Home | Comment & Analysis    Saturday 21 August 2004

The Black Book history or Darfur’s darkest chapter


By William Wallis, The Financial Times

CAIRO, August 20, 2004 — One Friday after prayers in May 2000, as many as 1,000 copies of an unremarkable A4 manuscript appeared mysteriously in mosques and other public places in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. And not just in public places. Omar Hassan el-Bashir, the president of Sudan, found one on his desk when he returned from his devotions. Thereafter, the document, in its Arabic original, was in and out of photocopying machines across Sudan. One Sudanese academic who was involved in its translation claims that as many as 50,000 copies were eventually circulating - reaching remote and undeveloped parts of the country, where the internet was as yet science fiction.

The "Black Book" as it was called, or "al kitab al aswad" in Arabic, struck at the heart of one of Africa’s least tolerant regimes. Only a handful of Sudanese knew how its anonymous authors produced such an explosive document without falling foul of the security services. The mystery surrounding its appearance, and the controversy over its content, grabbed public attention at a time when only the most cautious literature made it past the state censors. In it were the seeds of the rebellion in Darfur - an austere western territory of desert plains and rocky outcrops larger than Iraq, neglected by successive governments, where a tragedy of epic dimensions is playing out.

World opinion is now polarising around the question of how to halt a gathering catastrophe in Sudan - a country that has already been afflicted by civil war and unrest for the best part of half a century. But what to do? Armed intervention is not especially popular in the wake of Iraq. The threat of UN sanctions has raised alarm in the Middle East, where there is deep, popular hostility to western interference in the affairs of a fellow member of the Arab League. Suspicion about what is motivating public outrage in the west is now so intense that reports of systematic rape and killing in Darfur are mistrusted in parts of the Arab media to the same degree as US and British claims last year about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. The government of Sudan has proved resilient in its denials, and resistant to international efforts to resolve what is both a human rights and humanitarian crisis. If there is an international conscience (see The Media Department, page 10), it is more wary now about involvement in conflicts of deep complexity.

The war in Darfur certainly resists easy cataloguing. But the Black Book is as good a place to start as any. Like Sudan as a whole, Darfur is at the crossroads between the Arab and African worlds - a land at the south of Saharan trade routes, where pilgrims wandered through from west Africa on their way to the haj in Mecca, and where camels chew the leaves of mango trees. Islam found a footing there in the 16th century, and took on the more mystical, Sufi forms common to other parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Over the centuries, black African farming communities, and the mostly Arab or Arabised nomadic tribes who grazed their herds on its dusty plains, grew inter-reliant. The destruction, over the past 18 months, of the social fabric and physical resilience of these communities - hardened to life on the fringes of the desert - is only the latest manifestation of a failing police state. In the near half-century since it won independence from Britain and Egypt, Sudan has enjoyed little peace. The Black Book offered an explanation why.

To compile the book, a group calling itself "The Seekers of Truth and Justice" had - over a period of five months and with many clandestine meetings in which each member kept his own network of collaborators to himself - somehow plucked sensitive records from state archives. From these and more public information, they catalogued iniquities to rival apartheid in South Africa, documenting the narrow ethnicity of senior officials in successive governments, and castigating the moral bankruptcy of the incumbent regime that had based its legitimacy on Islam.

The Black Book was a call to action, though not (then) to arms. It laid out, in figures and graphs, facts that aimed to show, as it put it, "the imbalance of power and wealth in Sudan". It was an anatomy of Sudan that revealed much more disease than health. It showed - occasionally in indignant prose but more often through careful attention to statistics - how Sudan’s post-independence administrations have been dominated by three tribes hailing from the Nile valley north of Khartoum - select even among Sudan’s Arab or Arabised populations in the north. A region that represented about five per cent of Sudan’s population, according to the official census, had occupied between 47 and 70 per cent of cabinet positions since 1956, and the presidency for all that time. It was also overwhelmingly dominant in the military hierarchy, the judiciary and the provincial administration. Although the figures showed a loosening of the stranglehold under an elected government in the late 1980s, under all rules - military, elected and theocratic - this elite had concentrated wealth and power to varying degrees in a tiny slice of Africa’s largest nation. From there, they attempted to impose a uniform Arab and Islamic culture on one of the continent’s most heterogeneous societies.

After a few twists and turns, I managed to trace one of its authors. Idris Mahmoud Logma is now a representative of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), one of two rebel groups that took up arms in Darfur at the beginning of last year in a loose alliance against the government. He is now living in exile in Ireland and we spoke by telephone. When the Black Book was distributed in 2000, he was a trader in Khartoum. It was there that he and 14 others - including one former state minister, prominent among Islamists - developed the idea for the analysis. Most of them were young Muslims from black African tribes in Darfur who had graduated from Khartoum universities. Logma says their experience at close hand of the injustice with which Sudan was being ruled drove them to take risks. Their message, he says, was designed to appeal to all marginalised Sudanese - whether of Arab, Afro-Arab or African identity, Christian or Muslim.

To their critics in Khartoum - largely in, or connected with, the ruling administration - "The Seekers of Truth and Justice" were motivated by political ambition and were prepared to stir up ethnic hatred to meet their ends. In fact, the appearance of the Black Book did coincide with a deep split in the regime, which has exacerbated tension in society. Hassan al Turabi has been a force in Khartoum politics since the 1960s - and when a coup ended Sudan’s last experiment with elected rule in 1989, he became the new administration’s eminence grise and Islamist ideologue. He played a central role in the bloody purges that established the authority of the current regime, ensuring the apparently absolute rule of General el-Bashir and a cabal of security chiefs in his shadows. But he lost a prolonged power struggle with the president, and with it his pre-eminent position in 1999.

Logma refutes government claims that Turabi, who has since been in and out of jail, was the godfather of the Darfur rebellion. He says that Turabi didn’t have anything to do with writing the Black Book, nor did he use it as part of attempts - which he has made since - to rebuild a constituency among Sudan’s black African Muslims. The JEM has publicly embraced a more moderate form of political Islam than Turabi espoused when in power; at the same time, it is Islamist, and it does differentiate itself from the main rebel group in Darfur, the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), which is firmly secular - as are the rebels who have kept the civil war in Southern Sudan going since 1983.

Logma says members of the Black Book’s original group of 15 have now found their way into both the Islamist and the secular movements in Darfur. Like other graduates who have joined the rebellion, they were driven by their desire to reshape Sudan - and purge it of the failures of past generations. "During that time when we were writing the book," he says, "we were not thinking of rebellion. We wanted to achieve our aims by democratic and peaceful means. Later we realised the regime would only listen to guns."

My first sight of the consequences of that choice was from the murky window of an antique Sudan Air Antonov as it plunged down to the airport at Nyala, capital of South Darfur. On display was an arsenal of Russian helicopter gunships and MiG jets, assembled as part of the counter-offensive that has driven more than a million black Africans from their homes.

I was there during a ceasefire, but while fighting between the government and rebels had ebbed, attacks against civilians were continuing. A few days later, the helicopters were deployed to a market further north. According to witnesses, 10 local traders died in the attack.

El-Bashir was due in Nyala at a rally. Thousands were flocking into the sandy central square to hear what he had to say - travelling by foot, donkey and camel, and on remarkably svelte-looking horses. Temperatures that day reached more than 45 deg C, but the heat was no deterrent.

General el-Bashir’s rule has been ruthless and radical since the outset. During it, the Khartoum regime became an international pariah for hosting Islamic terrorists and using terror itself to crush dissent. But any account of Sudan has to recognise that its president has been caught between many competing agendas.

The US, Britain and other states engaged with Sudan have been pushing his government to end the civil war in the south of the country - where Christian and other non-Muslim African groups have fought the central government for 21 years, with a toll estimated at 2 million deaths. Under sustained international pressure, both Khartoum and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) rebels seemed ready, last year, to sign a comprehensive peace agreement. The deal, it was hoped, would change the face of Sudan, setting it on a path to less uneven development and ending Khartoum’s international isolation.

For both western peacemakers and the Khartoum government, Darfur was getting in the way. For different reasons, both tried initially to keep it out of the picture. On the part of the Sudanese government this meant restricting media and humanitarian access as Darfur rapidly became engulfed in flames. For the diplomats it involved promoting the idea that the problems in Sudan’s many other regions could be more readily addressed once Khartoum had made peace with the south, and there was the best chance of that in 50 years. This was roughly the argument that - perhaps unfairly - earned Alan Goulty, Britain’s former special envoy to Sudan, the nickname of "Mr Guilty" among some Darfurians. Both the diplomats and Khartoum apparently underestimated the consequences of maintaining this position. For, in retrospect, the international focus on finding peace in one region may inadvertently have aided atrocities in another.

The ruling National Congress in Khartoum was divided on the settlement of the civil war in the south. Nearly half of its members were opposed to an initial compromise which would give Southern Sudan a chance to vote for independence after a six-year power and wealth-sharing transition. Faced with hardline pressure from some of their closest supporters, neither El-Bashir nor his powerful vice- president, Ali Osman Taha, wanted to make concessions to another rebellious region. With the US and its allies preoccupied by negotiations over the South, they apparently felt they could prosecute the war in Darfur how they chose.

By the time I came to Nyala and saw El-Bashir waving his stick at the crowds and railing against the "enemies of Sudan", the cost of the counter-offensive was becoming huge, both in civilian lives and in terms of his government’s credibility. Flanked by religious and tribal elders and with the gunships patrolling the skies, he called on the region to lay down its arms. His speech was punctuated with references to Islam. Like the mixed-race Darfur audience to whom he delivered it, the speech was also full of contradictions. To some he promised peace and development. There were no "Arabs or Africans" there, he said, only Sudanese.

But he had a different message for the Arab militias who have helped prosecute the war on the government’s behalf, destroying in the process much of what little "development" Darfur had. To them he offered his blessings. At one point, hundreds of irregular horse and camel-borne fighters rode past him in procession, some in tribal regalia, some in military uniform. El-Bashir appealed to their faith, saluting them as the "Mujahideen". In the crowds, there was no confusion as to who these horsemen were.

Officials in Khartoum have always denied that the government has armed and supported these militia, known colloquially as Janjaweed - a derogatory term for outlaws - and internationally now as the harbingers of Darfur’s ruin. They deny that the Janjaweed have been given a free rein to spread terror. But on the ground officials are hard-pressed to hide the close relations that have evolved between them. In several places, not just in Nyala that day, I saw regular security forces mixing freely with militia.

I travelled west, accompanied by a government minder. Khartoum had begun to respond to international pressure to allow aid agencies and reporters in. At the time, the regime’s representatives had yet to develop a consistent line to explain the mass destruction all around them. Official efforts at persuasion involved, variously, cordial hospitality - an invitation to lunch with members of the state government, or the offer of a government car. Or intimidation. We were subjected at various places along the road to hours of questioning by security officers. Soldiers on the edge of the volcanic Jebel Marra mountains, from where the rebels launched their first attacks, were particularly hostile and blocked the road. Most officials were prone to denial and blamed atrocities on the rebels. But there were others who seemed to be doing everything they could to smooth our way.

One thing was very clear. Insofar as Logma and his fellow Black Book authors had hoped to further the interests of their people by taking up arms, their project was failing catastrophically. On the journey from Nyala to El Geneina, 350km west and on the Chad border, there was barely a building standing among the dozens of villages we visited and passed. The homes, mosques and schools of the ethnic Fur and Masalit farming communities were smashed and looted - both those on the main roads and off the beaten track. This was no outburst of communal anger. The scale of the destruction suggested it could only have been part of a systematic and planned operation.

Hundreds of thousands of villagers had fled into larger towns, where they grew hungrier and weaker by the day. There were few young men among them: witnesses said they had either been executed or joined the rebels. Some of the women and girls I met had been raped so many times they could barely walk.

It was at the garrison town of Nyertete in the shadows of the Jebel Marra that the ruthless military logic behind what has happened first came home. When the rebellion started, it caught the army unawares. The rebels were able to sweep across large swathes of territory. In one spectacular attack on the provincial capital of El Fasher in April last year, the SLM occupied the airport after destroying government helicopters and Antonov bombers and killing 75 government soldiers. They even briefed university students before pulling back into the mountains, taking an air force commander with them as hostage.

There was a real danger that the rebels were gaining the psychological upper hand and that their initial success would galvanise other disenfranchised groups into a wider revolt against the Khartoum regime. Throughout this year and last, there have been persistent reports that the Beja tribe in the east was also readying for war. As the Black Book argued so forcefully, few regions in Sudan have cause to feel satisfied with the status quo.

Forgoing advice from the governor of El Fasher, who believed a political solution was still possible and was sacked for saying so, El-Bashir promised to "unleash" the army and crush the rebellion. But he could not do so easily with the conventional forces at his disposal.

Weakened by prolonged deployment in the south, and by the concentration of powers in parallel security services, the Sudanese army was unable effectively to counter another threat. Moreover, many lower and middle-ranking officers hail from Darfur as well as a significant proportion of the rank and file. There was and still is opposition in the army to the way the war has been carried out. It was risky to rely on it to counter the rebellion.

So, one former senior ally of El-Bashir in the regime told me, the security services under the control of a cabal of officers close to vice-president Taha chose to let loose the Janjaweed. Their strategy may have looked something like this: conventional troops, such as the ones at Nyertete, defend large towns with tanks and artillery. From there they curb the immediate danger of the rebels developing into a conventional fighting force, as their counterparts did in the south, by occupying towns and large chunks of territory. Outside the towns, and often accompanied by bombing raids, camel and horse-borne Arab militia have wiped out the villages from which the rebels could wage a guerrilla war. Huddled into sprawling, makeshift camps, the displaced populations I came across were under close government or Janjaweed control. Most of them were too terrified to forage for food, let alone grow it to feed guerrilla fighters.

It has been a brutal and in some ways effective operation. By February it had driven most rebel bases across the border into Chad in the west, and forced the political leadership into ever-longer spells abroad. However, as the horror of events in Darfur plays out on global television screens and public outrage fuels threats of intervention by the UN and western governments, the rebels, having lost the military advantage, have been regaining the moral one. Even militarily, they now appear to be rebounding.

During many episodes in the civil war in the south, the government used irregular ethnic militia in parallel with conventional forces to devastating effect. The primary goal in replicating this strategy in Darfur may have been to win the war. But there is widespread suspicion, both within Sudan and abroad, that a more sinister agenda has been stirred into the mix.

Whether by coincidence or design, the counter-offensive has given certain nomadic Arab tribes the upper hand in the struggle for control of land and pasture. Across Darfur, I saw vast herds of camel and cattle grazing their way across fields that farmers would in normal years have been preparing to sow. In some areas, established orchards as well as mud brick huts have been brought down, lending an air of permanence to the destruction. Those who might once have defended them have lost everything for now, including their ancestral land.

In the crowded market town of Zalingei, I heard something of Darfur’s past - seen now, through the eyes of a prominent tribal elder, as a golden time. Sultan Fadel Seasy Mohamed Ateim is a chieftain of the Fur farming people, from whom Darfur got its name. He spoke with injured pride of a 100 years of history, his eyes hidden behind thick tortoise-shell dark glasses.

He traced the territorial aspect of the conflict back to the 1970s and 1980s, when creeping desert and drought drove nomadic pastoralists further south at the same time as farmers were expanding production on available fertile land. But where before social mechanisms existed to resolve tribal disputes, by the 1980s relations between the tribes were breaking down.

Left alone, he suggested, the peaceful co-existence of Darfur’s tribes might have continued even in adversity. But external interference from Khartoum and further afield has taken its toll. Towards the end of the 1980s, groups of Arab fighters were returning home with weapons after participating in Colonel Muammer Gadaffi of Libya’s failed attempt, during the civil war in neighbouring Chad, to annex the semi-desert belt south of the Sahara to his pan-Arab cause. Arabised militia from Darfur and next door Kordofan had also been hardened to battle after their deployment by Khartoum to fight the rebellion in southern Sudan.

It was a period of scattered conflict and an arms race between competing tribes. During it, said the sultan, a small minority of political and tribal leaders among Darfur’s Arab clans began promoting expansionary political ambitions. These crystallised, according to documents from the time, around an openly supremacist agenda, which they allegedly carried around Darfur. In a letter written to prime minister Sadiq el Mahdi in 1987, the group - calling itself the Arab Alliance - demanded control of the state government and called more broadly for the subjugation of the "Zurga" or blacks. It was the first time that a political project in Darfur revolved explicitly around race.

Traditional leaders and politicians from various of Darfur’s tribes and from within the National Congress are convinced the shadowy Arab Alliance has seized the opportunity provided by last year’s revolt to regroup around the same supremacist agenda. If this is true, it goes some way towards explaining the cruel and brutal humiliation inflicted on African villagers, and lends some weight to those who call it "ethnic cleansing".

So far, no thorough independent investigation has been carried out to determine the true intent behind Darfur’s ruin. If it was indeed "genocidal", as the US Congress decided in a vote last month, the "genocide" may have been arrested early in its tracks by foreign pressure. US secretary of state Colin Powell was more cautious after the Congress vote, saying the administration would examine the issue. But, addressing the Khartoum government, he said that "since they turned it on, they can turn it off".

Back in Khartoum, I visited a former close collaborator of El-Bashir at his home. He shared Powell’s view, and named a cabal of hardliners within the regime who have promoted the Janjaweed, channelling support for them through the security services. He was more circumspect, however, about their ability now to control the monster they helped unleash. They are driven, he suggested, not only by the politics of Darfur. There is the wider prospect that their power base will continue eroding if foreign and domestic pressure leads, eventually, to a more pluralist and open style of government in Khartoum. "When a political movement is weakened, people resort to the most primitive allegiances," he said. In Darfur’s case, these were tribe and race.

The intractable conflict in southern Sudan suggests that strategy is doomed. Sudan’s diversity is born of centuries of interaction at the confluence of the Arab and African worlds, and a territory of 2.5m sq km that stretches from the Sahara desert to the jungles at Africa’s heart. It is represented in many shades of brown and black and many different faiths. Although some may choose now to forget, the 17th century founder of the Darfur sultanate, Suleiman Solong, was himself of mixed descent - the son of an Arab father and Fur mother.

Technology too is aiding the resistance. From Khartoum, sympathisers text pay-as-you-go codes from scratch cards to the satellite phones of rebel commanders. Two volumes of the Black Book are now published on the JEM’s website, extending the rebels’ message well beyond the reach of photocopying machines.

"It is difficult to rule Sudan with an iron fist," said El-Bashir’s former ally, speaking partly, I sensed, from experience. The question at the heart of Sudan’s future as one nation is whether the Khartoum regime is prepared to give up trying.

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