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Home > English > Website archives > Rainbow of Crisis > The Dirty Political Underbelly of the Darfur Conflict


The Dirty Political Underbelly of the Darfur Conflict

Sunday 29 April 2007, by Ayesha Kajee

Beyond the complex “ethnic, regional and tribal dimensions” to the conflict in Darfur there is also a national and international political aspect that is not always acknowledged particularly in the Western media. Ayesha Kajee explains some of the domestic influences and the role of resources such as oil in the conflict.

Despite a few laudable attempts by serious political analysts to defray the often naïve and sometimes infantile portrayals of the Darfur conflict in the mass media, lazy writers persist in defining the war in Sudan’s westernmost region purely as an ethnic cleansing of Africans by Arab pro-government militias. Some even go so far as to conflate the conflict with the North-South civil war that ended with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in January 2005. That conflict has also often been simplistically defined purely in terms of Muslim Northerners and Christian southerners. While there are complex ethnic, regional and tribal dimensions to the Darfur conflict, there has been minimal acknowledgement that, in appearance at least, all the combatants are Black Africans and almost all are Muslim.

Beyond that, the Darfur conflict has a great deal to do with politics, both domestic and international, an aspect that again, has been systematically ignored or downplayed in the mainstream media. Historically, Darfur has been both marginalised and politically manipulated by the power elites in Khartoum, resulting in severe underdevelopment. With poverty levels exacerbated by cyclical droughts and recurring famine over the past two decades, the nomadic pastoralist ‘Arabs’ in the region competed with the agrarian ‘Africans’ for land; marking the start of conflict between them.

It is worth noting that until the late 1960’s, ‘African’ and ‘Arab’ in Darfur were not ethnic designations but were primarily used to differentiate between the more settled agrarian farmers and the cattle-herding nomads. Generations of intermarriage have made physiognomic distinction between ‘African’ and ‘Arab’ Darfuris virtually impossible. Until politics intervened in 1968, both were equally despised by the Khartoum urbanites as ‘people of the West’, an appellation that stigmatised them as ill-educated, uncouth, poverty-stricken peasants. Organisations such as the Darfur Development Front (DDF) arose as regional bodies striving for socio-economic justice in Darfur.

Domestic Political influences

Although Darfuris contributed to the Ummah Party’s victory at Sudan’s independence in 1956, it was forgotten and neglected until the Ummah Party split before the 1968 elections. Needing a large voting bloc from the west, one faction courted the Darfuri ‘Africans’, including the DDF, while the other wooed Darfur’s ‘Arab’ vote. Electioneering included ethnicised blame games to encourage political allegiance, and promises of government appointments for Darfuri ‘Arabs’ by their rediscovered ‘brothers’ in the capital. Ever since, Darfur has been a pawn manipulated by successive Sudanese governments.

This is still true today. Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP), led by President Omar al-Bashir, is desperate to prevent the independence of the south, which will be decided by referendum in 2011. After all, Sudan’s oilfields, currently al-Bashir’s cash cows, lie in the south. Al-Bashir badly needs Darfur as part of the northern voting bloc in the next national elections, scheduled for 2009, a political consideration that partially explains his reluctance to allow United Nations peacekeepers into Darfur.

But his brutal scorched earth policy in Darfur has exploded out of NCP control and may backfire in a net loss of Darfuri support in 2009. Initially pre-occupied with the civil war between north and south, this government first ignored the rumblings of discontent in Darfur, as far back as the late 1990s. When attacks on government positions intensified, it recruited, mounted and armed disaffected ‘Arab’ militias to suppress the uprisings in Darfur through extreme violence and brutality. Many of these ‘Janjaweed’ militias have rampaged out of control and there are reports that some even operate as cross-border bandits in Chad.

The extreme brutality of the government’s retaliation is partially explained by its desire to eradicate political competition. In particular the NCP fears the influence of its former mentor and spiritual guru, Islamist cleric Hassan al-Turabi, who has been linked to one of Darfur’s three major insurgent groups, the Justic and Equality Movement (JEM). Al-Turabi’s large following not only in Darfur, but in other poor and marginalised regions such as Eastern Sudan, seriously threatens NCP hegemony.

The al-Bashir government’s image has been badly tarnished within Sudan by both the Darfur conflict and its many breaches of the peace agreement with the south. Even with repressive media rules and a widespread network of patronage and clientelism that could facilitate electoral fraud, it may have a tough time garnering the support it needs (from Darfur and other neglected areas) to retain control of government come 2009.

Regional and International Political Influences

Successive aspirant leaders from neighbouring Chad have historically abused Darfur as the staging ground for their power bids. In some cases this was welcomed by whichever regime was in power in Khartoum at the time. When politically expedient, Chadian uprisings initiated from Darfur have variously been supported by Libya, France and the USA respectively. Libyan involvement in Darfur served to heighten ethnic tensions in Darfur, since the Libyans espoused Arab Nationalism, favoured Darfuri ‘Arabs’ and were despised as ‘Arab foreigners’ by locals. During the Cold War, western countries paid Khartoum to use Darfur as a base for supporting Hissan Habre’s regime in Chad. Conversely, the military junta which seized power in 1985, bartered Darfur in exchange for Libyan support in both the 1986 election and the civil conflict with the south. Libya used Darfur to attack the US-supported Habre regime in Chad, which retaliated by arming the nascent Sudan Liberation Army, a rebel group in Darfur. Habre was eventually ousted by current Chadian president Idriss Deby in 1990, who, following the established tradition, used Darfur as his springboard to N’djamena.

The legacy of Darfur’s abuse as an insurgency base surfaced in the heightened ethnic tensions, distrust of foreigners and a proliferation of small arms in the region. This, combined with rising insurgency, provided fuel for the disastrous civil conflict that has displaced up to two million people and killed at least 200,000 others. Though the ready availability of weapons across porous borders has fed the growing appetite of both rebels and Janjaweed in Darfur, government supplies to the Janjaweed have heavily weighted the odds in favour of the latter.

From the start, refugees fleeing the Darfur war have sought refuge among Chadians with whom they share ethnic and economic ties. But recently the conflict has spread into both refugee camps and local villages in Chad and the Central African Republic, rocking the political stability of the entire region. March 2007 saw over 400 casualties from attacks ascribed to cross-border Janjaweed, and aid workers say the incidence and intensity of attacks are increasing.

The Politics of Resources

No consideration of the political underpinnings of the Darfur situation can be complete without a consideration of international interest in Sudan’s immense natural resource base and indeed, that of the region. Given the political environment in the Middle East and the insatiable demand for oil by nations such as the US and China, substantial oil reserves in both Chad and Sudan make them vulnerable to political manipulation from outside. Sudan’s Muglad Basin alone reportedly contains three billion barrels of crude. Both Chad and Sudan have used oil revenues to purchase arms that sustain conflicts within their countries and across borders, a factor that is ignored by most consumers of oil in the region.

The US and Malaysia are the major oil investors in Chad, while China, Russia, France, Malaysia, India and the UK all have interests in Sudan’s oil sector. In addition to oil, Sudan also has gold reserves and arable land suitable for commercial exploitation. Darfur possibly has undiscovered reserves of uranium, bauxite and copper. Geological surveys also imply that Darfur has unexploited oil reserves, which may go some way to explaining the intense and sustained global interest in Darfur over the past few years. There is indubitably a massive humanitarian disaster in Darfur, and the mobilisation of civil society around the globe is warranted and welcome. But it is worth questioning why this tragedy receives concentrated attention from the world’s media and why advocacy for multilateral intervention in Darfur has managed to mobilise millions, including celebrities from every sphere, when similar situations in northern Uganda or Central African Republic get far less coverage.

Politics Within Darfur

While initially the Darfur rebels were able to unite or act in tandem on the basis of common goals (such as socio-economic development for the region), the sustained conflict has led to the split of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) into two major factions. Led by Minni Minnawi and Abdel Wahid al-Nur respectivelty, these factions were split along mainly ethnic lines but often worked cooperatively. Abdel Wahid, an ethnic Fur, command widespread support among the Fur tribes who comprise about quarter of the region’s population. His faction has been pitted against Minnawi’s since Minnawi signed the May 2006 Abuja peace agreement and Abdel Wahid refused to do so. Minnawi, from the Zeghawa tribe, received a senior government position in Khartoum after signing the deal, which has drawn criticism from various rebel factions.

The third major rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) led by Khalil Ibrahim, was also not party to the Abuja agreement. JEM united with SLM splinter groups who were not at Abuja, to form the National Redemption Front (NRF) which continues to fight the government.

Thus, the peace agreement ironically exacerbated divisions among the rebels and in some areas caused intensified conflict between rebel forces, with many civilians caught in the crossfire. Consequently, the civilians who initially supported the rebels with shelter and provisions, now fear the rebel groups as well as the government-backed Janjaweed, particularly if the rebels are ethnically different from themselves.

The Abuja agreement has also been used by al-Bashir’s government as a pretext for bringing numerous police and army personnel and equipment into Darfur, ostensibly to implement the ceasefire provisions, which to date, have been observed in the breach. The government and Minnawi prevented non-signatories from full participation in the Darfur Ceasefire Commission, virtually guaranteeing that it would fail. Attempts by the African Union Mission in Darfur to comply with provisions of the Abuja deal, have compromised the perceived neutrality of the peacekeepers and increased distrust of them. In the last two months, seven peacekeepers have been killed in Darfur.

There is growing international pressure to persuade al-Bashir to allow the implementation of a 2006 United Nations Resolution that calls for a trebling of the under-equipped peacekeeping force, which would see it passing from AU to UN control. Although Khartoum, after much pontificating on Sudan’s sovereignty, agreed to the deployment of a hybrid AU-UN force in November 2006, they have balked at the details and thus far, no UN troops have been allowed into Darfur. This may be due to fears that senior Sudanese officials could be indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes perpetrated in Darfur. It could also be attributed to anxiety that Darfur would use the UN presence to secede, depriving al-Bashir of this constituency in the 2009 elections. Such a situation would likely result in the eventual independence of the south in 2011. That this would pave the way for foreign interests to invest in an independent south and in Darfur, should not be discounted.

Given the complex internal and external political implications of the Darfur conflict, the biggest losers are the Darfuris who have been killed, maimed and driven from their homes and livelihoods. They are the ‘dispensable’ pawns of political manipulators from within and outside Sudan. There is a crying need for multilateral intervention in Darfur, and an enhanced peacekeeping force with a strong mandate to protect citizens would bring much needed stability to the region as a whole. But the potential ramifications of such an intervention merit careful consideration as to the composition of the deployed force and its mandate.

Concomitant with the deployment of more peacekeepers, the international community should be obligated to continue support for a political solution that includes all the major players in Darfur. This is a conflict that requires sustained negotiation and dialogue across the political spectrum in order to produce a lasting peace. The track record of certain western governments with regard to human rights and ethics would render them unsuitable as the primary facilitators of such a dialogue. Therefore the most appropriate brokers would be respected Africans whose eminence inspires confidence in their integrity, leaders who truly care that those who are paying the price of this war are fellow Africans with the inalienable right to the most basic freedoms of peace and security.

* Ayesha Kajee: Programme Head: Democracy and Political Party Systems in Africa at the South African Institute of International Affairs

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