'The World's Worst Humanitarian Crisis': Understanding the Darfur Conflict

Editor's Note

Since 2003, the Darfur region of western Sudan has been the site of terrible violence, death, and displacement; what the United States has labeled 'genocide.' Despite what is currently the world's largest relief operation, efforts to calm the conflict and assist the approximately five million Darfurians suffering ongoing deprivation have produced precious few results. With no end in sight for the turmoil, Ahmad Sikainga, a native of Sudan and Professor of History at Ohio State University, explores the origins and current status of the Darfur conflict.

This article is part of a larger research project, which was supported by grants from Ohio State University's Mershon Center and Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. The author and Origins are grateful to both centers.

For more on current events in Africa, please see Claire Robertson's article on violence in Kenya.

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.

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. 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 map showing different states of the Darfur region of Sudan.

A map showing various wilayat, or states, of the Darfur region in western Sudan.

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.

Many of the Sudanese members of the legion were followers of the Madhist sect who engaged in subversive activities against the regime of Ja`far Nimeiri in the 1970s (Nimeiri was President of Sudan 1969-1985). Following their defeat in the aftermath of a failed coup in 1976, remnants of the Mahdists scattered in the border region between Sudan, Chad, and Libya. In the end, Gaddafi's hopes were dashed when the legion forces were defeated by Chadian factions in 1988.

Although the legion was subsequently disbanded, many of its members, well trained and armed, continued to embrace an Arab supremacist ideology. Some of the infamous Janjawid, who are currently committing many of the atrocities in Darfur, were members of the legion. Moreover, a large number of the Mahdists members of the legion had returned to the Sudan after the downfall of Nimeiri's regime in 1985.

In the late 1980s, these returnees formed a political block known as the Arab Alliance and began to disseminate supremacist ideology in the western parts of the Sudan and exhibited great contempt towards the non-Arab groups in the region.

Their propaganda involved the claim that the Arabic-speaking groups in the western parts of the Sudan had been politically and economically marginalized, despite the fact that they constitute the majority of the region's population. In addition to land ownership, the alliance called for increased representation of the Arabic-speaking groups in the central government. The attitude of these groups coupled with the policies of the central government has had a profound impact on inter-communal relationships in Darfur.

In tandem with external destabilizing forces from Chad and Libya (among others), the ongoing crisis in Darfur was also the result of events that took place in other parts of the Sudan, particularly the civil war between Southern and Northern Sudan, which resumed in the early 1980s.

The Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLM, and its military wing the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA)), which led the rebellion in the South, presented itself as the defender of all marginalized groups in the country and raised the slogan of "New Sudan."

The SPLA made relentless efforts to recruit people from the Nuba Mountains, Darfur, the Blue Nile, and the Red Sea regions. Daoud Bolad, a Darfurian who was also a former student activist and member of the Islamicist movement, formed a small pro-SPLA faction in Darfur, but he was subsequently captured and killed by government troops. His 1992 death-by-torture dashed the hopes of the SPLA in Darfur.

Even without his death, however, the religious divide hampered the SPLA efforts in Darfur. While the majority of the SPLA members are Southern Christians, virtually all Darfurians are Muslims who were followers of either the Mahdist movement or the National Islamic Front.

Advent of the Islamicists

Perhaps one of the most important legacies of the SPLM on the political discourse in the Sudan is its call for building a "New Sudan." Embedded in this slogan is the idea of the creation of a secular, plural, and unified Sudan, in which there would be no distinction on the bases of religion, ethnicity, language, gender, and region.

The slogan was perceived as a threat by the dominant Arabic-speaking northern Sudanese elites. One of the most ardent defenders of Arabicism and Islamism as a paradigm of Sudanese identity is the National Islamic Front (NIF), whose main goal was the establishment of an Islamic state in the Sudan and beyond.

Hasan Turabi, the leader and main ideologue of NIF, had an ambitious scheme of spreading the Islamicist ideology in other parts of the Muslim world, particularly in Sahelian Africa. Turabi considered Darfur as the gateway to this region and made considerable efforts to recruit Darfurians into his movement.

From Turabi's perspective, in order to achieve these goals, the NIF had first to seize power in the Sudan. With this goal in mind, the NIF devoted its energies to building a strong economic base as well as expanding its membership among students, professionals, and most importantly, the Sudanese army.

The growing military and political strength of the SPLM in the late 1980s, and the prospects of the SPLA gaining a significant share in power, prompted the NIF to act. Using its considerable financial resources and influence in the army, the NIF staged a military coup in 1989 and overthrew the democratically elected government of Sadiq Al-Mahdi.

Once in power, the NIF embarked on grand scheme of transforming Sudanese state and society in accordance with its ideology. Thousands of people deemed secular were purged from the army, the civil service, and the police, while the regime's opponents were detained, tortured, or killed.

The NIF waged war in the South as "jihad" and pursued it with great vigor. The regime's human rights abuse, its efforts to destabilize neighboring countries, and its policies of harboring militant Islamicists from other parts of the Muslim world led to its international isolation. Western governments imposed sanctions, particularly the U.S. government, which placed Sudan on the list of countries sponsoring terrorism. At the same time, the NIF regime remained extremely unpopular among the Sudanese population as a result of its repression and the severe economic hardships.

In the face of growing isolation, the regime turned to China, which has become its major trading partner and main supplier of arms. The relationship was given further impetus by the production of oil, in which China became the dominant player.

The Peace Agreement with the South

A number of internal and external factors forced both the Sudanese government and the SPLA to enter into peace negotiations in 2003. Prominent among those were the inability of either party to achieve a decisive victory, the economic hardships and growing unpopularity of the Sudanese regime, a split within NIF, and the post-September 11 realities and the Bush Administration's "war on terror."

The peace negotiations were held in Kenya and were sponsored by the Internal Departmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an East African regional organization, European countries, the UN, and the U.S. government. In 2005 the two parties singed a peace accord that came to be known as the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).

The CPA was hailed for ending the bloodshed and destruction that were raging in the South for several decades. However, the CPA was also criticized for its focus only on the North-South conflict and for ignoring the grievances of other marginal regions such as Darfur, the East, and other opposition groups. The failure of the Agreement to deal with all of the regional crises and tensions was one of the principal reasons behind the outbreak of the rebellion in Darfur.

In 2003, two rebel movements emerged in Darfur: the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).The leader of JEM is Khalil Ibrahim, who was a former member of the Islamicist movement, which led to speculations that JEM has Islamicist leanings. The SLA, on the other hand, is considered more secular in its orientation. The manifesto of both movements called for greater autonomy for Darfur and redistribution of economic resources and political power.

Violence in Darfur Begins and the World's Response

The spark that ignited the violence in Darfur occurred in April 2003 when the rebels attacked al-Fashir airport and destroyed military equipment and overwhelmed the Sudanese army. The attack took the government by surprise. From the beginning the government dismissed the rebel movement, describing them as nothing more than a band of armed robbers. At first, Khartoum could not mount an effective counter-offensive because its army was overstretched, particularly in the South.

Instead, the government resorted to the sort of unscrupulous tactics of proxy war that it had used in the South and in the Nuba Mountains. This involved the exploitation of ethnic differences and the arming of particular ethnic groups and turning them against others.

The use of this tactic in Darfur was best exemplified by the creation of the infamous Janjawid, most of whom hailed from Arabic-speaking communities (in western Sudanese context, Janjawid refers to rabble or outlaws). In conjunction with the Sudanese army, the Janjawid engaged in a massive campaign of violence and pillaging of non-Arab communities. The carnage resulted in the death of 300,000 Darfurians and the displacement of 2 million.

The scale of destruction outraged the international community and prompted the U.S. government to describe it as "genocide." However, the rhetoric of the international community was not matched by actions.

Both the U.S. and European governments were not willing to intervene militarily and could not develop a coherent policy towards the Sudan. The UN issued a number of threats and passed a series of resolutions. But these were rendered ineffective by the defiance of the Sudanese governments, and the maneuvering of Arab countries and of China, Sudan's main oil-trading partner and supplier of arms.

The most important bone of contention is the deployment of peacekeepers in Darfur. The Sudanese government declared its objection to the presence of any European troops on its soil and maintained that it would only allow African Union peacekeepers.

As a compromise, the UN passed a resolution in 2007 that provided for the creation of the so-called "hybrid force," or a mixture of UN and African Union troops, to which the Sudan government agreed. However, the deployment of these troops has been hampered by a lack of funds, complicated logistics, and the foot-dragging of the Sudanese government.

On another level, the UN referred the Darfur case to the International Court of Criminal Justice to investigate accusations of genocide and crimes against humanity committed by the Sudanese government. Although two Sudanese officials were indicted, the Sudanese government vowed not to hand them over.

However, in a dramatic move, the court declared in July 2007 that it is seeking a warrant for the arrest of Omer Al-Bashir, the Sudanese President. A ruling is expected in the near future. It is unclear what will happen if an arrest warrant is issued and how that will affect the situation in Darfur. While some observers think that it may prompt the Sudanese government to suspend all UN operations and thereby worsen the humanitarian situation, others believe that the warrant might actually increase the pressure on the Sudanese government and force it to take the peace process more seriously.

Darfur Peace Process

After a great deal of pressure by the UN, the African Union, and the neighboring countries, the Sudanese government and the Darfur rebels agreed to hold a series of peace talks in Nigeria, which led to the signing of the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) in 2006. However, the agreement was signed by only one rebel group and was rejected by the rest who argued that the DPA was a bad deal for Darfur.

The major obstacles to reaching a settlement can be attributed to both the Sudanese government and the Darfur rebels.

The Sudanese government is notorious for using agreements as a mere tactic. It is willing to sign any agreement, but determined to find ways to impede or delay its implementation.

Darfur rebels, on the other hand, are highly divided and have no clear vision. It was estimated that there are currently more than a dozen rebel groups who are competing among each other, a situation that has lead to chaotic violence in the region. Efforts to unify the rebels have been hindered by the strategy of the Sudanese government of divide and rule, and by the intervention of foreign governments such as Chad, Libya, and Eritrea.

Most importantly, the Darfur rebels have become part of the proxy war between the Sudanese and the Chadian governments. For instance, in February 2008 the Chadian opposition, with the help of the Sudanese government, tried to overthrow the government of Idris Deby. As a quid pro quo, Chad supported the Justice and Equality Movement's daring attack on the Sudanese capital three months later.

The current situation in Darfur does not allow for much optimism. The peace process is frustrated by the foot-dragging of the Sudanese government, the fragmentation of the rebels, and the lack of a strong resolve by the international community. The fate of the Darfur peace process may well be determined by the outcome of the ICC decision on Bashir, the general elections scheduled for 2009, and the deteriorating situation in the border region between northern and southern Sudan. In the meantime, the turmoil continues with no end in sight.

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Suggested Reading
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  3. Daly, M.W., Darfur's Sorrow: A History of Destruction and Genocide, Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
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  7. Kapteijns, Lidwein, Mahdist Faith and Sudanic Identity: The History of the Sultanate of Masalit, London: Kegan Paul, 1985.
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