Western Sudan is notorious for traditional tensions between cattle-raising nomadic Arab tribesmen and non-Arab African farming communities. Rivalry between the two groups has intensified in recent years as the scramble for meager water and agricultural resources threatens to rip apart the delicate fabric of social structures in the region.
Darfur, Sudan’s largest and westernmost province, bordering Chad and the Central African Republic, has seen an intensification of tribal conflict. The problem today appears to be the politicisation of age-old tribal conflicts over grazing rights. The latest round of fighting to flare up in Sudan was spearheaded by the Darfur-based Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), not to be confused with the southern- based Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) headed by John Garang.
Initial reports indicated that the SLA killed more than 30 Sudanese government troops in an all-out assault on Al-Fasher, the capital of Northern Darfur state.
Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir and his Chadian counterpart Idris Deby met at the Sudanese border town of Geneina recently to discuss developments. In particular, they debated security concerns and tribal movements across their porous borders.
The London-based human rights group Amnesty International has urged that Darfur be “included in the human rights monitoring mechanism set up under the Sudan peace process” and for an independent human rights commission of inquiry to be sent to the war-torn region.
SLA forces destroyed four military aircraft parked in Al-Fasher Airport. Human rights groups are especially concerned about fighting flaring up in another of Sudan’s outlying regions.
“The situation is murky and extremely complex, but it is one that can be resolved if the marginalised parts of northern Sudan don’t get left out of the peace process,” Liz Hogdkin of Amnesty International told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“Peace is not just a question of power-sharing, borders and wealth-sharing between southern and northern Sudanese. The Sudanese authorities cannot ignore injustice in the rest of Sudan. The Sudanese government cannot focus all their energy in southern Sudan,” Hogdkin pointed out.
The Sudanese government systematically refers to the SPLA as “rebels” and to the SLA as “outlaws” and believes that the “outlaws” are assisted by outside forces. Darfur is divided into Northern and Southern Darfur states. Nyala, the capital of Southern Darfur state, has so far been free of trouble.
“We firmly believe that John Garang’s movement coordinates and communicates with this group [the SLA], particularly since the [SPLA] has been blocked from doing anything in the south by concluding a cease-fire agreement with the [Sudanese] government,” said General Ibrahim Suleiman, the governor of Sudan’s Northern Darfur state. Other Sudanese government officials are more cautious. Ambassador Hassan Abdel-Baki, Sudan’s chief representative to the Cairo-based Arab League, told the Weekly, “As far as the SPLA is concerned, there is no conclusive evidence of its embroilment in the disturbances in Darfur. But we have concrete evidence that Chadian opposition forces have a hand in the Darfur conflict.” He stated that some of the bodies found in Al-Fasher Airport were identified as Chadians, the majority of whom were from the Zaghawa ethnic group, which inhabits both Chad and Sudan.
Sudanese government officials also suspect that Chadian opposition forces have ganged up with local groups to stir up trouble in Darfur. The Sudanese government also accuses Chadian groups of fomenting discontent in Darfur. General Suleiman identified the leader of the SLA as Abdullah Al- Baker, a Chadian opposition figure. Ambassador Abdel-Baki concurred. “Certain groups [have] aimed at politicising what are traditional conflicts over grazing land between the sedentary Fur and the nomadic Arab tribes.” He said that it is believed that the Fur sought help from the well- armed Zaghawa tribesmen of both Darfur and Chad.
The Zaghawa, with large stocks of arms and ammunition stored from the days of the Chadian civil war, easily captured Al-Fasher Airport in an early morning surprise attack. Sudanese government forces recaptured the airport and the attackers fled to Jebel Marra, their inhospitable mountain stronghold.
Independent Sudan observers, however, believe that the trouble in western Sudan is locally brewed. The uprising is organised from inside Darfur and is not guided by outside forces. A majority of the armed opposition members arrested by government forces are ethnic Fur, along with some Zaghawa and Masaleet. Many of the civilian villagers massacred by Sudanese forces were Masaleet.
Observers also believe that the small arms trade and the proliferation of arms in western Sudan and the neighbouring countries of Chad and the Central African Republic is one of the factors precipitating the escalation of armed conflict in Darfur in recent years.
According to SLA leaders, the movement wants to overthrow the Islamist regime in Khartoum and replace it with a democratic government. Not only has the SLA been emulating SPLA strategy, but Khartoum accuses the SLA of receiving arms and ammunition from the SPLA.
Sudanese government forces have retaliated by razing several villages in the region of Kutum, northern Darfur. The main complaint of the SLA and the local non-Arab groups is that the Sudanese government is aligned with Arab tribesmen in the traditional conflict.
“In the past few months, the Sudanese government security forces and Arab militias have dramatically increased attacks against leaders of the Masaleet, Fur, Zaghawa, Tama and other non-Arab groups in western Sudan,” warned Mohamed Adam Yahya, chairman of the US-based Masaleet Community in Exile.
The SLA was formerly known as the Darfur Liberation Front, an organisation calling for the secession of Darfur from Sudan. Today the SLA wants to “create a united, democratic Sudan”. SLA Secretary-General Minni Arkou Minnawi said in a statement released in March that the Sudanese government “introduced policies of marginalisation, racial discrimination, and exploitation that had disrupted the peaceful co-existence between the region’s African and Arab communities.”
Among the better organised ethnic Fur political groups are the Sudan Federal Democratic Alliance (SFDA), headed by former Sudanese minister Ahmed Diraig. SFDA is a member of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), an umbrella grouping of Sudanese opposition organisations. The main ethnic groups in Darfur are the Fur, Masaleet and Zaghawa. The Masaleet are a Muslim people who — like the Fur — have retained strong pre-Islamic African traditional beliefs and customs. There is no single Masaleet political group that represents them nationally or that seeks to advance their interests.
Darfur, Sudan’s largest province, is a very fertile region with rich agricultural farmland and pastures for cattle. They are a sedentary and thoroughly Islamised people who constituted an independent sultanate until it was forcibly incorporated into Sudan by the British colonial authorities in 1916. The Fur people, who live around the Jebel Marra region and speak their own Fur language, have a strong sense of regional identity. Even though they have been Muslim for over six centuries, they see themselves as distinct from the Arab pastoral tribesmen who inhabit the plains.
It appears that the ethnic groups of the vast and culturally assertive Darfur now want to have a decisive say in a new Sudan. Western human rights organisations have come to the assistance of Darfur’s downtrodden and disgruntled groups.
Ambassador Hassan Abdel-Baki hotly denies charges of deliberate political marginalisation of Darfur communities by the central government in Khartoum. “There are 12 ministers from Darfur in the central government. [In proportion] to its population, the Darfur representation in central government is more than that of any other Sudanese region. There is more representation from western Sudan than from the more populous central parts of the country,” he said. “Presidential adviser Ali Hasan Tajudeen, who recently visited Cairo, is one of the traditional sultans of the Masaleet,” he added.
Human rights groups feel that the fundamental development concerns and grass-roots participation in decision-making processes are still lacking. They want greater international intervention to redress the historical injustices.
“At a time when peace talks are taking place to end a 20-year conflict which has caused two million deaths and 4.5 million displaced persons, the international community must not watch in silence while the choice of a military solution for human rights problems drags another area of Sudan into disaster,” warned Amnesty International’s Hodgkin.