Darfur – 2003- 2008

The actors

Sudan had long been the scene of many conflicts, including Darfur, which began in February 2003. According to many analysts, Darfur was the stage for the first genocide of the twenty-first century. As with Rwanda, the conflict occurred against a backdrop of highly publicized international impotence, what may be termed “non-assistance to endangered populations”.

Located in north-east Africa and south of Egypt, Sudan is the third largest country in the continent with a surface area of 2.5 million km2. It was shaped by the British, who united a diverse mix of ethnic and religious populations (600 ethnic groups) to form an Afro-Arab state in 1956.

Since its independence in 1956, Sudan has experienced two wars and 15 coups. In the very early stages or its autonomy, a deadly conflict tore apart the unity between black Christians (or animists) of the south (15% of the population) and the centrally located Arab-speaking Muslims who were the demographic majority (40%).

The conflict in southern Sudan would lead to both massacres and famines.

After an unsuccessful initial peace agreement in 1972, the Sudanese Christian and animist south led by John Garang rebelled once more in 1983 against the capital, Khartoum, following the authority’s decision to introduce Sharia (Islamic law) into the Criminal Code and limit the independence of the south where oil had been discovered. This long two-stage conflict in South Sudan is most often analyzed as a religious war between the Islamic north and Christian south.

After a temporary resolution in southern Sudan, another uprising occurred in Darfur, in the western part of the country, while another lesser-known conflict erupted in Bejaland, in the east. These three conflicts mirrored the opposition between the Centre (Khartoum) and its periphery (the federated states and regions).

The causes

The successive Sudanese uprisings, including the one in Darfur, were not religious conflicts. There were Muslim, Christians or animist fighters on both sides of the struggle. The situation in Sudan was very complicated, because many non-Arabic speakers were Muslims.

Linguistic and religious issues (forced Arabization and the imposition of Islamic law on everyone) were as much a source of conflict as the absence of any proper economic development programs in a country whose regions were plagued by geographical and economic inequalities.

The situation in the vast Darfur region with its population of 5 to 7,000,000 was just another example of a cultural group who, experiencing the neglect of successive authoritarian regimes in Khartoum, finally resorted to violence.

Just like southern Sudan a few years before, Darfur felt marginalized and acted accordingly. They revolted, in 2003, by means of political-military groups that insisted on true autonomy.

Two rebel movements, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), fought against the regular army and pro-government militia. A fierce crackdown ensued with Khartoum employing the scorched earth policy.

There is a geostrategic element to the conflict between Khartoum and Darfur in that the central government saw itself as a landlocked “Arab fortress” surrounded on all sides, not just within the country but also by an international community perceived as hostile to its cause. The end result would a real humanitarian tragedy occurring in reaction to “international political reality”.

The crimes

The central government, in order to reassert its authority and defend territorial integrity, gave its support to the nomadic pastoralist Arabized Zaghawa and Baggara militias called janjaweed (“devil riders” or “devils on horseback”, armed with Kalashnikovs). These paramilitary forces attacked the settled populations accused of collusion with the rebels with the aim of scaring them off their land, a sort of “ethnic cleansing”. This scorched earth policy led to the destruction of villages, crops and livestock, forced displacement, rapes, population massacres, and the poisoning of wells.

In reality, the recurring ethnic conflicts for the control of scarce resources had provided the central government with a much needed excuse to intervene in the name of “national unity”. In a region faced with a population explosion and droughts, the conflict pitted cattle raisers and peasant farmers against each other as both tried to protect their meagre reserves in an area poor in resources.

Using the label “Arab” to describe the militias, or “African” or “Black” to indicate the victims are simply cultural references with no racist connotations, strictly speaking, since the parties involved in Darfur were all of black African descent and all Muslim. However Arabic was spoken only by a minority of the population.

The “Arab” groups were usually nomadic, camel drivers in the north and cattle raisers in the south. The “African” groups partly occupied rural areas but most of them were peasants. The conflict between these two collectives had already claimed between 180,000 and 300,000 casualties and displaced more than 2.6 million people inside and outside of Sudan.

Justice and memory

If the Americans were quick to define what transpired as genocide and “ethnic cleansing” and enforced economic sanctions against Sudan, a commission of inquiry appointed by the UN Secretary General rejected this conclusion, qualifying the events that took place as war crimes and crimes against humanity since the operations carried out did not reflect a will towards systematic extermination.

This was confirmed by the international arrest warrants launched by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in March 2007 against Sudanese officials who were responsible for the crimes: Ahmad Muhammad Harun, former Minister of State for the Interior of the Government of Sudan and Ali Muhammad Al Abd-Al-Rahman (“Ali Kushayb”), a janjaweed militia leader.