Conflict in Sudan

Sudan, the largest country in Africa, has been badly affected by several decades of civil conflict.

Map of Sudan
Map of Sudan

The situation in the western Darfur region of Sudan has been labelled the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today. A conflict between rebel forces on the one side, and the Sudanese Government and the government-backed Janjaweed militia on the other, has left between 10,000 and 30,000 people dead. An estimated 1.3 million civilians have been displaced from their homes.

Around 4 million people were displaced from their homes. Both Sudanese Government forces and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) stand accused of serious human rights violations.

Since 2002 considerable progress has been made towards resolving the conflict, and a Framework Peace Agreement was signed in Kenya on 27 May 2004, paving the way for a permanent end of hostilities, which negotiators hope will be finalised within weeks.

However, the breakthrough in the north-south peace process has come at a time of escalating fighting in the western region of Darfur, where a complex web of conflicts involving rebel forces (the SLM/A and JEM), the Sudanese Government and the government-backed Janjaweed militia has left between 10,000 and 30,000 people dead, many of them civilians. Up to 1.3 million people are displaced internally within Sudan and an estimated 150,000 have fled over the border to Chad.

Governments and aid agencies have called the situation in Darfur the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today. US officials believe that as many as 320,000 people could die due to famine and disease by the end of 2004, regardless of the international response. Other observers warn that an even greater humanitarian catastrophe can only be avoided if security for civilians is improved and significant assistance is provided by the international community.

The Sudanese Government has come under international pressure to improve access for humanitarian agencies and to disarm the Janjaweed militia. A ceasefire agreed in April has been violated on numerous occasions and an international team of ceasefire monitors, led by the African Union, are deploying to Darfur to report on compliance.

Sudanese Refugees
Conflict Map

As of June 21, 2004, the Sudanese Government has called for the disarmament of all militias in Darfur, including the Janjaweed, and appears to have opened negotiations with representatives from the JEM rebel group.

On one level, the civil war that has afflicted the country almost continuously since independence in 1956 can be seen as a conflict between the Arab Muslim north and the black African, and predominantly Christian or animist, south. At a more detailed level, other features of the conflict emerge. Alan Phillips, the Director of Minority Rights Group International, wrote in 1995 that attempts to portray the conflict in North-South or Arab-African terms disguise ìthe complexities of a war fought by multi-ethnic groups where religious differences colour struggles over access to land or political power.

Sudan is ruled by the National Islamic Front (NIF), an Islamist regime under General Omar Al-Bashir, which has its powerbase in the mainly Arab and Muslim north of the country. The centre and south is inhabited by a mixture of different African linguistic groups, which are mainly Christian or animist. Southern groups, most notably the Dinkadominated Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), have repeatedly sought to gain significant autonomy or independence from Khartoum, and some have resorted to armed struggle to achieve this.

As the conflict between the Government and the SPLM/A has subsided in recent years, tension has risen in the western region of Darfur, where the population is uniformly Muslim, but ethnically mixed.

There are more than 30 ethnic groups in Darfur, but these can be divided broadly into two main categories: Arab and African. Arab and Arabicspeaking nomads inhabit the north and south of the region, whereas the centre is inhabited by African sedentary farmers, who are drawn, in the main, from the three principal African ethnic groups, the Fur, Zaghawa, and Massaleit (often referred to collectively as black Africans). No part of the region can be said to be ethnically homogenous, and there has traditionally been a degree of movement and inter-marriage between these groups and social classes, resulting in a blurring of ethnic distinctions. Nonetheless, in recent years, tension in the region has assumed an increasingly ethnic and racist dimension, with population groups defining themselves as Arab or Zurq (blac).

The current conflict has its origins in decades of economic and political marginalisation, and tension over increasingly scarce farmland and water resources. Prolonged drought and desertification in northern Darfur pushed nomadic groups south where they came into conflict over water resources with the farming tribes of the centre. Administrative boundary changes imposed by the predominantly Arab regime in Khartoum served to alienate the farming tribes, as did government backing for the loose collection of ëJanjaweed’ (or ëJanjaweit’) nomadic militias, which has come to comprise several thousand fighters of mainly Arab extraction. An influx of modern weaponry in recent decades has increased the loss of life in these disputes.

Two predominantly black rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), came to prominence in Darfur during 2003. Both groups cited concerns that Darfur would lose out politically and economically in the division of power and resources (particularly oil revenue) between Khartoum and the South, in the event of a settlement in the broader civil war.

Outbreak of conflict

Open conflict erupted in Darfur in February 2003 when the well-armed SLM/A and the JEM took advantage of turmoil within the al-Bashir regime and launched attacks on government military bases. A series of rebel successes ensued during the first half of 2003, before government forces regrouped and responded with a counter-insurgency campaign. Government-backed Janjaweed militia fighters carried out raids on communities suspected of aiding or sympathising with the rebels, and it is the humanitarian impact of these attacks which forms the core of the present crisis. Observers have reported evidence of close coordination between the Government and the Janjaweed, with the latter receiving not only money and guns, but also close air support from Sudanese fighter jets, which have bombed villages in preparation for militia raids.

Claims have also been made of rape and killings of civilians by the militias, and humanitarian organisations have accused the Government and the Janjaweed of conducting a ìscorched earthî campaign in the region.

A 45-day ceasefire was agreed on 8 April 2004 to allow humanitarian access to the displaced population. The N’djamena agreement, which was mediated by Chad, was finalised after a week-long delay caused by disputes over the presence of international observers. The Sudanese Government objected to the involvement of observers from the United Nations, the African Union, the European Union, the United States and the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. A compromise was reached under which only the African Union would monitor the political negotiations, and the other observers would be present for discussions on humanitarian issues.

The agreement included provisions for a ceasefire commission with international representation, and a commitment from the Sudanese Government to control its allies and ensure their compliance. The parties also agreed to open negotiations on a political solution to the conflict, free all political prisoners, and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Regular military operations by the Sudanese military dropped sharply following the ceasefire, although some clashes with rebels continued. However, attacks by the Janjaweed reportedly increased during late April and May, and the humanitarian situation continued to deteriorate, despite the renewal of the ceasefire in late May.


Questions About What’s Going on in Sudan’s Darfur

Sudanese Refugees
Sudanese Refugees

What is the humanitarian crisis in Darfur?

Attacks by government troops and Arab militia have forced about 1.2 million people, mostly black villagers, from their homes in western Sudan. Many have gone to live with families in other parts of Darfur, and about 130,000 have fled across the border into Chad. As many as 50,000 have died in violent raids over the past year and reports continue of massacres, rape, torture and looting despite a nominal ceasefire.

Warning of mass starvation and epidemics, the United Nations has described the situation as one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Relief workers are rushing to get desperately needed food, water and medicine to hundreds of thousands but much of the aid is not getting through.

What’s holding up the aid?

U.N. officials accuse Khartoum of restricting access for aid agencies and journalists, despite promises to the contrary.

There’s also the remoteness of the area. Darfur’s population of seven million is scattered over a harsh desert area of about 200,000 square km (125,000 square miles). That’s almost as big as the island of Great Britain.

So why are the attacks happening?

The simplistic answer is that Sudanese troops are trying to put down a rebel movement, bombing towns and villages suspected of supporting insurgents. Rights groups also accuse the government of committing ethnic cleansing and backing the raiding militia. Khartoum denies this, saying the militia are merely outlaws.

So this has nothing to do with Sudan’s war between north and south, which seems to be coming to an end?

It’s confusing, but most analysts say there is a connection. Belgian-based think tank International Crisis Group (ICG) argues that the government in Khartoum is using delays in the north-south peace process to pursue its agenda in Darfur, knowing the international community would be reluctant to complain too loudly for fear of jeopardising the north-south talks. It also says the refusal of the government and the southern-based Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) to include anyone else in their negotiations fueled the uprising by Darfur rebel groups, who felt left out of the carve-up of power and resources.

But the conflict has local roots too?

Local divisions are also feeding the war. Ethnic differences have been exaggerated by local leaders and there is a battle over resources.

Sudanese Refugees
Sudanese Refugees

What are the ethnic groups in the area?

The displaced people are mostly black African farmers. The militia – known as Janjaweed – come from Arab pastoralist communities, who herd camels in northern Darfur and live on cattle herding in southern Darfur. Nomadic groups from further north have been pushed south over time as the desert has grown and droughts made water scarce. Both groups are dark-skinned and Muslim, and have intermarried for centuries. Ethnic identities used to be much more blurred, but leaders have exaggerated the differences since the late 1980s, when the militia campaigns began.

So is it a struggle between pastoralists and farmers over land?

Partly. Land used to belong to tribes, so Darfur was the place of the Fur people, an African group. There are at least 36 main tribes in the region. Some of the Arab peoples felt they were left out of the system that gave more “dars” – or districts – to non-Arab communities. Traditional conflicts were not usually very violent. Respected local councils used to settle disputes, but these were abolished by the Khartoum government after it came to power in a coup in 1989, leaving no peaceful mechanisms for solving conflicts.

The government of Lieutenant-General Omar Hassan al-Bashir is a hardline Islamist government that upholds sharia – Islamic law. Human Rights groups accuse Khartoum of torture and severe repression of religious freedoms and political opposition.

Why would the government support the militia?

The war between the government and rebels in the south is often depicted as a conflict between the Arab, Muslim north and the black animist or Christian south, but it has also been significantly fuelled by divisions over control of oilfields and political power. The ICG says the removal of so many people from their homes in Darfur appears to be part of a government policy of ethnic cleansing in order to cripple any support for the rebel movements, who are hostile to Khartoum.

Who are the rebels?

The two armed movements in Darfur are the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA). Their platforms are hazy, but they call for inclusion in their fair share of power, and an end to marginalisation from centralised Khartoum decision-making. This echoes the grievances of about 30 armed groups in the south and elsewhere, who all argue that too much power – and in many cases, oil revenues – goes to Khartoum.

Conflict in Sudan (AFP/Marco Longari)
Refugees from the Sudanese region of Darfur rest in the heat of the desert in the improvised Tine refugee camp.

Many commentators say the conflict in Darfur is being exploited in the struggle for power over Sudan’s Islamist movement.

Hassan al-Turabi, an Islamist who was influential in the government but split with them in late 1999, has since voiced his support for the rebels, increasing Khartoum’s anger against him and the rebels. Darfur’s rebel groups also appear to have made links with the SPLA in the south.

The SLA’s support base comes largely, but not entirely, from the Fur, Massaleit and Zaghawa tribes. The JEM is mostly Zaghawa-based. To make things even more complicated, the Zaghawa are camel herders, not agriculturalists. And to make things even more complicated, the Zaghawa have strong ties to Chad.

So how is Chad involved?

Even this isn’t straightforward. Chad’s president, Idriss DÈby, is a Zaghawa, and three successive presidents have launched their bids for power with ethnic militias partially based in Darfur. And there is some evidence that Chad might have helped to channel arms to Darfur. Despite all this, Chad’s government has also backed Khartoum.

Why are observers so alarmed about the conflict in Darfur, apart from the obvious humanitarian crisis?

There is a real fear that the conflict could destabilise the whole country. Analysts say that when marginalised regions of Sudan see that the south appears to be have gained its autonomy through battle, they will try the same route, especially if they’re left out of peace talks. Some observers say Darfur could lead to a split in the government, since some Khartoum politicians have ethnic links to the rebels. ICG says the stability of Chad’s government could also be threatened. Any splintering of central government could undermine north-south peace agreements, which are still not set in stone.

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation News