In 2003, the SLA and JEM rebel movements led an insurgency against government targets in Northern Darfur. The rebels destroyed 89 police stations and killed up to 400 police officers as well as destroying a number of government aircraft. The rebels launching the attacks were transported in around 40 brand new Land-Cruisers carrying advanced weaponry and modern satellite communication, equipment Khartoum claims the rebels could not access nor afford without foreign assistance. The government of Sudan responded with a brutal counter-insurgency, in the process arming tribal militia not affiliated with the rebels, such as the nomadic Abbala, partly due to insufficient government military forces in the region. While the Abbala camel-nomads have been described as forming the backbone of the feared Janjaweed, proxy forces of Khartoum, the reality is that Janjaweed is a blanket term for roaming criminal militia on horseback, not having any particular ethnicity or political affiliation.
The results were high levels of destruction in the rural homelands of the tribes comprising the bulk of the two rebel groups; namely the Zaghawa, Fur and Massalite tribes, but also including the Tungur, Bergid and Dagu tribes. The geographical significance of these attacks pooint to the other driving force of this conflict; competition over fertile land and water.
When Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai said in 2004 that “the roots of the Darfur conflict is a struggle over controlling an environment that can no longer support all the people who must live on it”, she was alluding to the ecological aspect of the conflict, an issue ignored in mainstream analysis which tend to focus on sensational outcomes as opposed to root causes. The Fur, Massaliet, Tungur, Bergid and Dagu tribal homelands are situated around the verdant Jebel Marra mountain range in central Darfur, the area most affected by violence. The lush vegetation of this 70km mountain range stand in contrast to the stark desert of north Darfur and provides the means of survival to whoever controls it. Access to these lands has been one of the main driving forces of the conflict.
Jabal Mara-يا هو دة السودان جبل مرة
Mahmud Mamdani write that “In the 1960’s, when the Sahelian drought hit the region and the desert began to move southwards, a full one hundred kilometers in four decades, many of the inhabitants of the Sahel-nomads and settled people-began to move, some south, others east, all in the direction of the Jebel Marra, which is flanked on its southern side by the Al-Arab River…and is thus the one certain source of sustenance in an increasingly arid land. Just as the drought knew no borders, those affected by it also shed their sense of borders, whether between countries or between tribal homelands, as they groped for ways to survive”.
The bulk of the ecologically displaced people of North Sudan came from the non-Arab Zaghawa and Bedeyat, and the culturally Arab Abbala tribes comprised of the Mahamid, Beni Hussein, Mahariya and Irayqat. While the Zaghawa, extending into Chad, are a mix of sedentary farmers and camel nomads, the Abbala by contrast are almost entirely nomadic, moving with their camel herds across the Sahel region, having no permanent homelands, just a traditionally symbiotic relationship with other tribes and peoples encountered along their migrationary routes . The effects of the drought meant that as these groups moved south and east in search of suitable pasture, they sought access to the lands of the Fur, Tungur, Dagu and Bergid communities, who decided that the land could not sustain the newcomers as well as themselves.
The newcomers insisted on their right of equal access to land based on the fact that they, like the sedentary populations were citizens of Sudan and thus entitled to access to communal territory, a position the sedentary Fur, amongst others, rejected due to the rights the sedentary groups enjoyed under the judicial structure pertaining to land which Sudan had inherited from the British.
It was from Darfur that the mobilized forces which inflicted a humiliating defeat upon the British in the 1880’s emerged. Led by Imam Muhammad Ahmed, a multi-ethnic group of soldiers and horsemen took up arms against the British and Ottoman-Egyptian forces controlling the country. The Mahdi, as he called himself, declared Jihad against the foreign powers in 1881 and eventually succeeded in driving both the Egyptian and later the British forces out of the country. The event was deeply felt by the British Empire, whose government publication The Daily News wrote at the time, “seldom in the memory of living man has news been received of such a disaster in England”.
The significance of the Mahdi lay in three interconnected strands; the movement emerged from Darfur, the movement was trans-ethnic, and was held together by Sufic tariqas. The Mahdi also continued the centralizing political plan of the historic Darfurian sultanates. In contrast to the self-reinforcing and exclusive power structures of hereditary tribal groupings, in the mid 17th century emerged a sultanate in Darfur whose power base comprised a multi-ethnic and amalgamated tribal bloc and a significant slave population incorporated into the standing armies of this sultanate. This had the effect of diluting the influence of the larger tribes, as well as bolstering the power of the Sultan at the expense of chiefs and tribal leaders through detribalizing land ownership, making it instead the preserve of the Sultan who would parcel out land it in a manner conducive to political stability, creating individually owned properties, alongside communal property, in a carefully constructed balance of power.
Mamdani explains that Islam served as the glue which bound together the various tribes of the region, “The Mahdi’s rallying cry was simple: For justice to exist, Islam must be purified. Islam provided the ideology that rallied the multiplicity of ethnic groups and the glue to bind a transethnic movement”. The role of Sufi tariqas served to enhance the power of the Mahdi, with various shuyukh endorsing the anti-colonial jihad.
Mamdani writes that the Mahdiyya deeply disrupted the tribal structure in Sudan, noting that chiefly power was not only challenged from below in response to the call for jihad, but from above as well from the highly centralized mahdist state. The autocratic Mahdi saw the power wielded by tribal sheikhs as a direct challenge to his supreme authority and as a result took offensive action against such groupings. One such tribe, the kababish “were not sufficiently submissive” and as a result had their money and flocks confiscated, their leadership suppressed, the kababish “practically ceasing to exist as a people” and “Given the duration and depth of its impact on society, the mahdiyya must be regarded as a revolutionary movement. When revolution came to Darfur, it was not spartacist, but sufi. The soldier slaves in Darfur were always armed, and they constituted the bulk of the sultan’s army. Slavery was a counterweight to tribal identity and a building block of state formation. But the armed slaves of Darfur did not provide its revolutionaries. Churchill understood this better than any colonial official. It is Sufism that heralded an egalitarian rebellion against authority”. Islam, as opposed to nationalism or tribal allegiance was at the heart of the anti-colonial rebellion.
Recognizing the danger that these political and spiritual developments posed to foreign dominion over Darfur and Sudan, the British sought to undo the cohesion of the Sultanate and the progress of the Mahdi through a policy of ‘divide and rule’ once they reclaimed control of key parts of the country under General H.H. Kitchener in 1898. The key was to re-tribalize Darfuri, and indeed Sudanese society in order to fragment Mahdist power, emphasizing tribal allegiances as opposed to obedience to a sultan, alongside a policy of indirect rule through subservient local rulers. Mamdani writes that “British administrative policy in the colony of Sudan was shaped by one supreme objective: to remove every trace of Mahdist influence from the country by attacking the very basis of its transethnic mobilization.
Whereas the Mahdi had pushed forward a centralizing governance structure uniting for the first time the lands of riverine Sudan with the west (Darfur, kordofan etc), British colonialism championed a policy of retribalisation, “heralding “tribe” as the authentic political identity of Africans as opposed to all other wider translocal identities”.
British strategy involved eliminating private land ownership and instead redistributing land as communal property, putting it not under the control of an overarching authority such as a sultan, but rather dividing the land up into tribal homelands, according to ethnic groups identified in census collections.
The effect of this retribalisation was to have far reaching consequences for Darfur once the Sahelian drought forced an unsettling pattern of migration, for alongside the redistribution of land into tribal homelands came a further discriminatory policy of providing access to land to people the British designated ‘settled’ such as the sedentary Fur, a category further reinforced by the British classification of the tribes in Sudan according to race, with settled peoples in Darfur being more African than Arab, thus accorded the status of being natives of the land, and enjoying more rights than their brothers, the Darfuri Arabs who had, according to the British, migrated there from the Middle East and elsewhere. This distinction has been proven false and only served to exacerbate tensions between groups. Natives, according to the British system had more rights, including political representation, than settlers.
Mamdani writes that “For all populations, nomadic and sedentary, the effect of the ecological crisis filtered through the land and governance system created during the colonial period” Thus the civil war developed in the region during the 1980’s between tribes with land rights and those without, notably involving the Zaghawa and Mahariya (Abbala) against the Fur tribes who refused to accommodate their claims to land based on common Sudanese citizenship. Zaghawa settlements were destroyed and their leaders executed, with the same meted out to the Fur. Zaghawan’s who moved to urban areas had more success in business than those who remained in rural areas, coming into continual conflict with tribal militia. In 1989, a reconciliation meeting took place between the belligerents and what emerged was that both the Fur and the Abbala saw themselves as victims of a campaign of extermination, the Fur claiming genocide against them and the Abbala claiming to be the victim of a holocaust. The significance of this, as Mamdani notes is that these were the views of the belligerents before the Arab government of Omer al-Bashir took power.
In a clumsy attempt to pacify the landless nomadic Abbala, the government commissioner of Nyala granted the Hamdania tribe a piece of land south of Nyala in government registered land, which fell within the Fur magdumate or province, the Fur were not consulted and took up arms, leading to renewed violence and grievences against Khartoum.
The crisis in Darfur is very much a product of judicial failure, of a biased legal structure inherited from British colonialism which prevented an equitable handling of the results of ecological displacement and traditional conflict mediation, exacerbated by governmental shortsightedness.
Featured image: Deriba Crater in the Marrah Mountains of Darfur. Image by Hammy07 CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1557111