Darfur: The Crisis Continues

Daniel Rothbart
Johan Brosché
Adeeb Yousif

This Case Study was written in November 2012 by Dr. Daniel Rothbart and Adeeb Yousif of the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution (S-CAR), George Mason University, and Johan Brosché of Uppsala University.

This piece was prepared as part of the S-CAR / Beyond Intractability Collaborative.

Since it gained independence in 1956, Sudan has been ravaged by war. Its people have been devastated by both the North-South conflict that embroiled the country for the last two decades of the twentieth century and the war in Darfur, the country's western-most region. Since the early 2000s, Darfurians have been the continued victims of ethnic cleansing, large-scale killings, genocidal violence, and horrific displacement. Though the violence has waned from its level during the peak years of 2002 and 2003, the fighting continues to the present day. This report provides an up-to-date mapping of the current crisis in Darfur, giving special attention to its complexity, dynamics, and multiplicity of causes. The analysis that underpins this report is extensively examined in Violent Conflict and Peacebuilding: The Continuing Crisis in Darfur (Brosché and Rothbart 2013).

During the peak years of the war, a coalition of forces that included the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and an Arab militia group known as the Janjaweed targeted large segments of the Darfurian population. The Sudanese Air Force struck village after village using assault helicopters and Russian-made Antonov bombers. Combined Sudanese and Janjaweed ground forces followed aerial attacks with infantry assaults. The targets for these combined assaults were ethnic tribes perceived by the Sudanese government as supporters of rebel resistance movements, such as the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLM/A) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). Three ethnic tribes received the brunt of these assaults: the Fur, Massalit, and Zaghawa. The attackers systematically killed men, raped women, and abducted children. The attackers also targeted essential resources, destroying livestock, torching fields, poisoning wells, and leveling health clinics and schools (HRW 2004: 13-32; Tanner and Tubian 2007: 14-22). Such attacks are documented in eyewitness testimony (HRW 2004b: 20; Amnesty International 2004: 10; Totten 2011a; 132-4).[1]

According to United Nations reports, more than 300,000 Darfuri civilians have been killed since 2003. The number of internally displaced Darfurians as of 2011 is 2,666,115, making Darfur one of the worst cases of internal displacement globally (IDMC 2011).

The chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Luis Moreno-Ocampo, found that the central government perpetrated genocidal violence and other crimes against humanity in Darfur. President Omar Al-Bashir was indicted by the ICC for his role as supreme military commander of the forces responsible for such crimes, including Janjaweed militia lured into the campaign with promises of money, war spoils, and prestige (Totten 2011b:477).

The Darfur crisis is highly complex. Different categories of stakeholders operate simultaneously, including political parties, ethnic tribes, communal groups, and, of course, martial forces and their leaders. Interactions between levels of stakeholders are complicated and unpredictable, subject to influences within and outside of Darfur. Further, causal factors driving the interactions of conflict parties are often mutually reinforcing, resulting in a downward spiral of self-sustaining hostilities.

We believe that the complexity of the Darfur crisis cannot be framed as a single conflict. It consists of the interaction of four conflict-types: (1) struggles between communities that often, but not always, pit farmers against herders; (2) conflicts between the center of political/economic power in and around Khartoum and the majority of Sudanese living at the periphery; (3) contestation between local elite leaders of the resistance movements; and (4) cross-border conflicts, most notably between Chad and Sudan.[2] These various types of conflicts operate simultaneously, with devastating effects in and around Darfur.

1. Communal Conflict

Violence over access to essential resources has plagued Darfur for a long time. The cyclical droughts in the 1970s and 1980s depleted the land of vital nutrients, causing crop failures, loss of livestock, and destruction of pastures. Such environmental devastation presented serious threats to the livelihood of both herders and farmers; the communities themselves struggled to survive.

International journalists and world leaders characterize the subsequent violence as a clash between African farmers and Arab herders, with some accuracy. Many communities in Darfur identify themselves by their ethnicity, livelihood, and culture. African farmers establish their identity from a sense of connection with the land; the community itself grows from and remains stable on and in the earth. For the Arab nomads, their security and survival rests on the movement of cattle.

While partially correct, this explanation of the crisis as emerging from disputes between African farmers and Arab herders is not entirely accurate. First, while the environmental devastation did in fact spark small-scale skirmishes between herders and farmers, many violent clashes involved different communities of herders. In fact, between 1989 and 2010, herders clashed more often with other herders than they did with farmers (Brosché and Rothbart 2013, pp. 51-53).

Another flaw in this explanation is the insufficient focus on the role of political manipulation. Political action by the Sudanese government intensified the struggles over limited natural resources in both scale and scope. Khartoum openly supported certain Arab communities at the expense of Africans, and when violence erupted, the central government deployed Arab militia groups as proxies for their campaign against certain ethnic-affiliated communities (de Waal 2007 b). In response to the assaults on African communities by Arab militia movements, SLM/A and JEM were formed to protect African communities, most notably the Fur, Massalit, and Zaghawa.

Finally, the dualistic categories of Africans and Arabs are suspect on objective ground, despite the wide currency this duality enjoys among Sudanese. Viewed in terms of residence and spoken language, all Darfurians are geographic Africans and linguistic Arabs. Of course, socio-cultural differences between Africans and Arabs are complex and contested, linked variously to race, kinship, skin color, and culture.

2. Center-Periphery Conflict

The coup of 1989 brought the militarily strong Omar al-Bashir into a leadership position as President of Sudan. He currently oversees the nation's martial forces, including the Sudan Armed Forces and the National Intelligence and Security Service. His ascension to power signals a continuation of a long-standing conflict between the central elite of Sudan, situated in and around Khartoum, and those living at the periphery of power, who comprise the vast majority of Sudanese.

The Darfur crisis is inherently a conflict between the central elite and the marginalized population. Though they come from two small ethnic groups comprising only two percent of the Sudanese population, the elite hold key leadership posts in the economy, military and civil society. They also control the country's channels of political power through their domination of the National Congress Party (NCP), which routinely shapes government policy in favor of advancing an Islamic state (El-Din 2007: 105). The party controls the nation's civil affairs, imposing Shari law that affects health care, family law, and education (IDF and Assal 2010; 8-9). The ideological architect of the party is the prominent Sunni Islamicist Hussan al-Turabi.

The center-periphery imbalance of power in various sectors of society represents a major source of the rebellion for JEM and SLM/A. In May 2000, a group of unnamed writers published The Black Book, which exposed Khartoum's tyrannical policies, corruption, and willful neglect of the needs of Darfurians. The book's authors were later identified as members of JEM, who continue to advocate national political rebellion (El-Tom 2011).

The domination of the central elite has had devastating effects on most Sudanese, resulting in substantial deprivations in health care, housing, education, and critical agricultural supplies (de Waal 2007a: 20). These deprivations illustrate a more systematic, disguised type of violence against the Sudanese. As Johan Galtung reminds us, structural violence is not exactly the kind of person-to-person violence committed through brute force. Its lethality appears, rather, through instruments of political domination, such as an edict by a political leader that deprives people of essential needs, leaving them in peril to fend for themselves and vulnerable to extreme hardship and exploitation (Galtung 1978: 34-35). Evidence of Sudan's structural violence appears in national health indicators, which place the country among the lowest of developing nations (UN 2007). The infant mortality rate, for example, stands at sixty-two per 1,000 births and life expectancy is 56.4 years of age. The probability of Sudanese men surviving to age sixty-five is only 49.7%; for women this range is 55.3%. Life in Sudan is perilous and tragically short for most people living at the periphery (UN 2007).

3. Local Elite Conflicts

At the time of this writing, the rebellion against Sudan's government is dominated by four major resistance movements: the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) led currently by Gibril Ibrahim; the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) led by Abdul Wahid; a separate branch of SLM/A led by Minni Minawi; and an umbrella group known as the Liberation and Justice Movement (LJM), comprising factions of previous movements, led by Tigani El-Sissi. Though each group's ostensible target is the Sudanese government, power struggles between leaders of these resistance movements have contributed significantly to disunity and even inter-group hostility. The fragmentation that results from such struggles works hand-in-glove with Khartoum's divide-and-rule tactics. Strife within SLM/A revolves around the personal ambitions of two major leaders: Abdul Walid and Minni Minawi.

Competition between these two leaders has significantly altered the dynamics of the crisis, leading occasionally to episodes of violence. Abdul Wahid proclaimed himself chair of this resistance movement in 2003. His ascension to power was contested by Minni Minawi and fellow members of the Zagawa tribe. Minawi withdrew his forces to the North to begin a violent struggle with Abdul Wahid. Seeking to reconcile these two leaders, Libya's former President Muammar Gaddafi organized a conference in Tripoli in 2005 called Darfur People Consultation Conference. Another conference was held in November 2005 in Haskanita. Abdel Wahid refused to participate in both conferences. He also rejected the decision of participants at Haskanita to select Minni Minawi as Chairman of SLA, as the conference mainly consisted of supporters to Minni Minawi. Abdel Wahid remains Chairman for SLA. This dispute fragmented the movement, which led to formation of SLM/A-Minawa and SLM/A-Abdul Wahid. On several occasions, the personal entrepreneurism of these leaders has resulted in violent clashes between the new movements.

The rivalry between Minawi and Abdul Wahid intensified with the signing of the Darfur Peace Agreement in 2006. Endorsed by the central government, the agreement secured the signature of only one movement leader — Minni Minawi. With this endorsement, he was rewarded a government post as Senior Assistant to the President. Many members of resistance movements responded with vitriol, accusing Minawi of abandoning the needs of Darfurians for personal gain. By 2007, additional splits led to the formation of dozens of new movements.

In 2010, Minawi abandoned his government post and re-launched his military campaign against the central government, although he never collaborated with Abdul Wahid. In November 2011, he joined a consortium of movements known as Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), which was established to overthrow the regime of President Omar al-Bashir and build a democratic Sudan. SLM/A led by Abdul Wahid and JEM were also part of this umbrella movement which also embraced rebels from other areas of Sudan, such as the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile.

4. Cross-Border Conflicts

The Darfur crisis is not confined to a single region or even a single country. Four countries that border Sudan — Chad, Libya, Egypt, and Eritrea — have sought to influence the outcome of the Darfur crisis. Chad and Sudan have been engaged in violence periodically since the early years of the 20th century. One country's martial forces would provide support to rebel movements in the neighboring country, exploiting their vulnerabilities. The resulting proxy war directly impacted the Darfur crisis.

For example, relations between Chad and Sudan have undergone major shifts from harmony between 1990 and the early 2000s to enmity between 2002 and 2009, and back again in 2010. During the period of enmity, a proxy war broke out following Chadian President Idriss Déby's offer of military support to Khartoum – a result of the fact that the Sudanese government had supported Déby when he took power in Chad in 1990–in their campaign against SLM/A and JEM. Resentment developed among many Chadian military leaders, largely because of their ethnic affiliation to the African tribes subjected to Sudanese assaults. Several commanders started to support their ethnic "brothers" in the Darfuri resistance. Although this support was not sanctioned by Déby, the regime in Khartoum believed that the supply of Chadian arms to Darfuri rebels was authorized by Déby. As a result, Khartoum retaliated against the Chadian campaign by offering military aid to Chadian rebels, who were seeking to overthrow the regime of President Déby. In effect, the Chadian rebels served as proxies for the Sudan government seeking a new leader who would be friendly to Khartoum. Déby reversed his decision and threw his military support to the Darfurian rebels. In this context, the Darfurian movements acted as proxies to the Chadian commanders' attempt to overthrow the regime in Khartoum.

These proxy relations led to a major outburst of violence in 2008 between Chadian rebels and Darfurian resistance fighters. The violence continued into January 2010, when Chad and Sudan signed a peace agreement.

Aside from the challenges associated with proxy wars, the impact of social movements in other countries raises many questions about Sudan's future. Many Sudanese have asked whether their country will experience its own Arab Awaking, inspired by the overthrow of authorial regimes in Tunisia (2010), Egypt (2011), and Libya (2011). Several anti-government demonstrations broke out in the capital in the spring of 2011, and again in the summer of 2012. None of the protests to date represents a major threat to the regime, although the conjunction of such demonstrations with the military campaign of the resistance movements is quite ominous.

At the time of this writing, the crisis continues. Darfurians suffer from increasing fatalities, sexual assaults, and displacement on a massive scale. Darfur today is housing the highest number of IDPs in the world — approximately 3,000,000 people. Civilians face the two-pronged threat of personal danger and deprivation of essential material and services.


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[1] Attempts by the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur to contain the violence have failed. The organized attacks on UNAMID forces have led to 44 fatalities UNAMID personnel since the Darfur crisis began.
[2] For a detailed analysis of these four conflict-types, see (Brosché and Rothbart 2013, Chapter 2).