The humanitarian situation in Darfur is deteriorating again. The early months of 2013 have witnessed the displacement of over 150,000 people, the deaths of hundreds and the burning of no less than 15 villages in the region of Jebel ‘Amer in North Darfur. The shocking events bring to mind the kind of violence associated with the 2003 eruption of conflict in Darfur. Violence has been the result of fighting between the Abbala – camel-herding nomads – and Beni Hussein – the traditional inhabitants of the area.
The conflict has been dismissed as yet another inter-tribal clash, known to recur over Darfur’s history. Such tribal clashes, particularly with the outbreak of the 2003 conflict, have been mainly attributed to ethnic rivalries. Arab and non-Arab groups are depicted as clashing due to differences and grievances, exacerbated and prolonged by government support for one side (the Arabs) over the other. But it would be a mistake to apply this explanation to the ongoing conflict. Both the Abbala and Beni Hussein belong to Arab tribes.
Various scholars have dismissed the question of identity and ethnic differences as the sole reason for conflict in Darfur. Identity as a fluid social construct is applicable to the case of Sudan. The alleged Arab/non-Arab divide that has been swiftly adopted as an explanation of violence in Darfur is highly problematic. The ruling elite that is referred to as Arab and Muslim is not necessarily Arab and Muslim. Furthermore, contrary to some generalisations, the reality is that many Arabs and Muslims are also suppressed and marginalised – for example, those in the East, the Nuba Mountains, South Kordofan, Darfur and even in the South.
One factor that is less cited with regard to the Darfur conflict is the resources issue. Ecological factors such as desertification and droughts have made access to resources such as water, land, oil and precious minerals more important than ever and access to them has become a matter of contestation. The latest conflict in the region has particularly highlighted the role of land. Fighting between nomads and farmers usually start over the crossing of lines between the herding routes (Marahel) and the agricultural lands.
But even less attention has been paid to gold. It is vital that we critically examine the suggested relationship between the violence and the region’s recently discovered gold mines. The questions are these: To what extent does gold, amidst other resources, play a role in igniting conflicts in Darfur? And is the involvement of the Sudanese government leading to an escalation of violence?
Historically, Darfur has been rich in gold reserves. Some trace interests in Darfur’s gold back to Ancient Egypt, through the Ottoman Empire, and finally to Britain. The precious metal has lured outside intervention and local hostility alike. Typically, once gold is discovered, different groups begin to dispute ownership over the relevant land. And recently, amidst declining economic conditions in the country, wrangling over these resources has become fiercer.
This seems to have come to a head at the start of this year, when members of the Abbala reportedly tried to wrest control of the Jebel ‘Amer gold mine in Al Sareif, northern Darfur, from members of the Beni Hussein tribe. Gold was discovered in the region last year. Since then, the three-square-kilometre area has drawn up to 70,000 people into its 3,000 mining sites. In a few months, gold from the region reached up to 14 tons and counted for a third of Sudan’s exported gold during 2012. The sudden population increase in a limited area alongside the clashes between newcomers and land owners over gold ownership and mining rights have inevitably deteriorated into violence.
But it is important to see the current conflict over gold in Darfur from a wider perspective. Colonial legacies and foreign intervention have indeed complicated the type of conflicts witnessed in Darfur over time. The ruling elite now in power in Sudan traces its original construction back to Turco-Egyptian rule, and then to the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, which instituted a tribal power complex for administration purposes. Particular tribes were poised to rule on the eve of Sudan’s independence in 1956. In upholding the status quo, little has changed in the colonial structures of governance and economy. Peripheries, such as Darfur, have remained not only marginalized but slowly exploited leading to dissatisfaction, dissent and conflict.
The fighting might indeed be about gold mines. But the sheer extent of the damage is alarming and goes beyond the violent capacities of these local communities. This shifts attention back to the role of the Government of Sudan as a key player in the escalation of tribal clashes over resources. Ever since the decision of South Sudan to secede in July 2011, Sudan has lost 75 per cent of its oil production, which has been a powerful hit to the Sudanese economy. Sudan has set its eyes on Darfur’s gold as a new source of income.
Control over the gold mines necessitates overriding the authority of native leaders in this tribal region. With this central insight, it is entirely possible that the Government of Sudan is behind the arming of the Abbala in their fight over controlling the gold mines in Jebel ‘Amer.