Home | Comment & Analysis    Sunday 13 June 2004

Darfur is part of a wider problem


By David White

LONDON, June 13, 2004 (Financial Times) — We have got to know Darfur as Africa’s "hidden war", the "unseen tragedy", the "forgotten crisis". Well, not any longer it isn’t.

The gathering disaster in the western outback of Sudan has, belatedly, grabbed the world’s attention. But by the time the "forgotten war" claimed the headlines it was officially over, with a ceasefire of sorts already agreed between the government and Darfur-based rebels.

Near-silence throughout the whole of a year-long conflict in the region has given way to alarm. Darfur has become a world cause, combining elements of the Rwanda catastrophe 10 years ago and the Ethiopian famine 10 years before that. But how long will this attention be sustained? And will it go any way towards remedying the core problems that brought about the present crisis?

Six months ago about 600,000 people in Darfur had already been uprooted from their homes and livelihoods, largely ignored by the world outside. Now there are twice as many at risk. By October, which would normally be harvest time, the figure could be 2m.

Andrew Natsios, the US government’s top aid official, has predicted that 300,000 people will perish whatever happens, mainly from disease and malnutrition. Aid workers on the ground in Darfur believe there is still time - just - to prevent death on such a scale if international agencies get their act together.

The fact that this crisis in the middle of nowhere was neglected for so long is perhaps unsurprising, since neglect is the root of the problem. The immediate issue was the emergence last year of armed movements claiming a bigger say in national affairs. There was little coverage of the ensuing violence. The Sudanese authorities kept television cameras out and were therefore able to dismiss any disturbing reports as unverified.

The US and Britain were involved in helping to secure peace in Sudan’s other protracted civil war, over self-determination for the non-Muslim south of the country. Their main interest was in completing that process and ushering Sudan - once the home of Osama bin Laden - back into the international fold. Concern about what the northern government was doing in the outer confines of its own territory was muted, although there was already ample evidence of what was going on.

Making sense of the events in Darfur is hard. There is no simple explanation of how a local armed insurgency brought down such wrath against rural communities. It is unclear whether the campaign corresponds to any set agenda or, if it does, whose.

The word genocide is too freely used. Deliberate attacks on civilians, including indiscriminate bombing and executions, can certainly be categorised as war crimes or crimes against humanity. Despite official denials, there is overwhelming testimony that attacks by Arab militia riders have been undertaken in joint operations with government forces. But this is not genocide in the sense of a deliberate plan to kill a whole population group, as happened in Rwanda. A more plausible version is that, by exploiting traditional tensions in the region, the authorities unleashed forces beyond their control and had difficulty coming to terms with the consequences

Clashes between farmers and nomadic herders go back for generations in Darfur. Conflict over land, access to water and the raiding of cattle have got worse in the past 20 years as a result of drought, desertification and the availability of modern weapons. At its origin it is a conflict about resources, not racial hatred. The standard labelling of "Arabs" as opposed to "black Africans" is misleading inasmuch as both groups are black and both are Muslim. The distinctions are more tribal and cultural. The tragedy is that the conflict does not stem from an ethnic confrontation but has become one, created by the rebellion and the brutal response to it.

It is reasonable to suppose that the Khartoum government felt genuinely threatened by the uprising. It had come to accept the possible future secession of the south, with its oil and other resources. Now it faced a challenge inside its own domain. Following its practice in the south, it turned to local militias. In the pattern of attacks, it is tempting to see a hardened military logic: weaken the rebels by depriving them of shelter and food. The looting of aid supplies would fit in with this theory.

Even if the expelled communities return to their villages they will need support at least until late next year, when they may be producing cereals again. They will not return, anyway, until they are sure of being protected. Government attempts so far to make people go back have failed. While the emphasis is now on humanitarian access to their camps, the more basic need is peace. And that requires a political settlement.

The danger in all this is that other disaffected populations will conclude that the way to obtain assistance and political concessions is to start a war. This is becoming a familiar African pattern. Conflicts erupt most frequently in those countries where there have already been conflicts.

With a bigger population than Iraq and five times the land area, Sudan is a vast nation fractured by lack of development in all its peripheral regions. In the absence of sustained support, there are more potential crises in store.

Emergency aid is badly needed, in larger quantities and more quickly than has been coming up to now. What immediate aid can do is save lives and buy time for Darfur. But let’s have no illusion that it will solve Sudan.

* The writer is the FT’s Africa editor

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