Thursday, November 15, 2007

Not Darfur Again!

The conflict in Darfur started as a classic contest for resources. The Darfur region in eastern Sudan is a high desert plateau that has seen a combination of declining rainfall and increasing population for the last fifty years. As water reservoirs shrunk from lack of rain, and farms grew in size to feed the burgeoning populations, pastoral livestock herders abandoned traditional transhumance routes and began to trample homesteads on the way to water their animals. In order to prevent the pastoralists from trampling crops, the agrarians banded into militias. Eventually, the government of Sudan came into the conflict on the side of the herders, in an effort to dislodge the farmers, and seize the land for the underlying resources that consist primarily of oil.

The conflict in Darfur seems like the result of rational decisions when view from an economic perspective. There is little remaining water in the region and more people competing for this scarce resource. However, there are not only economic factors at play in the conflict. Sudan has been engaged in an on-again, off-again civil war since the 1880’s. The short hand description for this war is that it is an ideological struggle between the Christian and animist south and the Arab north. Douglas Hamilton Johnson sees the roots of the Sudan civil war as more banal; one group against another in a contest for resources. In this case however, one group wanted to enslave another to pay taxes levied by the state. “The two most significant developments contributing to the North-South divide were the impoverishment of some areas of the Northern Sudan through new forms of taxation and land ownership, which then contributed to the dramatic expansion of slave trading and slave owning.”1 Eventually the slave raiding Muslims of the north, and their black African targets in the south organized into militias for defense. The sides, identified as such, have battled back and forth ever since.

The Darfur situation occurred on the edge of the civil war and has been included in the meta-narrative for Sudanese conflict: ethnic groups vying for ethnic cleansing or genocide of the other. Numerous websites claim that what is happening in Darfur is genocide. has a weblink proclaiming that “Racism at the root of Darfur crisis.” The link leads to a Christian Science Monitor article that argues “Khartoum's genocidal policy in Darfur and the south is also a grab for resources.”2 has a large section called “Learn” on the main page with a footnote that explains the contest over resources in Darfur as a pre-text for the real aim of genocide. “When the Sudanese government launched its genocide in 2003, it instrumentalized the underlying tensions over land use by arming certain "Arab" clans and inciting them to attack "African" villages, with the promise of control of the diminishing land and water resources.”3 The point of view that sees Darfur as genocide argues the grabbing of resources and land is a side effect of the real goal, genocide. The UN sees the exact opposite, that is, the grab for resources has resulted in the mass killing of those previously in possession of those resources. If the Fur are driven off their lands in Darfur, it is unlikely the Sudanese or Janjaweed would pursue them to eradicate them.

In the report to the Secretary General about the conflict, UN investigators found what was going on in Darfur was a variant of the economic struggles that caused the wider Sudan civil war, a fight over scarce resources.

“Darfur is part of the Great Sahara region, and while it has some agricultural areas, particularly around the Jebel Marrah plateau, most of the region remains arid desert land. Drought and desertification had their impact in the 70s and 80s, and the fight for scarce resources became more intense. In particular, tensions between agriculturalists and cattle herders were affected. Cattle herders in search of pasture and water often invaded the fields and orchards of the agriculturalists, and this led to bloody clashes as described below. Corridors that were agreed upon amongst the tribes to facilitate the movements of cattle for many years were not respected. As fertile land became scarce, settled people’s tolerance of the seasonal visitors diminished.”4

To fend off the “seasonal visitors,” the agriculturists banded together into militias. The group that eventually became the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLMA) drew its initial recruits from the Fur militias. The SLM has since splintered into numerous subgroups, each with allegiance to a particular commander. The other major group defending the agriculturalists is the Justice for Equality Movement (JEM). JEM is a more ideological group that SLM since JEM explicitly calls for the destruction of the Sudan government because the government is dominated by Arabs who are stealing the wealth of black Africa. JEM is not anti-Muslim and in fact has many Islamists in their ranks. The NMRD is a Chad-dominated splinter of JEM.5

On the other side of the conflict, is the Janjaweed, or the Arab militia whose roots were in the nomadic herders. The Sudanese government has interceded on the side of the Janjaweed, partly out of pan-Arabism, but mostly because of the riches that they stand to make by controlling the oil in the region. The CEO of a civil rights group described China’s involvement this way: “China has fueled the conflict and kept the world community from protecting the victims. China's unquenchable need for foreign energy makes it Sudan's largest foreign investor and most important international supporter.”6

The major rebel groups (the exception of the Janjaweed and some splinters of JEM and SLA) and the government of Sudan, with have been meeting in Libya in an effort to come up with a wealth sharing plan. Since sharing the wealth is really the only way to end the conflict short of ethnic cleansing, this conference at least is addressing the correct cause of conflict.7

Those looking to champion a cause see the conflict in Darfur as genocide or ethnic cleansing. The problem with this analysis is that those inside the conflict know that at the root is the contest for resources. The UN has recognized this as well since a main effort in the Darfur peace process is wealth sharing. Unfortunately, the presence of the rapacious Chinese government interceding on the side of the Sudan government makes it unlikely that any wealth will be shared.

1.  Johnson, Douglas H. Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars (Kampala: International African Institute in association with Fountain Publishers) 2003. pg 5.

2.  Mutua, Makau. “Racism at root of Sudan's Darfur crisis” (Christian Science Monitor) July 14, 2004 at accessed on 7 November 2007.

3. “The Genocide in Darfur - Briefing Paper” June 2007 at accessed 7 November 2007.

4.  United Nations. “Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to the United Nations Secretary-General” (Geneva: United Nations) 25 January 2005.

5. BBC News. “Who are Sudan's Darfur rebels? 12 October 2007 at accessed 7 November 2007.

6.  Greathead, R Scott. “Moving China on Darfur” Wall Street Journal, 6 November 2007 at accessed 7 November 2007.

7.  Joint Mediation Support Team Towards Peace in Darfur website at accessed 7 November 2007.