For the past four years, the remote Sudanese region of Darfur has been the scene of a bloody conflict that has led to the death of thousands of people and the displacement of more than two million. The United Nations has described it as "the world's worst humanitarian crisis" and the United States government called it "genocide." The violence and destruction is often compared to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.1

These tragic events have riveted the international community and attracted unprecedented media attention. However, much of the media coverage tends to follow the familiar patterns of sensationalizing the story rather than providing a nuanced analysis of the root causes.

The Darfur tragedy has often been reduced to pictures of miserable refugees living in squalid conditions and caricatured accounts of "Arabs" killing "Black African Muslims." Moreover, much of the coverage tends to perpetuate the old (and easy) stereotypes about Africa as a continent that is uniquely afflicted by civil wars and instability.

Behind the tragic events in Darfur lies a complex history of deeply entrenched social inequalities, an environmental crisis and competition over natural resources, conflicting notions of identity, the militarization of rural societies, and, above all, a chronic problem of bad governance that has plagued the Sudan since its independence from British colonial rule in 1956.

Darfur: A Profile

The Darfur region lies in the western part of the Sudan (Africa's largest country), near the borders with Libya, Chad, and Central African Republic. The population of Darfur was estimated in 2002 at about six million, eighty percent of whom live in the rural areas.

At the outset, it is important to dispel a number of misconceptions that have characterized the media coverage of the Darfur conflict. Labeling it as one between "Arabs" and "Black Africans" is misleading. In reality, there are no visible racial or religious differences between the warring parties in Darfur. All parties involved in the conflict–whether they are referred to as "Arab" or "African"–are equally indigenous, equally black, and equally Muslim.

Darfurians represent a multitude of ethnic and linguistic groups. They include non-Arabic speaking groups such as the Fur, Masalit, Zaghawa, Tunjur, and Daju as well as Arabic-speaking such as Rizaiqat, Missairiyya, Ta`isha, Beni Helba, and Mahamid, just to name a few (see map). There are also a large number of West Africans, such as Hausa, Fulani, and Borno. These diverse groups are dispersed among each other and share similar physical and cultural characteristics.

A long history of internal migration, mixing, and intermarriage in Darfur have created remarkable ethnic fluidity: ethnic labels are often used only as a matter of convenience. For instance, in the Darfur context, for the most part the term "Arab" is used as an occupational rather than an ethnic label, for the majority of the Arabic speaking groups are pastoralists. On the other hand, most of the non-Arab groups are sedentary farmers. However, even these occupational boundaries are often crossed.

For several centuries, the Fur were the dominant political power in the region, particularly in the pre-colonial era. In the seventeenth century they established a kingdom that shared many of the characteristics of other Muslim states in the Sahelian belt. (The Sahel or the Sudanic belt refers to the region south of the Sahara Desert, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Nile basin in the east.) From its capital at Al-Fasher, the Darfur kingdom established extensive political and commercial links with these states as well as with Egypt and North Africa.

The Fur kingdom remained the leading regional power until it was destroyed in 1874 by the forces of Al-Zubair Rahmad, the northern Sudanese trader and adventurer, who brought it under the Turco-Egyptian colonial administration (1820-1884).

Turco-Egyptian rule was overthrown in 1884 by an Islamic revivalist movement—known as the Mahdiyya—led by Muhammad Ahmad ibn Abdalla, who claimed to be the Mahdi or the guided one. Many Darfurians supported the Mahdiyya and were among its most loyal followers. In fact, the Khalifa `Abdullahi, successor of the Mahdi, was a native of Darfur.

The Mahdist state ruled the Sudan until 1898 when it was conquered by the Anglo-Egyptian armies. Following the establishment of an Anglo-Egyptian regime, the kingdom of Darfur was revived by Ali Dinar, a descendant of the royal lineage of the earlier kingdom, and a general in the Mahdist army.

The Sultanate of Darfur remained independent until World War I. However, as a consequence of Ali Dinar's links with the Ottoman Empire during the war, the British invaded and annexed Darfur into the Anglo-Egyptian domain in 1916.

Since its independence in 1956, Sudan has been bedeviled by a succession of civil wars and political instability. The Darfur conflict should be seen as part of these larger, ongoing series of Sudanese crises, with one conflict spilling from one part of the country to another. The first and the most notorious of these struggles was the North–South conflict, which ended with the signing of the peace agreement in 2005 (after two rounds of fighting, 1955-1972 and 1983-2005). Regional conflicts also occurred in the Nuba Mountains, the Upper Blue Nile, and the Beja region in the eastern parts of the country.

These conflicts can be attributed to the deeply rooted regional, political, and economic inequalities that have persisted throughout Sudan's colonial and post-colonial history. These inequalities are exemplified by the political, economic, and cultural hegemony of a small group of Arabic-speaking Sudanese elites who have held power and systematically marginalized the non-Arab and non-Muslim groups in the country's peripheries.

Prelude to Conflict: The Environment

The current Darfur conflict is a product of an explosive combination of environmental, political, and economic factors. It is well known that environmental degradation and competition over shrinking resources have played, and continue to play, a critical role in communal conflicts in the Sahelian countries such as Mali, Niger, and Chad. In this regard, Darfur is no exception.

The Darfur region consists of a number of climatic zones. The southern part lies within the rich savanna, which receives considerable rainfall. The central part is a plateau where the mountain of Jebel Marra dominates the landscape. The northern part of Darfur is a desert that extends all the way to the Egyptian and Libyan borders.

Crop farming is the main economic activity of the majority of the population. Cultivation depends heavily on rainfall and land fertility, rendering the population vulnerable to climatic changes and natural disasters. Particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, drought, desertification, and population growth combined to produce a sharp decline in food production and with it widespread famine.

Also at the heart of the competition over resources is the question of land ownership. The land tenure system in Darfur has evolved over several centuries, producing a current hybrid set of practices that have tended to increase inter-communal tensions. Under the Fur kingdom, land ownership was based on the Hakura system. The term came from Arabic Hikr, meaning ownership.

According to this system, each group was given a Hakura, or Dar, which is regarded as the property of the whole community. The local chief was the custodian of the Dar and was responsible for its allocation to members of his group for cultivation. The Dar was revered by the people of Darfur. Belonging to a Dar became an integral part of the person's identity. At the same time, successive rulers of Darfur allocated land to specific individuals—such as high-ranking officials of the kingdom—for personal ownership.

Under British colonial rule, the land tenure system was modified to suit the system of indirect rule or what was called native administration. As in other parts of Africa, colonial officials in Darfur found it convenient to assume that local chiefs had defined authority over ethnic groups and jurisdiction over corresponding territory. Hence, the application of native administration involved the assignment to each group of specific territories. Local chiefs were then given the authority to allocate land to residents.

Both the system of land tenure and native administration underwent major changes during the post-colonial period. Post-independence Sudanese rulers regarded native administration as an archaic system that was part of the colonial legacy and gradually dismantled it.

Most importantly, these policies led to the erosion of the chiefs' authority. In turn, the changes to the land system diminished their ability to settle inter-communal disputes.

Pastoralists and Sedentaries

Conflict between pastoralists and sedentary farmers, caused in part by environmental pressures and changing land ownership patterns, was an important cause of the Darfur violence.

Pastoral nomadism is the main means of livelihood for many Darfurians. One of the most prominent cattle-herding groups in this region is the Arabic-speaking Baqqara, who are scattered between Kordofan and Darfur provinces. The Baqqara consist of several ethnic groups such as the Ta`isha, Rizaiqat, Beni Helba, Misairiyya, and others.

The desert region of northern Darfur is inhabited by camel-owning nomads who were known locally as abbala (camel owners). The nomads were not part of the hakura system. Hence, the nomads had to rely on customary rights to migrate and pasture their animals in areas dominated by farmers. As the nomads moved between the northern and the southern part of the region, specific arrangements for animal routes were made by their leaders and those of the farming communities, and these arrangements were sanctioned by the government.

The system worked for decades until the drought of the 1980s. As the climate changed, the expected dates of crop harvest became unpredictable, and many farmers began to switch to animal husbandry and needed grazing land.

At the same time, the pastoralists were also feeling the effects of the drought as grazing land in northern Darfur shrank considerably. Faced with this situation, camel nomads insisted on maintaining the traditional arrangements, which became a source of major clashes.

The struggle over diminishing resources in the 1980s led to several clashes between pastoralists and farmers. These sorts of quarrels were by no means new, as they had erupted several times during the colonial and post-colonial periods. For many years, both groups employed a variety of mechanisms to resolve these conflicts. These mechanisms were based on local customs and practices, such as Judiyya or mediation, native administration, tribal festivals, intermarriage between different ethnic groups, and exchange of gifts.

One the most important mechanisms for conflict resolution was the tribal conference, which was usually arranged by local chiefs after violent incidents. However, the abolition of the system of native administration dealt a serious blow to these traditions. Moreover, successive Sudanese rulers in Khartoum began to manipulate these conflicts for their own benefit.

Ethnic Tensions and Porous Borders

Environmental degradation and competition over resources can be understood as principal causes of communal conflict in Darfur, but the ongoing carnage is also a product of a long history of ethnic marginalization and manipulation by Sudan's ruling elites.

The post-colonial governments were dominated by the Arabic-speaking elites from the central and the northern parts of the country. In addition to concentrating economic development in their home regions, these elites tried to forge a national identity based on Arabism and Islam. These policies generated a tenacious resistance by the non-Arab and non-Muslim groups in the marginalized region of the South, the Nuba Mountains, and the Red Sea region.

A number of regionally and ethnically-based rebel movements emerged in the 1950s and the 1960s, particularly in the South where a civil war raged for several decades. In Darfur, an organization called the Darfur Development Front was formed in the mid-1960s to advocate the region's demands for economic development and greater autonomy, but it remained a relatively small movement. Nonetheless, a strong sense of deprivation continued to prevail among Darfurians and continued to shape their relationship with the Khartoum governments.

If internal tensions were not enough, Darfur has also suffered from the instability and conflicts that have plagued its neighbors, particularly Chad and Libya. A number of Darfur ethnic groups such as the Zaghawa, Masalit, and Mahiriyya also live in Chad, which has made it easier for conflicts to spread across borders.

Porous, ethnically intertwined borders affected Darfur during the Chadian civil wars of the 1980s, in which Libya became heavily involved. In addition to mounting a series of military adventures in Chad, Libya supported various Chadian factions who used Darfur as a rear base, pillaging local farmers and cattle-herders and pouring large quantities of arms into the region.

Moreover, Mu`mar Gaddafi of Libya had an ambitious project in the region, which involved the creation of what he called an "Arab Belt" across Sahelian Africa. His goal was to ensure Libya's hegemony in the region.

The scheme involved recruiting and arming discontented Arabic-speaking and Tuareg groups in the Sahel into what came to be known as the "Islamic Legion" as the spearhead in Libya's offensive in Chad. Some of the legion's members were also drawn from the Arabic-speaking pastoralists in Darfur.