New Internationalist

Darfur – a history

Issue 401

Multi-ethnic Darfur

Darfur’s people are a complex mosaic of between 40 and 90 ethnic groups, some of ‘African’ origin (mostly settled farmers), some Arabs. All Darfurians are Muslim. The Arabs began arriving in the 14th century and established themselves as mainly nomadic cattle and camel herders. Peaceful coexistence has been the norm, with inevitable disputes over resources between fixed and migratory communities resolved through the mediation of local leaders. For much of its history, the division between ‘Arab’ and ‘African’ has been blurred at best, with so much intermarriage that all Darfurians can claim mixed ancestry. Identities have been defined in different ways at different times, based on race, speech, appearance or way of life.

An Independent Sultanate

At the heart of Darfur is an extinct volcano in a mountainous area called Jebel Marra. Around it the land is famously fertile, and it was here that the earliest known inhabitants of Darfur lived – the Daju. Very little is known about them. The recorded history of Darfur begins in the 14th century, when the Daju dynasty was superseded by the Tunjur, who brought Islam to the region.

Darfur existed as an independent state for several hundred years. In the mid-17th century, the Keyra Fur Sultanate was established, and Darfur prospered.

In its heyday in the 17th and 18th centuries the Fur Sultanate’s geographical location made it a thriving commercial hub, trading with the Mediterranean in slaves, ivory and ostrich feathers, raiding its neighbours and fighting wars of conquest in the surrounding region.

Darfur under siege

In the mid-19th century, Darfur’s sultan was defeated by notorious slave trader Zubayr Rahma, who was in turn subjugated by the Ottoman Empire. At the time, this included Egypt and what is now northern Sudan. The collapse of the Keyra dynasty plunged Darfur into lawlessness. Roaming bandits and local armies preyed on vulnerable communities, and Islamic ‘Mahdist’ forces fighting British colonial control of the region sought to incorporate Darfur into a much larger Islamic republic. A period of almost constant war followed, until 1899 when the Egyptians – now under British rule – recognized Ali Dinar, grandson of one of the Keyra sultans, as Sultan of Darfur. This marked a de facto return to independence, and Darfur lived in peace for a few years.

Colonial ‘benign neglect’

Ali Dinar refused to submit to the wishes of either the French or the British, who were busy building their empires around his territory. Diplomatic friction turned into open warfare. Ali Dinar defied the British forces for six months, but was ambushed and killed, along with his two sons, in November 1916. In January 1917 Darfur was absorbed into the British Empire and became part of Sudan, making this the largest country in Africa.

The only aim of Darfur’s new colonial rulers was to keep the peace. Entirely uninterested in the region’s development (or lack thereof), no investment was forthcoming. In stark contrast to the north of Sudan, by 1935 Darfur had only four schools, no maternity clinic, no railways or major roads outside the largest towns. Darfur has been treated as an unimportant backwater, a pawn in power games, by its successive rulers ever since.

Independence brings war

The British reluctantly but peacefully granted Sudan independence in 1956. The colonialists had kept North and South Sudan separate, developing the fertile lands around the Nile Valley in the North, whilst neglecting the South, East and Darfur to the west. They handed over political power directly to a minority of northern Arab élites who, in various groupings, have been in power ever since. This caused the South to mutiny in 1955, starting the first North-South war. It lasted until 1972 when peace was signed under President Nimeiry. But the Government continually flouted the peace agreement. This, combined with its shift towards imposing radical political Islam on an unwilling people, and the discovery of oil, reignited conflict in the South in 1983.

Darfur, meanwhile, became embroiled in the various conflicts raging around it: not just internal wars by the centre over its marginalized populations – many of the soldiers who fought for the Government against the South were Darfurian recruits – but also regional struggles. The use of Darfur by Libya’s Colonel Qadafhi as a military base for his Islamist wars in Chad promoted Arab supremacism, inflamed ethnic tensions, flooded the region with weaponry and sparked the Arab-Fur war (1987-89), in which thousands were killed and hundreds of Fur villages burned. The people’s suffering was exacerbated by a devastating famine in the mid-1980s, during which the Government abandoned Darfurians to their fate.

Bashir seizes power

In 1989 the National Islamic Front (NIF), led by General Omar al-Bashir, seized power in Sudan from the democratically elected government of Sadiq al Mahdi, in a bloodless coup. The NIF revoked the constitution, banned opposition parties, unravelled steps towards peace and instead proclaimed jihad against the non-Muslim South, regularly using ethnic militias to do the fighting. Although depending on Muslim Darfur for political support, the NIF’s programme of ‘Arabization’ further marginalized the region’s ‘African’ population.

The regime harboured several Islamic fundamentalist organizations, including providing a home for Osama bin Laden from 1991 until 1996, when the US forced his expulsion. Sudan was implicated in the June 1995 assassination attempt on Egyptian President Mubarak. Its support for terrorists and increasing international isolation culminated in a US cruise-missile attack on a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory in 1998, following terrorist bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.

The Janjaweed: ‘counterinsurgency on the cheap’

Janjaweed fighters, with their philosophy of violent Arab supremacism, were first active in Darfur in the Arab-Fur war in the late 1980s. Recruited mainly from Arab nomadic tribes, demobilized soldiers and criminal elements, the word janjaweed means ‘hordes’ or ‘ruffians’, but also sounds like ‘devil on horseback’ in Arabic. The ruthlessly opportunistic Sudanese Government first armed, trained and deployed them against the Massalit people of Darfur in 1996-98. This was an established strategy by which the Government used ethnic militias to fight as proxy forces for them. It allowed the Government to fight local wars cheaply, and also to deny it was behind the conflict, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement

When President George W Bush came to power in 2000, US policy shifted from isolationism to engagement with Sudan. After 11 September 2001 Bashir ‘fell into line’, started to co-operate with the US in their ‘war on terror’ and a peace process began in earnest in the South. After years of painstaking negotiations, and under substantial pressure from the US, in January 2005 a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed between the Government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), ending 21 years of bloody war which killed two million people, displaced another four million and razed southern Sudan to the ground.

A surprisingly favourable deal for the South, the CPA included a power-sharing agreement leading up to a referendum on independence for the South in 2011, a 50-50 share of the profits from its lucrative oilfields, national elections in 2009, and 10,000 UN peacekeepers to oversee the agreement’s implementation. But the ‘comprehensive’ deal completely ignored Darfur, catalyzing the conflict that is currently engulfing the region.

The rebels attack

Rebellion had been brewing in marginalized, poverty-stricken Darfur for years. After decades in the political wilderness, being left out of the peace negotiations was the final straw. Inspired by the SPLA’s success, rebel attacks against Government targets became increasingly frequent as two main rebel groups emerged – the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). By early 2003 they had formed an alliance. Attacks on garrisons, and a joint attack in April on an airbase that reduced several Government planes and helicopters to ashes, were causing serious damage and running rings around the Sudanese army.

Facing the prospect of its control over the entire country unravelling, in 2003 the Government decided to counterattack. Manipulating ethnic tensions that had flared up in Darfur around access to increasingly scarce land and water resources, they unleashed the Janjaweed to attack communities they claimed had links to the rebels.

Sources
Julie Flint and Alex de Waal, Darfur: a Short History of a Long War, Zed Books, 2005; Ruth Iyob and Gilbert M. Khadiagala, Sudan: The Elusive Quest for Peace, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2006; Douglas H. Johnson, The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars, Indiana University Press, 2006; Gerard Prunier, Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide, Cornell University Press, 2007; www.wikipedia.org

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