Darfur, Indigeneity, and How to Confront an Empire in 2015
Sudan in focus ⬿

Darfur, Indigeneity, and How to Confront an Empire in 2015

Darfuri refugee camp in Chad, June 2015 (Photo by Mark Knobil)
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August 17, 2015

On July 24, 2015, Minni Minnawi, a leader from the Darfuri rebel group Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA), requested that US President Barrack Obama, while visiting several East African capitals, address Sudan’s civil war and Darfur. “Mr. President […] I, hereby humbly appeal to your Excellency to take resolute action as the people of Darfur are looking at you and still expecting you to fulfil your promise”, stated Minnawi, referring to Obama’s pre-presidential promise to help the plight of Darfur. To some observers, this seemed like an echo from the distant past of July 25, 2006, almost exactly nine years prior, in which the Darfur Crisis had escalated to the point that then US President George W. Bush hosted Minni Minnawi at the White House to discuss the unfolding atrocities in Sudan.

Darfur’s indigenous politics between the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa peoples—shrouded from most of the world until widespread violence in 2004—had been suddenly foist into a global outcry over genocide, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes. As this seemingly unresolvable, never-ending conflict became a permanent fixture on the world’s humanitarian scene, Darfur was in some ways returned to its former obscurity, blended within a bigger ‘African’ picture. Today, Minni Minnawi has a hard bargain to gain the presence of a US President; the situation in Darfur has become normal.

Yet in 2015, as in 2004, atrocities are still taking place. Moreover, the primary and original question remains whether or not the indigenous peoples of Darfur can gain political agency, human security, or the ability to farm and claim ownership over their traditional lands. Their aspirations still must address the deep differences between the Indigenous Peoples themselves, and the differences they collectively have with the vast nation of Sudan, one of the world’s last truly multinational empires.

Competing Indigenous Identities Fall Prey to Exploitation

Indigeneity for Darfur is complicated by its internal identities, including thirty six different tribal populations who have endured varying degrees of animosity towards one another historically and contemporarily. The indigenous ethnic peoples of Darfur, including Bedouins originating from northern African Arabic territories, as well as African Furs, Zaghawa, and Masalit, form a patchwork of peoples mixed together in a historically chaotic sprawl of nomadic patterns and villages. The nomadic peoples are more Arab in origin, while the village-bound are more African. There are many shared traits between the Arab and African tribes, such as history, language, and especially religion. Almost all Darfuris, including the Bedouin (or ‘Arab’) Darfuris, are black, and almost all are Muslim. Yet fault lines and violent conflict have long (since Sudan’s independence) existed between the various tribes; resource scarcity has perpetually afflicted Western Sudan, a region flanked by the unforgiving Sahara desert.

Friction over resources became exacerbated in the 1970s and 1980s between nomadic and sedentary peoples due to increasing populations, declining amounts of arable land and water, and the new migration of nomads from Chad. During this time, the central government in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, began to support the nomads in a conflict that was gaining an increasingly ethnic angle. In 1989 a coup d’état installed the Islamist rule of Omar al-Bashir over Sudan, and added even more tension, as Bashir’s new Islamist government backed local Janjaweed militias in campaigns of ‘Arabization’ as a ploy to divide and conquer the growing Darfuri civil unrest in the 1990s to early 2000s.

The civil unrest continued, due to the massive inequality in Sudan, and the ongoing violence. In 1999, an organized Darfuri political resistance published a manifesto, al-Kitab al-Aswad or “Black Book” outlining major structural inequalities in Sudan’s political and economic systems. But the Black Book did not lead to reform, and in 2003, the Darfuri rebel groups, SLA and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), comprised of Furs, Zaghawa, or Masalit or mixtures of all three, launched major attacks on a government airbase at El Fashir, Darfur, among other towns and government targets.

The rebellion prompted a brutal, scorched earth, and extermination-level campaign of violence from the Arab dominated Government of Sudan—this is the “civil war” in Darfur that the West knows. As rebel attacks continued and the government responded by committing more atrocities, Khartoum’s policy was termed as “counterinsurgency on the cheap” by Sudan expert Alex de Waal. Indeed, Khartoum’s policy of opting for annihilation over a measured, more integrative approach, only required the resources of bullets and manpower rather than the development of Darfur.

The main reason the Darfuri rebels began their attacks—draught, water shortages, and persistent underdevelopment—was tossed aside by the government in their approach to the insurgents. The Darfur Crisis had become a perfect storm of local and country-wide grievance, expressed in policies of rebellion by Darfuri political groups and the policies of extermination by Khartoum.

Former JEM leader Khalil Ibrahim sits on the right (deceased), in Ain Siro, North Darfur, Sept 12, 2009. (Photo by the US  State Department)

Former JEM leader Khalil Ibrahim sits on the right (deceased), in Ain Siro, North Darfur, Sept 12, 2009. (Photo by the US State Department)

In 2015 the Darfuri Cause Faces Continued Stagnation

The political fault line of Darfuri representation as a means to development versus egregious government neglect is still very much active, and along with it, the same corresponding violence as seen before, leaving hundreds of thousands of refugees in displacement camps internal to Sudan and across the border in neighboring Chad. Indeed, 2014, was Darfur’s worst year of violence since 2004.

Yet, international and domestic actors have been thus far unable to dislodge the country from its indigenous war. The ruling National Congress Party (NCP) in Khartoum refuses to address the opposition constructively, who it views as an existential threat. After the relatively advantageous year the NCP regime has enjoyed n 2015, they hold a stronger position, and are thus even less likely to concede change. The April presidential election, while criticized for its unfairness and lack of inclusivity, put President Omar al-Bashir back down on paper as de jure emperor. Furthermore, at the international level, Bashir flaunted his impunity at the International Criminal Court (ICC) by visiting South Africa without being arrested (South Africa is a member state of the ICC), despite the warrants issued against him for crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes. Influencing Bashir from abroad or domestically is a lofty challenge considering these developments.

Without a readily apparent or realistically available institutional route, Sudanese politics, including Darfuri politics, has continued to take its usual revolutionary plunge. The mainline rebel solution is directed at the far-end of the power spectrum in the form of total regime change from the NCP into a government altogether new and inclusive. This is the stated purpose and objective not just of Darfur’s armed groups, but all rebel groups within Sudan. However, such a solution is farfetched, owing to the dire position the rebels currently fight from; 2015’s Sudanese battlefield is not tilted in the rebels favor. In fact, the strategic landscape has remained markedly similar (with some exceptions) to the initial outbreaks of fighting in 2003. Lacking viable chances of rebel victory, nor government concessions towards structural inequality in Sudan, the perennial (literally) nature of Sudanese conflict will likely perpetuate.

An Indigenous Solution to Empire? The Debate over Separatism amongst Darfuris and Scholars

Such a lack of progress has inspired new directions in the debates over Darfur’s future. Where the region might be headed on issues such as autonomy, representation in the capital, or continued rebellion remain as key points of discussion amongst scholars, activists, and the Darfuris themselves. But while both representation and rebellion as a means towards representation have acquired broad support, the issue of regional autonomy and separatism has become more divisive.

South Sudan’s 2011 independence from Sudan was a result of many of the very same factors for Darfur’s rebellion, and thus gave greater credence to a similar strain of regionalism within the search for a Darfur solution. Inspired by the newest nation on earth’s independence, some felt that separatism would become a more viable, even inevitable outcome of the Darfuri political struggle. Legal scholar and Darfuri politician Ahmed Hussain Adam raised the issue of separatism following South Sudan’s successful split with Sudan, arguing that due to the North’s uncompromising positions (political and economic) and the military deadlock, “It is likely that, Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile may follow the path of the South and secede.” But Alex de Waal, an equally notable Sudan scholar, notes that the conflict specifically began for reasons that had nothing to do with separatism, and that the Arab and African identities of Darfuris are simultaneously indigenous to Darfur, which would indubitably complicate separatist momentum (Darfur is much more similar to North Sudan than South Sudan was).

Speaking to Darfuri émigrés reveals similarly opposing viewpoints. Sharf Mousa, a 32 year old refugee and member of the Fur ethnicity, grew up in Darfur, and moved to the United States in 2012. Mousa believes that Darfuri separation and statehood is a positive possibility:

We [are] planning […] to get our country. We are planning, and [President] Bashir is planning [against us]. If we get help and Bashir goes, then we’re going to control the whole of Sudan, but if we [are] not going to get control, that [will] mean that we are going to just help [ourselves], we’re only going to get Darfur.

Mousa added that he thought it would take about 20 years to gain autonomy, owing to educational and leadership issues: “Right now, maybe five percent, or ten percent [of] people know what is going on.”

Others do not believe in separation, and insist in a ‘United Sudan’, such as a 40 year old refugee, also of the Fur ethnicity, who grew up in Darfur and came to the US in 2005. Mr. A. (he did not wish to have his name used) stated,

[With] the separation you create more and more [problems]. Let’s have a look at the United States, a long time [ago] in history, [the South] tried to separate from the rest of the states, but in the future, if they do that in the future, it’s not going to be a unity, and unity is the key of any solution.

Mr. A. went on to state that separatism was an emotional response, not a logical one: “If you ask [an internally displaced Sudanese] ‘hey do you want to stay like this, or separate?’ he is going to tell you ‘no, I am going to separate’.” The former resident of Darfur also believed that trade, diplomacy, and international relations would benefit from having the strength of a united Sudan, but also noted that poor leadership continues to prevent such unity:

Here, the government has made up classification amongst the [Sudanese] nations: this is Muslim, this is a non-Muslim, this is an Arab, this is a non-Arab. [The country] should focus on what is the benefit to all the nations”

Identity, while being the raison d’être for separatist struggles across the globe, is used as a divisive mechanism against the cause of Darfur, hampering progress. While disagreeing on the issue of separatism, both Mousa and Mr. A. equally recognized the divisiveness of Darfur identities, as have scholars Adam and De Waal.

Moving past ethnic differences will be a challenge for the refugees’ Darfuri brethren that remain in their homeland, and for the question of Darfuri separation or unity for future generations. Reconciling multiple distinct indigenous identities and their corresponding political manifestations into a competitive opposition to Khartoum will likely take more bridge-building, more consensus, and more time. Politics in Sudan are a hard-fought affair, and hardest for those who are not afforded a political identity, nor a regional identity that is truly united.

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