Saturday, February 24, 2007

‘Tribal wars’ in Africa: The Case of Darfur.

“In Africa, it is a tribal war”. This statement, often heard in popular rhetoric, suggests, as would the Sudanese government in Khartoum, that the conflict in Darfur is an ethnic one. However, the war is not a conflict between ethnic groups, it is a political conflict, and when it is assumed otherwise, it is the result of ‘ethnopolitics’. The ethnopolitics of Darfur place ‘Arabs’ in opposition to ‘Africans’, which would lead many to believe that the tensions are racially motivated. In Darfur there is no easily divisible line according to ethnicity, instead political interests divide the population, which makes it a political conflict. Although this conflict may initially have been about resources, the government has ethnicized the political and economic issues, polarising two groups, favouring one to overrun the other, in order to gain power and access to land. The government presents the two groups as being ethnic opposites, yet the conflict really exists between the armed and the unarmed: the government forces and their militia allies, versus the civilian victims. The polarization of Arabs and Africans is falsely simplified, as they are certainly not rigid ethnic groups. This polarization assumes two homogeneous groups opposing one another, yet volumes of ethnographic evidence testify to Darfur’s history of ethnic heterogeneity.

, like much of the African continent, is ‘ethnically kaleidoscopic’, encompassing countless ethnic groups. Darfur means ‘land of the Fur’, and for centuries the Fur were the ethnic majority Historically, other ethnic (‘tribal’) peoples intermarried with the Fur, or adopted the lifestyle of the Fur, or vice versa, despite the Anglo-Egyptian government’s attempt to prevent ethnic change. Because of decades of intermarriage, almost everyone has dark skin and African features. To a visitor, Darfurians appear indistinguishable. The people comprising the ‘ethnic’ group of the Fur could call themselves this only after their membership was negotiated, hence to label an ethnic identity is an act of ethnic identification at a certain moment in time.

Fruthermore, Darfurians share the cross-cutting cleavage of being a Muslim, ‘Arabs’ and ‘Africans’ alike. This evidence dispels the idea that the conflict is religiously based, or the equation of Arab to Muslim and African to Non-Muslim. Likewise, some Fur have assumed Arab identity. The Islamic Nationalist government in Khartoum would like to see the Sudan as an ‘Arab’ state, in an attempt to equate religious, national and ethnic identities within one ideology.

These relationships confuse ethnic and religious identities with political identities. The opposing groups in Darfur are not only ethnically indivisible, they are not even separated politically along ethnic lines: the ‘Arabs’ do not all side with the government, and some ‘Africans’ also join the government forces or its allied militia.

The variety of ethnic groups in Darfur touched upon above can be classified into three socio-economic categories: camel nomads, farmers and cattle semi-nomads. However, identities were complex and overlapping. Individuals and groups could shift from one category to another. In this experience, the nomads and farmers have increasingly been competing for decreasing resources, and their conflicts were, until recently, internally solved. The Sudanese government is taking advantage of this history of resource competition to polarize and politicize the farmers from the nomads, by winning the ‘sentiments’ of the nomads in order to present the conflict as ethnic instead of economic.

Polarization and segregation in the Sudan have its roots in the British ‘divide-and-rule’ policies during colonisation. These roots are similar to the ethnopolitics of Rwanda, where the Hutsi’s and Tutsi’s were first dichotomized by Belgian identification cards. In Darfur, the ‘Arabs’ are armed and ‘non-Arabs’ are disarmed (isolated) by the Sudanese government in Khartoum, much like the British, that only armed tribal groups that supported their authority and were loyal to the colonial administration. Furthermore, these British policies created the North-South divide by the creation of a cordon sanitaire between Moslem northern and western Sudan and non-Moslem south Sudan.

This North-South divide has led to tensions in Darfur. Since the civil war between the North and South of Sudan, there have been two directions of political movement: to join the militant authoritarian regime in Khartoum and reap the benefits, or to join the rebels that demand access to power and resources from the central government in order to compete with northerners (‘Arabs’) in the economic market, and in order to be sovereign from the ‘Arabization’ of the land. Darfur was torn in two during this war, and their current retaliation is not only a reaction to the North-South peace process, as dissatisfaction with the accord and to express their marginality in the affair, but the conflict was also ignored in order to expedite the US-backed peace process in order for foreign funds to flow to Khartoum. When the government could no longer ignore their discord, (as rebel groups attacked military bases in order to arm themselves and to disarm the government forces) the government retaliated by recruiting and arming local militia groups. The result was the mass murder, torture, rape and displacement of the civilian farmers. Henceforth, food is no longer being produced, resulting in famine, and the survivors find themselves in overcrowded camps in neighbouring Chad, where diseases are rampant, or are being held captive by the same militias that have terrorized and decimated them.

Many will present these atrocities in terms of ‘Africans’ versus ‘Arabs’. However, the ethnographic evidence shows that the categories ‘Arab’ and ‘African’ are not ethnically identifiable, (although they are assumed to be), but they are instead politically polarized groups. One group supports the ‘Arabic’ nationalism that the National Islamic Front (hereafter named NIF, the government regime in Khartoum), promotes, and the other group opposes it. The so-called opposing ‘groups’ are working together and the same ‘groups’ are fighting each other. The Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) is led by a Fur Islamist and represents an alliance of Sudan’s marginalized ‘African’ peoples, but comprises an improbable coalition: The Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) an Islamist rebel group and the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), self defence units, (formerly named Darfur Liberation Front), made of radical secularists. These ‘militias’ work together to oppose the NIF, challenging Khartoum’s control of Darfur, in response to government oppression, especially of non-Arab tribes.

Thus, ‘Arabs’ and ‘Africans’ are simply abstracted external categories, presented as if they were very real: ‘reification’. An ‘ethnic’ conflict, therefore, is the politicization of ethnicity: ‘ethnopolitics’. It is a creation of the state, it is no more ethnic than it is religious; it is simply a power struggle; one group is armed and the other is disarmed.

Like most African nation-states, the political border of the Sudan was drawn on a paper map in a white man’s office during colonial rule, completely disregarding the actual ethnic or linguistic boundaries. This ‘imaginary’ border is merely symbolic of a political community, which assumes that a hegemonic policy will be adopted by all its citizens. In reality, in the Sudan this assumption hides the repression of ethnic minorities under an authoritarian militant regime.

Rebel groups formed to resist this ‘Islamic Radicalism’ and hegemony of Khartoum. These groups attack the government forces and its allied militia, but protect the farmers from counterattacks. Unfortunately, the government labels the civilian farmers as ‘rebels’ as well, leaving no one in the vicinity unharmed, and their fertile land up for grabs. The government has recruited and armed local ‘Arab’ militias from Darfur, and surrounding countries. Formerly camel-herding nomads and semi-nomads, currently known as the janjaweed, align themselves with the military forces, which execute and displace or imprison the farmers.

Can we name this ‘annihilatory extreme’ in Darfur ‘ethnic cleansing’? Genocide? These are questions over which the international community (journalists, activists, politicians, and scientists) has been disputing. Kofi Annan, however, would not attest that Darfur was a case of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and refused to define it as genocide. This may be confrontational with the comparisons that are being made to Rwanda, where the differences are merely quantitative and the similarities revolve around the lack of response by the UN and political leaders around the globe.

The debate over semantics was perhaps an ‘official reality’ in order to avoid the need for the international community to intervene and to protect their oil interests in the Sudan. International critics have suggested that the case of Darfur is a case of ‘Genocide for Oil’.This chillingly reminds me of the Indonesian occupation of East-Timor. There, the (western) international community denied and ignored a genocide: the ethnic cleansing of the Timorese, out of interest to trade with Indonesia for the oil located off the Timorese coast. Is the same thing happening once again in Darfur? Why is international intervention so lax to respond? For the NIF, oil production and distribution is their sole political leverage on the international market.

Oil was discovered in the Sudan by Chevron in the 1970’s, it has been exported since 1999, although there was a ban on sales to the US. The North-South peace talks moved forward due to US involvement: The NIF would receive peace and US business would now gain access to Sudan’s oil. Many suggest that the possibility of gaining access to oil, political relations or preoccupations on the world stage deterred intervention in Darfur by creating blinders for the urgency of the conflict. Specifically, Washington and Khartoum preferred to not upset the North-South negotiations by ignoring the Darfur war. Other countries could not point the finger at the lack of intervention by the US, as they themselves were guilty of the same crime, yet European countries no longer had faith in (US-led) intervention since the Iraq war.

The NIF regime sees the Sudan as an ‘ethnic’ (meaning ‘Arabic’) state, and demands its citizens to be patriotic. Therefore, political critics see the Darfur war as a government-driven ethnic cleansing, a continuation of the ‘Arabization’ of the Sudan. It is a true shame if the international community adhered to the Sudanese government and allowed ‘minorities’ to be exterminated, in the name of oil.

What is the motivation for the violence? Is it resources, is it oil, or is it ideology? We can only speculate. Evidence shows that the root causes of the violence stem out of many sources and areas. They have been bundled into a confused, yet dichotomized world of black-and-white, powerful and helpless, living and dying. Whether or not it is genocide? This seems to me to be irrelevant, as civilians are the victims, there clearly needs to be an intervention.

January 2006

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