embark on a geographic and administrative re-demarcation programme in the region. As a direct consequence of this policy the government has delegated administrative powers and allocated land, hitherto owned by indigenous African tribes, to the nomad tribes, in complete disregard to traditional land distribution methods. Serious protests were expressed by indigenous owners of the lands hitherto redistributed to the newcomers, but these were totally disregarded by the government.

4- The influx of large quantities of weapons into Darfur from neighbouring countries and the encouragement by the Arab nomads of their kinsmen to immigrate from neighbouring Chad and other surrounding countries into Darfur. The immigration of Arab nomads into the region still continues unabated and was further consolidated by the favourable response the migrant groups received in line with the national government’s partisan policies of the Arabising of the country.

The combination of these four elements in addition to irrational and insensitive interference of the national and regional governments in favour of the nomad tribes has led to the unprecedented culture of violence and ethnic hatred experienced by the people of the region. They have unequivocally fostered the presently conspicuous polarized positions assumed by the two broad ethnic groupings that live in the region. The biased behaviour of the national and regional governments against the indigenous African tribes of Darfur is a major reason behind the compounding crisis and turning it into the current stage, where the conceptualisation of the conflict can no longer be confined to mere tribal disputes generated by competition over scarce natural resources based, in a zone of ecological decline. It is rather a coordinated attempt to do away with a group of people and confiscate their land and wealth simply because their ethnic or tribal affiliation happens to be at odds with political whims of the ruling party.

In February 2003 the conflict in Darfur witnessed a dramatic change where groups of people from the indigenous African tribes of the region formed two separate movements fighting for the same cause, namely the Sudan Liberation Army and Movement (SLA/M) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). Each of these groups established its own army and declared insurgency against the government authority in the region. The government’s response to the political demands of these two groups was extremely violent and aggressive, excluding all venues for a negotiated settlement of the conflict. The government’s use of the army further increased its dependency on the Janjaweed to fight a proxy war on its behalf. They also used a scorched-earth policy that included aerial bombardment of civilian targets, accompanied by joint ground assaults by the army and the Janjaweed. This policy was responsible for the large-scale displacement of people as it rendered 3.5 million people destitute as war-affected people and their livelihood (including homes, schools, places of worship, medical centres etc.) were systematically destroyed. By June 2004 it is believed that at least 2600 villages inhabited by the African tribes of Darfur were totally burned down.

The attempted peace talks which ended with the Abuja negotiations and the so-called Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) of May 2006 did little if anything to bring peace to the region. The DPA draft had several major shortcomings:

1- In terms of signatories: The DPA was prepared to be signed by the two main rebel forces, namely the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) and the Sudan Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). However their mediators were content with the signature from a single faction of the SLM/A led by Minni Arku Minnawi who is currently Senior Assistant to President Omar Hassan Al Bashir. The faction led by the founder of the SLM/Aand other smaller factions of the same movement thus remained outside the domain of the agreement.

2- In terms of Contents: The DPA addressed only marginal demands of the warring factions and movements, with the major issues either left undecided or unfairly settled under huge pressure by the mediators, which included apart from the African Union, representatives of major powers such as the EU, Arab League, USA, UK and France.

3- In terms of legality and fairness: The mediators of the DPA imposed its terms on the conflict parties. The final draft was declared sacrosanct and no changes were to be accepted. This has effectively turned such mediators, whose function should be to facilitate negotiation and bring the two or more parties to a mediated, halfway house accord, into arbiters or judges whose decisions are not necessarily dependant or to be determined by the views of the contestants. As a corollary of the aforesaid deviation, DPA mediators made statements to the effect that non-signatories would be punished for their failure to sign the flawed document with which they happened to disagree. That has been an unprecedented case of enforcing a rejected “agreement”.

Added to the above shortfalls is the current reality on the ground in Darfur, where peace is the last thing enjoyed by the victims of the calamity, despite much government rejoicing of its achievement.

The Demands of Fighting Groups
One of the most remarkable elements in the Darfur conflict is that despite the over-mushrooming of factions and sub-factions of the movements fighting for the rights of the Darfur people, the demands of all these groupings are almost identical.

With the exception of a single call for cessation (by a small, one-year-old faction of JEM), all the Darfur movements and factions call for a united Sudan, within which Darfur should enjoy a united, autonomous region encompassing the current three (North, South and West Darfur) states.

All the factions, and indeed all non-dissident Darfurians, call for a fair and equitable distribution of power and wealth in the Sudan. The commonly agreed criterion for such distribution should be the population density of every region. Power, for this purpose, would include all forms of political, economic and other powers at the executive, legislative and judicial levels. The civil service and the military, as well as other armed and security forces should also be included.

The Sudan government’s objection to the fair power sharing demand is based on their expectations regarding its agreed share of power with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). The CPA grants the National Congress (the ruling party in Sudan in partnership with the SPLM) 52% of the central power positions. Any “fair” allocation of power to the people of Darfur on the basis of their population (currently 7 million, out of a national population of 39.47 million) would dramatically shake its un-elected power position. The government’s intention with regard to wealth sharing is no less gloomy, given its attitude towards the demand for personal and collective compensation of the Darfur war victims, which in no way matched the assumed intentions of an Islamic country, let alone the abilities of an oil producing economy. One leading rebel movement argues, “If granting the position of Vice-President to the southerners could work to bring peace to southern Sudan, why it shouldn’t work with us in Darfur?” The CPA in one respect offers guidance and precedents to follow in support of Darfur demands, but in another respect it is also an obstacle to fair power sharing, since the two party partners to the CPA have exhausted all the power cake among themselves!

The call for the equitable share of power and wealth to all regions including Darfur forms the backbone of all demands by the rebel groupings and all the people of Darfur. It is also supported by a sizeable body of Sudanese intellectuals from other regions of the country who suffer from similar grievances at various levels of intensity, depending on how remote their home regions are from the centre.

Other demands relate to temporary but important measures relating to two main issues: humanitary and security . These two areas are governed by de facto situations and international standards based on accumulated experience from around the world, offered by similar post-war situations. Once the factual realities are assessed by neutral bodies acceptable by all contestants, the experts can then lay out the measures to be followed in regard to humanitarian as well as security issues. One major humanitarian subject is the repatriation and rehabilitation of internally displaced and migrating populations, as well as compensating them for their sufferings, personally and collectively. On the security side the disarming of militia, especially the government supported Janjaweed and other militia, and the protection of civilians, form the main points in the current conflict. The government is afraid of antagonising the Janjaweed by announcing their disarmament, that is one of the many difficulties facing the implementation of the fragile DPA which includes the disarmament of the Janjaweed.

The rebels also call for ‘positive discrimination’ or ‘positive action’ in order to rectify years’ long underdevelopment which caused several generations of Darfur people to suffer irreparably. It is regional disparities and underdevelopment which have formed the accumulated grievances over the years, and that should be compensated.

In an interview with the UN Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) on Thursday 17th June 2004, Mr. Ahmad Allami, then Personal Advisor to President Idriss Deby and Chief Mediator in the 2003-4 Darfur peace talks, said that: “The Janjawid are recruiting elements in Chad. These are exclusively Arabs. This situation risks degeneration into an inter-ethnic war between a coalition of Arabs and other ethnic groups in the region.”

In fact, the government’s systematic dismantling of traditional leadership structures played a key role in flaring up sentiments of ethnic rivalry and competition over natural resources among the tribes of the region. This policy caused a state of chaos among local tribal groups because of lack of accountability hitherto guaranteed by traditional leadership systems.

Concluding Remarks
Mr. Mukesh Kapila, then outgoing UN Resident Representative in Sudan, declared in a BBC Interview on 19th March 2004 the gravity of the situation in Darfur when he said, “This is ethnic cleansing, this is the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis, and I don’t know why the world isn’t doing more about it.” Following the UN Security Council’s meeting on Darfur held in New York on Friday 2nd April 2004, the UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Mr. Jan Egeland, reaffirmed the previous findings of Mr. Kapila that the manner in which the government-supported Janjaweed militia groups are destroying lives and livelihood in the Darfur region does indeed qualify as ethnic cleansing (See UN Press Briefing dated 2nd April 2004).


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