Darfur, a forgotten conflict

Conflict in Darfur, Sudan

In a world that moves at the drop of a hat, where the only thing that exists is the immediate, and in an age where even the most serious issues only keep the attention for as long as it takes for another issue to burst in as a novelty, there is a danger of losing perspective and not being able to recognize worrying situations that, although forgotten, remain in time and, like a bad illness, erode health to effects that become irreversible.

There are countless conflicts that once captured the attention, covers, minutes of news, debates in international organizations and that practically disappeared from the objective from one day to the next. And not because they had an ending, whether satisfactory or not, but simply because the news swept them out of the spotlight. But they are still there, they are still causing pain, suffering, casualties, and most worryingly, they are still evolving. And the more they evolve, the more complicated their resolution becomes and the more dangerous they are because they are a focus for the expansion of violence, of instability in key areas due to their geostrategic interest and a breeding ground for both terrorist groups and organised crime, which often go hand in hand.

Among these conflicts there is one that is particularly painful due to its duration and consequences and dangerous due to the implications it has given its geographical location. We are referring to the conflict in Darfur. And it is a problem so far removed from current interest that the news of the end of the joint United Nations-African Union mission (UNAMID) next October, as well as the foreseeable announcement of a peace agreement during July, has gone almost unnoticed.

Darfur is an area located in northwest Sudan that borders the Central African Republic, Chad, South Sudan and Libya. Darfur is divided into three states within Sudan: Gharb Darfur (West), Janub Darfur (South) and Shamal Darfur (North). Its capital is the city of El Fasher. It is mostly composed of semi-arid plains. The population reaches approximately six million people.

As far as its history is concerned, Darfur was a sultanate of the Nile Valley, located in present-day Sudan, which remained independent from its foundation in 1603 until it was annexed by Egypt on 24 October 1874. In 1916 it was incorporated into the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.

Except in the north, where the nomadic population of Arab origin predominates, the Darfur region is home to black African ethnic groups and an Arab population. The most important African ethnic group is the Fur, who give their name to the region, but there are several other ethnic groups, including the Zaghawa and the Masalit. These black tribes are mainly engaged in agriculture, and share the territory with several minority ethnic groups that arrived in the area later, known as Baggara, mainly engaged in nomadic pastoralism.

The conflict in Darfur is the result of a complex combination of factors, including the dispute for access to scarce natural resources, the unequal distribution of economic and political power, the total absence of good governance practices, the proliferation of weapons and the age-old rivalry between nomads (cattle breeders) and sedentary people (farmers).

Conflicto de Darfur en Sudán
Conflict in Darfur, Sudan

Since the 1960s, there have been a number of clashes for some of these reasons, although most of them were rooted in the struggle between Arabs and the native tribes of the region. In fact, in the mid-1980s one of the factors that contributed most to the violent clashes between nomadic shepherds (Arabs) and farmers (Africans) was the Arab supremacist ideology imported from Libya and supported by the Khartoum government.

During that phase of the fighting, Libya armed the Arabs of Darfur, and non-Arabs, mainly members of the Fur tribe, contacted the Government of Chad for help. The then Prime Minister of Sudan, Sadeq al-Mahdi, ignored the situation because of his country's dependence on Libyan funding. It was during this period that non-Arabs were referred to for the first time with the term "thug", which means black. By the time the non-Arab groups originating in the region, the Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit tribes, organised into two groups - the SLA (Sudanese Liberation Army) and the JEM (Justice and Equality Movement) - declared themselves in open rebellion against the Government of Sudan in 2003, initiating the last and current phase of the conflict, the whole complex social fabric had been reduced to a conflict between Africans against Arabs, with this dichotomy becoming the main focus of the conflict.

The stereotypical image created is that of a group of rebel Africans taking up arms against the nation's government due to the marginalization suffered by the region and the consequent response of the latter by organizing and arming Arab militias that in their advance provoked genocide. But while this is largely a correct view, the reality is much more complex than it appears to be.  

The distinction between Africans and Arabs is still simplistic, and this classification serves more a sense of identity than an exclusively ethnic issue, and therefore the lines that define who is Arab and who is African are very blurred. In fact, a change in lifestyle or even a marriage to someone of a particular ethnicity can mean a change in the way a person is regarded.

Another common simplification is that which identifies Arabs as nomads and Africans as farmers. In general terms, this is the case, but here too we find exceptions. The clearest example is that of the Zaghawa tribe, who, although they are Africans, are eminently nomadic.

Nevertheless, these two "simplistic" differentiations are very useful to understand the main guidelines of the conflict and are those that the inhabitants of Darfur themselves refer to, in spite of the fact that the nuances that make it more complex cannot be forgotten.

Some experts have spoken of a conflict with different overlapping sides, and others of the existence of the convergence of three conflicts: those that occur between the different communities, those that occur between the regional elites and those that exist between the peripheral regions of the country and the central government. These conflicts of different origins, but interrelated, and the lack of vision to understand the complexity of the situation constitute one of the main factors preventing a definitive resolution of the crisis situation in the area. As if this were not enough, to this web of local and almost ancestral confrontations, today supranational factors of great geostrategic importance are added, which makes the initial roots of the situation go to the background or to the third level, with what this implies when it comes to achieving a solution.

To combat armed uprisings in the region, the Khartoum Government, starting in the 1980s, resorted to what became known as "Janjaweed". The origin of this militia is little known and very interesting. Libyan leader Muammar al-Qadhafi had a dream of achieving the Arabization of the countries bordering his own. Chad was a key part of his plan, and that was one of the reasons that triggered the conflict around the Aouzu strip in 1987. To act as a shock force, Gaddafi created what he called the "Islamic Legion", based on various Arab and Tuareg tribes from the Sahel. But these were defeated by the Chadian Army in 1988 and Gaddafi was forced to abandon his plan. This led to the dissolution of the "Islamic legion", but its components remained in the area, well armed, trained, with combat experience and a deep-rooted Arab supremacist ideology. This was the basis for the creation of the political coalition called the Arab Union, which was formed in 1987 by a number of Arab-derived tribal leaders in the Darfur region. Their ideology was clearly racist, and this is reflected in their documents, which presented Arabs, literally, as more civilized beings than Africans. Gradually, pan-Arabism and its more radical facet was taken over by successive governments in Sudan in the same way as it was in Libya.

Conflicto de Darfur en Sudán
Conflict in Darfur, Sudan

Thus, the Janjaweed militias come from a combination of the aforementioned militias created by Gaddafi to fight in Chad at the end of the 1980s and from Arab descendants from Darfur itself.

The conflict between the Fur and the Arabs resurfaced again in the 1990s when the Government again favoured the interests of some ethnic groups (of Arab origin) to the detriment of others. At the end of 1991, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) tried to provoke an uprising throughout the region. This time a combination of regular units and Arab militias defeated the rebels by killing their leader Daud Yahya Bolad. The main consequence of this uprising was that the ruling party, the National Islamic Front, became convinced that the Fur were their main enemy in the region, which led them to increase support for the Janjaweed militias operating in the area of the mountainous massif known as the Jebel Marra, a landmark for the Fur. It was at this time that the practice of attacking small villages and razing them to the ground by burning them down was widespread, causing whole populations to exodus. This practice became widespread with the intensification of the clashes from 2003 onwards. And that is why for the people of Darfur the beginning of the conflict that still continues today is not set in 2003 as we do, but is set in 1991.

But taking 2003 as a reference point and in order to have a vision of what has happened and in a certain way is still happening in Darfur, the data provided at the time by the United Nations are fundamental. They speak of approximately 450,000 deaths, more than two million displaced persons and almost 250,000 Sudanese who are refugees in different camps on the other side of the border with Chad. And it is now, almost two decades later, that an investigation has been announced into the crimes committed since 2003, with senior members of the former Al-Bashir regime being held responsible, making good the quote from Seneca that nothing resembles injustice more than delayed justice.

With this state of affairs there will still be those who ask "What can make the situation worse? The answer is quite simple: simply what has been at the root of the conflict at the regional level, but elevated to international status, the struggle for resources. And more specifically for something as vital on that side of the planet as water.

In the last few days, several news items concerning the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam have hit the media. After years of litigation and discussions, the three countries affected by the construction of this infrastructure seem to have reached an agreement. And this has been reached after Ethiopia declared that it was prepared to go to war in order to move the project forward and defend its interests. This provides a clear measure of the importance of water resources in the area. 

In 2007, a large underground lake was discovered in the Darfur region. Until then it was assumed, but a team from the Boston University Remote Sensing Center confirmed these assumptions. 

The area of the aquifer is just over 30,000 square kilometres, equivalent to the area of the tenth largest lake in the world. It is clear how important its exploitation would be for the region, but this could lead to new episodes of tension this time with the bordering countries. A few years ago, another similar aquifer was also identified in the southern region of Egypt bordering Sudan. It is not difficult to imagine that if the relationship or connection of the two or a transboundary location were determined either between the above-mentioned countries or with Chad, the international conflict over their exploitation and control would be served. And in the current situation, in those regions, an aquifer is infinitely more valuable than an oil field.

Someone said some time ago that the armed conflicts of the future would have water as their main trigger. And it is very possible that we are witnessing the materialization of that hypothesis almost without realizing it.