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Some Notes on the Crisis in Darfur

Posted on: Thursday, January 1, 2004

Keywords: Sudan

Some Notes on the Crisis in Darfur

Since March 2003, tens of thousands of men, women and children have been murdered in Darfur, western Sudan. Communities are under attack by the janjaweed militias, who kill entire families, systematically rape and mutilate women and girls, burn down villages, destroy food crops, and poison wells. The death toll had climbed to 1,000 people a day by fall 2004 and is expected to reach 300,000 within months if emergency action is not taken. In addition, a million and a half people have been made homeless by the janjaweed. Most are subsisting in overcrowded, dangerously unhygienic camps without sufficient food, water or basic health care.


• Mainstream media’s portrayal of the crisis as an ethnic war between Africans and Arabs obscures a more complex reality. Because ethnicity is a fluid, partial, and somewhat subjective facet of identity, ethnic divisions are sometimes created (not merely reflected) when ethnicity is invoked to mobilize people for political ends.

• In Darfur, the Sudanese government has fomented an ideology of Arab supremacism, siding mainly with “Arab” nomads against “African” tribes. Arabism was appealing to Darfur’s nomadic communities because of their extreme poverty, even by Sudanese standards. In reaction to Arabism, opponents of the government gradually adopted the “African” label.

• All of Darfur’s communities are Muslim, black, Arabic-speaking, African and indigenous to the region. While historical differences do exist between “Africans” and “Arabs” in Darfur, these are as much political as ethnic labels, delineating communities that have been pitted against each other by scarcity and an abusive national government.


• The roots of the conflict lie in competition over land and water between “Arab” nomadic communities who turned to farming in the 1980s and 1990s and “African” agrarian tribes fighting to keep resources for themselves. Sudan’s government exploited this conflict in a divide-and-rule strategy aimed at preventing Darfur as a whole from seeking redress for decades of neglect and under-development.

• Since 1989, Sudan has been ruled by an autocratic clique of generals, more committed to perpetuating their own power than to the Islamist ideology they claim to espouse. In recent years, the US and Europe have pressed for an end to a 20-year civil war in Sudan, engineering peace talks between the Sudanese government and the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA), based in southern Sudan.

• Political parties representing Darfur demanded participation in the peace talks. When the government refused, the Darfurians concluded that their grievances would only be addressed if they took up arms like the SPLA. In early 2003, Darfurian rebels attacked a government army base. The government deployed the janjaweed militias to crush the Darfur rebellion, triggering mass killing and displacement.


• A year and a half after the crisis began, the US intervened in Darfur, dispatching Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region and sponsoring UN Security Council Resolution 1564, to investigate allegations of genocide and threaten sanctions against Sudan if the government did not cooperate.   

• But after the illegal invasion of Iraq and the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib Prison, US credibility to intervene in a human rights crisis has never been lower. In fact, many people in the world see that:

o The US has a keen interest in Sudan’s plentiful oil reserves, especially now that lessening dependency on oil from the Middle East is a US priority. 

o The Darfur crisis threatened the peace agreement between Sudan’s government and the SPLA. This settlement was a singular opportunity for the Bush Administration to project an image of Bush as a diplomat and peacemaker and gain favor with fundamentalist Christian and African-American voters. (Bush’s evangelical base saw in the conflict an Islamic regime persecuting Christians; while some African-Americans saw it as an “Arab” regime attacking black “African” communities).

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