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 their making confront us daily Taking advantage of the respite provided by an “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 for fear of jeopardising the recent ceasefire between Khartoum and its southern rebels.
As with the conflicts of the past twenty years in Sudan the situation in Darfur is not simply a bloody-minded continuation of long-standing ethnic conflict. It is part of a struggle over resources. Claims that uncontrolled rebels alone cause the mayhem are untrue. The victims are pawns in a power struggle over the distribution of the profits from oil and other resources, and the economic advancements they make possible. The exploitation of the oil reserves in the south of 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 internal 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 in Khartoum part of the excluded ruling elite have taken advantage of local grievances in the hope of using them to topple the ruling National Islamic Front. Darfur has a history of clashing economic interests over access to water, land and grazing. The two main groups are the largely nomadic “Arab” pastoralists who herd camels or cattle, and the mainly “African” sedentary subsistence farmers. In the past these difference, both within and between groups, were worked out locally by 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 started 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 local tribes have now started arming and training their own defence militias. Claims and counter claims are made about supposed attempts to appropriate the best land and about supposed minority domination of the local administration in Darfur.
The ruling National Islamic Front has only a very low level of support in Darfur and has suffered defections to other parties there. In 2000 Hassan al-Turabi (then speaker of parliament in Khartoum) split with the NIF and in a bid for popular support made advances toward the majority but marginalized non-Arab population. In reaction the central government jailed al-Turabi until late last year. According to the International Crisis Group, he and others have hijacked the Darfur rebellion for their own purposes.
The manipulation of “race” and ethnicity has polarised the situation. 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 led 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, was sacked for making the suggestion. 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 prevented international relief aid reaching those most in need and a programme of village burning has been implemented aimed at denying the poor what very little they do have. President al-Bashir has opted for a military solution: “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 the government in Khartoum has, according to the recently emerged Sudan Liberation Movement/Army, coalesced around them. Their objective according to their Political Declaration 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 or co-federal system.”
To the outside world the twenty year long civil war with its death toll of an estimated two million was presented as an ethnic and religious 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 economic development between a politically privileged central ruling group of capitalists and a politically and economically marginalised periphery of would be capitalists. The outcome of the struggle will settle just who determines the priorities of economic development of land, water and oil. The Sudan Liberation Movement/Army were not included in the Naivasha Agreement on Wealth Sharing signed in January. This interim agreement covered the division of oil and non-oil revenues, the management of the oil sector, the monetary authority and the reconstruction of war-affected areas and the SLM/A are concerned to make sure they do not miss having a say in the carve-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.