Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Darfur: understanding genocide

Todays post is dedicated to the understanding of the conflict in Darfur. The world watched and did nothing to respond to her. Darfur has been the center of grave violations of human rights and international laws, including crimes against peace, genocide, war related crimes and crimes against humanity, which has horrified its society and some in the international community. The killings in Darfur were triggered by series of events that is still elusive to most of us. Todays post is dedicated at understanding the root causes of conflict in Darfur.

The conflict in Darfur can be best characterized as an ambiguous set of events that seem not to have an apparent one-solid causal factor. The core of this violence revolves around motives that can be best explained, if you consider that Darfur shares multiple historic, ethnic, political, and social ties with its neighbor states. There is no one centralized cause for racial annihilation and violence have occurred, but rather a gradual mixture of varying agendas and opportunistic alliances (Disarm, n.d.).Darfur is inhabited by a variety of peoples, generally constituting of two distinct groups: non-Arab black peoples such as the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa, and Arab tribes collectively termed Baggara (also black by the standards of most non-Africans), who settled the region from about the 13th century onwards (Waal, 2005). Both groups are Muslims, however, relations between the two groups have long been tense; the pre-colonial Fur kingdom regularly clashed with the Baggara, particularly the Rizeigat. Moreover, before the 20th century (and by some accounts well into it) Darfur was a center of the slave trade, and Fur slavers competed with Arab ones to raid the nearby Bahr el Ghazal to obtain slaves for the coastal regions. The two groups also have differing economic needs, which has led to clashes: the Fur and Masalit are primarily sedentary farmers, while the Arabs and Zaghawa are nomadic herdsmen. This paper will describe how their ways of life, access to land and water resources, complex interaction of political tensions and other aspects of their society played a role in creating and escalating the violence (more recently by the Janjaweed militia).

The lead role in rousing conflict in was Darfur was played by the Um Jalul, and its aspiring leaders’ links with Chad, Libya and - more recently - Khartoum (Waal, 2005) The key link in the Um Jalul was Sheikh Hilal Mohamed Abdalla, whose clan’s annual migration pattern took them from the pastures on the edge of the Libyan desert in northern Darfur to the upper reaches of the Salamat river where it crosses from Sudan into Chad. Renowned for their traditionalism, vast herds of camels, and the huge reach in their network, the Um Jalul were a logical intermediary for Libya’s political gunrunners. The clans encounter with the Salamat militia, first social, then commercial and finally military, helped create the Janjawiid (headed by the Sheikh’s younger son Musa Hilal).

Sheikh Acyl’s gift to Darfur included the Arab supremacist ideology (Waal, 2005) which believes that that the descents of the Prophet Mohamed are entitled by birth to rule Muslim lands. Specifically, they believed that the Juhayna Arabs (group that includes both Salamat and Um Jalul) should control the territories from the Nile to Lake Chad. Darfur, which was an independent sultanate until eighty years ago, lies in the centre of this land ‘promised land’. The ideology motivate those who were involved to fight for control, mobilized through a group known as the ‘Arab Alliance’ or ‘Arab Gathering’.

Understanding the violence in Darfur demands an understanding of this complex local histories, whose roots run deep. However, to simplify the our understanding the situation in Darfur, the conflict is best described as that mainly between the Janjaweed (the government-supported militia recruited from local Arab tribes) and the non-Arab peoples of the region.As a result of the ensued conflict there began a large influx of displaced non-arab black Africans, fleeing from Janjaweed. The resulting conflict and violence been widely described as an "ethnic cleansing", and frequently as "genocide" (Seattlepi, 2005). The United Nations estimates that 50,000 have died in the 18 months of the conflict since its start, while more than one-million people had been displaced from their homes (Seattlepi, 2005)

The government of Sudan has had a strongly Arab character since the country's independence in 1956 and has been a military dictatorship since 1958. The First Sudanese Civil War, between the Muslim government and the mostly non-Muslim population of the southern Sudan, started in 1955 and ended with the 1972 Addis Ababa Accords (Austin & Koppelman, 2004). In 1983, the second Sudanese civil war broke out when the president declared Shari’a law in the south. A ceasefire was eventually declared in 2002. Peace conferences in 2003 produced an agreement under which state revenues from, oil money in particular, would be shared between the government and the southern rebel groups.

The agreement however, did not satisfy Darfur campaigners' demands for a fair deal. Two local rebel groups - the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) - accused the government of oppressing non-Arabs in favor of Arabs. The SLM is generally associated with the Fur and Masalit, while the JEM is associated with the Zaghawa of the northern half of Darfur (Seatlepi, 2005).

Runaway militant groups cause conflict escalation:
In 2004, Chad brokered negotiations in N'Djamena (Austin & Koppelman, 2004), leading to the April 8 Humanitarian Ceasefire Agreement between the Sudanese government and JEM and SLA. Due to a conflict in values within the militant groups, a group splintered from the JEM in April - the National Movement for Reform and Development - that did not participate in the April cease-fire talks or agreement. This run away group played, and others like it (Janjaweed and other rebels), played a role in escalating the conflict in Darfur.

Social and ethnic composition as a cause of conflict:
The Darfur region consist of three ethnic zones: the North (includes Arab and non-Arab people, mainly camel nomads – Zaghawa); The central area (largely inhabited by non-Arab farmers such as the Fur and Massalit, who cultivate millet); and the south (Arabic-speaking cattle nomads, the Baggara). However, as mentioned earlier, they are all Muslim. However, the people of Darfur, like other Sudanese, have always identified themselves in ethno-cultural or tribal terms. Further, the people have only recently been perceived as Arab or African. It is suggested that conflict in this region, is largely in response to political and ideological disputes between the groups. The differences are largely due to the difference in the relationships that each holds. However, it has been argued that the cause of the difference in relationships has been due to real differences between the groups, such as repression or financial underdevelopment of the nations secondary regions.

Looking back at history, the region has been inhabited for centuries by both Arab and non-Arab ethnic groups. The Fur, which is the oldest non-Arab group, make up approximately 36 percent of the total population. Arabic, is more likely a second language rather than the primary language at home and the skilled use of Arabic is representative of higher social position (Suliman, 1997). For example, Idris (1999), from the Sudan tribune, asserts that in spite of the extensive social and economic dealings between members of these tribes, it would be difficult to assert that there has developed any “real assimilation” within tribe members (Cited in Sulaiman, 1997). Most of them maintain original languages, customs and traditions. This fact would suggest that the cause of conflict was probably due to ethnic differences.

However, it not logical to remove real differences in resources as a causal factor for conflict. Some of the other reasons are discussed below.
A family of seven sleeps in this makeshift shelter in the Dorti encampment in West Darfur.
©UNHCR/K.McKinsey (July 2004)

Denying or limiting access to natural and social resources as a source of conflict:
Access to natural and social resources such as justice, fairness, equitable sharing of natural resources (e.g. oil), equal development of people from Darfur, equal opportunity to employment, and equal opportunity to do business are examples of some the primary reasons for concern for the peoples of Darfur.

Abuse of natural resources:
Use of environmental resources increased in large proportions by the unprecedented extraction of these resources (DPADO, 2004). This was carried out by members of the northern Sudanese traditional merchant class, (Jellaba), motivated by their inclusion into the world market as miners of these resources (DPADO, 2004). In addition, loan conditions imposed by the World Bank and the IMF resulted in the restructuring of Sudan’s resource utilization towards Darfur (DPADO, 2004). As a result, needs of the people of Darfur was ignored while market needs were satisfied. The condition was made worse by Sudan’s decline in the international market, hence destroying the fragile (if not weak) support system that the government may have hoped to provide to the people of Darfur.

Environmental issues:
In the most remote regions of Sudan such as Darfur, human and animal life depends on the delicate balance between soil, climate, water and vegetation. Since the mid-1970s this equilibrium has been upset, particularly in the vast dry and semi-dry areas of the northern half of the country (University of Khartoum, 2004). In addition to the consistent drought, unsustainable methods of land use (e.g. large-scale rain-fed farming and overgrazing in marginal lands) destroyed the environment in which 70 percent of the population live. Millions of people were forced to migrate and became homeless. So many in fact that the Sudan has the highest proportion of internally displaced people in the world, one in every six. The movement of internally displaced people would result in a set of problems of its own and shall be discussed next.

Problems with migration – security and migration patterns:
In the past, those in distress simply moved to a richer environment nearby. However, this exodus is no more an option due to factors such as an expanding population, large-scale farming, political tensions, and constant ethnic-tensions (Waal, 2005; Suliman, 1997). As the governments’ control of law and order in remote areas decreased people were increasingly motivating to abandon their homes and move to urban city centers where safety and security is relatively better. Further, moving to urban city centers, would also mean, better economic prospects, better shelter, and easy availability of food.

The movement from one drought ridden area to another, which is already occupied by a different ethnic group, is a recipe hostility, and Sudan was no exception. In the past, agreements used to be reached when the need for sharing land was occasional, but now with the need for land becoming more longer in nature (or even for permanent sharing), the strains on ethnic agreement become much greater. These difficulties are particularly prevalent in the South and in the drought-stricken areas of Darfur and Kordofan.

The oil:
Sudan is projected to have nearly 2000-million barrels of crude oil. The governments plan to process the oil for export caused the people in the South (where most of the oil is from) to become suspicious of the governments intentions. The Sudanese People Liberation Army, SPLA, attacked the oil field operations, forcing the oil industry to halt productions (The Epoch Times, 2004). Since then regardless of the pressure subsequent governments had, oil operations in the south-west have been halted. Oil is an expensive commodity that has been fought upon.

The water:

Since the beginning of the century, the idea of constructing a canal to drain the Sudd marshes of the White Nile at Jonglei was debated by developmentalists and environmentalists ICRC (2005). However, an assessment of how the local people, (some 1,700,000 Dinka, Shilluk and Nuer), would be directly and indirectly affected by the project, was ignored by the government.

The Dinka, Shilluk, and Nue feared the drastic changes the canal would interfere with their way of life. They could not accept the prospect of life without migration to the marshes during the dry season, where they would live on fish and other natural resources as a means to survive. Further, they feared the possibility of alien people being settled in their lands, and the eventual possibility of conflict. There was mistrust of the project from the southerners who saw the Northern states and Egypt benefiting while their own lives were irreversibly changed for the worse. By drying out the swamps and taking away the source of survival, the canal would open up the entire Sudd area for farming, the domain of the Jellaba, and also allow the north to move military equipment and troops into the South with greater ease.

The land:

Predictable rain patterns make the savannah plains suitable for the cultivation of sorghum, millet, maize, sesame, groundnuts, and cotton ICRC (2005). This makes the fertile land a source of lively hood for its inhabitants. However, the expansion of large-scale farming, which constantly devours new land, spread into southern Kordofan and the northern parts of Upper Nile Province. The problem however is that, the owners of the farms were the Jellaba merchants. After, exhausting vast areas in the North, they pushed southwards where the Nilotic tribes survived on the cattle market. The Jellaba knew that the draining of the Jonglei canal would open a huge areas for large-scale farming. The military looked forward to the drying of the swamps as well, so that it would be able to have easier access to the south.

Changes in the way of conflict engagement as a cause for conflict:
In the past, problems arising from land and water disputes were resolved at an annual conference of Nuba Mekks and Arab Sheikhs (Waal, 2005; Suliman, 1997). These meetings usually took place on neutral ground, both sides abided by the agreements reached and the Nuba Mountains enjoyed decades of peace and relative prosperity. In recent years, however, the drought has pushed the Arab nomads deep into Nuba territory, sometimes even before the harvest is collected. This has resulted in clashes between Nuba farmers and Arab nomads. On the other hand, more land fell into the hands of absentee landlords, mainly Arab Jellaba. Out of 200 farms supported by the State Agricultural Bank 191were leased to Jellaba landlords, (Jellaba land lords consisted mainly of the rich Jellaba, government officials and retired generals from the North - Suleiman, 1997).

The effect of the advance of the nomads into the mountains on the one hand, and the advance of farming on the other, signaled the Nuba people to the possibility of being squeezed out of their best farming lands into marginal and poor territory. That is why, when the civil war broke out in the South in 1983. as a result, the people have learnt that conflict resolution occurs though the use of force rather than dialogue. The move away from what used to be a cultural practice of dialogue, to a new form of defense, has contributed immensely to the escalation of conflict in Sudan.

The war in southern Sudan:
The return of civil war to the Sudan in 1983 was regarded as a typical ethnic and religious conflict between northern Muslim Arabs and Southern black Africans. Though this categorization was true for the Sudan's first civil war ICRC (2005), ecological degradation over the past three decades (as mentioned above), added a new dimension to the old conflict. It transformed the nature of the conflict from an ethnic strife to a resource struggle triggered by ecological scarcity (Waal, 2005; Suliman, 1998). The quest for land, water and oil in the South to replenish the already degraded northern resource-base has driven some Jellaba and their state to wage war against their own people. The end product of the return of civil was the escalation of conflict to higher levels.

In summery it is important to note that the conflict in Darfur is best described as due to a host of reasons entwined to form a complex mesh that is best understood as a whole. This historical roots and relationships that the region shares with each other is one of the modes of viewing the conflict. Value differences are seen when considering the clash of ideologies between the Muslim and non-Muslim peoples in Darfur. The relationships that preexisted between clans and those that were formed during the course of the conflict provide another angle to the conflict. The moods that were involved largely revolved around those of the people experiencing famine due to the drought, people who felt it unfair that they were treated differently, and among people who were abused. However, it is important to note, that these components did not act in unison. They were expressed as a mixture and experienced under a socio-political and geographic structure that tied them together.

Austin, G., & Koppelman, B. (2004, July). Darfur and genocide: mechanisms for rapid response, an end to impunity. The foreign policy center. Retrieved October 1st, 2005, from

Disarm (n.d). Civil war in Darfur. Retrieved October 1st, 2005 from

DPADO (2004, December). Inside darfur: ethnic genocide by a governance crisis. Retrieved October 1st, 2005 from genocide3.htm

ICRC ( 2005, August). West darfur: where water can blunt the causes of conflict. Retrieved 15th August, 2005 from sudan-darfur-water-100805?OpenDocument

Idris, S. E. (1999, July). The history of darfur. Sudanese human rights quarterly 8, 11. Retrieved October 1st, 2005. in Suliman, M. (1997). Ethnicity from perception to cause of violent conflicts: the case of the fur and nuba conflicts in western sudan. A Contribution to: CONTICI International Workshop. Retrieved October 1st, 2005 from

Seattlepi, (2005, August). Darfur: worst humanitarian crisis. Retrieved October 1st, 2005 from

Suliman, M. (1997). Ethnicity from perception to cause of violent conflicts: the case of the fur and nuba conflicts in western sudan. A Contribution to: CONTICI International Workshop. Retrieved October 1st, 2005 from

The Epoch Times (2004, December). Rebels attack darfur oil facility, libyans mediate in abuja. Retrieved October 15th, 2005 from 4-12-20/25114.html

University of Khartoum, (2004, July). Environmental degradation and conflict in darfur. Retrieved on October 1st, 2005 from

Waal, A. (2005). Review of gerard prunier, darfur: the ambiguous genocide, hurst and co. social science research council / contemporary conflict. Retrieved October 1st, 2005 from


Steph said...

Such a comprehensive and informative article:)

astrorat said...

Dear Steph,

This article was presented for a class in conflict resolution. I thought the content was still relevant for people who are struggling to get a complete picture of the issues in Darfur.