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Will the Darfur War Fade Away ? Will the Darfur War Fade Away ?
by Rene Wadlow
2020-09-28 08:04:25
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The newly formed military-civilian transitional government of Sudean  faces numerous critical challenges of which devolopment of a peaceful society in the Darfur area is one.  In April 2019, the long-time Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, who had come to power in a coup in 1989, was overthrown by a military coup.  There has followed a complicated set of negotiations between the military and a broad alliance of civilian groups known as the Forces of Freeedom and Change.  A current priority is to draft a new constitution, but the leading priority is to overcome the overall economic weakenss of the country. The weakness has led to broad discontent and a host of economic demands by different professional groups and economic sectors

The armed conflicts in the Drfur provinces, which began in 2003 have degenerated into a large number of armed militias, largely based on ethnic loyalties or village structures with no overall leadership which could carry out peace negotiations. The fighting in Darfur has led to a large number of displaced persons and the breakdown of an already weak economy.  With the difficulties of formal peace negotiations, could the fighting in Darfur fade away if people found better goals for their energy if broadly-based development projects were put into place?

dar0001_400Darfur comprises the western area of Sudan, about the size of France but with a scattered population of some six million. It has frontiers with Libya, Chad and the Central African Republic.  During the 19th century, Darfur was an independent emirate, loosely tied to the Ottoman Empire.  In the late 19th century, it served as a buffer zone between the French colony of Chad and the Sudan under the control of England. During the First World War in 1916, when there was no danger of an armed conflict between France and England, Darfur was attached to the Sudan, though without asking the Darfuri nor the Sudanese if that is what they wanted.  Thus Darfur has always been something of a “distant cousin” in Sudanese politics, neglected and with few socio-economic development projects. Basically, Darfur is an area of pastoralists, some tribes specializing in camels and other in cattle, and settled agriculturalists.  Camel and cattle-raising tribes from Chad move into Darfur and vice-versa.  There were frontiers between tribes, but they did not correspond to State boundaries.

In 1994, Darfur was divided into three administrative provinces — Southern Darfur, Western Darfur, and Northern Darfur — a division that did nothing to improve governmental administration nor increase economic development and had little impact on the lives of the people. Thus, in 2000, intellectuals and administrators from Darfur calling themselves the Seekers of Truth and Justice wrote The Black Book: Imbalance of Power and Wealth in Sudan which highlighted the neglect of the area by the Central Government, the lack of education and health services, the lack of transport and communication facilities and the low percentage of Darfuris in the Central Administration and in positions of influence.  The book set out a series of recommendations and moderate demands. However, the book had no observable impact on government decision-making nor did it provoke a national debate on development priorities.

In part as a result of the lack of impact of The Black Book, some of the Darfuri elite decided that armed conflict was the only way to gain attention to their difficulties and to have some power with which to negotiate. The hope was to have a short, sharp conflict which would lead quickly to negotiations and compromises.

Thus in the spring of 2003, the fighting began as a revolt of the modernised segment of the ethnic groups in Darfur, primarily the Fur, Massalit, Zaghawa and smaller agricultural groups. These ethnic-tribal-based militias formed a loose coalition called the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA).  A second Darfur militia coalition, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) was made up of a multi-ethnic Islamist group which had originally supported the 1989 coup of President al-Bashir and the ideology of Hassan al-Turabi, al-Bashir’s puppet-master in the National Islamic Front government. However, the Darfuri Islamists were alienated by the new government’s marginalisation of Darfur and the continued lack of development. The government in Khartoum was unprepared for the Darfur conflict.  The government’s attention, as well as the bulk of the army, was turned toward the civil war with the South. On 25 April 2003, a joint SLA-JEM force attacked an airbase at Al Fasher, the capital of Northern Darfur and the largest city in the area. They destroyed bombers and helicopter gunships.  In the 23 years of civil war in the South, the government had never lost such a large number of aircraft. The government reacted by turning over the fight against the Darfur movements to its security agencies — a narrow group of men uninterested in broader internal politics or external relations. These security men wanted to ‘finish things off’ as quickly as possible. Since they had few army troops available — most of the military  was in the South — they decided to use the air force along with organizing and giving a free hand to the Janjawiid, Arab militias from camel-herding tribes to which were added Chadians and Libyans who had been left wandering from Colonel Gaddafi’s Islamic Legion.  Colonel Gaddafi had created in the early 1980s a Islamic Legion and recruited militiamen from lands as far apart as Mauritania and Sudan in his efforts to create a union of Chad and Libya — or to annex part of northern Chad.  When his Chadian interests faded at the end of the 1980s, the Islamic Legion was left to look after itself and was ready to work for new paymasters.

Some of the Janjawiid had already been organized by the Sudanese government, in part for the control of the Darfur area while the bulk of the regular army was directed to the civil war in the South, but also to be used on the edges of the southern war zone.  Drought, which began in 1972, and destitution embittered the Darfur pastoralists. Now, weapons and a self-asserting Arabist ideology called the Arab Gathering first developed by Colonel Gaddafi gave them new confidence.  The Sudan security agencies began to harness them as a proxy instrument of control. Khartoum’s use of tribal militias was purely opportunistic: they were there; they had fighting skills, and they allowed the government to conserve its overstretched resources.

In the fight against the Darfur insurgency, the government gave the Janjawiid air support by bombing villages. However, the government did not pay the Janjawiid but told them to pay themselves off the land. Thus, the Janjawiid destroyed village after village, taking all that could be moved and destroying the rest, including the entire agricultural infrastructure; wells were filled with sand, and grains needed for new planting were deliberately destroyed. Among the Janjawiid were former prisoners from Darfur’s jails who were released on condition of joining the militias. Rape of women and young girls was widely practiced both as a means of terror and as a ‘reward’ for the fighters since they were not paid.

As the conflict in Darfur was costing the government little in money, there was no pressing need to bring it to an end.  Since the original hope of the insurgencies that a sharp strike would force the government to negotiate proved wrong, the insurgencies continued but turned neighbours against each other with no visible end in sight.

The Janjawiid have become ordinary bandits, ubiquitous but politically unorganized and no longer serving a political aim. Likewise, the rebel movements have undergone fragmentation either on an ethnic or an ideological basis. By one authoritative count, there are now 28 insurgency groups. Some segments of the rebel movements have said that they are willing to sign agreements with the government in return for short-run material gains but none have done so for the moment.  The hybrid African Union-United Nations peacekeeping mission has had little political impact but has provided relative safety for the overcrowded refugee camps.

Given the difficulties of establishing a formal peace agreement between the government and the Darfur insurgencies, there may be a possibility of putting into place a multi-sector development program that would involve a large number of people so that peace would be in the common interest. Unfortunately, for the moment, attacks by diverse militias seems to be the order of the day.


Rene Wadlow, President, Association of World Citizens 

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