Darfur, Sudan: The Overkill

Darfur (the home of the Fur) was always marginal to the politics of modern Sudan and to the two phases of the North-South civil war, which took place from 1954-1972 and 1982-2005. In the 19th century, Darfur, about the size of France, was an independent Sultanate loosely related to the Ottoman Empire.  It was on a major trade route from West Africa to Egypt and so populations from what is now Northern Nigeria, Niger, Mali and Chad joined the older ethnic groups of the area, the Fur, Masalit, the Zaghawa and the Birgit.  Nomads from Libya also moved south into Darfur.  As the population density was low, a style of life with mutual interaction between pastoral herdsmen and settled agriculturalists with some livestock developed.  Increasingly, however, there was ever-greater competition for water and forage made scarce by environmental degradation and the spread of the desert.

France and England left Darfur as a buffer zone between the French colonial holdings -what is now Chad – and the Anglo-Egyptian controlled Sudan.  French-English rivalry in West Africa had nearly led earlier to a war, and so a desert buffer was of more use than its low agricultural and livestock production would provide to either European colonial power.  It was only in 1916 during the First World War when French-English colonial rivalry in Africa paled in front of the common German enemy that the English annexed Darfur to the Sudan without asking anyone in Darfur or the Sudan if such a ‘marriage’ was desirable.

Darfur continued its existence as an environmentally fragile area of Sudan.  It was marginal in economics but largely self-sufficient. Once Sudan was granted its independence in 1956, Darfur became politically as well as economically marginal.  Darfur’s people have received less education, less healthcare, less development assistance, and fewer government posts than any other region.  Southerners were given governmental and administrative posts in the hope of diminishing the violent North-South divide.  There was no such incentive to ‘share the wealth’ with Darfur. Its political weight was even lessened when Darfur in a 1995 ‘administrative reform’ was divided into three provinces: Northern Darfur, Western Darfur, and Southern Darfur.  Some areas that were historically Darfur were added to Northern and Western Bahr El-Ghazal.  The division of Darfur did not lead to better local government nor to additional services from the central government.  It must be added that Darfur’s political leadership had a special skill in supporting national political leaders just as the national leaders were about to lose power – first Al Sadig Al Mahdi and then Hassan al-Turabi.

During the North-South civil war, as a largely Muslim area, Darfur supported the North and some militias from Darfur formed raiding parties to attack villages in Northern Bahr El-Ghazal.  However, Darfur’s leaders counted for little in the long North-South negotiations which finally led to a peace and power-sharing accord in January 2005.  Wealth from the oil fields, largely situated on the edge of the North-South dividing line had been a prime motivation for the peace agreement.  Wealth and development programs were to give a new life to the South and to the government in the North.

Ironically, it was the North-South peace negotiations which set the stage for the Darfur revolt. In 2000, Darfur’s political leadership had met to draw up a ‘Black Book’ which detailed the region’s systematic under-representation in national government since independence.  The ‘Black Book’ marked the start of a rapprochement between the Islamists and the secular radicals of Darfur which took form three years later with the rise of the more secular Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Islamist-leaning Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).  However, at the level of the central government, the ‘Black Book’ led to no steps to increase the political and economic position of Darfur.  This lack of reaction convinced some in Darfur that only violent action would bring recognition and compromise as the war in the South had done.

In July 2002, the government of Sudan and the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement signed a framework protocol for peace in Machakos, Kenya.  It seemed that peace was at hand.  Therefore, if Darfur was to share in the potential new prosperity, armed violence to gain attention had to be undertaken soon.  The two Darfur groups, SLA and JEM, started to structure themselves, gather weapons and men.  The idea was to strike in a spectacular way which would lead the government to take notice and to start wealth-sharing negotiations.  Not having read the ‘Little Red Book’ of Mao, they did not envisage a long drawn out conflict of the countryside against the towns of Darfur.

By February 2003, the two groups were prepared to act, and in one night attacked and destroyed many of Sudan’s military planes based at El Fasher.  The Sudan military lost in one night more planes than it had in 20 years of war against the South. 

However, the central government’s ‘security elite’ – battle hardened from its fight against the South but knowing that the regular army was over-extended and tired of fighting – decided to use against Darfur techniques that it had used with some success against the South: to arm and to give free reign to militias and other irregular forces.  Thus the government armed and directed existing armed groups in Darfur – popular defense forces and existing tribal militias. The government also started pulling together a fluid and shadowy group, now called the Janjaweed ("the evildoers on horseback").  To the extent that the make up of the Janjaweed is known, it seems to be a collection of bandits, of Chadians who had used Darfur as a safe haven for the long-lasting insurgencies in Chad, remains of Libya’s Islamic Forces which had once been under the control of the Libyan government but left wandering when Libyan policy changed, probably some daytime police and military – the Janjaweed acting nearly always at night – and some traditional nomad leaders from Darfur.

The central government gave these groups guns, uniforms, equipment, and indications where to attack by first bombing villages but no regular pay.  Thus the militias had to pay themselves by looting homes, crops, livestock, by taking slaves and raping women and girls. Village after village was destroyed on the pretext that some in the village supported either the SLA or the JEM; crops were burned; water wells filled with sand and as many people as possible fled to Chad or to areas thought safer in Darfur.  As the acting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Dr Bertrand Ramcharan stressed "First, there is a reign of terror in this area; second, there is a scorched-earth policy; third, there is repeated war crimes and crimes against humanity; and fourth, this is taking place before our very eyes."

The United Nations set up an International Commission of Inquiry which confirmed the worst fears of the deliberately destructive nature of the conflict whose consequences are to destroy a way of life.  The Commission of Inquiry as well as the UN Commission on Human Rights has recommended that those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity be tried by the International Criminal Court.  This will be the first major test of the new court and thus will be important to watch and analyze.

Darfur represents a classic case of how violence gets out of control and goes beyond the aims for which it was first used.  For the moment, it is hard to see how the violence can be reduced.  The African Union has sent in military observers to oversee a non-functioning ceasefire.  Talks between the government of Sudan and the JEM and SLA leadership in the Nigerian capital Abuja have broken down.  The Sudanese government has honed its survivalist instincts for a long time ably playing its ‘Arab’ character for support within the Arab League and its ‘African’ role within the African Union.  There is little external support for the JEM and SLA.  However, they have been able to get arms on the international ‘grey market’.  It is not clear to what extent the central government can control – or disarm as the UN has requested – the Janjaweed even if they wanted to.

The situation in Sudan will be discussed by the UN General Assembly in New York just after a September Summit devoted to reform of the UN – in part to cope better with intrastate conflicts such as that of Sudan. The UN and especially its Commission on Human Rights has played an increasingly active role. The Commission’s 2005 resolution on Sudan stressed three path-making elements which merit wide attention:

a) the key role that is to be played by the International Criminal Court in the Hague;
b) the increased cooperation and mutual support between the UN system and the
African Union;
c) the emphasis on preparing now for post-conflict reconstruction and ecologically-sound development based on "promoting the peaceful social coexistence between different tribes in Darfur."

As with all UN resolutions, much will depend on the follow up which will be taken by governments and non-governmental organizations.  We can all help build awareness of the innovative thinking expressed in the Sudan resolution and the need for concerted action.

Rene Wadlow is editor of the online journal of world politics www.transnational-perspectives.org and an NGO representative to the UN, Geneva. Formerly, he was professor and Director of Research of the Graduate Institute of Development Studies, University of Geneva. Photo courtesy of Savethechildren.org

For more information:

Sudan: The Shadow of a Death by Rene Wadlow on the death of Sudanese leader, John Garang

The interview of Musa Hilal, thought to be a key Janjaweed leader in a powerful article by Samantha Power entitled  "Dying in Darfur" in The New Yorker, August 30, 2004

There has been moving reporting of the consequences of the Darfur violence in the New York Times by Nicholas Kristof

On the web by Smith College professor Eric Reeves, who has drawn extensively on reports from United Nations observers.