The Politics of Slaughter in Sudan
by Dan Connell
day in the summer of 2004, more than 400 armed members of the janjaweed
militia attacked the western Sudanese village of Donki Dereisa. They killed
150 civilians, including six young children, aged 3 to 14, who were captured
during the assault and burned alive later that day, according to the
Washington-based human rights group Refugees International. A man who tried
to save the children was beheaded and dismembered. Eyewitnesses say that a
military aircraft bombed the village during the attack and that Sudanese
Army foot soldiers joined in the fighting on the ground. Afterward,
government sources denied any involvement and downplayed the incident. That
response pattern has typified the ongoing crisis in the Sudanese province of
Darfur from the start.
In the face of such disclaimers, journalists, relief workers and human
rights monitors describe a scorched-earth operation waged jointly by the
government and the janjaweed of wholesale massacres, summary executions, the
razing of entire villages and the depopulation of wide swathes of farmland.
"The government and its janjaweed allies have killed thousands of Fur,
Masalit and Zaghawa -- often in cold blood -- raped women, and destroyed
villages, food stocks and other supplies essential to the civilian
population," says a recent Human Rights Watch report.
At least 70,000 civilians have been killed, 400 villages destroyed and more
than 1.5 million people displaced -- 200,000 fleeing to neighboring Chad --
in a brutal campaign that has devastated Darfur over the past year, leading
UN officials to term this "the world's worst humanitarian crisis." Though
large-scale attacks slowed over the summer after a parade of reporters,
diplomats and relief workers trooped through the area -- including Secretary
of State Colin Powell -- acts of terror continue. Militiamen are raping
women and girls as they leave camps to collect firewood, says Dennis
McNamara, a senior official in the UN's Nairobi Office for the Coordination
of Humanitarian Assistance.
Terror has become a daily fact of life for Darfuris, according to UN
Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Special Representative for Sudan Jan Pronk,
who told the Security Council on October 8 that since August "there was no
systematic improvement of people's security and no progress on ending
impunity." In response, Annan established a five-member commission to
determine whether genocide is being committed. Headed by Antonio Cassese, an
Italian judge who served as the first president of the International
Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the commission includes members
from Egypt, Pakistan, Ghana and Peru. Its appearance signals a growing
international outcry over this slaughter, muted for nearly a year as the
bodies piled up, even as punitive action is delayed.
In mid-October, the Dutch foreign minister raised the prospect of European
Union sanctions on Sudan, and Britain, Australia and New Zealand have
offered to send peacekeepers. Congress has called the killing "genocide"
and, on September 18, the Bush administration shepherded a resolution
threatening sanctions through the UN Security Council. George W. Bush has
echoed the Congressional charges of genocide (as has Democratic presidential
hopeful John Kerry), but, like everyone else, he has taken no action to stop
the carnage. In fact, for all the public hand wringing, precious little
action has resulted from any quarter beyond the dispatch of a few dozen
African Union monitors to document the deteriorating situation. Nor is it
likely to, apart from efforts to send more monitors and to accelerate a
belated relief effort -- which suits the Khartoum government and just about
everyone else involved, outside of Darfuris themselves.
ROOTS OF THE CONFLICT
Darfur crisis, often described as tribal warfare between Arabs and
Africans, is both more and less than that.
The frontline combatants and their victims are mainly of Arab or African
descent, though it is often difficult to distinguish them face to face. But
the janjaweed themselves are more a rampaging gang than an organized
militia. Even their name is merely a colloquialism for "horsemen with guns,"
not a term with cultural, linguistic or political roots, and they do not in
any organized way "represent" the Arab tribes in western Sudan. Those who
are being described as janjaweed and are raping and pillaging under this
name are drawn mainly from pastoral peoples known as murahilin (migrants)
who compete with the settled Fur farmers they are attacking for access to
land and water. This long-standing contest has intensified as
desertification has worsened. Many of these nomads only arrived in Sudan
from Chad and West Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. These tensions escalated
into today's catastrophe when Sudan's central government, fearing a popular
uprising among the Fur after the emergence in early 2003 of two small rebel
groups demanding greater autonomy, stoked the resource rivalry by unleashing
the janjaweed as a proxy army. In the meantime, Khartoum developed a more
The Darfur crisis is not one people assaulting another in a frenzy of
long-buried ethnic hatred, as in Rwanda. It is a mob of armed thugs cashing
in on the opportunity to loot at will, while securing political objectives
set by their handlers: the quashing of an uprising that could not only
threaten the government's hold on this region but also unravel its efforts
to reach a lasting truce with the rebellious south and perhaps kick off new
revolts in the restive east and north. Nor is the nature and scope of this
disaster unique within Sudan. It is the outcome of a decades-long strategy
of divide and rule that successive governments -- all drawn from the
fractious elite that resides in and around Khartoum -- have used to put down
challenges, mostly out of the international spotlight.
The roots of this conflict lie in decades of grossly unequal development in
Sudan's wealthy, riverine core at the confluence of the two main Nile
tributaries and the rest of the country -- not only the black African south,
which revolted even before the country gained its independence from Britain
in 1956, but much of the west, east and north as well. These areas were
marginalized under colonial rule and then exploited or ignored by successive
Sudanese governments, of which the "Islamic" regime of Gen. Omar al-Bashir
is only the latest incarnation.
narrow focus on the violence and the plight of its victims, as horrific
as it is, has obscured the politics behind the crisis. The tragic reality is
that the Sudanese government has largely got what it wanted from its
janjaweed proxies by now: the routing of the two small rebel armies -- the
Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) --
that attacked government military installations in 2003 and the draining of
the civilian sea in which they swam. For their part, the janjaweed have got
what they wanted: a treasure trove of booty pillaged from their victims,
none of which is likely to be returned, together with vastly expanded access
to grazing land for their herds. Aid workers told visiting journalists in
September that janjaweed working as camp police were trying to bribe
refugees to go back to their villages to blunt international protest.
If the Khartoum government can maintain a modicum of control over the
janjaweed, the Bush administration will get what it wants, too: an apparent
diplomatic success at modest cost that both satisfies its evangelical
Christian constituency, which has turned Sudan into a moral crusade based on
the regime's persecution of southern Christians, and permits the dismantling
of Clinton-era sanctions and the reopening of Sudan's extensive and largely
untapped oil reserves to American companies.
The losers will be the millions of terrified and impoverished Darfuris who
have lost homes, crops, animals and basic security and who now face the
prospect of, at best, indefinite reliance on international charity. Down the
line, the losers could be the Bejas of eastern Sudan, or the Nuba in the
north, or whatever other people in this, Africa's most ethnically diverse
nation, has the temerity to demand its rights.
The challenge to the international community is to approach Darfur from the
standpoint both of how to stem the violence today and how to resolve the
issues that drive the crisis in order to avoid a repetition. In short,
efforts to ameliorate the disaster should be folded into a comprehensive
peace process that embraces the entire country.
The most pressing need in Darfur is security, without which not only will
the violence get worse, but the humanitarian emergency will spin out of
control. In the summer of 2004, the African Union (AU) sent 133 observers to
monitor the shaky ceasefire between rebel groups and the government, with
300 more troops added to protect the monitors, but they have been
overwhelmed by the task of operating in an area the size of Texas that
contains an at-risk population of five to seven million. Khartoum has
indicated, under pressure, that it may be willing to accept another 3,500 AU
troops and monitors, but many observers say that at least three times that
many are needed. In October, the Sudan Liberation Movement called on British
Prime Minister Tony Blair to expand the AU mission to 30,000. Meanwhile,
field reports suggest that many of those there today cannot move about
Darfur because their vehicles lack fuel and spare parts.
Improvised huts built by refugees (Photo: Amnesty International)
Without security, the war-displaced civilians will remain in unsanitary
camps where disease is a bigger killer than hunger. The resulting protracted
dependence on international relief will create a new set of problems.
Meanwhile, major famine looms even if they do go home. The widespread theft
of animals and grain stores, the razing of villages and crops, and the
inability of war victims to sow any seeds over the summer leave millions at
risk of starvation until the end of the next crop cycle in 2005. As the
rainy season winds to a close and transportation routes reopen, there will
be a need to protect relief convoys so that there is not a repeat of the
Somali crisis of the early 1990s, in which armed bands hijacked incoming aid
and built their militias with it.
Beyond these humanitarian efforts, there must be accountability for the mass
murder and looting. So far the government's much touted arrests of men they
claim are janjaweed have mostly turned out to be common criminals already
imprisoned for months or even years. The authorities may even execute some
to make it appear they are acting decisively. This is such a poorly
conceived scam that one has to wonder who Sudanese officials thought they
were fooling, yet it typifies the sense of "impunity" described by Jan Pronk
in his October 8 report to the Security Council. This same sense of impunity
led Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Ismail, in Libya for regional talks on
the Darfur crisis, to add a new twist to the government's claims that they
have tried to rein in the janjaweed. Despite having dispatched more troops
to Iraq than Khartoum has to Darfur, Ismail told the BBC, the U.S. has been
unable to establish security in the country it invaded.
As is now well-established, however, it was not just janjaweed doing the
killing. Extensive firsthand testimony and Sudanese government documents
obtained by Human Rights Watch indicate that Sudanese regular army and air
force units were directly involved. It certainly was not just the local
gangsters who unleashed the carnage. They simply took advantage of the
opportunity when it was thrust upon them. Accountability for the disaster in
Darfur must go up the chain of command to the officials in Khartoum who gave
the orders, sent the troops, provided the air cover and supplied the stream
of excuses of which Ismail's is only the latest.
SQUEEZED BETWEEN LOBBIES
Sudanese civil war, taking place on many fronts, is a highly fluid
confrontation between conflicting visions of what it means to be a Sudanese,
who will enjoy the full fruits of Sudanese citizenship and whether those who
have until now been forcibly excluded will remain a part of Sudan at all. A
halt to the fighting in Darfur that fails to address these deeper issues is
bound to founder. To ignore the longer history and focus only on the
resolution of recent grievances, as the Bush administration has done, in
Darfur as in the north-south conflict, is folly. Yet the U.S. may have painted
itself into a corner on Sudan from which there is no easy -- or
constructive -- way out. This corner was illuminated by the inability of
either Bush or his opponent Kerry to offer a straight answer to PBS anchor
Jim Lehrer when, during the September 30 presidential debate, he asked the
candidates why the U.S. has not acted to stop the "genocide" in Darfur.
At home, the administration is squeezed between contending lobbies. On one
side are right-wing evangelicals, led by Rev. Billy Graham's son Franklin,
who were initially drawn to this issue by the presence of Christian victims
in the north-south conflict. They are joined by African Americans outraged
at the treatment of black Africans. Both constituencies favor stepped-up U.S.
intervention, ranging from stiffer sanctions to direct military involvement.
Pulling in the other direction are oil companies and other corporate
interests that argue for "constructive engagement" in order to soften the
regime's rough edges -- and reopen the country to American investment,
blocked since the Clinton years. "China, India, Malaysia and some European
countries are dramatically expanding business ties with Sudan, taking
advantage of U.S. sanctions that bar American companies from operating here,"
warned a recent front-page story in the Bush-friendly Washington Times.
(Photo: Darfur Relief and Development Association)
In the face of these conflicting pressures, the administration has been
increasingly strident in its criticism of the Khartoum government, while
quietly struggling to keep the faltering north-south talks going, but taking
no other action toward Sudan beyond urging modest sanctions in a UN Security
Council ill-disposed to do its bidding. China, which has a major investment
in Sudan's oil fields, had threatened to veto anything stronger and ended up
abstaining on the 11-4 vote on the September 18 resolution, along with
Russia, Pakistan and Algeria. Pakistan is also invested in Sudan's oil.
Russia, which does a brisk trade in arms with Sudan, has been lukewarm to
sanctions. For its part, Algeria, fearing a precedent, voiced concerns that
the UN was treading on Sudan's sovereignty.
One problem for Bush is that his administration has so thoroughly poisoned
the atmosphere for international peacemaking by its unilateralism on Iraq,
its one-sided posture in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its cavalier
attitude toward multilateral mechanisms elsewhere that it is unable to rally
support for action on Sudan. The appetite for another U.S.-initiated
intervention is simply not there. Nor can the Bush administration afford to
alienate its shaky Middle East allies over one more action aimed at an Arab
state, however corrupt it may be. In this climate, Ismail's comparison of
Khartoum's policy in Darfur to U.S. policy in Iraq may actually fall on some
The U.S. failure to halt (or even speak out about) the violence in Darfur
until it peaked in 2004 also highlights the weakness of the north-south
peace process in which the Bush administration is so heavily invested.
Nearly four years of cajoling both sides, using former Missouri senator and
current ambassador to the UN John Danforth as a special envoy, brought the
warring parties to the brink of an agreement to end the fighting. But the
pact is stuck and may yet collapse. Its main weakness is that is turns the
south into an exception to national policies that remain anathema to other
oppressed and marginalized peoples. By failing to restructure Sudan itself,
it simply sidelines one problem to make room for others to arise.
U.S. policy needs to be thoroughly recast to deal with Sudan's intricate
ethnic, religious and political conflicts. It needs to be tailored to the
complex, shifting reality on the ground, and it needs to be built with
strong support from the wider international community. None of this would be
easy under normal conditions. It is made even more difficult in an election
year, and, given the conflicting pressures upon the Bush administration from
within its own base, the prospect for sustained, effective action is dim
indeed. Yet anything less will only postpone additional bloodshed, at best.
NO PATCHWORK APPROACH
is obvious today -- if not before -- is that a patchwork approach to
the crises in Sudan cannot work, not only because it will fall apart under
increasing pressures and tensions from multiple directions but because this
way of conceptualizing the conflict is just plain wrong. Those who insist on
this failed strategy are the ones who characterized the north-south civil
war as a Muslim-Christian conflict and who now present the slaughter in
Darfur as an Arab-African fight. But then how do we explain the war in the
Nuba Mountains, where people of many faiths and ethno-linguistic groups have
revolted and faced unrelenting government violence? How do we explain the
revolts in the northeast among the Beja and other ancient Islamic cultures,
or among their Arab allies from the riparian heartland? Add these
battlegrounds up and they paint a picture of a regime that is colonizing
Sudan from within, using the tried and true colonial strategy of divide and
The only two possible solutions under these circumstances are to fold Darfur
and other regional conflicts (including that in the northeast) into the
north-south peace talks taking place in Naivasha, Kenya, and deal with the
nation as a whole, or to give up on the notion of a unified Sudanese state.
If autonomy is appropriate for one area, it should be considered for all. If
suspension of the regime's narrow interpretation of Islamic shari'a law is
inappropriate to one area, it ought to be considered for all. Otherwise, the
breakup of Sudan may no longer be a taboo prospect for those who are serious
about ending the slaughter. In fact, the ice has already been broken by the
acceptance of a referendum on the south's political status six years down
the road. If Sudan cannot exist as a pluralistic society, it may have to do
so as several.
Dan Connell, a contributing editor of Middle East Report, writes frequently
on the Horn of Africa. He teaches journalism and African politics at Simmons
College in Boston
Reprinted by special permission of the
Middle East Reasearch and Information Project (MERIP)
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November 16, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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