Director the Royal African Society, Richard Dowden
The humanitarian situation in Darfur shows no sign of improvement - but why Sudan and why now? Richard Dowden, of the Royal African Society examines the roots of this conflict.
What is surprising about this foul war in Darfur is that it has not broken out before. Local rivalries between the 80-odd different ethnic groups that inhabit this vast region on the southern edges of the Sahara desert have been bubbling away for three centuries. More recently they’ve been supercharged by the government as it played off one group against another and by interference from Sudan’s neighbours who have poured arms into the region. Islamic fundamentalism has also played a role and meanwhile the people have been impoverished by droughts and the increasingly desperate competition for fertile land. This war has been smouldering for a very long time.
Part of it is the eternal rivalry throughout the Sahel - that zone that lies south of the Sahara where nomadic Arabic speaking Bedouin pastoralists compete with settled African farmers further south. But where once the odd spear was chucked by a farmer at a wandering cattle herder who allowed his cattle to trample the farmer’s crops, these days’ gangs of heavily-armed militiamen -1,000 strong - descend on a village and murder, rape and burn. The survivors are left in this harsh land with only the clothes on their backs. More than a million are now homeless, many of them dying of starvation.
Such a ghastly war must surely have some great cause – oil maybe. But while there is lots of it in other parts of Sudan and next door in Chad, there is no sign of oil under Darfur. Though that doesn’t mean that many people in the region do not believe that it is there and they need to control it.
What about religion? Islamic fundamentalism? Not directly - nearly everyone in this region is Muslim - but there is a link. In Sudan’s governments there has always been a tension between the Islamists and a more secular Arab element. In 2001 the leader of the Islamist group a sharp-tongued lawyer called Hassan Turabi was pushed out. He is now believed to be supporting the rebels in Darfur and not surprisingly, he has been locked up. The war in Darfur would split or even destabilise the government.
Ironically the trigger that turned this simmering war into full scale slaughter may have been peace – the peace deal between the Northern Arabs who have always ruled modern Sudan and the southern black Africans who have been in rebellion against them on and off for almost 50 years. When oil started flowing from the rich deposits that lie under central Sudan which is the battleground of this war, America decided to try to make peace. They have almost succeeded but the very peace deal between north and south has exposed other deep fault lines in Sudan. Groups living on the fringes – marginalized, neglected by the tiny elite in Khartoum – saw that power – and the new oil money – was being divided up between the North and South. They also saw that the Southerners had got to the top table by war. So simmering tempers in the east and west came to finally erupted and came to ahead. In the west, in Darfur in February 2003, two rebel movements, the Justice and Equity Movement and the Sudan Liberation Army launched attacks on government targets, and then - somewhat cynically you might think – demanded more development in the region.
The government in Khartoum could not afford to allow these rebellions to succeed so they threw everything they had at the Darfur rebels. They armed militia of their Bedouin Arab allies, known as the Janjaweed, and attacked the rebel areas with helicopter gunships and bombers. Just as many of Africa’s wars seemed to be dying down, including the long war between north and south in Sudan, this new, vicious conflict erupted.
No one moved quickly to stop it. The Americans were already squeezing the government over the still-unsigned final peace agreement with the southern rebels. For a long time they were reluctant to pile even more pressure on the government to stop the war in Darfur. They may also have thought the government could easily slap down this mini rebellion in a far flung province.
The horrors in Darfur that we are watching on TV every night can certainly be blamed on the Sudan government. Whether that government can stop the war is a different matter. Every ethnic group in the region now has a well-armed militia. Thousands of young men with no job and no future are very happy if a militia gives them a gun to go off to make a living by killing and pillaging. Banditry is probably as much a motive for what is happening as political objectives.
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