The origins of the conflict in Darfur, like many ethnic conflicts, can be traced deeply into history, but exploded in the early to mid 2000s as one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. At its heart it can be understood as an ethnic conflict between non-Arab natives of the remote Darfur region of Sudan and the Arab dominated central government, Since at least the early nineties, some analysts have described the policies of the Sudanese government against non-Arabs as “actual apartheid.” These government policies also resulted in a separate civil war in the south by the majority and non-Arab South Sudanese, who eventually won independence.
In Darfur this official government discrimination was exacerbated by other issues such as water access and tensions between nomadic pastoralist (herding) tribes and sedentary agriculturalist tribes — on the arid plateau of Darfur access to resources as basic as water could mean life or death for a tribal group, and the backing of the government had a heavy hand in who got the access. Another very significant aspect of the conflict was that a significant amount of the ethnic cleansing was conducted by a government backed paramilitary militia called the Janjaweed Militia. That it was an officially non-governmental militia committing these crimes gave them a thin veneer of not being government sanctioned.
In 2003 the conflict that had been simmering for decades exploded into a series of attacks by rebel groups on military and police installations, coupled with military strikes on rebel positions. The Sudanese military itself proved to be very unprepared for the conflict, losing 34 out of 38 engagements in mid-2003. As a consequence of this the government shifted away from direct military involvement and instead outfitted the Janjaweed Militia with supplies and weapons including artillery. The Janajweed Militia, not surprisingly, proved more undisciplined than the military and pursued blatant ethnic cleansing with greater enthusiasm. There emerged a clear pattern of non-Arab villages being burned to the ground while Arab villages nearby would remain untouched, and mass rapes were conducted against non-Arab women. On the rebel side there were several different factions, chief among them the Justice & Equality Movement (JEM) and Sudan Liberation Movement (SLA / SLMA).
Outbreaks Of Violence
The African Union (AU) and United Nations quickly moved to send peacekeepers to the region to prevent the catastrophe, and broker peace talks. Unfortunately since the Janjaweed Militia wasn’t officially the government, and even the rebel groups themselves were extremely splintered, it proved very difficult to bring every pertinent faction to the table and bring about an accord that would actually resolve the conflict. There was, for example, a cease fire agreement in April 2005, and another in May 2006, but fighting renewed in August 2006. Conflict and attempts to reach accords continued through 2007 and 2008. By February of 2008 it was estimated that 450,000 had been killed and 3,245,000 people had been displaced — many of whom had fled over the border to nearby Chad. By 2009, however, the general in charge of the African Union peacekeeping force declared that while low level disputes remained, the state of war had finally ended.
In more recent years there were still sporadic outbreaks of violence that would leave a few hundred dead every year, such as “The Landcruiser War” of August 2013, which left at least 113 dead. In 2014, 3,300 villages were destroyed in Darfur. in 2016 there are allegations of a chemical weapon attack in Darfur by the government that killed 250.
The political situation in Sudan finally changed drastically in 2019, which might finally remove the government support for oppression which had been keeping the conflict burning. Protests broke out throughout Sudan against the government of president Omar al-Bashir, who had been in power for thirty years, since 1989. The actual reasons for the uprising were numerous but “we are all Darfur” was one of the many slogans. This rose to the level of being referred to as the Sudanese Revolution, with the military arresting al-Bashir and releasing all political prisoners. In August 2019 a draft constitution was signed to guide the government of Sudan on a 39 month planned path to new civilian government. Among its provisions is that within the first six months of transition a peace agreement must be made in Darfur.
At this point there has not been satisfactory progress towards improving conditions in Darfur in the opinion of many locals, to the degree that sit-ins have been ongoing for more than two weeks. The sit-in participants are demanding justice and security, development assistance and the dismissal of officials affiliated with the al-Bashir regime.
In Central Darfur a sit-in is now on its 16th day (as of July 14th), in the town of Nierteti. In East Darfur the sit-ins are occurring in Ed Daein, Bahr El Arab, and Yasin. In West Darfur a sit-in in Misterei is now on its sixth day. In North Darfur a sit-in involving thousands of participants in Kabkabiya is also now on it’s sixth day, and in addition to the already-mentioned demands, they are also demanding the removal of the local security committee. There are also sit-ins and marches in support of the Darfur sit-ins in Khartoum and Eastern Sudan. At these demonstrations there are many banners and speeches calling for peaceful coexistence and rejection of racist and discriminatory attitudes and policies.
It is both promising that so many people are participating in peaceful methods to try to bring about change, and concerning that the new government is clearly not adequately meeting the needs of the people of Darfur. Additionally, this past Sunday &Monday things took a dark turn: on Sunday the security committee visited the camp of Fata Bono in Kutum, North Darfur, where a sit-in was taking place and there were rumors of an impending militia attack. The security committee’s statements to the locals were so unsatisfactory that it resulted in them being pelted with rocks, and they responded with teargas and gunshots wounding three. The next morning armed militiamen riding horses, camels, and motorcycles attacked . They burned several homes and two vehicles, leaving nine people dead and 17 wounded.
The new government is put to the test by the current situation in Darfur. It remains to be seen whether the government will work in good faith to meet the demands of the people of Darfur or will once again slide into a destructive cycle of violence.
One thing is certain. In a near future – Darfur will once again be in the world media’s spotlight.