Land and Power: the Case of the Zaghawa

This post is also available in French (PDF, 96KB).

Land has often been described as a key motivation for the Arabs and non-Arabs who actively participated in the “Janjaweed” in Darfur and southeast Chad (see my article “Darfur: a Conflict for Land” in Alex de Waal (ed.), War in Darfur and the Search for Peace.) One of the primary traits of the Darfur crisis (like the Dar Sila crisis in Chad) can be described as a split between those members of the population with territories (hawakir) due to traditional, mainly pre-colonial land rights and those who have none – a split which is not exactly the same as the ethnic divisions between Arabs and non-Arabs that are so often presented without nuance.

Land should be seen as a sign of political power – a vital distinction that James Morton has made in this blog – because it is intrinsically connected to the possession of paramount traditional chiefdoms. The Abbala Arabs and other groups deprived of land rights for historical reasons, a nomadic lifestyle and/or recent settling in a given place seem to have a perfectly logical position on the land problem: demanding land rights both by the use of force and through legal means, they want political power equal to other groups – even if the circumstances have shown that a land title is not necessary for gaining power.

Unlike the Abbala Arabs, the three main ethnic groups from which the rebels were recruited – the Fur, the Masalit, and the Zaghawa – have been presented as sedentary groups holding hawakir and defending a traditional land system. In fact, the Zaghawa, and especially some rebel leaders, often take an ambivalent stance on the question of land: of course they hold on to their traditional land rights and categorically reject the occupation of non-Arab lands by Abbala Arabs; but they also show concern for the preservation of ethnic diversity in some places where they live without holding the land. Their particular lifestyle and recent history are one explanation: in recent decades, this ethnic group from the far reaches of North Darfur and eastern Chad, a minority in both countries, has undergone an unprecedented dispersion throughout the Darfur region and beyond and has gone from the margins to the center of power. In power in Chad since 1990, they play a major role in the competing rebellions in Darfur and Chad.

In many ways, Zaghawa culture is closer to the Abbala Arabs than to the Fur and the Masalit. They see themselves primarily as breeders, and traditionally favored cattle; however, the recent desertification that has touched their region of origin has led many to favor camels. The main difference between the two groups is that the Zaghawa have traditional land rights. Their territories reflect the structure of the Zaghawa group and the history of its formation, which are distinct from the Arabs. The latter have different groups and subgroups present in Darfur and Chad that form patrilineal lineages where men transmit the Arab identity to their children regardless of the mother’s ethnicity. This type of lineage can also be found at the Zaghawa clan level. But beyond the clan level, Zaghawa identity takes a different shape: the Zaghawa appear to form a confederation combining “indigenous” clans as well as “newcomers” from various places: other nearby ethnic groups (Tubu and Goran), the groups that founded the great kingdoms of Sahel (Fur, Waddayans, Bornu) and even Arabs (although many non-Arab Muslim groups lay fictive claims to an Arab origin.) The “newcomers” often seized power from the “indigenous” clans, adopting some of their culture, like their language and pre-Islamic religion.

This combination is how the different communities that call themselves “Beri” – but that are more often referred to under their Arab names Zaghawa and Bideyat – were formed. The very fact that the Arabs did not perceive them to be a single group is proof of their dispersal, which can also be seen in terms of their territory. There is a Dar Zaghawa or “Zaghawa country” (the Zaghawa equivalent is Beri be or “house of the Beri”) just as there is a Dar Masalit, but using this single term in fact hides many different dar (here used in terms of territory.) Here a brief overview of these distinctions is needed.

The Beri are divided into three main subgroups (each speaking a different dialect):

1. The Kobe (Zaghawa) and other small close groups (in particular the Kabka.) They live primarily in Chad, while a few of them live on the other side of the border near Tina.

2. The Wogi (Zaghawa) live in Sudan, with traditional territories between Kornoy and El-Fasher.

3. The Bideyat or Toba live mainly in Chad, on the Ennedi Range or the surrounding plains in the Saharan zone. Their westernmost group, the Borogat, lives near the Goran and their members claim dual identity – Bideyat or Goran – as it suits their interests. At the other end of their territory, several Bideyat clans crossed the border, some many centuries ago, to settle among the Zaghawa Wogi.

These subgroups have many divisions of their own: none of them is united under a chief and one needs to go to the next level below to determine the largest chiefdoms. Historically, the chiefdoms received outside recognition from the rival sultanates of Darfur and Wadday, while remaining more or less independent depending on the area. Zaghawa chieftains later exploited similar rivalries between the French and British colonial powers. The French were more active than the British in trying to unify the traditional chiefdoms, but each of the two administrations maintained the principle of chiefdoms corresponding to specific territories called dar. Here is a brief overview of the current organization and affinities of the main subgroups:

1. Kobe: all of the Chadian Zaghawa were united under a single “Kobe” sultanate by French colonization, which caused the creation of two dissident sultanates on the Sudanese side of the border (the Kobe sultanate of Tina-Sudan and the Kabka sultanate of Tundubay.) The Kobe of Chad tend to favor the regime of Idriss Déby, while those in Sudan are the base of the JEM (Justice and Equality Movement), one of the two founding movements of the Darfur rebellion along with the SLA (Sudan Liberation Army). The JEM is now the largest in military terms.

2. The Wogi are divided into six chiefdoms: Dar Gala (Kornoy), Dar Tuer (Um Buru), Muzbat (independent from Dar Tuer since 1995), Dar Artaj (Um Haraz), Dar Sueini (Dor), Dar Beire (Hashaba). They were among the leaders of the Darfur rebellion, first as part of the SLA, then of Minni Arku Minnawi’s faction of (where today only members of his clan, the Ila Digen of Muzbat, remain), then in 2007 as part of the SLA-Unity, second largest military force of the rebellion.

3. The Bideyat were traditionally divided into approximately fifty independent chiefdoms corresponding to clans. The French united them in two chiefdoms, the Bilia and the Borogat. Idriss Déby, a Bilia, maintained the unity of his chiefdom through his brother Timan, who was named sultan, while dividing the Borogat into multiple clan chiefdoms. The Bideyat are the inner circle of Chadian power, but many, depending on their clan rivalries, joined Chadian rebel movements, notably the RFC (Rassemblement des forces pour le changement).

The subgroups (Kobe, Wogi, Bideyat) and the chiefdoms are not clans or lineages. One chiefdom can encompass people from several clans (and sometimes ethnic groups other than the Zaghawa: Fur, Tunjur, Arabs, etc.) and members of a clan can be dispersed into several chiefdoms. Each chiefdom, however, belongs to a “royal” clan that is often in conflict with other clans that once held the chiefdom. These royal clans, whose members have received more education, are the source of the Zaghawa political and economic elite. The members of other clans have often only been able to gain power using armed force. Thus the highest families have relatively little representation in the Darfur rebel groups, a situation that was heightened by Minni Arku Minnawi’s hostility towards them.

The territorial possessions and the particular geographic situation of the Zaghawa explain their diverse ways of life. Their position just below the Sahara allows them to raise camels nomadically, relying in particular on migrations to Saharan pastures during the rainy season. A landscape relatively rich in relief and water sources (in particular the Ennedi and Kabka ranges in Chad and, to a lesser extent, the plateaus of the Sudanese Dar Zaghawa) also allows them to have shorter transhumances with the possibility of returning to permanent water sources in the dry season. Possession of the land also explains the importance, despite the environment’s aridity, of agricultural activities: the Ila Digen of Muzbat, for example, place particular emphasis on growing millet although they live on the edge of the desert. Control of the trans-border areas where major trans-Saharan routes pass also explains the importance of commercial activities.

Historically based on mountains that offer protection from invaders and are considered sacred, people gradually concentrated around wells, establishing sedentary centers, the largest of which become chiefdom capitols. The main markets were established in these centers, and with colonization, schools allowed the Zaghawa earlier access to education (compared to the nomadic Arabs.) Throughout Muslim Africa, traditional chiefs at first rejected the schools of the Nasara (Whites or Christians) and sent the children of their slaves or serfs in place of their own children. However, some of the principal Zaghawa chiefs quickly recognized the advantages they could gain from these schools and sent their children, encouraging them to continue their studies abroad. Their education helps explain the current influence of the Zaghawa, especially those from higher-ranking families, in local and international commerce (Libya, Gulf countries). It also contributes to their political importance in both Chad and Sudan, although their influence owes much to their military success as well.

The Zaghawa have an undeniable attachment to Dar Zaghawa. From the colonial era, however, drought touched their region and forced them to move south in large numbers. In 1951, a British administrator noted: “no matter that life is hard, dogged by disappointment, and often lived under the somber shadow of famine, still they come back to the steppes and wadis which they know as home, and which they will not willingly abandon. Our problem is not to help the Zaghawa to leave their present country, but to help them to live a better and more prosperous life inside it” (from R. S. O’Fahey, Darfur and the British: A Sourcebook, forthcoming).

This program was never carried out, and as the cycles of drought became more intense, more Zaghawa took up life outside Dar Zaghawa than in their traditional territories. A large Zaghawa community (from Chad and Sudan) was established in N’Djamena after Idriss Déby seized power in 1990. Zaghawa workers and traders migrated to Khartoum and the Jazira in Sudan and formed a diaspora highly active in trade in Libya and the Gulf countries. Above all in Darfur, there are large Zaghawa communities in the Korma zone, the towns of El-Fasher and Kebkabiya in North Darfur, in the Geneina region in West Darfur and especially the eastern half of South Darfur in a belt that extends from Shangil Tobay to Bahr-el-Arab, including Sheeria, Khor Abbeshe, Muhajiria, Labado, Nyala, Ed-Duein, Buram, and Legediba.

These migrations were not necessarily caused by hunger and drought. The educated Zaghawa elite, while promoting the development of their region of origin, quickly saw the possibility of massive movements to the South. They were organized in the 1970s, in particular by Mahmoud Beshir Jama’a, a Zaghawa politician from Um Buru and a hydrologist by training. As he recalls, “in 1970, I was called on by the Nimeyri government to facilitate these population movements. People from the entire Zaghawa country agreed to leave. The army helped us. The emigrants went to South Darfur, to Nyala, then Gereida, then Buram, close to Bahr-el-Arab. My idea was that they would live in Hofrat-en-Nahas, far to the south, but most of them preferred to settle in a place called Legediba, southwest of Buram. They were very happy. The next year, they came to thank me; they had a lot of millet. The traditional chiefs were at first opposed to the project, but in the end they accepted it. The malik Ali Mohamedin [chief of Dar Tuer] went to Legediba himself and stayed there a while. He wanted to stay but finally had to return to Dar Zaghawa. In 1970, the shartay Tijani At-Tayeb from Kornoy [chief of Dar Gala] told me: ‘I must go to the hospital in Khartoum, but when I return, I will move to Legediba.’ Unfortunately, he died soon after. Legediba has since become very large and its fields are very productive.”

The traditional leaders initially opposed this emigration – in vain – because they knew it would inevitably make them lose power that was intrinsically tied to their land. And in fact, even though the emigrants kept ties to their original chiefdoms, the massive emigration helped weaken the chiefdoms of Dar Zaghawa, especially since it coincided with Nimeyri’s decision to abolish traditional chiefdoms. South of Darfur, the Zaghawa settled on lands belonging to chiefs of other groups – Fur, Masalit, Tunjur, Bergid, Berti, Dajo and Arab (in particular Rizeigat baggara and Habbaniya.) This context explains the often ambivalent position of Zaghawa intellectuals concerning the question of land: while attached to the lands of their origin in Dar Zaghawa, they know that the future of their community depends on lands that are not theirs.

At first, relations between the first occupants of the land and the new arrivals seemed to go well. The Zaghawa had particular success as traders, which put them in competition with other, older immigrants like the “Jallaba” traders from the Nile valley, instead of the local population. One Zaghawa leader from South Darfur recounts that “in the 1980s and 1990s, the Jallaba were in conflict with us because we taught the people of South Darfur to trade. A Jallaba told me: ‘These people were blind and deaf but you came and taught them things; you should pay for that.’ The Jallaba politicians and merchants were the first to target the Zaghawa, not the local population.”

At the time, the academic, economic and political success of the Zaghawa irritated the Jallaba but became a model for the Arabs in Darfur. In the 1980s, the Arabs supported Zaghawa politicians like Mahmoud Beshir Jama’a. As vice-governor of Darfur, he came into conflict with Ahmad Direige, the first Fur governor of the region, who represented the risk of a return to Fur hegemony in the eyes of both Arabs and Zaghawa.

Since the start of the current conflict, however, the Zaghawa are the ones that have been seen as hegemonic, especially by the first unhabitants of the areas they settled in South Darfur. In some places, the Zaghawa seem to hold a majority over groups that had paramount chiefdoms and therefore land rights. They have their own neighborhoods in some cities, and even their own cities; they gradually gained administrative chiefs (omda) but they remained dependent on the paramount chiefs (shartay, malik, nazir, etc.) who possessed the land. The latter, Arabs and non-Arabs, fear that the Zaghawa are trying to obtain independent chiefdoms and the lands that go with them – fears that strictly parallel the fears of non-Arabs in North Darfur in relation to the Abbala Arabs.

In 2005, a Rizeigat Baggara intellectual summed up his fears in this way: “Until now, the Zaghawa respected the Rizeigat hawakir. In 1986, we even elected a Zaghawa deputy. At the time, we lived as brothers. But the Zaghawa are a very active tribe, they work hard and have skills as traders and politicians. In 1997, the nazer of the Rizeigat gave an omda to the Zaghawa. Maybe the Zaghawa will want more in the future. They are already dominant in Hofrat an-Nahas, in the far south of Darfur. Now they want to create a Greater Dar Zaghawa.”

Conflict over land is accompanied by the fear that the Zaghawa, in power in Chad since 1990, will take power in Khartoum and create a Greater Dar Zaghawa stretching from Lake Chad to the Nile. The JEM raid on Khartoum in May 2008 only fed this speculation, which is based on an even more curious fact: the frequent mentions of the name “Zaghawa,” sometimes manipulated by the Zaghawa themselves, in the writings of Arab geographers in the Middle Ages. These geographers cite the Zaghawa as one of the largest tribes in Sahelian Africa and, from Al-Ya’qubi (before 891) to Ibn Khaldun (circa 1380), situate them in the Kanem north of Lake Chad or, like Al-Idrisi (1154), between the Kawar and the Air in Niger in an area now occupied by Tubu, Tuaregs and Kanuri. Nothing says that the name Zaghawa referred to the population now known by that name, nor that it only referred to that particular population. In reality, it seems that the name “traveled” before referring to part of the Beri.

On the ground, distrust of the Zaghawa was greatly increased by the violence inflicted by the troops of Minni Arku Minnawi, especially against non-Zaghawa civilians in eastern Darfur – in that area, the rebels have benefited from the importance of the Zaghawa communities that immigrated in recent decades. This distrust was clearly expressed during the Abuja talks, where some aspects of the agreement and the fact that only Minni signed it were interpreted by some as an attempt to form a new Dar Zaghawa in South Darfur. According to Alex de Waal (pers. comm., July 2006), “DPA provisions for ‘areas of de facto/respective control’ for the SLA were interpreted by both sides as a potential new hakura. The area where this mattered most was eastern Darfur where Minni’s control of Muhajiria and Haskanita was feared (by the Berti and others [in particular the Bergid and the Arabs]) as a new Zaghawa dar.”

Another aggravating factor is the Sudanese government’s propaganda, which employs unabashedly anti-Semitic rhetoric against the Zaghawa, calling them the “Jews of Africa.” The same epithet can sometimes be found in the opposition press in Chad for different reasons (the importance of Zaghawa in the government.); the opposition press is controlled by Christians from the South who often stigmatize the Zaghawa as “Sudanese” foreigners. The ambivalence displayed towards the Zaghawa (“rich and politically powerful but thieving, overbearing foreigners,” see also the quote from the Rizeigat intellectual) is spreading in Darfur and Chad and carries echoes of the dangerous concept of “Ivoirité” in Côte d’Ivoire or the anti-Tutsi diatribes preceding the Rwandan genocide. The apparent power of the Zaghawa should not mask the fact that they are a minority and that their positions (especially in South Darfur) are fragile. The temptation for the international community to resolve the Darfur conflict by means of a Fur-Arab alliance that does not take the Zaghawa into account could be very dangerous.

This temptation is based on demographic considerations: the Fur and the Arabs, if the latter can be considered a unified group, are the largest and second largest ethnic groups in Darfur, respectively. Many of them think that they should hold political power equal to their demographic weight. The danger is turning the competition for power into a demographic struggle. In that case, the equation “more education = more power” becomes “more children = more positions.” But increased birth rates also mean more poverty, less education, more conflicts over resources and more struggles for land.

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2 thoughts on “Land and Power: the Case of the Zaghawa

  1. Jérôme has written a timely and important article. In the last two months there have been important developments that raise profound dilemmas for the Zaghawa community and its leaders. One of these arises from JEM’s attack on Omdurman, which has been widely characterised in Sudan as a tribal coup. In recent days, leaflets have been distributed in Nyala calling for action against the Zaghawa, especially the merchants. This is an alarming, if predictable, development. Hopefully the government will act decisively to stop such racist sentiment.

    A second crisis has developed in eastern and south-eastern Darfur where perhaps 40,000 people have been displaced, many of them Zaghawa. The immediate reason is armed conflict between two SLA factions, one headed by Minni Minawi and the other the SLA-Free Will, which is associated with Birgid militia and certain groups in the government. The background to this is that from the 1970s onwards, large numbers of Zaghawa migrated to different parts of eastern and southern Darfur, in search of farmland and commercial livelihoods. Notwithstanding a few disputes with local people, the Zaghawa were successful and valued members of their host communities–they brought skills, dynamism and assets. In the last five years, the war and especially the aggressive military actions of some rebel factions, have led to a counter-reaction that has imperiled the existence of these Zaghawa communities. Many have been attacked and driven out and the last substantial Zaghawa settlements that remain are in and around Shearia. Now these are embattled.

    One of the disastrous consequences of the war is a retrogression towards the idea that people should reside only in their ‘own’ ethnically defined territories. This is a regression from the concept of citizenship. If this proceeds, not only the Zaghawa but many other Sudanese will become victims, and Sudanese society as a whole will suffer immeasurably. Peace cannot come too soon.

  2. I think once a person got the nationality of any country, he is free to settle in any part of that country. Why dont you raise the issue of land and power in USA or Europe? where immigrants like Obama and Bush , and refugees like Kessinger and Madeline Olbrite became presidents and minsiters?

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