Home | Comment & Analysis    Friday 30 July 2004

Why Khartoum wants a war in Darfur

Ali Ali-Dinar, The Parliamentary Brief

July 2004 — Since the early 1970s, Darfur has been affected by waves of climatic changes which have forced some groups to migrate. Zaghawa moved from their homeland (Dar Zaghawa) to settle in the lands of the Fur, Arabs, Masalit, Birged, and as well as in many urban centres in Darfur and beyond.

This gradual movement took place without reported incidents and without assistance from the government. The same could be said of the movement of nomadic Arabs looking for pastures for their livestock.

Until recently, land ownership, and ethnic boundaries have been respected amicably by different ethnic groups in Darfur. Disputes were resolved in traditional conferences (ajaweed/muatamarat al sulh) whose rulings were always respected and honoured.

Even at times when the government was involved it served as a facilitator and not as an enforcer. Government neutrality contained ethnic conflicts not only in Darfur but also in Kordofan and in the south.

The 1980s brought a return to war in the south. Sudan’s then-government responded to military failure by arming Arab tribes bordering the south and with civil war in neighbouring Chad, small arms proliferated in Darfur. The National Islamic Front (NIF) government that came to power in the 1989 coup not only continued arming Arab tribes but imported an Arabist/Islamist philosophy that highlighted and widened ethnic divisions. Attacks on the African peoples of Darfur multiplied and government oppression increased.

Resistance was sporadic before the emergence of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) which opened its offensive by twice seizing a major town in Northern Darfur in February 2003. Unable to cope with the rebellion, the Government opened negotiations but quickly breached the cease-fire. In retaliation the SLA, now joined by the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) attacked El Fasher, Meleit, and Kutum.

The capture of large numbers of troops from El Fasher and north of Kutum forced the Government to sign a ceasefire and agree to negotiations in Abeche, Chad on 3 September 2003. The Government of Sudan and the SLA agreed to curbs on the Arab militias, the release of war prisoners, and the delivery of aid.

However, with continuous violations the cease-fire did not last long and the conflict quickly escalated to full-scale war against the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa. Cease-fires in 2004 have followed the same fate.

The Government’s new tactics included heavy aerial bombardment, the burning of villages, bombing of water sources, the killing of livestock, looting of homes, the destruction of farms, and ethnic cleansing.

Arbitrary arrests, the widespread use of torture, abductions and extra-judicial executions of those suspected of supporting the rebels, as well as the systematic raping of women and girls, are regularly reported.

There are several reasons for the National Islamic Front Government of Sudan’s war in Darfur. It is partly explained by the nature of the regime which, since it came to power, has used widespread repression, emergency laws, forcible conscription, arbitrary dismissal from work, as well as a jihad against the south and the Nuba mountains to tighten its grip on power.

If successful, the current peace talks in Naivasha will lose the NIF Government the use of war to rally the country behind it. Darfur could serve as a substitute for its war in the south.
The National Islamic Front Government of Sudan’s war in Darfur is influenced by the following:

1. The only internal threat to the NIF is the army and the war in Darfur keeps it pre-occupied;

2. The Darfur war provides a pretext for the extension of emergency laws and other repressive polices;

3. This war can serve as an excuse for delaying the elections required by the Machakos protocols;

4. War enriches NIF elites and the security forces and with the slow down of the war in the south and a possible peace a new source of profiteering is welcomed by many;

5. Revenge for what has been destroyed in arms and personnel in Darfur, and a victory - in contrast to army defeats in the south;

6. A large percentage of Government of Sudan soldiers are from western Sudan, so it’s in the Government’s interest to create division among them as one group;

7. Divide and rule: the Janjaweed spread fear and animosity between the Arab and African peoples of Darfur;

8. Weaken the Umma Party’s support among non-Arab Darfurians;

9. The presence of the NIF’s rival Islamist faction, the Popular National Congress (headed by NIF ideologue Hassan al Turabi), in the form of the JEM;

10. Generating support for the NIF from individuals and groups who have benefited from the war;

11. The war creates new alliances with groups that own livestock - a significant source of wealth - as future strategic partners;

12. Shifting the radius of the NIF’s ideological expansion westwards, after its defeat southwards.

The establishment of peace in Darfur is of vital importance, not only for its own inhabitants, but also nationally, regionally, and globally; the situation in Darfur is no different from that of southern Sudan.

The involvement of the government in the current war in Darfur, siding with some groups against others, has shattered the basis of peaceful co-existence among Darfurians, and even raises the question for many of their allegiance to the Sudanese state.

Peace in Darfur is necessary for stabilising the surrounding regions which include southern Sudan, Chad, and Central African Republic and to prevent the conflict spreading. The future of the region is at stake.

Dr. Ali B. Ali-Dinar, University of Pennsylvania, African Studies Center.