In an excellent piece on the bloody strife currently ripping apart the Sudanese region of Darfur (and the refugee camps of neighboring Chad), Michael Schmidt of the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Federation of South Africa sheds some light on the roots of the conflict – often misrepresented in the Western press as a simple matter of “Arabs” vs “Africans.”
Much of my understanding of the conflict in Darfur stems from my frequent conversations with cab drivers, a large number of whom have immigrated to Canada from the Sudan. Through hours of such conversations, I have managed to scrape together a fairly decent understanding of the inherently complicated and multi-sided issue. This article is the best single explanation of the region’s woes that I have come across. It certainly does not leave much room for optimism – as it often the case with pieces dealing with contemporary African geopolitical turmoil.
I would recommend reading the whole thing… but here’s an excerpt.Blood, Water & Oil: Fallacies of the Darfur War
By Michael Schmidt – Writing for Anarkismo.net
After spending time in el-Fasher and Nyala, the capitals of North and South Darfur respectively, last month, I offer these brief thoughts on the situation in Darfur that I hope will shed a different light on the war:
1. The conflict in Darfur is not between “Arabs” and “Africans”. In Darfur it is patently obvious that such distinctions, while embraced by a minority of the people, do not hold up in fact because those so defined all speak Arabic, dress identically and have the same culture. Within the same family, facial features express the mixed heritage of Darfurians. The differences that do exist are rather tribal than ethnic, which begs the question of why the Darfur question has been racialised in the Western media? The conflict in south Sudan could easily be used emotively for geo-political ends by the West by suggesting it was a battle between an oppressed southern Christian culture and a dominant northern Islamic culture. The same argument cannot be applied in Darfur which has a largely homogenous population – and yet a subtle, dishonest version of it (of Arabs versus Africans) continues to be peddled in the West. This can only be about the demonisation of Arab and Islamic culture by America’s Christian fundamentalist lords of the New Crusades.
2. Sudan is not an Islamic fundamentalist state. Despite the introduction starting in 1983 under a previous regime of certain aspects of shari©a law and of a policy of Islamisation that technically only applied to northerners, Sudan’s Islamic tradition is overwhelmingly Sufi with its emphasis on personal, ecstatic communion with Allah. The austere Salafist Islam that has produced groups like al-Qaeda remains a minority tradition within Sudan and of very little social and political effect (even though Osama bin Laden lived in Khartoum in the early 1990s). In politics, the long-lived Umma Party may recall the anti-colonial mania of the Mahdist Revolt of 1881-1885, but in reality, it remains merely the hobby-horse of the Mahdi’s grandson, Sadiq al-Mahdi. Meanwile, the Muslim Brotherhood was not consulted (as it should have been according to the shura principle of shari©a) on the Islamisation policy of the government, and some aspects of the legal code were in direct conflict with shari©a so the legal code remains unacceptable to many Sudanese – Muslims included.
3. The cause of the conflict is not only political. It is clear that many rebels took up arms because they saw that route as the only way (based on the apparent success of the southern struggle) to convince Khartoum to devolve power and resources to the Darfurian backwaters. But of greater general concern is the implacable eastward march of the sands of the Sahara, at a rate approaching 10km a year. For example, as recently as 1992, the edge of the desert stood a good 120km west of Nyala. Today, the desert is only 5km from the city limits. So desertification and environmental degradation – exacerbated by the decimation of Darfur’s trees by wood-sellers – has compressed the tribes into ever-smaller areas where they bicker and battle over shrinking water resources and grazing land. Modernisation since the Nimeri era (see below) also eroded traditional methods of dispute-resolution, and as in Somalia, the addition of automatic weapons has spiralled tribal bloodletting beyond its normal bounds.
4. The deployment of United Nations peacekeepers will not help. It is clear that the very establishment of camps for “internal displaces” all over Darfur works in favour of Khartoum. The camps, like the one at Abu Shouk north of el-Fasher where 50,000 displacees live, are run by the regional governments, aided by a plethora of United Nations and other aid agencies, and policed to a degree by the African Union. But though life in the camps is relatively good, with everything from cellphones to cosmetics on sale and health rates that appear better than the towns (at least in my comparison of Abu Shouk and el-Fasher), they remain concentration camps in the original sense of the term. That is, they forcibly concentrate formerly nomadic tribal peoples in an artificial “town” for years, urbanising them and exposing them to the seductions of the market – and of course, removing on-the-ground support from the rebels. The deployment of UN blue-helmets will most likely merely reinforce this pattern, which heavily favours Khartoum at the expense of Darfur.
That said, Darfur is clearly occupied territory, with Sudanese Army “technicals” (Toyota trucks with heavy machine-guns mounted on the back) much in evidence, with Chinese helicopter gunships at el-Fasher and MiGs on the runway at Nyala – and with a strong plain-clothes National Intelligence and Security service presence.
We anarchist-communists naturally need to condemn Khartoum’s brutal use of proxy forces – and its cynical use of displacee camps – to control the civilian political process in Darfur.
But we also need to reject both the racialisation of the debate by the Western media and the false solution that an armed UN presence would bring. We should also appreciate the environmental and tribal roots of this complex war and see that, as the Darfurian rebels appreciate all too well, the only guarantor of a modicum of democracy in Darfur is the devolution of power to the people armed (though this is not to be read as an endorsement of any rebel platform).