Darfur: Tribal war or state run genocide?


In 2003 two rebel movements, the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), emerged from Darfur, Western Sudan, to demand economic and political representation in the Sudanese government. Earlier that year, the Sudanese government signed a ceasefire with a rebel movement from the South after a 20-year civil war. In response to the new political resistance in the West, the Sudanese government recruited, financed and militarized members from herding societies to the north and east of Darfur creating a paramilitary force to combat the rebels.

In order to undermine these guerrilla movements, the government and paramilitary forces targeted the farmer civilian base living in the Darfur region. The government forces routinely bomb farming villages from above, and paramilitary forces, known as the Janjaweed, sweep in on horseback to murder, pillage and desecrate what is left. Since the beginning of the conflict as many as 400,000 people have been killed and more than 2 million have been displaced from their homes.

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In September 2004, the United States was the first country to officially declare the crisis in Darfur as genocide, but the U.S. did not articulate that the Sudanese government itself was not only complicit in the killings but had also instigated them. The international community’s response is slow, in part because, until recently, the crisis was best understood as a conflict between tribal factions instead of government-instigated ethnic cleansing. Otherwise, wouldn’t our government along with others across the globe have felt compelled to intervene as we did in Kosovo or as we lamented not doing in Rwanda? One would certainly hope so.

The Sudanese government would like us to believe that the humanitarian crisis is the result of ancient tribal hatred between Arab herders from the north and black African farmers from the West, rendering the government powerless to intervene. Ever since the United States’ unsuccessful mission to deliver aid and stability to Somalian communities starved by local war lords in 1992 (popularly known as “Black Hawk Down”) Western media have been littered with articles and broadcasts of tribal violence across the continent of Africa. In the past 15 years we have witnessed “tribal conflicts” in Rwanda, Kenya, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan and more. What we do not focus on however, is that in most of these cases, the “tribal warfare” was the manifestation of corrupt, power-hungry regimes pitting ethnic groups against each other in order to undermine threatening political opposition. Most of these countries are dependent upon U.S. and European foreign aid, and therefore are fairly responsive to sanctions and political pressure applied by the West. In each of the aforementioned cases, governments were able to subvert political opposition by militarizing their own people while escaping Western scrutiny by portraying these conflicts as stereotypical, even endemic, tribal conflicts. In other words, our ignorance and skewed perception of African societies fuel corrupt leaders’ campaigns to literally wipe out democratic opposition in their own countries.

In the case of Sudan, the tension between the herders in the North and the farmers in the West has developed more prominently over the past 30 years and has its own international implications. Historically, the herding and farming societies were mutualistic; in times of famine, the farmers would depend on herders for their livestock’s meat and milk, and in times of cattle plague, the herders would depend on their farming neighbors for agricultural produce to sustain them.

In the late 1970s and 1980s the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were working to try to “jumpstart” African economies and pressured African governments to encourage their populations to privatize their land in the hopes of increasing the production of cash crop industries. While initially lucrative, these structural adjustment programs eventually led to the massive land degradation in Western and Northern Sudan, where resources were already scarce. These policies coincided with a record-setting drought in the region of Darfur. The result was that from the 1980s on, herding communities increasingly encroached onto farmers’ land in order to feed their livestock and survive.

When land disputes reached the national judicial level, the Sudanese government, afraid of facing the negative consequences of their land privatization policies, consistently ruled in favor of the herding societies. This systematic subversion of farmers’ grievances is part of what led to the rebel uprisings from Darfur in 2003. The government is using this disputed land as the ultimate compensation for militarized herders in return for their raids on supposed rebel outposts and resisting communities in Darfur.

This is not the first time that the Sudanese government has massacred innocent civilians with the aim of wiping out or at least deterring rebel movements. Two million people were killed in the North-South civil war between 1983 and 2003 in Sudan. How did the Sudanese government manage to finance such a prolonged and costly war? The answer to this question also explains why the Sudanese government, despite past and current international sanctions, is still able to fund the current genocide in Darfur.

In 1989 Sudan started exporting massive amounts of crude oil from southern Sudan. At the same time, the Sudanese government used the money from this lucrative export to fund expulsion campaigns in which they killed or displaced entire villages and communities living on the land where oil had been discovered in southern Sudan. A Canadian company was heavily invested in those oil fields. But due to extreme international pressure, the Canadians divested from these interests, and China took their place. Because of China’s seat on the Security Council, the U.N. has been unable to impose oil sanctions against Sudan, even though it is clear that oil is the major source of funding for the genocide in Darfur. Although this does not directly implicate Americans, it is important to note that BP/Amoco holds a significant amount of shares in Petro China, whose parent company is the primary investor in Sudanese Oil.

The international community is economically and politically tied into the current crisis in Sudan. In order to convince our government, our business leaders, our community leaders and ourselves that intervention is crucial, we must first understand how this conflict relates to us. We can no longer turn a blind eye to the genocide in Sudan and we can no longer pretend that our ignorance does not play a role in the unabashed massacres taking place. The Sudanese government is banking on the fact that Americans will not realize that the Sudanese government is killing their own people, and worse, they are further banking on the fact that we will not care. Let us show them how mistaken they are.

Danielle Silber is international events coordinator in the International & Area Studies Department of Washington University.