By Professor David Hoile

Published by The European - Sudanese Public Affairs Council


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Darfur In PerspectiveThe war that has been fought in Darfur over the past two years has been a humanitarian disaster. The violence is said to have amounted to "a demographic catastrophe".[1]

Hundreds of villages have been destroyed and tens of thousands of people have died as a direct or indirect result of the conflict. The United Nations’ Darfur Humanitarian Profile, for the period October-December 2004, estimated that there were 1.65 million internally displaced people in Darfur and that 2,279,266 people had been affected by the conflict. [2] It seems that as of January 2005, however, the humanitarian crisis may have started to ease. In its year-end report, the Office of the United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Co-ordinator for the Sudan, reported that the 90-day humanitarian action plan, from June to August 2004, had been a success. It further reported that “by 31 December 2004 the humanitarian situation for most of the 2.2 million people affected is stabilized, due to the provision of life saving inputs and the efforts of 8,500 aid workers…The catastrophic mortality figures predicted by some quarters have not materialised”. The UN reported that the number of aid workers had increased from 200 in March 2004 to 8,500 by the end of 2004. [3] In January 2005, the World Health Organisation confirmed that food and health access, water supply, and sanitation services were making a significant difference in addressing the crisis. [4] This came in the same month as the signing of the comprehensive peace agreement ending the long-running civil war in southern Sudan, and which might serve as a model for resolving the Darfur conflict. [5]

And, at the end of January, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Darfur reported back to the UN Secretary-General, stating that while there had been serious violations of human rights in the course of the war in Darfur, allegations of genocide were unfounded. [6] These developments afford the international community some space in which to review the crisis and its causes and look towards its resolution. [7] For all the column inches of media coverage of the war, there are still a number of essentially unanswered questions concerning the Darfur crisis. One of the first must be what triggered the systematic outbreak of violence in Darfur in February 2003? This question is at the heart of understanding the dynamics of the conflict. Given concerted international attempts at peace-making and offers of regional autonomy, a second question is what sustains the conflict? A third question concerns whether any of the parties are dragging their feet in the peace process; and, if so, why? A fourth question is what is the real position with regard to humanitarian access to Darfur? A fifth question asks the extent to which flawed interpretations and questionable projections of the crisis – some of them the sort of propaganda invariably associated with war and particularly civil war – hinder both reconciliation and peace-building while at the same time skewing and adversely influencing international opinion. And, of course, following on from this question, relates to the credibility of claims of genocide and ethnic cleansing in Darfur.

Darfur in Outline

The Darfur region, divided into the states of North, South and West Darfur, is the western-most part of Sudan. Darfur’s 160,000 square miles make up one fifth of Sudan. It is an expanse of desert in the north through to savannah in the south. Geographically, it is made up of a plateau some 2,000 to 3,000 feet above sea-level. The volcanic Jebel Marra mountain range runs north and south for a distance of some 100 miles, rising to between 5,000 and 6,000 feet. Darfur’s six million or so inhabitants comprise one seventh of Sudan’s population. They are made up of farmers growing sorghum, millet, groundnuts and other market vegetables and nomadic cattle and camel pastoralists. Formerly an independent sultanate, and named after the Fur tribe (“Dar”, land, of the Fur), Darfur was incorporated into Sudan by the British government in 1917. Some of its borders were not finalised until as late as 1938. Previously administered as one entity, Darfur was divided into three states in the early 1990s. Al-Fasher, the historic capital of Darfur, is the capital of North Darfur state; Nyala is the capital of South Darfur state; and al-Geneina is the capital of West Darfur state. Each state has a regional assembly, and a governor appointed by central government. Darfur lies in western Sudan. It is strategically placed, bordering Libya to the north-west, Chad to the west, and the Central African Republic to the south-west. The largest ethnic group within Darfur are the Fur people, who consist mainly of settled subsistence farmers and traditional cultivators. Other non-Arab, “African”, groups include the Zaghawa nomads, the Meidob, Massaleit, Dajo, Berti, Kanein, Mima, Bargo, Barno, Gimir, Tama, Mararit, Fellata, Jebel, Sambat and Tunjur. The mainly pastoralist Arab tribes in Darfur include Habania, Beni Hussein, Zeiyadiya, Beni Helba, Ateefat, Humur, Khuzam, Khawabeer, Beni Jarrar, Mahameed, Djawama, Rezeigat, and the Ma’aliyah. [8] Sudanese sociologists have suggested that the population in Darfur can also be divided into four groups: the Baggara (cattle nomads), the Aballa (camel nomads), the Zurga (a Darfur name for non-Arab peasants derived from the Arabic word for black), and the inhabitants of the urban centres. [9] A more culturally-based classification distinguishes between four groups: the Arabs; the fully Arabised; the partly Arabised; and the non-Arabised. The “Arabs” are the native Arabic speakers: the Rezeigat, the Zeiyadiya, Beni Hussein, and the Djawama nomads who, as a result of intermarriage with the indigenous Darfurians, look much darker than non-Sudanese Arabs. The “fully Arabised” group is made up of those Darfurians, such as the Berti, who have lost their native languages to Arabic. The third, “partly Arabised” group is made up of those communities such as the Fur, the Zaghawa, and the Meidob, who have kept their native languages, but also speak Arabic fluently. The last “ non-Arabised” group consists of tribes that speak very little Arabic, for example, the Massaleit, some sections of the Zaghawa, the Berti, the Mima, the Tama, and the Kanein. [10] A linguistically-based analysis would categorise as “African” those whose motherr-languages belonging to the Nilo-Saharan language group. [11]

Darfur is an ecologically fragile area and had already seen growing– and often armed – conflict over natural resources between some 80 tribes and clans loosely divided between nomadic and sedentary communities. Sudanist academics such as Richard Lobban and Sean O’Fahey have stated: “This conflict has emerged at the present in the context of persistent ecological crises of increased desertification and lack of production and limited grazing lands among the pastoralist and agricultural peoples.” [12] Professor Fahey has noted that desertification accelerated by droughts led to pressure on water and grazing resources…Conflicts over wells that in earlier times had been settled with spears or mediation became much more intractable in an era awash with guns.” [13] Desertification and drought had forced a number of tribal migrations from the 1970s onwards and by the late 1980s, as noted by Darfurian writer Ismail Abakr Ahmed, “the migrant groups increased in numbers, and in the absence of social harmony, tribal factions developed and culminated in violent conflicts.” [14]

These inter-tribal and intra-tribal conflicts, some between nomadic communities and farmers, and some within nomadic and farming communities themselves, were a feature from the late 1950s onwards. The following are some of the armed tribal conflicts that have taken place within Darfur since independence: 1957, Meidob against Kababish caused by mutual raiding for camels and disputed territorial access; 1968, Rezeigat against Ma’aliyah, caused by disputed access and livestock theft; 1969, Zaghawa against Northern Rezeigat, caused by disputed access to pasture and water and livestock theft; 1974, Zaghawa against Birgid, caused by disputed access to farming land and livestock theft; 1976, Beni Helba against Northern Rezeigat, caused by disputed access to pasture and water and livestock theft; 1980, Northern Rezeigat against Beni Helba, Birgid, Dajo, and Fur, caused by disputed access to pasture and water and livestock theft; 1980, Taisha against Salamat, caused by disputed access to pasture and water and livestock theft; 1982, Kababish and Khawabeer against Meidob, Berti and Zeiyadiya, caused by disputed access to pasture and water and livestock theft; 1984, Missairiya against Rezeigat, caused by disputed access to pasture and water and livestock theft; 1987, Gimir and Mararit against Fellata, caused by disputed access to pasture and water and livestock theft; 1989, the Fur of Kabkabiya against the Zaghawa, over disputed territorial access and livestock theft; 1989, the Fur against various Arab tribes, caused by disputed territorial access and political conflict; and 1989, Gimir against Zaghawa, caused by disputed territorial access and livestock theft. [15] Six of these thirteen conflicts were fought between Arab nomadic communities: four of the conflicts were between parties who were both non-Arab. All of these were serious armed conflicts, sometimes involving thousands of tribesmen, with combatants increasingly well armed with automatic weapons and vehicles. As is also apparent from the tribes involved, the violence was both within and across ethnic divides. There were also clear cross-border dimensions with the involvement of tribes such as the Salamat which straddle the Chad-Sudan frontier. western Sudan (all of which are Muslim) has been endemic since the late 1980s, when a war broke out between the Arabs and the Fur, two of the ethnic groups involved in the present conflict.” [16] Much of this violence also had cross-border implications, with affected communities often straddling the Sudan-Chad frontier. From 1983-87, as some northern Darfur tribes moved south into the central farming belt because of the drought, the Zaghawa and Ma’aliyah came into armed conflict with Fur communities. This conflict and others involving the Fur led to thousands of deaths, tens of thousands of displaced Darfurians and the destruction of thousands of homes. It was settled by a government-mediated intertribal conference in 1989. The 1990s were marked by three distinct conflicts. In 1990 the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army unsuccessfully tried to start an insurgency, led by Fur activist Daud Bolad, amongst non-Arab communities; in 1996 there was a longrunning conflict between the Rezeigat and the Zaghawa; and from 1997- 99 there was fighting in western Darfur between the Massaleit and some Arab tribes. The SPLA-inspired insurgency was defeated within a matter of months and, generally speaking, inter-tribal conferences and conciliation, ajaweed and mutamarat al sulh, settled most of the other disputes. Ahmed, for example, documents 14 inter-tribal conferences amongst Darfurian communities up to 1999.

Amnesty International’s picture of Darfur pre-rebellion also overlaps with inter-ethnic tensions: “The lack of employment opportunities, the proliferation of small arms and the example of militia raiding and looting in Kordofan and the south, have encouraged banditry, acts of armed robbery and general insecurity.” [17] The simple fact is that all these are factors which existed before 2003. An insurgency amongst “African” tribes had been tried and had failed; tribal conflicts had come and gone; ecological factors had been there for some time; the region was awash with weapons. What was it that made the key difference in sparking and fanning the war in 2003? What was it that turned limited, low-intensity conflicts between the pastoral and arable farming groups in Darfur into a well-organised, well-armed and well-resourced civil war? Why was it that for the first time ever warring tribes in Darfur had systematically attacked and killed soldiers and policemen – historically seen as arbiters within regional conflicts?

The answers possibly lie with the answer to a final question, perhaps the most elementary one – a question not asked by the international community and especially not by the media – which is the old Latin one of Cui Prodest, or whom does it benefit? Khartoum certainly has not. Several years of painstaking diplomacy, together with the peace talks which culminated in the end of the civil war in the south, had brought Sudan to the verge of normalising its relations with the international community. To somehow believe that the Sudanese government set out to destroy all that work by recklessly embarking on “genocide” in Darfur just as it was poised to rejoin the community of nations would be naïve. The Zaghawa and Fur communities have similarly not benefited, having borne the brunt of a ruthless insurgency and counter-insurgency. The close involvement, both in the preparations for the war, and then in the war itself, of veteran Islamist politicians and paramilitaries drawn from the Popular Congress is evident. These forces have used Darfur as a battlefield on which to wage war against the Khartoum government– and ironically were, in large part, the same people who ruthlessly put down the attempted insurrection in 1990. Previously sidelined in Khartoum politics from 1999 onwards, the Darfur conflict has brought these Islamists back to centre stage, and, in so doing, the Popular Congress has changed the electoral dynamics of western Sudan.


1 “Darfur Violence is “Demographic Catastrophe”: Study”, News Article by Agence France Press, 1 October 2004.
2 For more details see Darfur Humanitarian Profile, United Nations, Khartoum, December 2004, available at www.unsudanig.org.
3 Darfur 120-Day Plan Report September to December 2004, Office of the United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Co-ordinator for the Sudan, Khartoum, January 2005.
4 “Darfur Humanitarian Crisis Seems to Have Eased – WHO”, News Article by Reuters, 25 January 2005.
5 “Sudan’s North-South Peace Deal a Model for Darfur: Officials”, News Article by Agence France Presse, 26 January 2005.
6 Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to the United Nations Secretary-General, United Nations, January 2005. See, also, for example, “UN Clears Sudan of Genocide in Darfur”, News Article by Associated Press, 31 January 2005.
7 “Sudan’s North-South Peace Deal a Model for Darfur: Officials”, News Article by Agence France Presse, 25 January 2005.
8 See, for example, Baballa Haroun Nor Adam, “Ethnic Composition, Economic Pattern, and Armed Conflicts in Dar Fur”, Sudanese Human Rights Quarterly, Number 8, July 1999, pp. 9-10.
9 See, for example, Ahmed, A. M. and Harir S., Sudanese Rural Society: Its Development and Dynamism, (Arabic) University Khartoum Press, Khartoum, 1982.
10 See, for example, F. N. Ibrahim, Ecological Imbalance in the Republic of the Sudan: With Special Reference to Desertification in Darfur, Bayreuth, Germany, 1984.
11 See, for example, Roland Oliver and Anthony Atmore, Medieval Africa 1250-1800, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001, p.106.
12 Richard Lobban, “Complexities of Darfur”, Sudan Tribune, 3 August 2004.
13 R. S. O’Fahey, “W. Sudan a Complex Ethnic Reality with a Long History”, Sudan Tribune, 15 May 2004.
14 Ismaeil Abakr Ahmed, “Causes of Tribal Conflicts in Dar Fur”, Sudanese Human Rights Quarterly, Number 8, July 1999, p.24.
15 Sharif Harir and Terje Tvedt (Editors), Short-Cut to Decay: The Case of the Sudan, Nordic Africa Institute, Uppsala, 1993.
16 John Ryle, “Disaster in Darfur”, The New York Review of Books, Volume 51, Number 13, 12 August 2004.
17 Darfur: “Too Many People Killed For No Reason”, Amnesty International, London, February 2004.



Espac Published by The European - Sudanese Public Affairs Council Copyright © David Hoile 2005
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