Darfur is considered as one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. From 2003 to 2008, it is estimated that about 300,000 people, mostly civilians died due to violence, disease, and starvation and more than 2 million civilians became internally displaced persons. Although the magnitude of the problem is at its extreme, the conflict has been going on for a long period of time, there are still disagreements about whether a humanitarian intervention is a viable option or not. The United States called the atrocities, genocide, but the United Nations is yet to call it one. To evaluate the effectiveness of a humanitarian intervention, we need to look at the history as well as the underlying reasons of the Darfur conflict.
Darfur crisis is an extremely complex issue and in order to understand what is happening in Darfur today, we need to look at the history of Sudan and understand the two previous civil wars between 1956-1972 and 1983-2005. Sudan has been a fighting ground almost since the day of independence. Ethnic divisions, religious differences as well as economic inequalities in the country have caused severe frictions among different tribal groups. Until its independence South and North was governed separately by the colonial power, Britain. On the one hand, the southern Sudan was the land of blacks and was governed similar to the other colonies, Kenya or Uganda. On the other hand, Northern Sudan was an Arab community, similar to Egypt in many aspects. After the independence, with the influence of the colonial power, the two separate countries unified under the name of Sudan. Apart from ethnic, religious and historical differences, there are also economic disparities between the two regions. South Sudan is blessed with vast water resources, precipitation, agricultural land and most importantly oil reserves. Northern Sudan is on the Sahara Desert, and it has pretty much none of the mentioned resources. Until 1983, oil was extracted in Southern Sudan but was exported from the port of Sudan which is in the northeastern part of the country. Considering that oil makes up 70% of Sudan’s export revenues, it is not hard to understand the source of the conflict between the two regions. Moreover, the attempt by the Khartoum government to establish the Sharia law on the entire country regardless of religious differences fueled the conflict between North and South. The war cost the lives of 2 million people and left 4 million people homeless. Eventually the south won the war forcing the government to give 49% of the oil revenues to the south.
Darfur conflict is different from the North-South war but the dynamics of the conflicts are the same. Darfur – Land of Fur - is on the western part of Sudan and it occupies an area close to the size of France. Among all other regions of Sudan, it is the most neglected one by the colonial British government and Sudanese government in terms of socio-economic development. The main occupants of the region are Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit tribes who are mostly nomadic pastorals. Approximately one third of the population is ethnically Arabic population, mostly cattle herders, who migrated from the north.
The origins of the conflict in Darfur take its roots from Chad when the Arabic militia in the country supported by Libya was driven to Darfur by the Chadian and French forces who later came in contact with the other Arabic nomads in the region to make up what is known today as Janjaweed. However, the war in Darfur did not begin until 2003 due to the loyalty of Darfurians to the Islamic government and lack of opposition in the region. By 2002, with the support of the Chadian government the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa tribes began to get organized to form Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). There are currently more than ten rebel groups in Sudan. The conflict in Darfur officially began when the rebel groups started to attack the government targets claiming that they were being economically neglected by Khartoum and the Khartoum government responded to the attacks by counter-attacking the Darfurians directly or through the Arab militia - Janjaweed.
There are four main factors contributing to the conflict in the country and these can be categorized as ethnic hatred, desertification, foreign actors and oil resources. Ethnic hatred between the black Fur, Masalit, Zaghawa groups and the Arab nomads originates from the colonial period. Blacks in Sudan are seen as inferior to the Arabs and lightness of the skin determines the position of the person in the color-scaled hierarchy. The blacks in the country have been seen as slaves. Incidentally, the capital city Khartoum was founded with the aim of trading African slaves in the country. Desertification and competition for local resources is also one of the factors which cause conflict between Arabs and Africans in the region. The African inhabitants of Darfur are involved in agriculture and the Arab nomads are cattle herders. As the Sahara desert extended towards South, the cattle herders of the north migrated to south coming in contact with the farming local tribes. Lack of resources in the region -as the desert extends- causes both groups compete for limited resources. There is simply not enough to sustain the population in Darfur.
Chadian and Sudanese governments act as catalysts in the conflicts in Sudan as well as in Chad. Sudanese government supports the Janjaweed militiamen in Chadian territories and the Chadian government supports the African Rebels in Sudan. Considering the fact that the Arab militiamen from Chad fled to Darfur and almost 200,000 Darfurian refugees fled to Chad, it is no surprise that the regional conflict escalates into an international war between Chad and Sudan.
Oil also plays an important role in the conflict. Approximately 70% of the oil is purchased by the Chinese and China is concerned with the stability of the country and the security of the oil pipelines; thus gives military and monetary support to the Khartoum government. According to BBC News, Panorama TV programme tracked down Chinese army trucks in the Sudanese province. “BBC was also told that China was training fighter pilots who fly Chinese A5 Fantan fighter jets in Darfur”.
The United States called the atrocities in Darfur genocide but the UN still has not. The joint UN – African Union peacekeeping mission, UNAMID has 9.000 observers in the country, but it is likely to be increased to 26.000 troops. A Peacekeeping mission in Darfur is definitely not an easy one considering the fact that the area to be protected is almost the size of France. So there in not much to expect from 26.000 troops whose mandate is just to observe and report. Sending 26.000 troops into the region at once, combined with the ICC’s decision to arrest Bashir will scare the Sudanese Government. Since there is no peace to keep in the country, the first goal should be to establish peace through diplomacy between the conflicting groups. Peacekeepers are not peacemakers, and even if they were so, 26.000 troops are not nearly enough to achieve that in the war-torn region of Sudan. Moreover, France is already involved by having standing troops in the Central African Republic and observers in Chad, so in a way, a western country, France, has taken side against the Khartoum government. Any intervention decision by the UN may appear as a direct threat to Khartoum regime and indirectly this may escalate the conflict to higher levels considering that China is also involved by providing military and monetary support to Sudan.
In Darfur, the best option that the international community has to help the people of Darfur is providing humanitarian aid to the civilians in the region. Thousands of lives can be saved through the aid agencies such as OXFAM, Red Crescent, and Red Cross. Creating safe havens for refugees and pressuring the Sudanese government to allow aid workers to work freely in the region will help the ones in need in the country. People of Darfur do not only die from direct violence, they also die from diseases and starvation. Aid agencies are not going to be able to stop the violence but they may slow down the death rates caused by starvation or even diseases. While aid agencies provide humanitarian relief, the governments, African as well as Western, should force a peace deal between the rebel groups and Khartoum government. Once that is achieved, 26.000 peacekeepers would be free to keep the peace in the country without having to stand as a bystander or face direct confrontation with the Janjaweed.
ISRO - Center for African Studies
De Waal, Alex. “Darfur – the crisis explained”. Prospect Magazine: Issue 132, March 2007.