The Politics of Slaughter in Sudan

by Dan Connell | published October 18, 2004

One 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

The 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 systematic counterinsurgency.

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.

Win-Win, Lose-Lose

The 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.

Scamming the World

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.

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 US 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

The 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US sanctions that bar American companies from operating here," warned a recent front-page story in the Bush-friendly Washington Times.

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 US-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 US policy in Iraq may actually fall on some sympathetic ears.

The US 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.

US 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

What 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 rule.

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.

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