African Civil War in Sudan

CRIME OF WAR magazine

April 2004

The Darfur Conflict: Crimes Against Humanity in Sudan

Since February 2003, Sudan‘s western province of Darfur has been the site of an extremely violent conflict between the province’s nomadic Arab tribes, supported by the government in Khartoum, and the native African settled peasant tribes.

Sudanese refugees wait during a sandstorm to get medical attention from a mobile clinic of Medecins sans Frontieres near the city of Bamina in eastern Chad, March 6, 2004. (AP Photo/Boris Heger)


The Roots of the Conflict


Sudan’s westernmost province bordering on Libya and Chad, Darfur is very large (almost 400,000 square kilometers) and quite populous in comparison with other regions of the Sudan (with around eight million people). Geographically, the province is centered on the Jebel Mara volcanic massif. The amount of rainfall determines the character of the population in broad bands going from north to south: camel herders in the northern arid zone, settled peasants in the center, cattle nomads in the south bordering on the Bahr-el-Ghazal Province. The black African Fur tribe makes up over half of the population, hence the name of the province Dar (home) of the Fur, and the rest is divided between over fifteen different ethnic/linguistic groups. All the inhabitants are Sunni Muslims.


The region was home to the independent Sultanate of Kayra between the mid-17th century and 1916 when it was finally annexed to the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. This long tradition of independence from the center of power in the distant Nile Valleyhas been a continuing source of alienation between Darfur and the rest of Sudan ‘s Muslim North. At independence in 1956 the province soon became a bastion of the Mahdist religious movement and a stronghold of its political wing the Umma Party. Twice in the history of the Sudan (in 1968 and in 1986) it was a solid bloc of Umma voters in Darfur that gave the Umma Party and its leader Sadiq al-Mahdi victory at the polls.


There are two other aspects of Darfurian politics that played a key role in the development of the present conflict. First, the inhabitants of the province, whether settled “African” peasants or “Arab” nomadic tribes (these words have to be put between inverted commas since there are no “pure” Arabs in Darfur but only people of mixed ethnic origins whose mother tongue is Arabic), have consistently identified with the Muslim north of Sudan in the conflict with the Christian and animist south that has persisted on and off since 1955. Members of the various Darfur ethnic groups, mostly from the “African” tribes, made up a very large proportion (between 40 and 60%) of the northern troops fighting against the southern rebellions between 1955 and 1972 and then again between 1983 and the present. Thus Islam proved to be a stronger identity factor than racial/cultural origins.


At the same time, the political gap in Darfur between those who identified themselves as “Arabs” and those who identified themselves as “Africans” widened from the mid-1960s onwards. The 1980s saw repeated ethnic clashes that were precariously terminated by a locally brokered peace agreement in 1989, the same year in which the National Islamic Front (NIF) radical Muslim organization took power in a military coup. There was thus a contradiction between the national political positioning of the African tribes, which were aligned with the Nile Valley Arabs in their struggle to retain control of the country against the southern challenge, and their provincial positioning where they fought the local representatives of those same Arabs.


In 1991 Daud Bolad, a Muslim Brother activist of Fur ethnic origin who had initially supported the new NIF regime, tried to organize a revolt against his former friends after he realized that as a black African he was not the social equal of the Arabs, even within the supposedly egalitarian ethos of the radical Islamic movement. Daud Bolad was defeated and killed but his attempted uprising marked a turning point in many people’s consciousness in Darfur.


Uprising and Repression

The present conflict started in February 2003 and has rapidly developed into one of the most violent military confrontations on the continent. There have been an estimated 30,000 casualties, one million people are displaced within the province and over 120,000 have fled into neighboring Chad. The fight is basically between black African insurgents and the Khartoum government and its local agents, the Arab militias. The deep causes of the rebellion lie in the feeling of superiority and cultural elitism of the “Arabs”, and of resentment and perceived oppression and neglect on the part of the “Africans”. The “African” rebels point out that in spite of being a loyal part of the Muslim north, Darfur is in fact as badly off in terms of lack of infrastructure, neglect of education and economic underdevelopment as the Christian south.

There are two rebel movements struggling against the Khartoum forces. One is the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), which was initially named the Darfur Liberation Movement but chose the broader appeal of a “national” name to increase its potential reach. The SLM is based mostly on the Fur and Masaleet tribes and is politically moderate. It has tried to ally itself with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the Asmara-based umbrella organization which unites all Sudanese opposition groups, whether North or South.

The second rebel group is the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), based mostly on the Zaghawa tribe. It is linked with the radical Popular Patriotic Congress party led by the veteran Islamist Hassan al-Turabi who has now fallen out with his former NIF disciples. (At the end of March 2004, Sudanese authorities arrested al-Turabi, ostensibly for involvement in a plot to overthrow the country’s president.) The relationship between JEM and SLM remains one of the obscure points of the Darfur conflict, even if the two organizations claim to be collaborating militarily. The JEM is by far the richer of the two and the one with the greater international media exposure, even if its radical Islamist connections make it an unlikely candidate for fighting a radical Islamist government.

The insurrection started slowly in February and March 2003 and went into high gear on April 25 when the SLM rebels attacked the provincial capital at el-Fasher, killing 72 troops of the garrison, destroying four aircraft on the ground and capturing General Ibrahim Bushra, the garrison commander. The reaction of the Khartoum government was a mixture of panic, unrealistic accusation (Israel, the United States, the southern Sudanese rebel movement the SPLA and Eritrea were all held responsible for the uprising) and denial of the political reality. The insurgents were either called “armed bandits” or else described as nomadic groups fighting each other in “traditional conflicts over grazing rights”. Although this last claim contains more than a grain of truth (the “Arabs” are nomads while the “Africans” are settled peasants and in a drought period part of the motivation for fighting is indeed related to grazing) it is far from a full account of the situation. Economic deprivation, cultural spite and administrative marginalization are the key causes of the conflict.

Although SPLA intervention appears to have been minimal and that of the United States or Israel belong to the domain of fantasy, Eritrean involvement has been confirmed, albeit at a low level. The main financial support for the uprising comes either from contributions from the Fur diaspora to the SLM (there are many Fur working in the Gulf countries, in Khartoum, in Port Sudan and in the Gezira) or, in the case of the JEM, from foreign funds under the control of Hassan al-Turabi. It is the importance of this last financial source that explains the fairly impressive and modern equipment of the rebel forces.


During May and June 2003 the fighting grew in intensity and government forces reacted with increasingly violent attacks on the civilian population. Many young Zaghawa and Fur living away from the province returned, at times from a great distance, in order to join the fighting. The guerrillas opened training camps on the uninhabited slopes of Jebel Mara and recruits flocked in. Incapable of controlling the situation because it had few troops (and many were made up of Westerners who refused to fight their brothers) the government used three types of tactics to try to curb guerilla activities:


•  Extensive use of airpower. Mil Mi-24 combat helicopters engaged in indiscriminate bombing and machine-gunning of civilians while Antonov An-12 transports were used to drop makeshift bombs on villages and IDP concentrations.

•  Recruitment of large numbers of “Arab” militiamen called “Janjaweed”, mounted on camels or horseback. These were at times recruited in neighboring Chad and were motivated by a mixture of cultural/racial prejudice and the lure of looting. They mercilessly engaged in the massacre of civilians.

•  Destruction of the means of livelihood of the population. Wells were filled, cattle were killed and foodstuff stores were destroyed. This caused massive displacement of civilians who either fled to what they hoped were “secure” areas of the province or to Chad.


The government’s hope was that the civilians would be terrorized into submission and that the civilian pool on which the guerillas depended for their political and logistical sustenance would dry up. Neither seemed to happen. Some desultory attempts at negotiating were made in early September. A government team headed by the notorious NIF activist al-Tayeb Mohamed Kheir, nicknamed “Sikha” (“iron bar”, a nickname coming from his preferred weapon), signed a ceasefire agreement in the Chadian town of Abeche . It soon appeared that what the government wanted was in fact a simple surrender of the guerillas, without any kind of political negotiation. When the desired surrender failed to materialize, military operations were resumed, with the same violent anti-civilian actions.

The Khartoum government used every possible excuse to stop any humanitarian aid reaching the Darfur population. For example on November 16th it refused to unload US food aid bound for Darfur, saying that the cereals it contained were genetically modified. This was not the case but the food aid was nevertheless not distributed. In early January 2004 two Swiss NGOs, the HenriDunant Center and the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, arranged a humanitarian conference in Geneva to organize relief for Darfur. After promising to come, the Sudanese government refused at the last moment, saying it did not want to internationalize the conflict and that such a conference should be organized in Sudan by the government itself.


On February 9 2004 Sudanese President Omar el-Beshir declared that the war had been won and there should be a political reconciliation conference organized in Khartoum. The rebels refused the idea of reconciliation without negotiation1Ž4 and shot down two more government helicopters on February 12. At the time of writing, the conflict not only goes on but is apparently intensifying, with a corresponding loss of human life, mainly civilian.


The Conflict’s Wider Impact

The country primarily impacted by the Darfur conflict is of course Chad . But the main impact is not of a humanitarian nature, in spite of the magnitude of the refugee problem. The main impact is political. President Idris Deby is an ethnic Biday. The Bidayat are a tribe closely related to the Zaghawa and to other Tebbu groups who live astride the Sudano-Chadian border. Several of these, the various Zaghawa clans in particular, are closely linked with the insurrection, while President Deby is closely allied to the Khartoum government which supported his armed takeover in December 1990. But President Deby is at the same time heavily dependent on his Zaghawa/Bidayat support group, particularly to keep control of the oilfields in Southern Chad.

Chadian soldiers guard the border with Sudan , Tuesday, Jan 27, 2004 in Tine, Chad. Sudanese planes dropped bombs in western Sudan on Monday, sending hundreds of people fleeing across the border into Chad where aid workers scrambled to provide them food and shelter in the barren desert. (AP Photo/Karel Prinsloo)

Southern Chad , which is ethnically and religiously very different from the North, was the site of frequent rebellions during the 1970s and 1980s. The president’s ethnic allies provide his main insurance against threats to the southern oilfields. But since unlike him they support the insurrection of their cousins in Darfur, there is a major contradiction between the head of state and the people who most closely support him. The result is that the power structure in Ndjamena is split, with elements fighting the Darfur rebels (the Chadian Army has intervened several times on Sudanese territory in support of Khartoum ‘s forces) and other elements which support the uprising. This situation has considerably weakened the Chadian regime and there are fears, particularly in Paris and in Khartoum, that president Deby might fall, a victim of these contradictions.


The second effect of the Darfur conflict on regional politics is the influence of the violence on the intra-Sudanese peace talks now being held in Naivasha (Kenya). The main question is bluntly whether it makes any sense to be negotiating peace for one section of the country while another is on fire. There has been no answer so far to this question because the SPLA which has fought Khartoum for over twenty years is as desperate to make peace as the government is eager to give the appearance of wanting to do so. The southern movement is both exhausted and hopeful that any kind of peace, even a bad one, will put it in a better tactical position in the future. The government is not in the same dire straights financially or technically, but it needs at least a semblance of peace to retain political control in the North where it has in effect been in a minority position ever since it seized power in 1989. Out of these converging needs, some kind of a (weak) common ground can be found.


The Darfur conflict has deeply upset this delicate balance between North and South. The SPLA has accepted not to mention the Darfur crisis in the course of the negotiations while the Khartoum government is trying to delay the signature of any agreement with the South long enough to crush the western insurrection. Some observers had predicted that on the contrary Khartoum would want to sign quickly in order to be able to take a good slice of its 70,000 strong military force out of the South in order to send it fighting into the West. But many of these theoretically “northern” troops are in fact from Darfur itself and their discipline could break down if they were sent back home to fight their brothers. Therefore Khartoum has delayed signing, in spite of intense US pressure to reach an agreement before the American presidential elections of November 2004 (some of President Bush strongly religious supporters are keen on an agreement to “protect the Christians” in the Sudan).


The author of this article is a journalist based in East Africa. He has asked that his name be withheld to prevent possible retribution.


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