At a time when the Western media and establishment are presenting the tragedy in Darfur as the fault of ‘Arab’ militias attacking indigenous African communities, and the US government is seeking to exploit the crisis to score brownie points at home and internationally in the run-up to the US presidential elections (and at a time when US policy elsewhere is sinking more than swimming), it is well worth trying to get past the propaganda and misinformation to understand certain underlying realities of the situation in Darfur.
The first point to make is that there is indeed a tragedy in the making there. Although some people may be sceptical of the claims being made by Western and international agencies, there is little doubt that the situation is serious, thousands of people having died already and many more facing starvation as a result of the damage caused by the war that has been going since early 2003. Although some of the predictions being made may be exaggerated for political reasons, or simply to enable aid agencies to raise more much-needed resources, the reality and seriousness of the problems should not be overlooked. No doubt many have died in the region in recent months, and will continue to die in the future, or to live in appalling conditions and suffer terrible hardships; such is the experience of many in all parts of Africa all the time.
However, at the same time, it is worth contextualising the situation and clarifying some misunderstandings about it. The first point to make is that this is not, as many seem to think, the result of ethnic or religious conflict between ‘Arabs’ and ‘Africans’. There is, as some commentators have attempted to point out, little or no ethnic, religious, linguistic or cultural difference between the groups involved, all of whom are Arabic-speaking African Muslims. The phrase ‘Arab militias’ is a gross misnomer based on the attempts by some Sudanese political groups to misrepresent the situation in the same Arab (and therefore Muslim) vs. African terms that they have imposed on problems elsewhere in Sudan. This misrepresentation of the situation is, of course, one that appeals to the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bias in the West. Instead the essence of the conflict is a tribal one, between different tribal groups, on the traditional issues of control of land and other resources, particularly water. In a relatively objective analysis published in October last year, before the issue became politicised, the UN media services characterised the problem in the following terms:
"The conflict pits farming communities against nomads who have aligned themselves with the militia groups — for whom the raids are a way of life — in stiff competition for land and resources. The militias, known as the Janjaweed, attack in large numbers on horseback and camels, and are driving the farmers from their land, often pushing them towards town centres."
This traditional-style African conflict has been exacerbated by the growing armed conflict between two local armed groups and the Sudanese government. This broke out early last year, when the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) launched attacks on military bases and government installations in the region. The SLA claimed to be responding to the government’s neglect of the region, an allegation not borne out by the facts. Since the Bashir government came to power in 1989, the number of schools in the region has risen from 16 to over 250, and the number of school students from 27,000 to 440,000. Three new airports have been built, and the road network has been expanded threefold.
In fact, the SLA, whose support is based largely on the Zaghawa tribe that straddles the Sudan-Chad border, has clear links with outside powers, who are arming and equipping it to undermine Khartoum. Although much has been made of the Sudanese government’s alleged links with the Janjaweed, UN observers have noted that the SLA have better weapons than the Sudanese army, and have been receiving supplies by air, indicating the sort of backing that can only come from states. SLA gunmen are reported to be operating in groups of up to 1,000 men in four-wheel-drive vehicles: very different from the horses and camels reportedly used by the Janjaweed.
That the SLA should receive outside support to fight the Khartoum government is hardly surprising. Sudan’s long-running and devastating civil war has long been sustained by support for anti-government forces from neighbouring regimes, including Chad, encouraged and supported by Western states seeking to destabilise what is seen as an Islamic regime. The conflict in Darfur is clearly part of this pattern, raising questions about who should really be held responsible for the undeniable suffering of the Sudanese people: the outside powers deliberately stoking war for their own political agendas, or the government trying to defend itself?
The West’s involvement in Darfur, despite the suffering caused to thousands of people, should come as no surprise. They demonstrated in Iraq in the 1990s their willingness to inflict massive suffering on civilians through economic warfare in pursuit of their political goals. Even more hypocritical, however, is their attempt now to step forward as champions of the oppressed, talking of possible humanitarian intervention to save the starving people of Darfur. Given their record elsewhere, no-one can take seriously their claims of humanitarian concern. At a time when the US’s reputation is in tatters and the Bush regime is facing political crisis at home, the sudden concern for Darfur can only be seen as another opportunistic political ruse; the tragedy is that the political impact of their interference can only encourage those genuinely responsible for the problems in Darfur, and make the situation even worse for Sudan’s long-suffering people.