TCS Daily

Why There Are "No Villages Left to Burn"

By Carroll Andrew - June 2, 2004 12:00 AM

A brutal war is being waged in western Sudan. Arab militias, called the Janjaweed, have been carrying out raids against the villages of the Masalit, the Fur, and the other black Africans of Sudan's Darfur province. Janjaweed attacks frequently receive support from Sudanese Army helicopters and other visible support from the government of Sudan. Since February of 2003, at least 10,000 people have been killed by the Janjaweed. Another 50,000 people are unaccounted for. About 1 million people have been displaced, with at least 100,000 fleeing to refugee camps in neighboring Chad. A United Nations emergency relief officer visiting the region at the end of April attributed a lull in the fighting to "no villages left to burn." Major international relief efforts will be necessary to prevent mass starvation over the summer of 2004.

Violence in Darfur is not a new phenomenon. Human Rights Watch has documented continuing, though smaller scale, violence between the Arabs and the black Africans in this region for at least a decade. Why has this conflict so violently escalated in the last year-and-a-half? The answer, tragically, relates to the resolution of Sudan's "major" civil war -- the conflict between the northern (nominally including Darfur) and southern regions of Sudan that has claimed more than 2 million lives over 21 years.

The agreement ending the north-south conflict sanctions the possible secession of southern Sudan. Though neither major rebel group in Darfur -- the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) or the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) -- advocates separation or even federation for western Sudan, there is little affection for the Arab-dominated Khartoum government amongst the black African majority of western Sudan. In this way, the situation in western Sudan today parallels the situation in southern Sudan of two decades ago. The all-out war against the civilians of Darfur is a desperate attempt by Khartoum to prevent northern Sudan's east-west rift from evolving into the full-blown partition of Sudan's north-south rift.

Sudan's Long Path To Separation

In 1983, 11 years of peace between northern Sudan, dominated by Arab Muslims, and southern Sudan, dominated by black Christians and animists, came to an end. As part of a program to implement Islamic law throughout Sudan, President Ja'far Numayri divided southern Sudan into three provinces. The citizens of the non-Muslim south rebelled. The largest, though not the only, rebel army was the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) led by John Garang. Largely due to its own ineptness, the central government was unable to quell the rebellion. By 1989, Khartoum and the SPLA were ready to negotiate peace that involved a high degree of autonomy -- but not secession -- for southern Sudan.

Autonomy for the south was not universally popular in the north. Hasan al-Turabi, the leader of the National Islamic Front (NIF), an Islamic fundamentalist movement with a strong presence throughout northern Sudan's civil society, allied himself with Umar Hasan al-Bashir, a major General in the Sudanese army willing to continue the war. In June of 1989, Bashir led a coup against the government. Turabi was the power behind the throne.

Bashir's government was more successful at fighting the SPLA and the other rebel groups than preceding Sudanese governments had been. Additionally, the rebels began fighting amongst themselves. In August of 1991, the SPLA fractured into multiple groups. The largest faction was the Southern Sudan Independence Movement (SSIM) under the leadership of Riek Machar. The split was violent, a civil war within a civil war. Fighting between southern rebel groups became as intense as the fighting between north and south. The government took advantage of the disunity and moved towards taking control of the entire south.

Two factors changed the momentum of the war. First, the rebels worked to broaden their popular appeal in southern Sudan. In addition to performing the tasks associated with military organizations, the rebels worked harder at establishing normalized civil order -- though not necessarily democracy -- in the regions that they controlled. Second, several of Sudan's neighbors became distressed at the possibility of the NIF exporting Islamic revolution. Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Uganda actively supported the various rebel armies within Sudan. Egypt was content to let the chips fall where they may.

The rebels gained strength. By 1997, it looked as if Garang's SPLA might actually become strong enough to dislodge the Islamist government from Khartoum. The government responded to the growing threat. In April of 1997, Machar's SSIM and four other southern rebel groups were offered a formal place in the government. As part of this deal, the government agreed to hold a self-determination referendum in four years time. It is not clear whether this meant a vote on secession or a vote on some form of federalism (the referendum was never held). Whatever the initial intention, Khartoum had now accepted some form of autonomy for the south as the basis of a negotiated peace.

In the short term, the strategy of dividing the opposition worked. Garang's total victory never materialized. Bashir's government also benefited from the breakout of war between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1998. Bilateral deals with both nations limited the external support for the rebel groups in Sudan. Militarily, the civil war stalemated. Casualties mounted and people were displaced, but there was little progress towards a resolution.

The stalemate began to break in February of 2001. Turabi changed sides. He brokered his own alliance with Garang's SPLA, signing a formal memorandum of understanding in February of 2001. The memorandum stated that "the unity of Sudan should be determined by the free will of its people," a fairly unambiguous endorsement of secession for the south. Perhaps more than any other single event, the signing of this memorandum -- a textbook example of the shifting two-against-one dynamics of tri-polar politics -- illustrated how Sudan's civil war was about the politics of power, not about irresolvable religious or ethnic conflicts.

The walls were closing in on Bashir's government. The split with Turabi had cut off its primary source of non-military support. The post-September 11/post-Taliban world was an inhospitable place for dictators unable to control large swaths of their own territory. The SSIM and the SPLA formally reunited in January of 2002. Against this backdrop, the government and the united southern opposition laid the framework for the present peace agreement. This time, there was no ambiguity about issues self-determination and secession. The Machakos protocol, signed in July of 2002, explicitly provided for referendum on secession to be held in six-years time.

Khartoum's Pre-emptive Strike

As Khartoum and the south worked to finalize the details of a peace arrangement, the people of Darfur tried to join the power sharing negotiations. The government of Sudan has steadfastly refused to enter into power sharing talks with the SLA or the JEM. The government does not want to risk allowing the situation in western Sudan to develop along the same lines as the situation in southern Sudan, where opposition groups evolved from wanting a voice in a unified government to wanting a government of their own. The Khartoum government's brutal actions in western Sudan are intended to destroy the ability of Darfur's non-Arab population to establish themselves as a self-sufficient, civil society. It is a pre-emptive strike against a possible future partition.

The Bashir government is acting, as it always has, as an intra-continental colonial power, holding on to territory for strategic or resource-oriented reasons, and governing solely for the benefit of the Arab north at the expense of everyone else. In addition to encouraging and supporting the Janjaweed, Khartoum's most pronounced use of its governmental power in Darfur has been the assertion of territorial sovereignty to prevent relief workers and journalists from traveling to Darfur. Why should the people of Darfur not be offered the opportunity to free themselves from such a government, the equivalent opportunity being offered to the people of southern Sudan?

The natural tendency of the world outside of Sudan will be to turn away once the humanitarian suffering in Darfur has been alleviated. Attention to the Sudan must not end at that point. To guarantee lasting peace, the archaic, corrupt, and irrational political structure trapping the people of western Sudan must be altered. End the intra-continental colonialism being practiced in the Sudan. Let the people of Darfur province have the freedom to make their own choices about their civil co-existence without interference from remote and self-serving rulers who have no concern for the welfare of the local population. Do what is best for the people living within the borders of Sudan, not what is best for the state of Sudan. The present government of Sudan must not be allowed to profit from the strategy of destroying real lives to protect an abstract state.

The author is a frequent TCS contributor who recently wrote about What Hugo Chavez Means for Democracy.


TCS Daily Archives