Home | Comment & Analysis    Saturday 15 May 2004

W. Sudan: a complex ethnic reality with a long history


R.S. O’Fahey, International Herald Tribune

CHICAGO, May 15, 2004 — The genocidal war in Darfur, Sudan’s westernmost province, is being presented in the news media as a war between Arabs and Africans. This simplifies and misrepresents a very complex ethnic reality.

Darfur, an area about the size of France, has three ethnic zones. The northern includes Arab and non-Arab, mainly Zaghawa, camel nomads. The central zone is inhabited largely by non-Arab sedentary farmers such as the Fur, Masalit and others, cultivating millet. In the south there are Arabic-speaking cattle nomads, the Baqqara.

All are Muslim, and no part of Darfur was ever ethnically homogeneous. For example, once a successful Fur farmer had a certain number of cattle, he would ’’become’’ Baqqara, and in a few generations his descendants would have an ’’authentic’’ Arab genealogy.

Historically, Darfur was a sultanate, established around 1650 and dominated by the Fur people, but ruled by a title-holding elite recruited from all the major ethnic groups. Under the sultan, the settled peoples, basically non-Arab, were able to control or keep out the nomads; the sultanate’s ultimate sanction was heavy cavalry.

The sultanate was destroyed in 1874. Although today’s conflict is much bloodier, as a historian I am struck by the parallels between the present situation and the 1880s. When the sultanate was restored in 1898 by Ali Dinar, he spent most of his reign driving the nomads back, until he was killed by the British in 1916. They then discovered that they had no alternative but to continue his policy. They also kept the old ruling elite intact; many of today’s educated Darfurians are descended from that elite.

From 1916 to 1956, Darfur was a backwater ruled by a handful of British officials. Its only resource was young men who migrated eastward to find work in the cotton schemes between the Blue and White Niles. It was only in the mid-1960s that Darfurians, both Arab and non-Arab, began to enter the national political arena and assert their own identity.

When I first went to Darfur in 1968, members of the ruling elite helped me with my field work, providing me with informants and documents. They wanted their history told.

One of the root causes of the present crisis goes back to the 1980s, when prolonged droughts accelerated the desertification of northern and central Darfur and led to pressure on water and grazing resources as the camel nomads were forced to move southwards. Conflicts over wells that in earlier times had been settled with spears or mediation became much more intractable in an era awash with guns. The situation disintegrated with the decision of the prime minister in the mid-1980s, Sadiq al-Mahdi, to give arms to the Arabic-speaking cattle nomads, the Baqqara, of southern Darfur, ostensibly to defend themselves against the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army, or SPLA. No one was surprised when they started to turn the guns on their northern neighbors, the Fur, Masalit and others. The SPLA exacerbated the situation by trying to open a front in southern Darfur. It was at this point that the Arab tribal militias, first called Murahilin, now Janjaweed, began to get out of control.

The ethnicization of the conflict has grown more rapidly since the military coup in 1989 that brought to power the regime of Umar al-Bashir, which is not only Islamist but also Arab-centric. This has injected an ideological and racist dimension to the conflict, with the sides defining themselves as ’’Arab’’ or ’’Zurq’’ (black). My impression is that many of the racist attitudes traditionally directed toward slaves have been redirected to the sedentary non-Arab communities.

The racist dimension comes to the fore in reports of rape and mass killings, cynically supported by the Khartoum government, which is determined to retain control over the area. The reason is simple: a possible oil pipeline through Darfur.

The tragic problem is that a few observers, military or otherwise, in a place the size of Darfur - where there are virtually no roads, a fragile ecology and where the old order has broken down - will not be enough. And what country or countries would send the kind of force needed in Darfur?

The Janjaweed will be very tough to stop; they have a fully developed racist ideology, a warrior culture, weapons and plenty of horses and camels - still the easiest way to get around Darfur. The genocide in Darfur will be very hard to bring to an end even if there is the will among the international community to do so.

R.S. O’Fahey, a professor of African history at the University of Bergen, Norway, is currently with the African studies program at Northwestern University.

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