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Darfur: Not Yet a Genocide?

Once again the world is faced by an artificial humanitarian disaster.

Once more pictures and accounts of victims of a war not of theirmaking confront us daily. Taking advantage of the respite provided byan "interim" "peace settlement" signed in April the Government of Sudan has turned its attention to its troublesome citizens in the western region of Darfur. Killing, rape, pillage and abduction are the order of the day. The international "community" and its political leaders, while frequently condemning genocide elsewhere, have been slow to interfere on this occasion for fear of jeopardising the most recent of almost countless ceasefires between the central government in Khartoum and its southern rebels.

As with the conflicts of the past twenty years in Sudan thesituation in Darfur is not simply a bloody-minded continuation oflong-standing ethnic conflict. It is part of a struggle over resources.Claims that uncontrolled rebels alone cause the mayhem are untrue. Thevictims are pawns in a power struggle over the distribution of theprofits from oil and other resources, and the economic advancementsthey make possible. The exploitation of the oil reserves in the southof the country—some of which underlie the southern part of Darfur province—are leased to foreign oil companies from as far apart as Canada and China. Central government has redrawn the internal administrative boundaries so that the benefits of development are appropriated by the Northern elites through their control of the state machine. Revenue from the oil industry is now used in an attempt to repress rebellion there.

Shut out from the possibilities of social advancement inKhartoum part of the excluded ruling elite have taken advantage oflocal grievances in the hope of using them to topple the rulingNational Islamic Front party. The region of Darfur has a history ofclashing economic interests over access to water, land and grazing. Thetwo main groups are the largely nomadic "Arab" pastoralists who herd either camels or cattle, and the mainly "African" sedentary subsistence farmers. In the past these difference, both within and between both groups, were worked out locally between the respective elders of the tribes concerned. However a period of drought, increasing desertification, and subsequent large-scale population movements, have recently sharpened differences. It is these troubled waters that outside interests have begun to fish.

The government of Sudan had in the 1980s implemented a policyof providing weapons for militias of Arab descent (the "Jangaweed" armed horsemen) who were already in the habit of raiding both Arab and non-Arab alike in search of plunder. According to Amnesty International, the Jangaweed now "work in unison with government troops, with total impunity for their massive crimes." Crimes mainly against people taking no part in the armed rebellion.

In response to this proxy military and policing arm localtribes have now started arming and training their own defence militias.Claims and counter claims are made about supposed attempts toappropriate the best land and about supposed minority domination of thelocal administration in Darfur.

The ruling National Islamic Front has only a very low level ofsupport in Darfur and has suffered defections to other parties there.In 2000 Hassan al-Turabi (then speaker of parliament in Khartoum) splitwith the NIF and in a bid for popular support made advances toward themajority but marginalized non-Arab population. In reaction the centralgovernment jailed al-Turabi until late last year. According to theInternational Crisis Group, he among others has in effect hi-jacked theDarfur rebellion for his own purposes.

The manipulation of factors of "race" and ethnicity by both sides has further polarised the two sides. Assertions of Arab cultural and economic superiority have been made in order to justify their claims to greater representation at all levels of government. The uncovering of an alleged plan to establish Arab domination in Darfur backed by disaffected Islamists from outside the region has given rise to the mobilisation of non-Arabs. Local army opinion favoured negotiations with the rebels with the intention of reaching a political solution. This was rejected by the central government and the then-governor of North Darfur, who had made the suggestion, was sacked. A number of initiatives by exiled opposition leaders and others aimed at reaching a peaceful political settlement all failed.

In the meantime denial of access to Darfur has preventedinternational relief aid reaching those most in need and a programme ofvillage burning has been implemented aimed at denying the poor whatvery little they do have. President al-Bashir has opted for a militarysolution: "Our priority from now on is to eliminate the rebellion. We will use the army, the police, the mujahedeen, the horsemen to get rid of the rebellion."

Opposition to the policies of the government in Khartoum has,according to the recently emerged Sudan Liberation Movement/Army, coalesced around them. Their objective according to their Politica lDeclaration issued in March, 2003 is "a united democratic Sudan on the basis of equality, complete restructuring and devolution of power, even development—and material prosperity for all Sudanese." A viable unity must be based on an economic and political system that addresses the uneven development in Sudan and ends "political and economic marginalisation" under "a decentralised form of government based on the right of Sudan's different regions to govern themselves autonomously through a federal system."

To the outside world the twenty year long civil war with itsdeath toll of an estimated two million was presented as an ethnic andreligious conflict between an "Arab" and Islamic north and an "African" and Christian or animist south. As usual this picture is vastly oversimplified for ease of sound-bite presentation and consumption. Other Northern groups who are also Arab and Islamic oppose the government in Khartoum, dominated by an elite centred on the northern river provinces. In the south much of the fiercest fighting has been between nominally Christian African tribal groups forming and reforming a shifting system alliance and defections as the leaderships pursue personal gain.

In reality the civil war concerns interests related to economicdevelopment between a politically privileged central ruling group ofcapitalists and a politically and economically marginalised peripheryof would be capitalists. The outcome of the struggle will settle justwho determines the priorities of economic development of land, waterand oil. The Darfur rebels, the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army, werenot included in the Naivasha Agreement on Wealth Sharing signed inJanuary. This interim agreement covered the division of oil and non-oilrevenues, the management of the oil sector, the monetary authority andthe reconstruction of the South and other war-affected areas and the SLM/A are concerned to make sure they do not miss having a say in thecarve-up.

And precisely how long the current "interim" agreements will last is unclear. On past evidence the whole process could break down and return again to a vicious resource war between organised armed groups and the consequent murder and displacement of local populations none of whom will benefit economically from any final outcome.