Darfur – Roots of Conflict and the Role of the Arab and the International Community

A Tharwa Project Statement on Darfur

The unfolding humanitarian crisis in Darfur cannot be simply attributed to a conflict over scarce resources, although this is definitely an important factor in this regard.

Indeed, there is a history in the Sudan, and many other parts of Africa, of encroachment by nomadic tribes on lands owned by farmers whenever draught conditions prevailed. This seems to have been the initial catalyst for the current crisis in Darfur, but it is definitely not the reason why it has assumed such major humanitarian proportions.  

The more direct causes of the current crisis are to be found in the policies adopted by the Sudanese central government vis-à-vis the various combatants. By opting to support the Arab Janjaweed militias in their raids against the farming communities run by African tribes, the Khartoum government helped escalate the situation and instigated the growth of an indigenous rebellion movement vis-à-vis its authority.

 Faced with a rebellion, the Khartoum government could have chosen to revise its earlier discriminatory policies. Instead, it simply increased its support to the Janjaweed militias and provided them with more equipment and even ordered air raids against rebel and civilian targets. Divisions from the regular army were also sent to fight alongside the Janjaweed.

The question here, therefore, is why? Why did the Sudanese government support one group of its citizens against other groups?

Having reviewed existent research, reports and articles on the issue, the Tharwa Team  concluded that there seem to be two major reasons for that:

  • the longstanding policy of racial discrimination adopted by the Arab-speaking minority of the Sudan vis-à-vis African tribes, their religious affiliations notwithstanding, and

  • the ongoing political infighting between various factions in the current Islamic government, pitting the supporters of Sudan’s current President, Omar Bashir, against those of Hassan al-Turabi, the mentor of the Sudanese Islamic Revolution.

The ongoing war in Darfur, therefore, is very much the result of deep ethnic and political cleavages that have always divided the country.

While the international community should move immediately to contain the looming humanitarian emergency, it should also bear in mind that, unless the underlying causes of the conflict are addressed, few years from now, the Sudan is bound to face a similar crisis, perhaps in Darfur itself again, if not the South or one of the eastern provinces.

Indeed, ending the conflict in the Sudan and preventing its implosion calls for a new covenant of sorts between the various religious and ethnic groups involved on the one hand, and between the people and the government of the Sudan on the other.

Unless a serious process of political reform takes place in the Sudan, the country will simply develop a habit for genocide, as the various ethnic and religious groups involved continue to resort to violence to work out their differences, transforming the entire country into one major battlefield.

In order to prevent such a development, the international community should adopt a more active engagement policy vis-à-vis the Sudanese government and its multiplying opponents.

Building on the recent success in brokering a peace agreement between the Khartoum government and rebel movements in the South, the international community should now push for a more comprehensive settlement of all outstanding issues in the Sudan related to power-sharing and greater participation in the decision-making process by previously marginalized groups.

Only such a comprehensive approach, no matter how untenable it might at first appear, could help address the deeper causes for the current crisis in Darfur and the larger Sudanese identity crisis.

The Tharwa Project, as an independent regional initiative dedicated to improving minority-majority relations, conflict prevention and peace-building, has the following recommendations to make to the various national regional and international parties involved in the Darfur Crisis in their efforts to contain the situation:

 To the government of the Sudan: 

  • Stop your support of the Janjaweed militias and begin disarming them immediately. If you are unable to do that, seek regional and international help.

  • Bring those responsible for the various massacres and crimes against humanity that took place in Darfur to court. Allow for international monitoring of the process.

  • Allow free access to inflicted areas to the workers of international aid organizations.

  •  Engage in constructive dialogue with representatives of the rebel movements.

 To the leadership of the Janjaweed Militias: 

  • Stop all belligerent activities now.

  • Identify elements that took part in the massacres and deliver them to the central authorities.

  • Do not impede the work of humanitarian relief organizations in the region.

  • Prepare a list of demands and grievances that in your opinion led to the current conflict.

To the leaders of the various rebel factions in Darfur, including the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM): 

  • Stop your own belligerent activities in the region be they aimed at the Janjaweed militias or outposts of the Sudanese regular army.

  • Facilitate the work of international aid workers.

  • Help international workers document the ongoing crimes against humanity taking place in Darfur.

  • Prepare a clear list of demands and concerns that you think should be addressed by the local and central authorities involved.

 To Arab governments: 

  • Apply pressure on the Sudanese government to abide by the demands of the international community, including stopping its support for the Janjaweed militias, bringing guilty parties to trial and facilitating the works of international investigators, monitors, and relief workers.

  • Propose to play a mediatory role between the Sudanese government and rebel groups on the one hand, and between the various competing factions inside the Sudanese government itself on the other.

To Arab civil society and human rights organizations: 

  • A history of racial discrimination and human rights abuses by the central authorities of the Sudan has been amply documented by a variety of international human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Reports produced by these organizations with regard to the Arab-Israeli Conflict have always been accepted and widely cited by Arab governments and human rights organizations alike. Why the skepticism now? Evidence clearly indicates that crimes against humanity are currently taking place in Darfur and that the perpetrators are Janjaweed militias with the duplicity of the Sudanese central government. Arab civil society and human rights organizations need to issue clear and precise statements on the current developments in Darfur in order to retain their credibility.

  • Get more involved in monitoring ongoing developments in Darfur and in providing humanitarian aid.

To the International Community:

UN, US and EU:

  • The situation in Darfur is worsening with every passing day. Even with the best possible efforts at this stage, hundreds of thousands of people are still bound to die by yearend as a result of forced dislocation and resulting humanitarian conditions. Direct engagement with the Sudanese government might be a better way than international sanctions for preventing this crisis from worsening even further in the coming months. By imposing sanctions, you will be losing your leverage with the Sudanese government as well as other Arab countries that can otherwise help persuade the Sudanese government to be more pliant and cooperative. International isolation will only complicate relief efforts and will give a free hand to the perpetrators of the current crimes to pursue their aggressive policies vis-à-vis their perceived enemies.

  • Involve other Arab states, especially Egypt, in the talks with the Sudanese government.

Aid, development and human rights organizations:

  • Involve more Arab actors in the preparation of your reports to give them more credibility in the eyes of the Arab people, as was the case with the UNDP Arab Human Development Reports.

  • Avoid recourse to potentially incendiary language in your reports. The facts that you clearly document speak much louder than words.

The Tharwa Project is an independent initiative that seeks to provide a forum for identifying the aspirations and addressing the concerns of the various ethnic and religious minorities inhabiting the Arab World. In this, the Project seeks to foster better relations and establish a free channel for communication and dialogue between minority groups and the majority population in each Arab country and across the Arab World.

Written in Washington, D.C. during my fellowship at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.