Darfur's Sudan problem

Gérard Prunier
14 September 2006

Darfur is burning - again. More than four months after the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) was signed in Abuja, Nigeria on 5 May 2006, the people of this region of western Sudan are being displaced, killed, terrorised and violated in their thousands. The prospect of an end to a crisis that has devastated the territory since conflict broke out in February 2003 seems more remote than ever.

The designation of 17 September 2006 as a "global day for Darfur" is a welcome, if belated, signal of concern for a region too often relegated in the league-table of international attention far behind Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. But such gestures, however honourable, reveal the futility of so much international engagement over the past three and a half years. This failure has many dimensions, but at its heart lies an inability to understand the history, context and dynamics of "the Darfur problem".

The DPA: stalling or dead?

Alex de Waal's article on openDemocracy ("Darfur's fragile peace", 5 July 2006) is a case in point. It is well-intentioned - but unfortunately it bears very little relation to the reality in Darfur - then or now. In essence, de Waal's argument is that the Darfur Peace Agreement - signed by the Sudanese government and the faction of the Sudan Liberation Movement led by Minni Arkoy Minnawi - represents a progressive solution to the crisis in Darfur; but that, at the time of writing, the agreement "is stalling".

It is relevant that Alex de Waal was a principal advisor to the negotiating teams in Abuja, and had vigorously defended the provisions of the DPA as a "historic opportunity" which should not be missed - since not signing this text would open the door to renewed violence in the province.

Ten weeks on, the ruins of the agreement are everywhere apparent. A host of reports and testimonies confirm that the violence has got worse as the offensive military operations of the Sudanese government have escalated. The scale of atrocities is comparable with those perpetrated during the massacres of late 2003 and early 2004. It cannot be believed that this is due only to the fact that the DPA's implementation "is stalling".

This is not a case of political goodwill being waylaid by poorly-handled technical arrangements, as de Waal's formulations imply. Rather than face this inconvenient truth, the author discusses the nature of an eventual foreign military intervention (which earlier he had thought inadvisable). A "purely military solution to the janjaweed problem would be large, long and costly", he writes, requiring "an intervention force of 200,000 for an indefinite period". In other words, Darfur would become a second Iraq, admittedly a rather unpleasant prospect.

De Waal reaches this conclusion by arguing that military strikes against the janjaweed could not be selective, since many units of the irregular janjaweed are "now part of the Sudanese regular forces". Thus, such attacks "would entail declaring war on the Sudan government. No doubt some advocates of intervention would be delighted to do just that". In other words, only irresponsible warmongers could contemplate a direct military intervention.

Nonetheless, de Waal advises one course of action that would be compatible with the DPA: a step-by-step plan that requires "the Sudanese army ... to do the tough work". This is to ensure the effective cantonment of the janjaweed, and to "reforming and downsizing the paramilitary institutions that have absorbed janjaweed (to be done under the auspices of a commission headed by a nominee of the rebel movements), establishing controlled migration routes for nomadic pastoralists, and setting up a community disarmament process supervised by a group of tribal elders known as the 'peace and reconciliation council'. This entire process would be supported by a foreign intervention which would be "smaller, smarter and with a long-term perspective". Actually, a long-term perspective is exactly what this idyllic view of the situation lacks.

Gérard Prunier is research professor at the University of Paris and director of the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa. He is the author of The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide (C Hurst, 1995), Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide (C Hurst, 2005), and From Genocide to Continental war: The Congolese Conflict and the Crisis of Contemporary Africa (C Hurst, 2006).

Gérard Prunier is responding here to an earlier openDemocracy article:

Alex de Waal, "Darfur's fragile peace"
(5 July 2006)

The need for context

There are three unfeasible propositions embodied in this account. The first is that the Sudanese government - which has armed, organised and unleashed the janjaweed - would, if gently prodded in the right direction, disentangle its regular army units from their common encampments with the killer militias and reform the paramilitary institutions which it has created to hide them from international scrutiny.

The second is that the same political regime could be committed to sponsoring neutral "peace and reconciliation councils" which would genuinely discuss the long-standing social, economic, ethnic and historical contradictions of Darfur in order to promote a balanced and durable peace.

The third is that such a constructive process could be realised with the help of a "smaller, smarter" military force whose simple presence would turn yesterday's killers into committed peacemakers, apparently without having to fire a shot.

Alex De Waal cites the example of the Botswanan contingent of Operation Restore Hope in Somalia, which was supposedly able to control the Baardheere (Bardera) region in 1993 because it had "asked the clan elders what their problems were and worked collaboratively to solve them". As a means of persuading the reader of the appropriateness of his prognosis, this is less than effective: what remains in Baardheere today of the Botswanan peacemaking process?

What is wrong with such an approach is the lack of historical and political frameworks. The present Darfur horror is neither an ethnic mess due to "ancient tribal hatreds" (a favourite Sudanese regime explanation); nor an unfortunate by-product of drought and desertification (a sometime de Waalian perspective); nor even a plot by sworn enemies of the Khartoum regime (even if the presence of Abdallah Khalil among the Darfur insurgents lends a minimum of credibility to the accusation). The Darfur conflict is a historically and politically logical situation which will not be tamed by optimistic peacemaking recipes.

Darfur is a former independent state which the British almost absent-mindedly annexed to the bloated territory of the Anglo-Egyptian condominium in 1916 for reasons of questionable military strategy in the middle of the "great war". Since the territory was useless, they forgot about it almost as soon as they had acquired it and the place remained ignored, frustrated and dormant until the 1970s. By then it had become progressively embroiled in the complicated centre-periphery games that the Sudanese elites and their subject people had begun to play with each other after independence in 1956.

Darfur was populated by "African" tribes (who were mostly sedentary) and "Arab" ones (who were uniformly nomadic). This division had never mattered much during the years of Darfurian autonomy or, later, of imperial neglect. But it suddenly began to matter a lot when the time came to decide how the province would be apportioned between pro- and anti-Khartoum populations.

Khartoum and Darfur

The government in Khartoum had been run since independence by Nile valley "Arabs", who are in fact a mixed-blood population of Cushitic, Semitic and Nilotic origins, speaking a slightly Creole version of Arabic. These people, who proudly call themselves awlad al-beled ("the sons of the land", a denomination implying that other ethnic groups are the somewhat illegitimate children of Sudan), desperately try to present themselves as "Arabs" because they are far from certain of being so. When they travel to other parts of the Arab world populated by "true" Arabs, they are often greeted with the derogatory epithet of 'Abd (slave), one which they are only too ready to hurl at those more black than themselves when at home.

By the 1970s the division between the awlad al-beled and the others began to rear its head. The main body of illegitimate ones was, naturally, the black African Christians of the south who, for obvious reasons, had never accepted the fiction of Sudan's Arab identity. But Islam still worked as a kind of social and cultural glue for the rest of the country.

The Nile valley "Arabs" who ran the country looked for support among the non-Arab Muslim populations; and, since elites everywhere have always used subject classes to do the dying for them when war comes, they sent the black Muslims living in the Darfurian and Nuba mountains to the south to kill the Christians and die for the cohesion of the central "Arab" state. But while fighting for the greater glory of Islam and Arabism, the black Muslim populations of the periphery also got caught in the intra-elite wars of the centre.

The old post-colonial trading and agrarian elite left in power by the British had been challenged by the rise of a new commercial and technical class trying to claim its place at the political centre. Some members of that class followed Colonel Jaafar Nimeiri when he took power with the help of the communists in 1969; others put their bets on the rising Muslim Brotherhood movement. The old post-colonial elite fought against both, defeated the communists and Nimeiri to recover power briefly (1986-89), only for the Muslim Brotherhood finally to win the contest through a military coup. Throughout, the populations of Darfur were marshalled by the old elites to fight the new ones, lending themselves to being further divided in the process.

The "Africans" and the "Arabs" in Darfur had been variously affected by this power struggle, which however concerned them only peripherally. The "Arabs" at the centre had drafted their Darfurian junior relatives to fight in the southern war, but also in order to consolidate the Arabism of their culturally-mixed western province. Now that the (heathen) black south was becoming more and more threatening, it was increasingly important to reinforce the "Arab" identity of what was in fact a frontier territory - in the way bocas do sertao have been in Brazil and the far west has been in the US.

In this new dispensation, the "African" tribes in Darfur became a threat, a Trojan horse of backwardness. The fact that they were Muslims was secondary. They were, after all, not "Arabs"; and since the Nile valley elites were not too sure of their own Arabism, they wanted all the more to consolidate it in the far periphery.

The accumulated result was that by the mid-1980s, the "Africans" in Darfur were under siege. To make matters worse, demography had slowly evolved in their favour and the Nile valley "Arabs" now felt that "Arabism" in the west was threatened by the rising numbers of the "Africans" and had to be defended by force. The 1984 famine only made matters worse by pitting the two sides against each other for ecological reasons; by the time the Islamists took power in Khartoum in the late 1980s, the tensions had reached the stage of an undeclared sporadic war.

The final straw that broke the back of the peace camel was ... peace in the south of Sudan. The fifty-year war between north and south was slowly coming to a negotiated end that was not yet seen as doomed to unavoidable dissatisfaction. The Darfurians progressively came to feel that the redistribution of political cards between centre and periphery could now possibly benefit the heathen southerners while they - the former disciplined foot-soldiers of the empire - would be left exposed and vulnerable.

For the "African" tribes who were doubly marginalised - as "blacks" and as denizens of the periphery - there seemed only one path to follow if they wanted a seat at the negotiating table on the day of the final national showdown: armed revolt. For Khartoum this was the ultimate threat: a revolt of its Muslim margins. It had to be dealt with once and for all with the utmost violence under penalty of political and cultural meltdown. The Darfur frontier had become dangerous; it had to be defended (as one Islamist thinker had put it) against a potential "push from the jungles of Africa".


Also in openDemocracy about Darfur:

Stephen Ellis, "Darfur: countdown to catastrophe"
(10 June 2004)

Lyndall Stein, "Darfur journal"
(18 November 2004)

Suliman Baldo, "Darfur's peace plan: the view from the ground"
(24 May 2006)

Simon Roughneen, "Darfur: between peace and delivery"
(26 June 2006)

David Mepham, "Darfur and the 'responsibility to protect'"
(12 September 2006)

A pretence of unity

In light of this heavy inheritance of economic neglect, identity fears, cultural prejudices and programmed political violence, is it conceivable that once the business of ethnic cleansing has been launched, it could be rolled back simply by signing a piece of paper and deploying a "small and smart" military force to coax the offending parties into nicer behaviour? This seems improbable. The DPA is not failing because of procedural neglect or because its only signatory is "weak"; it is failing (as, indeed, is the south Sudan CPA signed in January 2005) because it is a flimsy paper obstacle in the way of a centuries-long historical process which has been left largely unresolved.

Sudan is the crossroads of the African continent and the middle east - an uncertain country haphazardly cobbled together first by the Ottomans in the 19th century and later by the British during the 20th. It has no cultural coherence or geopolitical logic, even though its populations have become used to living together. The main problem hampering their workable cohabitation is the imperial rule of the centre vis-à-vis the periphery, under the guise of a fake "Arab" identity whose own beneficiaries are in doubt over.

The pretence of national unity resulting from that imperial rule sort of hung together for half a century after independence, but it is now worn so thin that it cannot be mended. At the same time, even if the south's fundamental heterogeneity leads it to envisage a future in secession, this is not the case for the Muslim regions who are poor relatives of the Nile valley elites rather than essentially different elements.

Alex de Waal's solution consists in asking the Khartoum ethnic poachers to turn themselves into respectable national-unity gamekeepers. This is a rather unlikely development. Our only point of agreement is the fact that some kind of massive Nato military onslaught, even if it was thinkable given its costs and the west's hypocritical indifference, would be a disaster. It would perhaps not be Iraq but it would certainly be another bumbling Somalia-type "Operation Restore Hope".

Moreover, the prospect of a "smaller, smarter" commando-type force being able to lead Darfur's "Arab" tribal elders suddenly to part ways with Khartoum's manipulative ethnic cleansing, wake up to the common plight they share with their African brethren, and sponsor a Darfur peace and reconciliation process, is fantasy. This force would simply be a smaller, lighter version of the present African Union force, doomed to more massacre-gazing and sterile report-writing. The "Arab" elders would be unlikely to pay it much heed.

The real option

What, then, is to be done? In the real world, the options are grim. It is possible to let things run their course and see the ethnic cleansing result in several thousand casualties more. This is still the most likely probability, given the incapacity of the international community to think beyond a ritualistic wail for a UN force to be deployed (which, even were it to be deployed, is unlikely to be effective).

Another option would be to accept the fact that a major historical process is at work in a key corner of the continent and that it can be brought to a close only by the Sudanese themselves, not by foreigners. The ensuing logic of intervention would be to take sides in favour or against some of the actors in the conflict. This would in turn involve a clear, realistic judgment of their political character.

To take but one example: Minni Minnawi is not, as Alex de Waal sees him, "weak". He is a tough and resolute small-time hoodlum who has been propelled by historical circumstances into a position (senior advisor on Darfur to Sudan's president) way beyond his political relevance. As he is the sole signatory of the DPA, his repeated casual violations of human rights at all levels make a mockery of the so-called "peace process" he is supposed to implement.

In any case, there is no room for self-delusion: a true negotiation about the future of Sudan and the relative place of its various populations in an ensemble that still remains to be defined will in no way resemble the shadow theatre of Naivasha or Abuja. It can only come after political-military control and positioning on the ground have been redefined by the combatants themselves, rather than being artificially manipulated by outsiders (and outsiders, moreover, who are not even ready to honour the commitments they have made once the Sudanese they have "persuaded" into signing raise this issue).

A true negotiation would also mean that the type of centralised, Nile valley "Arab" regime which has ruled Sudan since 1956 under one guise or another will also have to go. Its replacement must be a federation of some kind, though the creation of such a model will require an immensely difficult and detailed task of institution-building. The multi-ethnic nature of the country will have to be turned into a reality and not - as is the case at present - remain a polite fiction hiding the reality of "Arab" cultural, economic and political domination.

None of this will be easy or peaceful. The elections scheduled for 2009 in Sudan will be an important political benchmark of progress in this direction, though if the present regime remains in charge it is unlikely that they will be free, fair or honest.

Even amid such a long-overdue comprehensive overhaul of an unjust and obsolete political system - still a distant prospect - Darfur will remain a particular case. Its citizens will have to choose whether they accept their common regional bonds or whether they prefer to follow the beat of a distant drummer on the banks of the Nile. Their future, their lives - or possibly their deaths - will depend not on short-term technical fixes but on themselves: on the choices they make and on the means put at their disposal to achieve them.

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