Darfur Stereotyping Fraught with Danger

Image: Flickr, UNAMID
Image: Flickr, UNAMID

Widespread dissemination of misperceptions may impede peace negotiations. The summary expulsion of Jan Pronk, the United Nations’ envoy to Sudan, from that country this month, following remarks he made on the Darfur conflict, reflects the Khartoum government's unilateral and uncompromising stance towards any of its detractors.

The war in Darfur, Sudan’s westernmost province, between government-backed militias and anti-Khartoum rebels has garnered huge international attention and the International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague is investigating as many as 51 people for war crimes there and crimes against humanity at the request of the UN Security Council.

Sudan’s National Islamic Front government, which harboured Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, has become increasingly thin-skinned about any mention of its battlefield reverses in Darfur, the “sin” committed by Pronk on his personal blog.

Pronk, 66, a former Dutch cabinet minister, has been UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s special representative in Sudan for the past two years. He has been increasingly critical of the Sudanese authorities since violence increased in Darfur following a May peace accord between the government and one rebel faction, and Khartoum refused to allow UN peacekeepers in the region.

The three-year war in Darfur has killed and estimated 250,000 to 400,000 peasant people and forced some 2.5 million from their homes in what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir rejected a Security Council resolution in August calling for 21,000 soldiers and civilian police to deploy in Darfur to replace an under-funded and ineffective African Union peacekeeping force of 7,700 troops.

Pronk wrote on his personal website on October 14 that the Sudanese army had suffered two major defeats against Darfur rebels in the previous six weeks. “The morale in the government army in north Darfur has gone down,” he said. “Some generals have been sacked; soldiers have refused fighting.”

While the government willfully refuses to admit any culpability in Darfur and continues to insist that the war is essentially tribal, the conflict intensifies on an almost daily basis. Intervention by multilateral bodies to ensure an end to hostilities is imperative, although how this is to be achieved beyond torrents of words is unclear.

Relentless publicity, in which the media has a crucial role, is essential if decision makers are going to have the will and find the means to end what has been widely described as the 21st century’s first genocide.

However, a scan of the host of media articles and academic analyses of Darfur reinforces a disturbing impression that the majority of them miss the myriad nuances that underpin a situation of increasingly hideous complexity. Most reports depict the conflict as a genocide or ethnic cleansing of Africans by Arabs, in much the same way that the separate war in southern Sudan was portrayed as a battle between evil Muslim northerners and hapless Christian southerners.

Such portrayals are only partly true. Few have bothered to note that in Sudan all the fighters are black and in Darfur not enough have made the point that all the combatants are Muslim.

This tendency to over-simplify and stereotype is dangerous. It perpetuates ideas such as the “clash of civilizations”, encourages deepening xenophobia and radicalisation, and detracts from sincere attempts at cross-cultural understanding. The widespread dissemination of misperceptions, as in the Darfur case, might actually impede peace negotiations.

For example, some parties involved in the Darfur peace negotiations in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, earlier in the year confirmed that media portraits of rebel groups as victims of genocide had contributed to grandiose demands by some of their leaders. The Sudanese government has also used the media reports to bolster their claim that they are being unjustly vilified, particularly when interacting with sympathisers in the Arab world.

A too rarely discussed element of the Darfur crisis is the sheer complexity of ethnic, cultural and tribal relations in the region and in Sudan generally. Darfur is home to between 40 and 150 tribes and sub-tribes, with the most influential being the Fur, Marsalit and Zaghawa.

Perhaps the most truly indigenous people of Darfur are the Fur, originally from the mountainous well-watered Jebel Marra that rises to more than 10,000 feet and divides arid northern Darfur from equally arid southern Darfur. Waves of migration over centuries have resulted in today’s Fur being an ethnic stew of various antecedents. Genetic linkages to the Hausa, Maba and Fulbe tribes of Nigeria point to migration from the west, while migrants and seasonal nomadic travellers from the east and north contributed other characteristics, both African and Arab. Today, everyone in Darfur is of African physiognomy and the terms “African” and “Arab” are largely notional.

In Darfur, the term Arab came down the centuries to be applied to pastoralists, since the first pastoralists in the region were nomads of Arab ethnicity. The designation Arab had negative connotations among the more settled agrarian Darfuris, originally of African descent, who used it to denote people who had no settled home. Arab herders who intermarried with the African landowners and settled into sedentary lifestyles could easily, even in the twentieth century, become Fur. Similarly, a Fur or Zaghawa farmer who bought cattle and moved his herd to new pastures every season would often adopt the term “Baggara”, the name by which cattle-herding Arabs are known in the area.

Consequently, for example, an outsider can easily find an African Zaghawa tribesman has paler skin and sharper features than the Rizeigat Arab standing next to him.

A genetic study of southern Darfur’s Fellata nomads, a sub-group of the Baggara Arabs, would reveal a mix of Arab characteristics from north-eastern ancestors and a substantial dose of West African markers. Although most Darfuris, especially pastoralists, have become linguistically Arabised, some still speak dialects closely related to Nigerian Fulbe.

Some Arab tribes, such as the Rizeigat and Beni Hussein, have resisted government blandishments and have either supported the African rebels or tried to remain neutral. Several pro-government militias still include members of the African Zaghawa tribe. Many Zaghawa were wooed by the government to fight in the separate southern Sudanese conflict and they were long regarded as allies by the Khartoum government. It was only in 2000 and 2001, when numerous Zaghawa villages were ransacked by government-backed Janjaweed militiamen, that Zaghawas began joining the rebels in large numbers.

Who then are the Janjaweed? The term is an aggregation of the Arabic words Jinn meaning evil spirit and Jawad meaning mounted rider (used for both horseman and camel-riders). So the Janjaweed are “evil spirits on horseback” who looted and ransacked settled villages in what was originally a series of tribal disputes between nomadic Arabs and settled African farmers over land and grazing rights.

Historically, northern nomads were allowed pasture and passage through African farmland along routes established centuries ago. But seasonal drought cycles and pressures of growing population forced pastoralists to impinge more and more on the land of their settled southern neighbours, and in turn forced farmers to fence off their land, triggering increasingly bitter disputes.

The situation progressively worsened and has been fanned by political manipulation both from successive Khartoum governments, as well as neighbouring Libyans and Chadians wanting to garner support for wars in Chad.

From 1968 onwards, Darfur was an important factor for any government wanting to win elections in Sudan, with the result that opposing political parties in Khartoum manipulated and exacerbated existing tensions between Darfuri Arabs and Africans. This was despite the fact that Khartoum’s “riverine” Arabs, along the Nile, regarded themselves as superior to all Darfuris, whether African or Arab, whom they referred to derogatorily as Awlad al-Gharb (progeny of the west [of Africa]). Once in power, following the withdrawal of British colonial rulers in 1956, Khartoum’s political elites continued to marginalise Darfur and made little attempt to improve the poor social and economic conditions of the people there.

Libya’s President Gaddafi used Darfur as a base for supporting incursions into Chad at various times throughout the late twentieth century. The Libyans, with their notions of Arab supremacy, favoured Darfur’s Arabs and armed them to help support Chadian rebels. Tacit support from the Khartoum government for Libya’s Machiavellian tactics deepened resentment of the Libyan and Chadian Arabs among Darfur Africans.

The forerunners of today’s notorious Janjaweed initially received their arms from Libya or from Chadian rebels.

The periodic clashes between nomads and farmers became increasingly violent with the increasing availability of weapons as a consequence of the Libya-Chad war, but only escalated into stark ethnic-based conflict in the final years of the last century and in this new century. By 2003, numerous Zaghawa had joined the Fur and other tribes who had formed self-defence units to protect their villages and families from marauding Janjaweed horsemen.

These anti-Khartoum rebels organised themselves into efficient guerrilla fighting units and began attacking government targets. Darfur’s Sudan Liberation Army, SLA, had been formed.

At the same time, a broad-based Islamist rebel movement arose in Darfur, with links to Hassan al-Turabi, a politician much feared by the current Khartoum government even though Turabi was formerly its spiritual leader. This Justice and Equality Movement, JEM, joined the SLA in joint attacks on government and police installations.

Khartoum, fighting a losing battle in the south against African non-Muslim rebels and bogged down in the peace negotiations from that decades-old conflict, reacted to SLA-JEM’s successful incursions through counter-insurgency by proxy. They armed and provisioned the Janjaweed, and supported them with air-strikes and backup army units. In many cases, Janjaweed were co-opted into the police and paramilitary structures such as the Popular Defence Forces. The burning and looting of villages, especially at harvest time, was intended by Khartoum to cut the rebels off from their civilian supporters and browbeat the “zurug” (an insulting term for “inferior Blacks”) into submission.

Khartoum did not factor in that the rebels would refuse to back down and that they and their supporters would become increasingly determined to end the marginalisation of Darfur, a vast region roughly the size of France. Nor did Khartoum comprehend that by encouraging the racialised and increasingly bloody atrocities of the Janjaweed it had created a Frankenstein monster over which it had little control.

Despite the spotlight of international media attention, and amid growing calls for the world to intervene in a situation that had deteriorated into an immense humanitarian disaster, the Khartoum government stubbornly continued sponsoring the Janjaweed, even at the height of the Darfur peace negotiations in Abuja. This seems to have been in the misguided belief that the rebel groups could still be obliterated or suppressed by increasing the firepower and mobility of the Janjaweed, many of whom are now mounted on 4×4 vehicles instead of horses or camels.

In 2005, a UN commission of inquiry, led by Italian judge Antonio Cassese, handed nine crateloads of its findings on Darfur to the ICC, together with a list of suspected perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Cassese reported in great detail on mass killings, rapes, torture and looting in Darfur. Subsequent reports from UN commissions have confirmed that the people of Darfur are, in the words of Annan, “living in hell”. With the spectre of prosecution for war crimes hanging over senior government figures, perhaps Khartoum’s rulers reckoned they had nothing more to lose and therefore backed ever-more ferocious attacks on civilians, even those living in refugee camps, while steadfastly refusing to allow the entry of UN peacekeeping troops into Darfur.

Many of the rebels are also guilty of attacks on civilians, especially since the Abuja talks, where only one of three major rebel factions signed the May 2006 peace treaty, which has proved impossible to implement. The divided rebel groups are now pitted against each other in a deadly race to gain ground before any new peace talks, and each one is targeting communities perceived to be sympathetic to rival groups. The chaos has led to no-go zones, which humanitarian agencies cannot penetrate and a growing incidence of disease and starvation.

The subtleties contained in endless official international debates about the precise definition of words and phrases such as genocide and ethnic cleansing, coupled with the reluctance of world bodies to use such language, reflects the unwillingness of various nations to involve themselves in what has come to be seen as “another messy African war”. This contrasts sharply with the widespread media use of vivid reporting, featuring the voices of the oppressed, to stir international consciences and responses.

It is has become a mantra of increasing banality to say that Darfur’s people need the world to act quickly and decisively to save them from their misery. Should some kind of action finally follow all the words, it will need to focus not only on ending the conflict but also on opening serious negotiations towards sustainable peace. In the face of Khartoum’s intransigence regarding UN troops, the global community should perhaps seize the slight opening provided by President Omar al-Bashir’s recent statement that more African Union peacekeepers would be welcomed. A trebling of the current 7,700 AU troops in the region, with better financial and equipment support, could be a badly needed first step towards ending the violence.

A second step would be a renewed peace process involving representatives of all parties to the conflict and community leaders able to articulate the needs and perspectives of the citizens of Darfur, the victims of this bloody war. Multilateral organisations also need neutral envoys who are able to create trust in all parties. They could capitalise on Khartoum’s unexpected endorsement of the newly appointed United States Special Envoy to Sudan, Andrew Natsios. Sudan’s UN Ambassador Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem said Natsios had “listened with understanding” to his arguments.

Any peace negotiation must promise sufficient rewards for all parties as incentives to maintain peace, but needs to also contain some form of enforceable sanctions against those who breach the peace.

Lastly, the work of the ICC must be facilitated in the long-term so that impunity at the highest levels does not go unpunished.