Home | Comment & Analysis    Tuesday 30 August 2005

Ideology in arms: The emergence of Darfur’s Janjaweed


By Julie Flint and Alex de Waal

Aug 30, 2005 — The nomad encampment lay in the middle of a stony, trackless waste, three hour’s drive from the district town of Kutum. Broad black tents were spread among the few thorn trees and in the distance was the great sweep of Wadi Kutum, its pale red sand ringed by date palms and vegetable gardens. Visitors waited on a fine Persian carpet while the sheikh was summoned. Even in his 80s, bedridden and almost blind, Sheikh Hilal Abdullah was a commanding figure. As the visitors entered his tent, he swung his tall frame upright and ordered his retainer to slaughter a sheep for dinner. He was courteous and imperious in equal measure. "Who are you?" he demanded. "You can’t be British. All the British speak Koranic Arabic!" Then a servant served sweet tea on a silver platter while Hilal explained that the world was coming to an end.

Although settled in Aamo for more than a decade, Hilal kept to the old nomadic ways. Hung on the sides of his tent were only those things that could be packed on the back of a camel in an afternoon - water jars, saddles, spears, swords, an old Remington rifle, his silver tea set and well-worn rugs. "All the Um Jalul possess camels," he said. "You see that small boy?" He gestured at his grandson. "Even he has camels." He spoke about the traditions of mutual support among the Um Jalul, the most traditional of Darfur’s Rizeigat Arab nomads. During the famine that had devastated the region over the previous 18 months, one of his nephews had donated more than a hundred camels to support hungry kinsmen. He himself had loaned many animals, from a herd that was shrinking faster than he knew.

"None of us will need to cultivate," he said. "None of us even need to collect wild foods like the Zaghawa. Camel nomadism is our way of life."

But just an hour’s walk away was a small encampment of destitute nomads whose animals were dead and who were scraping away at infertile, sandy soils in a desperate attempt to grow enough millet to support their families. They pointed bitterly at the distant wadi and its fertile alluvium. "There’s enough land here," said one, "but the Tunjur have registered every inch." Their cooking pots were filled not with millet but with wild foods, especially the mukheit berries, bitter and scarcely palatable, that had been the staple diet of most Darfurians during the famine months.

The proud old sheikh refused to talk about his people’s poverty. Instead he spoke darkly of how the cosmic order was changing. In the old days, the nomads had been welcome guests of the Fur and Tunjur farmers. He himself had traveled south every year to Kargula on the slopes of Jebel Marra, where the Fur chief, Shartai Ibrahim Diraige, would welcome him with a feast and the nomads would assist the farmers by buying their grain, taking their goods to market and grazing their camels on the stubble of the harvest. On leaving, the sheikh would present the Shartai with two young camels. But now all this was changing: Fur farmers were barring the Arabs’ migratory routes and forcing the camel herders to range further south in search of pastures.

In the far north, in Wadi Howar, the Um Jalul shared the pastures with other herders, the Zaghawa and Meidob. But this, too, was changing. The famous jizu desert pastures had bloomed that season - 1985 - for the first time in seven years. Hilal brooded on the ecological changes that were disturbing the region. But he would rather die than change. For him, the old ways were the only ways. Contemptuous of police procedures, he presided over swift customary justice at his tribal court in Aamo. He had no hesitation in tying a witness or a suspect to a tree in the midday sun, or smearing him with grease to attract biting insects, to extract a confession. Punishment - payment of blood money, or whipping - was immediate. But people from many different tribes, in Chad as well as Darfur, trekked to Aamo court. There was no appeal, but the sheikh was famously just. The fame of his son Moussa has spread even further: his name is first on a list of suspected genocidal criminals compiled by the U.S. State Department.

Moussa Hilal: A big sheikh

On February 27, 2004, hundreds of armed men mounted on camels and horses attacked the town of Tawila on the eastern slope of Jebel Marra, the heart of the Fur lands. By the time the attack was over, three days later, 75 people had been killed, 350 women and children abducted and more than 100 women raped. Overseeing this mayhem, moving between a temporary headquarters in a large canvas tent and a convoy of five Landcruisers protected by mounted men, was Moussa Hilal, 44, the most powerful leader of the government-supported militias that have come to be known as the Janjaweed. In the days before the attack, more than 500 Janjaweed had converged on Tawila from different directions and congregated, without interference from any of the government forces in the area, in a makeshift camp on a nearby hill. This was more than Arab raiders settling old scores. These Janjaweed had light and medium weapons, communication, internal structure - and impunity. The state capital, Al-Fasher, is only 64 kilometers miles away from Tawila and Governor Osman Youssef Kibir was fully informed of the attack while it was continuing. But it was only on the third day, after the Janjaweed withdrew, that the governor sent representatives to Tawila.

Confident of the impunity afforded him by the government, and of international community’s refusal to match its bark with bite, Hilal has amused himself by playing word games while his men burn Darfur. He has never convincingly denied the crimes he stands accused of, nor shown any regret over the destruction of Darfur, its people and its multi-ethnic society. He has only protested at being called "Janjaweed" - a word customarily used to refer to outlaws and highwaymen from Chad. "The Janjaweed are bandits, like the mutineers. It is we who are fighting the Janjaweed." What Hilal does not deny, indeed relishes, is being a government agent. "A big sheikh. not a little sheikh." As the father in his desert tent took pride in his independence, so does the son in his Khartoum villa, many hundreds of kilometers away from Darfur, take pride in being the government’s man, "appointed" by the government to fight against the rebels. "I answered my government’s appeal, and I called my people to arms. I didn’t take up arms personally. A tribal leader doesn’t take up arms. I am a sheikh. I am not a soldier. I am soldiers!"

And not only "soldiers." According to documents obtained by the authors, Hilal is also leader - amid - of an Arab supremacist organization called the Tajamu al-Arabi, variously translated as the "Arab Gathering," "Arab Alliance," "Arab Congregation" and "Arab Congress." Little is known about the secret organization, which has roots in Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya and active contact today, according to the documents, with "intelligence and security leaders" from other Arab countries. But its ultimate objective in Darfur was spelled out in an August 2004 directive from Hilal’s headquarters. "Change the demography of Darfur and empty it of African tribes." Confirming the control of Military Intelligence over the Darfur file, the directive was addressed to no fewer than three intelligence services - the Intelligence and Security Department, Military Intelligence and National Security, and the ultra-secret "Constructive Security" or Amn al-Ijabi.

In the figure of Moussa Hilal, Arab supremacism has converged with criminal impunity, and the result has been cataclysm. Hilal’s public position is that, at the request of the government, he raised a tribal militia to fight the rebellion in Darfur. This is true, as far as it goes. In December 2003, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir vowed publicly to "use the army, the police, the mujahideen, the fursan to get rid of the rebellion."

But there is more to Hilal’s war than he acknowledges publicly. In the documents that we obtained, Hilal makes clear he is doing more than merely combatting a rebellion. He is waging jihad, "cleaning our land of agents, mercenaries, cowards and outlaws." He urges steadfastness despite the spotlight focused on Janjaweed activities. "We promise you that we are lions, we are the Swift and Fearsome Forces. We fear neither the media and the newspapers nor the foreign interlopers." He sends greetings to his supporters, a roll call of some of the most important men in national and regional government: "Major General Omar al-Bashir. Ustaz Ali Osman Mohammad Taha, vice president and the hero of Sudan. Brother Major General Adam Hamid Moussa, governor of South Darfur. Air Force General [Abdullah] Safi al-Nur. Brother Ustaz Osman Mohammad Youssef Kibir, governor of North Darfur" and the man who turned a blind eye to the rape of Tawila.

Hilal signs himself, "The Mujahid and Sheikh Moussa Hilal, emir of the Swift and Fearsome Forces," the main division of the Janjaweed forces based at Misteriha, the Janjaweed control center in North Darfur. He is not a common Janjaweed criminal. He is a holy warrior, tribal leader and commander in chief.

How did Moussa Hilal get from the tents of Aamo, where his father inspired such respect, to the paramilitary base that is Misteriha, where he commands such fear? The answer lies in a militarized ideology that fed off desperation and grievance.

Roots of the Northern Janjaweed

From the time of the sultans, the camel-herding, or Abbala Rizeigat, had been a headache to the rulers of Darfur. They refused to stay in the places allotted to them, and had no paramount chief to keep them in order. The British authorities tried to tidy up the tribal hierarchies, but never succeeded. Since the Rizeigat camel men were too few to qualify for their own nazir, or paramount chief, the first plan was to put them under the authority of one of Britain’s staunchest allies: Ibrahim Moussa Madibu, nazir of the cattle-herding Baggara Rizeigat. But the Abbala were too far away from the nazir’s headquarters in southeastern Darfur for that to be feasible. So the district officer proposed that the sheikhs of the Abbala Rizeigat elect their own deputy nazir.

The election, held at the annual horse fair in Al-Surfayya in December 1925, was anti-climactic. The most influential clans of the Mahamid, one of the main sections of the Abbala Rizeigat, boycotted the conference to protest against British support for Abdel-Nebi Abdel-Bagi Kiheil, a rival candidate. Abdel-Nebi, elected in their absence, turned out to be ill-suited for the post: he didn’t have the wealth to provide the continual generosity expected of a leader; he quarreled with Ibrahim Madibu, and he preferred town life.

A few years after the conference, Abdel-Nebi left his headquarters and court at Girer and Mehdi Hassaballah Ajina, sheikh of the Mahariyya, became the most senior chief. But Mehdi never became nazir. His claim was disputed by the sheikh of the Mahamid, Issa Jalul, whose clan - the Um Jalul - was the richest and most numerous of the Abbala Rizeigat. No decision on the nazirate was possible without Issa Jalul’s consent. Had Rizeigat camel-herders won their nazirate, a vast area of pastureland north of Kutum could have been allocated to them as a tribal homeland, ending their centuries-old search for land to call their own. Wells and reservoirs could have been dug to assist the herders in their annual trek northward to the desert, minimizing the risks of clashes with other nomads. But the status of the Abbala Rizeigat in Darfur’s tribal hierarchy was never resolved, fuelling a cycle of tribal conflicts and economic grievances that culminated in the emergence of the Janjaweed.

In 1948, Issa Jalul died. None of his sons was considered worthy of succeeding him as sheikh of the Mahamid, and the clan leaders met to decide a successor. Hilal Mohammad Abdullah, then in his 40s, came from a humble background: he had most recently been a guard in Jalul’s court. But Jalul on his deathbed endorsed him as his successor and he was elected by acclaim. Hilal spent the following half-century striving to become the first nazir of the Abbala Rizeigat.

Sheikh Hilal stayed at Aamo until his death in 1990. In his last years, he witnessed one momentous event beyond his control and was caught up in another for which he was partly responsible. The first event was the great drought and famine of 1984-85; the second, the arming of his tribe.

Death of the old order

Seeing the northern desert dying, and drawn increasingly to the savanna to the south, the Zaghawa say that "the world finishes south." The drying of the Sahara is an integral part of their cosmos. The same is true for the camel-herding Rizeigat. They, too, have drifted southward across the desert over the centuries. Speaking at the time of the great drought of 1984-85, Sheikh Hilal recounted this historic migration, and how it had been driven by drought, war and political rivalries: whenever two cousins disagreed, one could always move somewhere else. Unlike other Darfurian Arabs who claimed that their forefathers had always come across an empty land, Hilal didn’t dispute that Darfur was always inhabited. Taking his stick, he drew a chessboard in the sand. One set of squares he allocated to the Fur and Tunjur farmers. The second set he labeled as pastureland, available for the use of the nomads. But Hilal brooded on how the drought was disrupting the age-old order: wind was blowing sand onto cultivated farms and huge rainstorms were carving gullies out of the wadis. Farmers were now barring the nomads’ way by erecting fences or even burning off the grass.

Even worse, although the old sheikh was too proud to admit it, the Um Jalul were losing their beloved camels. Many were becoming farmers or laborers in towns such as Kebkabiyya and Birka Saira, and the villages in between such as Misterih. The failed nomads of Aamo and Birka Saira, seeking a route out of poverty, were ready conscripts to rapacious militias. Along with the other peoples of Darfur, the Um Jalul were eating or selling their precious assets in order to stay alive. Darfurians were astonishingly resilient in the face of the worst threat to their lives and livelihoods since the famine of 1913. Thanks to their hardiness and skill, and especially to their ability to gather wild foods, far fewer died than aid agencies predicted. But survival came at a price which was only apparent later: they exhausted their land, their assets and their hospitality. The fabric of rural life never recovered.

Sheikh Hilal was less innocent of the second change that killed the old order: guns. Just as the rains failed, semi-automatic firearms began to flood Darfur.

Then-President Jaafar Nimeiri had allowed Sudan’s famine to develop unchecked and in April 1985 popular protests brought him down. Relief aid at last began to reach Darfur and, with a new regime in Khartoum ready to deal with Libya, the trans-Saharan road to the Kufra oasis in Libya was opened, transforming Darfur. The desert road allowed impoverished Darfurians to migrate to oil-rich Libya and send money back to their families. It also allowed the Ansar, the military wing of the Umma Party (see below), and Islamist exiles to return to Sudan. Having trained in Gadhafi’s camps, alongside the Failaq al-Islamiyya (Islamic Legion) or as part of the Arab Gathering, they arrived infused with a supremacist agenda. They also came with weapons: huge convoys of military trucks rolled across the desert to set up rear bases in Darfur.

Gadhafi’s designs on Chad needed an intermediary in North Darfur. He chose the Mahamid, the largest section of the northern Rizeigat and the best represented in Chad. Sheikh Hilal, endeavoring to boost his clan’s power, had long been in close touch with his brethren in Chad, and the Um Jalul’s camps had been used for storing Libyan arms destined for the Burkan ("Volcano") Brigade headed by Ahmat Acyl Aghbash. But Hilal never saw the automatic weapons that changed the face of Darfur. Incapacitated from early 1986, the old sheikh lost his sight, rarely rose from his bed, and withdrew from worldly affairs. Moussa Hilal, the only one of Sheikh Hilal’s sons who had attended secondary school, took over the leadership of the Mahamid before his father’s death. As clashes with the Fur grew more frequent, it was he who organized the Mahamid’s new arms supplies from Libya.

Arab Gathering

As significant as lack of rain and an abundance of guns was a new political ideology in Darfur: Arab supremacism. Sheikh Hilal, for all his stature and ambition, was a parochial and traditional man; neither he nor his courtiers had ideological sophistication. But by the end of the 1980s, the old bedouin intrigues became caught up in national and international currents far stronger than they. The origins of those currents lay in the Libya of Gadhafi in the 1970s. The roots of Arab supremacism in Darfur do not lie in the Arabized elite ruling in Khartoum. They lie in the politics of the Sahara.

In Sudan in the 1960s, the Umma Party and the Muslim Brotherhood had supported the Arab factions who led the Chadian opposition with arms, money and rear bases, believing that they were fighting for the rights of Muslims against the Chadian government’s Christian, "African" agenda. But Nimeiri normalized relations with Chad upon coming to power in 1969 and the axis of Sahelian Arabism shifted to Libya, where Gadhafi was dreaming of an Arab state straddling the desert and where, thanks to oil money, he was busy fashioning his instruments. These included the Islamic Legion, which recruited bedouins from Mauritania to Sudan; the Munazamat al-Daawa al-Islamiyya (Organization of the Islamic Call), which fostered Islamic philanthropy and evangelization; and sponsorship of the Sudanese opposition National Front including the Muslim Brotherhood and the Ansar. In addition, Gadhafi was hosting a raft of Arab opposition movements, known popularly as the "Arab Gathering," and giving them military training in Kufra in the southeast of the country.

In Darfur, the first signs of an Arab racist ideology emerged in the early 1980s. At the time of regional elections in 1981, candidatures had taken on ethnic dimensions and the Arabs had been hopelessly split, allowing the Fur politician Ahmed Diraige to sweep to power. Darfurian Arabs argued that if they were united, and drew the Zaghawa and Fellata into their constituency, they could command an absolute majority. All that was needed was an "Arab alliance." Around this time, leaflets and cassette recordings purporting to come from a group calling itself the Arab Gathering began to be distributed anonymously, proclaiming that the zurga (a derogatory term for blacks) had ruled Darfur long enough and it was time for Arabs to have their turn. The speakers claimed that Arabs constituted a majority in Darfur. They called upon them to prepare themselves to take over the regional government - by force if necessary - and to change the name from Darfur, the "homeland of the Fur," to reflect the new reality.

A directive, published during the "critical stage" of 1998-99, laid out the aims and strategies of the movement in greater detail, and set a "target date" of 2020 for completion of its project. Invoking, for the first time, the name of the tribe of the Prophet Mohammad, this directive was entitled "Qoreish 2." The crux of Qoreishi ideology, a convergence of Arab supremacy and Islamic extremism, is that that those who trace their lineage to the Prophet are the true custodians of Islam and therefore entitled to rule Muslim lands. Adherents regard Sudan’s riverine elite as "half-caste" Nubian-Egyptians and believe the country’s only authentic Arabs are the Juhayna, the direct descendents of the Qoreish, who crossed the Sahara from Libya in the Middle Ages. They claim that these immigrants found an empty land stretching from the Nile to Lake Chad, and say this land should now be governed by their descendents - the present-day Abbala and Baggara Arabs.

The Qoreishi idea became an ideology in arms. No sooner had it been published than Darfur was engulfed in a civil war that was stoked by the spillover from Chad. For the first time, Darfurians heard of a militia called the Janjaweed.

Julie Flint and Alex de Waal are authors of "Darfur: A Short History of a Long War," from which this commentary is excerpted for THE DAILY STAR. The book is published by Zed Books, and will be available in October 2005.

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