Rallying Global Voices
by Obi Akwani, MGV Editor
|Darfur is a vast region in the largest country in Africa. It is located in the western part of the Republic of the Sudan.
In recent years, just as the southern rebels are beginning to down arms and enter negotiations with the government, the Darfur region has erupted into a hotbed of civil unrest, war and mass killings.
What is going on in there has been described by various international observers as ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘genocide’. The United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, in his characteristic guarded and diplomatic style, described the Darfur situation as “bordering on genocide.”
What Exactly is Going on?
The country of Sudan can be roughly divided into two on a “racial” basis. Of the 38 million people in the country’s population, 49 percent are Black Africans. The rest consists of Arabs (38%), Nubians and others (11%). There is also a geographical division in terms of where the different peoples live. The Arabs are found in the northern part of the country, while the Black Africans are in the south. In some regions, like Darfur, there has been a lot of intermarriage amongst the various groups so that physical differences have become minor.
The other line of demarcation is religion. The Arab Sudanese are Sunni Muslims and their Black African neighbors to the south are predominantly Christians and traditionalists. In Darfur, however, both “Arabs” and Black Africans are Muslims. Overall, Muslims make up 70 percent of Sudan’s population, Christians are 15 percent, while Traditionalists and others account for another 15 percent of the population.
Even before Sudan’s 1956 independence from Great Britain, the new government in Khartoum had begun a program of Arabization and Islamization of the whole country. War broke out in 1955. John Garang, leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation army (SPLA), was a young recruit into a fledgling southern rebel guerilla army in 1963. After a peace deal with Khartoum in the early 1970s, members of the rebel guerillas, including Garang, were drafted into the regular Sudanese army. Garang, a southerner and Dinka tribesman, rose to the rank of colonel in the Sudanese army. But in 1983, after northern troops attacked a unit of southern soldiers he once commanded, Garang left the army with his southern colleagues and launched a second guerilla war against Khartoum. Garang was fighting to end economic and political marginalization of southerners by Khartoum and to bring about the establishment of a secular government in Sudan. It took over twenty years, but by 2003 the SPLA campaign was yielding results. The government was eager to negotiate even to share power with Garang’s group. On July 9, 2005 Garang was sworn-in as vice president of Sudan just before he was killed in a plane crash in early August 2005.
Garang’s success with Khartoum inspired the Black African Muslims in Darfur to launch their own military campaign against the Arab Sudanese government in 2003. Under the banner of Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), the Black Africans of Darfur have launched a series of attacks against government targets in the region. The response of the Sudanese government is what we see and hear in the news media — whole villages being sacked and pillaged by government sponsored armed agents.
The Rape of Darfur
Some media estimates (BBC) suggest a death toll of as much as 350,000 in Darfur. Out of a population of 6 million, about 2 million Africans have been forced to flee Darfur into refugee camps in other parts of Sudan and into other countries. Because of the pattern of death dealing, there is a suggestion that what is taking place in Darfur is ethnic cleansing. Whole villages have been sacked and razed to the ground by armed groups called Janjaweed. Women are raped. Men are lined up and shot. Survivors are warned never to return to their sacked villages. All these things the janjaweed do with impunity without any attempt by the government to stop or punish them. Eye witness accounts say the janjaweed are actually armed and equipped by government. The government denies this.
What seems clear is that government attitudes have led to worsening condition of life for the Africans and encouraged the escalation of inter-communal conflicts into bloody clashes and mass murders. After the attacks on government outposts began in Darfur, Khartoum enjoined Arab tribal leaders to help put down the rebels. It is these tribal leaders that have formed the janjaweed of impunity to depopulate the Darfur region of Black Africans.
The northerners have been accused of trying to turn Sudan into a strictly Arab country. According to a New Yorker magazine report, “In October, 1987, twenty-three Arab intellectuals sent a letter to Sadiq al-Mahdi, Sudan’s Prime Minister at the time. The letter… credited the “Arab race” with the creation of civilization in the region … in the areas of governance, religion and language. The signatories demanded a larger proportion of local, state, and national jobs, warning, “If this neglect of the participation of the Arab race continues, things will break loose from the hands of the wise men to those of the ignorant.” Soon afterward, the process of removing Africans from senior civil posts in Darfur and replacing them with Arabs began. The current assaults on Darfurians who are considered “black” are thought by some to be phase two of Sudan’s Arabization plan.” (New Yorker Issue of 2004-08-30)
While the debate goes on in some quarters as to how to characterize the Darfur situation, villages continue to be sacked, people killed, women and girls raped and the region depopulated of Africans. Something definitely needs to be done before the situation deteriorates any further. Whatever ultimate intention the current government in Sudan may have for Darfur, it is clear that it is not willing to take the expected steps to halt these atrocities without international pressure being brought to bear. Even if other governments are will to do so, the Sudanese government must not be allowed to achieve its political objectives at the cost of millions of African lives.