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The Genocidal Conflict Rumbles On - The Conflict in Darfur
Attacks against civilians are continuing and the vast majority of armed militias have not been disarmed. No concrete steps have been taken to bring justice or even identify any of the militia leaders or perpetrators of these attacks, allowing the violations of human rights and the basic laws of war to continue in a climate of impunity. - Secretary-General Kofi Annan - UN Security Council, 2 September 2004

6 September   |   2004   |   Subject  Dafur

The expression ‘seeing is believing’ validates the popular belief that peoples’ perceptions alter when they witness an event with their own eyes rather than when they just hear about it. This is quite true for Darfur too. It is not enough to talk about the searing reality of a conflict that seesaws between terms such as ‘genocide’, ‘ethnic cleansing’, ‘politicide’, ‘the worst humanitarian crisis’ or even the latest UN description of ‘scorched earth policy’. Regardless of the choice of term, it is easy to see the devastation in the midst of Darfur’s unforgiving landscape of endless yellow sand cut by jagged stone hills. Janina, Abu Shouk camp in al-Fashir, Al Salaam, Nyertete, Jebel Marra mountains, Nyala, Funu, Ourshi, Anka, Zam Zam, El-Geneina, Hangala, Abu Dilek, Shigekaro, Kaunoungo: these are some names that are a sad testimony to the singed villages, bombed cities or populated refugee camps in either West Sudan or Chad. They have all been affected in one way or another by a conflict that has turned Darfur into the killing fields of Africa pitting Sudanese against Sudanese. The result today is 50,000 dead and over one million indigenous inhabitants who have been displaced internally or into neighbouring Chad.

With the onset of the rainy season, there is an even more distinct lack of security in this vast and muddy terrain that constitutes the three provinces of Darfur. The separate meetings that are being held in Abuja, Tripoli, Cairo or even Nairobi [in relation to the Naivasha peace negotiations] all purport to seek an end to the miseries facing the Sudanese in both the west and south, as they also try to prevent any further ethnic strife spreading into the eastern or northern provinces too. The African Union is still deliberating its four-point agenda on Darfur. The central government in Khartoum has despatched some policemen to help secure the refugee camps from further attacks in what some observers describe as an attempt at ‘re-badging’ former Janjaweed militias into a police force. And whilst the Arab League has welcomed the agreement reached last week between the Sudanese government and rebel groups, the flurry of activities continues, with the regular army, police force, tribes and Janjaweeds all being involved in one way or another in this unending road to death.

International Action & Statements

At its 5015th meeting on 30 July 2004, the United Nations adopted Security Council Resolution 1556 (2004) requesting Sudan to settle the Darfur crisis or face sanctions under Article 41 of the UN Charter. Last week, the UN secretary-general stated that Sudan had failed to keep commitments to rein in the marauding militias across this vast province. He also added that the UN had prepared a blueprint for the enlargement of the African Union monitoring force from 380 to 3000. This expansion of this monitoring force was one of the principal recommendations of J. H. Jan Pronk, the embattled UN Special Envoy for Sudan.

Earlier, seventy faith-based, humanitarian and human rights organisations including Amnesty International, Pax Christi International, Bread for the World, International Crisis Group, Physicians for Human Rights and Edah, endorsed the Unity Statement issued by the Save Darfur Coalition to help raise public awareness of the crisis in the region.

Mukesh Kapila, a former UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Sudan, stated that the violence in Darfur is ‘more than a conflict, it is an organised attempt to do away with one set of people’. And for the first time in its history, the Committee on Conscience of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum declared a ‘genocide emergency’ in Sudan, indicating that genocide is not only imminent but is actually happening in the Darfur region.

The Tharwa Project, an independent regional initiative dedicated to improving minority-majority relations, conflict prevention and peace-building in the Arab world, had concluded in its report that the crisis in Darfur is a result of the longstanding policy of racial discrimination adopted by the Arab-speaking minority of Sudan vis-à-vis African tribes, as well as by ongoing political infighting between various factions in the current Islamic government in Sudan.

Minority Rights Group International (MRG) also called for ‘effective sanctions’ that would include the possible use of safe havens, enforceable from the air, and no-fly zones that would allow only those flights approved for the delivery of humanitarian aid. MRG Director Mark Lattimer stated on 23 August 2004 that ‘another thirty days for Sudan will be another thirty days of killing. There should be no extension without independent verification of progress.’

Multi-Faceted Crisis

This nineteen-month conflict in Darfur started as a result of a rebellion in February 2003 that provoked an overwhelming response from Sudan’s vice-president Ali Othman Mohammed Taha by using the Janjaweed (derogatory term for outlaws) militias in order to crush the rebellion. But this conflict is not unique per se in that there have always been local disputes between the African tribes of Darfur who are mainly agriculturists cultivating land for their survival and the Arab nomads who are cattle owners roaming the land with their cattle in search of pastures and water. These disputes between both groups have existed since time immemorial and have usually been manageable.

However, one of the peculiar problems of the Sudan government with the Arab militias of Darfur at this time is that the use of tribal militias has taken a rather ugly racial connotation because religion is removed from the equation since both sides are Muslims. For long years, the low level of education and general discrimination in state employment practices against the people of Darfur had resulted in a disproportionately high number of Darfurians serving in the Sudanese military. They fought alongside the Khartoum government against the Southern SPLA. Consequently, the government is now finding it difficult to command the loyalty of those same Darfurian soldiers to put down a rebellion by their own people against the government. This may therefore account for the increased use by Khartoum of Arab tribal militias against the rebellion.

Furthermore, there have for long been several innuendoes about the degree of support the two rebel movements - the Sudan Liberation Army / Movement (SLA/M) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) - have been receiving from other key political players in Sudan. Central to the political agenda of the SLA/M is the creation of a secular Sudan with equality for all citizens and justice in the marginalised areas. It is a replica of the Southern SPLA minus the ‘P’ in its acronym! JEM, on the other hand, is essentially the Darfurian branch of the National Islamic Front that espouses an Islamist agenda.

This explains perhaps why some commentators believe that the backdrop to the current crisis is multi-faceted. They claim that it is not based solely on ethnicity. Nor do they believe that it is simply resource-based although there are frequent reports about large oil findings in Darfur extending from the proven reserves in Chad as well as deposits of mineral ores such as uranium or even gold, that would turn the region into a more globally lucrative and economically attractive prospect.

Some other analysts find the seeds of the rebellion in Darfur, and the government retaliation through the Janjaweed, in the Black Book / al kitab al aswad. “The Seekers of Truth and Justice” is a group that ostensibly compiled this book and catalogued a series of iniquities in Darfur, including wholesale ethnic discrimination and moral bankruptcy by a regime that had based its legitimacy on Islam. The Black Book was a call to non-armed action and revealed how three tribes hailing from the Nile Valley north of Khartoum have alone dominated power in a post-1956 independent Sudan. It highlighted the endemic problems facing the Darfurian tribes and fomented further unrest within the province.

In this context, some people also suggest that Dr Hassan Abdallah El-Turabi, who became an éminence grise and Islamist ideologue for Sudan after 1989, has exploited the rebellion in Darfur by making common cause with the rebels of Darfur against President General Omar Hassan El-Basheer who placed him in Cooper Prison in February 2001 when the two fell out. Whilst in prison, Sheikh Turabi formed the Popular National Congress and it is believed that he views the rebellion in Darfur as one way for his political rehabilitation. [It is rumoured that he has been freed from prison and placed under house arrest]. No wonder the government fears that the JEM rebels are akin to a Trojan horse for Turabi’s re-entry into power in Sudan.

Long-term Strategies

Given the repression that ordinary Sudanese people have suffered under the political system, and the highhandedness with which governments have treated them, it is understandable that many would at the very least play the game of indifference to any talk of foreign military intervention in Sudan. But whilst foreign intervention would resolve short-term conflicts in this vast country, it will certainly not resolve the long-term problems of governance that lie at the core of Sudan’s problems. The foremost foreign intervention that is urgently needed at this stage is a peaceful humanitarian one that is nonetheless coupled with stringent sanctions that could facilitate the emergence of a new system of values for good governance in the country.

One problem in Darfur, not unlike that with the SPLA in the south, is that the local representatives of the governments in these localities have always used groups they regard as loyal to themselves and to the government in Khartoum to suppress the collective rights of other groups. It is high time that those Sudanese government officials are made aware that states can no longer enjoy unfettered sovereignty to the extent that they could embark on the wholesale killing of any number of their citizens by their own forces or by other national groups without suffering political and military consequences. Today, the concept of human rights has evolved in such a way that there is now a collective sense of international responsibility, and it is better for Sudan to deal squarely with any violations of human rights within its own state, rather than denying them or wishing them away. If the state fails in its self-regulation, intervention becomes an option despite the notion of sovereignty.

Darfur is a good case in point. It is imperative that the world community should act rapidly without any political gerrymandering of the issues in order to salvage a hugely critical conflict that is targeting an ethnic community. However, it should also not fall into the expedient trap of painting the conflict in Darfur only in black or white either. Whilst it is essential to realise that the government in Sudan has unleashed a monster in the shape of the Janjaweed militias, it is equally true that Khartoum is now finding it hard - ideologically let alone militarily or practically - to contain those militias again.

If the UN does not wish to replace one ogre with another, it should take on board the subtler complexities of the conflict in Darfur. To my mind, the conflict today pits the government in Sudan, largely via the rampaging Janjaweed proxies, against the non-Arab Muslim black African SPLA/M and JEM rebels. But the conflict is also one that is being fought for power between Dr Turabi on the one hand, and President El-Basheer, Vice President Ali Taha and Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail separately on the other. It is equally one that could easily pit the secular SPL/M against the JEM, especially if there are indeed rich resources in Darfur that would enhance the competition for power and domination. Finally, it is also a conflict between the superpowers of the world, with many Chinese, French and American crosscurrents in the region.

If those variables are not taken into consideration in resolving this genocidal conflict, it is inevitable that new conflicts, fresh massacres and more refugees would re-emerge on the scene. The trick is not to allow the replacement of one crime with another, one untenable situation with another, in a continent that is always host to such crimes. It is therefore imperative to look at this conflict with a long-term lens that divides accountability and responsibility studiously. Otherwise, any other form of intervention today would inevitably pave the way for further future conflicts in the western provinces of Sudan. It would also provide the spark in the tinderbox of the eastern region of Sudan due to the implacable enmity between Eritrea and Sudan, or even exacerbate the situation further in the conflict-rife north or largely unstable south.

Seeing is believing! When one witnesses murder, suffering, destitution or loss and hopelessness on the Darfurian scale with one’s own eyes, and one considers the context whereby many countries in Africa have been abandoned by their leaders or by their former colonial powers, it becomes obvious that a massive effort is needed to right what is wrong. It is quintessential not only to look at the short-term symptomolgy of the conflict but also at the long-term causes of poverty, deprivation, under-development and under-investment that fan such conflicts in Sudan, Africa and much of the developing world.

>Can we show compassionate humanity? Only when the world community, post 9/11, puts its influence and money where its mouth is that it could perhaps claim to make a genuinely honest difference. Otherwise, genocidal conflicts would rumble on regardless, and we would spend our time wringing our hands, issuing statements, passing resolutions, reporting from hotspots and expressing deep concern!  And all the time, children, men and women would continue to be killed without due reason.

We have not yet hit the apex of the crisis! - John Prendergast, Africa Section, International Crisis Group

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2004   |   6 September


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