Genocide in Sudan

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Genocide in Sudan








In the early twenty-first century, the tragic and discomforting topic of genocide is centered on the grave humanitarian crisis of death, injury, and dislocation in the western Sudanese province of Darfur, adjacent to Chad. The discourse revolves around several questions. Where is the conflict and why there? What factors precipitated the conflict? How should the conflict be measured and characterized? How should the legal and humanitarian issues be addressed? Who is responsible? What can be done?


Like most cases of human strife, the conflict in Darfur in this African and Arab nation has many causes, with specific turning points that sent the various antagonists to new levels of violence.

Geographical Features. Darfur is physically located on the Sahelian ecological border between desert to the north and savanna to the south, with micro-climatic variation in the central region that creates small streams, and hillside agriculture in Jebel Marra. The micro-ecological variations result in competition among the various African and Arab groups that seek to make their livings in different ways in these different regions. With only seasonal variations, a symbiotic balance can be struck, but when land competition is exacerbated by southward desertification of the Sahara, along with intense demographic pressure, the competition increases.

Another geographical factor is that Darfur straddles a key east-west trade route from central Sudan west to Chad. Central Darfur and Egypt are linked by the famed “forty-day road” (Darb al-Arbapin). Thus, commerce in even southern Darfur is networked to the wider world. Commercial control of these routes is also a factor. The conflict cannot be reduced to solely geographical factors, but decreased rainfall in the last two decades in these trade and ecological zones do contribute.

Historical and Ethnographic Factors. The conflict is also fueled by economic rivalries between the Daju kingdom peoples (controlling trade and resources in southern Darfur), the Tunjur kingdom peoples (controlling east-west trade and the forty-days road trade), and the Keira dynasties that, from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, dominated trade through central Darfur. Although seemingly marginal to the modern conflict and often minimized, the divisions between the multiple rebel groups in Darfur stem, in part, from these deeply rooted ethnic rivalries (e.g., Zaghawa, Fur [both non-Arabic-speaking], Camel-Arabs, and Cattle-Arabs).

Beyond the internal struggles to rule Darfur as a sovereign polity or sultanate, Darfur’s history contains examples of external competitive relationships and other wider political interests. Depending on the period, the state of Wadai (now in Chad) was interested in economic control over Darfur, as were the Arab powers based in the central Sudan. In medieval times the Funj sultans of Sennar (1504–1821) and the sultans of Darfur clashed or cooperated in the middle lands of Kordofan in the eighteenth century. During the Turkiya (1821–1885) the slave and ivory trader Zubeir Pasha came to control Darfur for himself. During the Mahdiya (1885–1989) Khalifa qAbdullahi ruled Sudan and Darfur from Omdurman and he was himself a Tapisha Baggara Arab from Darfur. In 1916, during the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium (1889–1956), the British assassinated the last sultan of Darfur, qAli Dinar, to complete their military colonization of the Sudan. In short, the historical record is replete with precedents of external and internal forces who tried to protect, rule, take over, or otherwise manipulate Darfur. This dynamic history presages many of the present conflicts. Simple polarities are not operable.

Religion. Because virtually all of the present antagonists in Darfur are Sunni Muslims, one might imagine that religion is not a factor in the conflict. Yet religion is involved. One may distinguish four forms of Islamic observance: First, folk and syncretic Islam marries traditional non-Islamic beliefs and practices with those of orthodox Islam. Second, Islam is represented by those who are simply “good” Muslims following their faith as a matter of their cultural upbringing. Third, there are followers of politicized Islam, which substantially defines the government of Sudan, especially during its association with the National Islamic Front; one faction of the Darfur rebels has a similar orientation. Fourth, there are Muslims in Darfur who want to respect Islam on personal status matters but prefer a separation between state and belief in this multi-religious, sectarian, and culturally plural nation. Thus, politico-religious issues are part of this dispute.

Race. Other elements of the conflict revolve around contentious and complex social constructions of racial identity that prevail in Sudan in general and in Darfur in particular. On one level all Sudanese are “black”; indeed that is what the word sudan means in Arabic for the entire region of Bilad as-Sudan (Land of the Blacks). Moreover, all Sudanese are Africans, given that their nation is on the African continent. Although these points might seem obvious, they are at the foundation of much miscommunication, misrepresentation, and misunderstanding of the present conflict. Nonetheless there certainly are dimensions of ethnically based conflict between such groups as the Zaghawa and Camel-Arabs for competing for grazing territory under ecological pressure. Some Arabs mobilize their identity around revivalist Islamo-Arabist models and prejudicial terminology such as Zarqa (blue-black people); in parts of Darfur even the term kufar (nonbelievers) or abeed (slaves) is sometimes heard in violent and disparaging contexts. On the other hand “Africans” such as the Zaghawa, Fur, and Masalit certainly have formulated angry and negative stereotypes about Jellaba Arabs and especially about the janjaweed or fursan (terrible horsemen). Each side has mobilized and polarized the conflict while “othering” their respective enemies.

Traditional cases of interethnic conflict in Darfur were usually resolved by local governance at low levels (especially over water and grazing rights). During the Jaafar Nimieri regime (1969–1983), there was an effort to “modernize” public administration and abolish or transform the traditional councils. When the current conflict began, in the wider context of marginalized people, Sudanese class stratification, and wide opposition to military rule, there was little to stop or buffer the violence from climbing to new heights.


As the violence escalated, beginning in March 2003, the humanitarian crisis itself became politicized. Some international bodies and nations were using the word genocide either to dramatize the distressing situation, or to put political pressures on the antagonists to get them to negotiate plans for armed forces separation, peace keeping, and conflict resolution. The majority of African and Arab nations and Amnesty International were concerned with the deepening humanitarian crisis but were broadly reluctant to polarize the situation, and few used the term genocide. Notably, three non-African and non-Arab nations— England, the United States, and Israel—were the most interested in applying this term, perhaps because of

domestic pressure or as diversionary efforts. Each of these states has at various times been at war with Arab or Islamic states, sometimes acting in concert. The United States does not have ambassadorial relations with Sudan for a variety of reasons; Israel is not recognized by Sudan; and England had formerly conquered the Sudan (1898–1956), not to mention that it overthrew the independent Sultanate of Darfur. Such historical and political facts were not overlooked by Sudanese, whether democrats or military governments. In this context the term genocide itself also became part of the conflict, as each side sought to project the conflict as much worse, or much better, than it actually was to address its own public relations and propaganda concerns.


Aside from these distracting politics of genocide, the December 1948 First Geneva Accords (UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide) establishes some real tests and raises valid concerns. The accords call for international action if crimes against humanity are taking place. In the wake of the Nuremberg Trials following World War II, the crime of genocide was specifically defined in article one as murder “committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Perpetrators could be convicted for conspiracy to commit genocide, to incite genocide, to attempt to commit genocide, or otherwise be complicit in genocide. More than twenty specific crimes and articles were recognized in 1949, and these conventions were further updated and expanded in 1977. Sadly, clear violations took place in such places as Cambodia, Rwanda, and Serbia following the Geneva Accords. Some prosecutions have slowly taken place, but some victimizers could not be apprehended, or died, or were too powerful to be brought before world courts that they refused to recognize.

Within this substantial legal and historical framework, charges and evidence of genocide can be presented at the International Criminal Court (ICC). In the case of Darfur, the United States has identified fifty-one individuals (representing the government, militias, and rebel groups), and extensive evidence and testimony has been collected; but there have been no arrests or prosecutions because of the ongoing dispute. The unilateral military actions of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice for Equality Movement (JEM) against substantial Sudanese government military targets in Darfur in March 2003 launched the heavy rounds of fighting. Also, many Darfuri people have long been in the Sudanese army, and many refugees from Darfur have actually fled to other cities in Sudan where they might live in poor conditions, but they are not racially persecuted.

On the other hand, among the janjaweed and regular government forces, the counterinsurgency strategy has employed extreme and frightful measures to drive the rural populations (supporters of the rebels) to IDP (internally displaced persons) camps, to other Sudanese cities, and across international borders. An internationally brokered effort to reach a peaceful solution between the government of Sudan and the rebels was achieved in Abuja in 2006 with the largest rebel faction, while others kept maneuvering and splintering for more favorable outcomes. The remaining rebels caused some of the subsequent bloodshed. With these attacks the Government of Sudan (GoS) resorts to the right, maintained by any sovereign state, to deploy its military. These circumstances certainly do not diminish the horrors. But perhaps they weaken or cast doubt on the legal case for genocide. In Cambodia, Rwanda, and Serbia, or in Nazi Germany, all members of the targeted groups were at risk any place under the control of those committing genocide. This is not the case in Sudan.

Likewise, in Darfur the apparent victims of this crime, the rebels, certainly initiated, then escalated, this conflict as an understandable but perhaps misguided political movement seeking a more favorable position vis-à-vis Khartoum that would be parallel to what they saw was achieved in the North-South (CPA) accords. The rebel forces failed to calculate the role of murahaleen militias in that dispute and did not adequately account for the probability that Khartoum would likely respond in a similar way in Darfur. In short, it appears that the legal or criminal aspects of this conflict, however horrible, were apparently not built on a plan of extermination or ethnic cleansing of the Darfuri people from the nation of Sudan, but by a counterinsurgency campaign to clear the conflicted zone of civilian support. Moreover, judging from the fact that most of the main Darfur rebel parties attended and participated in the Abuja meetings and that the largest (SLA-Minnawi) signed the accords, it can be seen that most sought a political and peaceful solution of the disputes. Some rebels have supplemental agendas about the political equation in Khartoum or even some interest in secession. Such goals are not the case for genocide in general.


United Nations Security Council resolution 1593 of March 31, 2005, referred this conflict to the International Criminal Court. China abstained, while the United States awkwardly feared that it would itself be judged by this judicial body for alleged war crimes and Geneva Accord abuses in its “war on terrorism.” The United States is not a signatory of the ICC, and it was hesitant to charge Sudanese with war crimes, especially while working with Sudan on counterterrorism intelligence and jointly protecting the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that both value. Former president of the African Union (AU), Nigerian President Olasegun Obasanjo bravely proposed creating an African panel for Criminal Justice and Reconciliation for the Darfur situation. To push this point, the normal rotation of the AU presidency was slated to put Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in this position during the AU summit in Khartoum. This became so problematic that al-Bashir stepped away from this notable appointment. The ICC continued to investigate human rights abuses in Eastern Congo and Uganda.

Meanwhile, the United Nations created an International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to document the patterns of abuses in that Sudanese province. The commission concluded that the government of Sudan and its janjaweed militia were largely responsible for human rights abuses and other legal violations that could reach the level of “war crimes” according to the principles of the Geneva Accords, including rape, gang rape, and other forms of sexual and criminal violence. The SLA and JEM factions that existed at that time were also charged with such violations.

It is clear that, with the breakdown of the civil and legal order, gender-based abuses occurred because women and children are highly vulnerable and their own male kin had often joined with various armed groups. Violence against women, children, and the elderly in a scorched earth approach aimed partly to make “free-fire zones” in the government counterinsurgency strategy for rebel vs. janjaweed engagements and partly to deny the human resources base for the rebel groups in Darfur. This rural depopulation tactic to “break the will” of the rebels backfired, only intensifying their anger and resolve to fight on. International anguish and hand-wringing grew as the zone of death, destruction, and displacement steadily widened.

The number of cases of violence against women represented only a small portion of incidents: A larger number of women were discouraged to report incidents of violence given the extreme sanctions imposed on the Sudanese government, the general state of fear of retaliation, cultural patterns relating to shameful acts, and very few prosecutorial measures that might redress their grievances. For these reasons a culture of impunity developed. The economic and practical need for women to move out of the relative protection of refugee camps to seek firewood and tend small herds compelled them to be continually vulnerable to abuse and violence. It now appears that in Darfur and elsewhere, sexual violence was incorporated as a part of a psychological warfare program against the insurgents. If these acts were organized and institutionalized, such a program would be in clear violation of some of the legal principles of the Geneva Accords.


Certain ethical and moral aspects can be added to the mix of complex issues. The ethical obligation to engage in conflict negotiation and resolution and humanitarian concerns (especially for children and women) are paramount, along with documenting cases of a possible criminal nature. Ethics and morality should drive the global community into

further education and study, as well as nonpartisan advocacy to bring all combatants to the bargaining table to implement force separation, compel disarmament, begin conflict resolution with adjudication, and restore security and justice. Some of these concerns can be addressed with international and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). These are far from utopian concerns, as the peace accords accepted for military conflicts in the Southern and Eastern Sudan were “resolved” during the period of conflict in Darfur. Respect for the sovereignty of Sudan should also be a priority, rather than the internationalization of the conflict and escalation to a greater level that puts even more people at risk relative to global security and development concerns about “failed states” in Africa.


Among the many contentious topics raging around the Darfur conflict is just how many people have been killed, injured, and displaced by the conflicting parties, and who is responsible for what. For the Government of Sudan or the Government of National Unity (GNU), there is a political tendency to deflate the numbers; among the rebels, their supporters, and genocide activists there has been a tendency to inflate the numbers. Serious problems afflict the methodology and motivation of both, and the chain of zeroes usually attached to, or subtracted from, the numbers of casualties suggests the high level of approximation. Without doubt, there are certainly tens of thousands of dead and wounded people, and minimally hundreds of thousands of people are displaced from the contested zones in Darfur. Relatively low or high numbers would serve either to minimize or dramatize the claim of genocide. In fact, the legal aspects of the Geneva Accords set no specific requirement for numbers of victims, because what is central to the charge of genocide is the motivation and coordination of the alleged act and not if the “genocidal mission” was achieved.

Nothing in the numbers game suggests that the humanitarian crisis is in any sense diminished. There is little question from any perspective that the situation is grave and deteriorating. So whether the numbers of dead are 200,000 or 300,000 or 400,000 is not really the legal question. Whether the number of displaced persons is one or two million, it is clear that access, aid, and protection by NGOs are needed immediately.

There is an urgent “do something” need to return to negotiation, stop the attacks by all parties on humanitarian agencies, and start to deescalate the conflict, separate the warring parties, and prepare for criminal prosecutions wherever possible. Only then can reconciliation be based in a just resolution that is already within the present, albeit incomplete and unimplemented, Darfur Peace Accords.


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Richard A. Lobban Jr.

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Genocide in Sudan

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