Prof. Mamdani and Darfur: Some Comments on the Land Issue

Professor Mamdani in his Saviors and Survivors. Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror (NY: Pantheon Books, 2009) has written a powerful attack on the Save Darfur Coalition and the political climate and debate in America around the Darfur issue. In general, I find much to agree with in Mamdani’s analysis, illuminating as it does the self-interested motives of many of the actors involved and many levels of hypocrisy. There are similar debates in Europe, not least where I live in Norway which has been much involved in the Sudan, in some ways unreflectively.

The middle third of the book presents an historical excursus on Darfur’s history under the sultans (c. 1650 to 1874 & 1898-1916), under the Mahdists (1883- 1898) and the British (1898-1956). Professor Martin Daly in two contributions to “Making Sense of Darfur” has already dealt with the numerous factual errors to be found here; I could add more, but see no real purpose in doing so. Rather, let me concentrate on one issue, land and how it is thought to be owned.

Professor Mamdani throughout Saviors and Survivors rightly emphasises the importance of land issues in the internal conflict(s) in Darfur. Much of the discussion centres around the issue of hakura and what it means. Although I have tried to clarify the historical dimension in Chapter Seven of my The Darfur Sultanate. A History (London: Christopher Hurst & NY: Columbia UP, 2008), there still seems to be considerable confusion about the historical aspects of the hakura system, as is evidenced by Mamdani’s discussion of the topic.

Let me begin, as historians should, with the sources; there are approximately four categories, namely,

(1) accounts by visitors to Darfur (principally Muhammad al-Tunisi and Gustav Nachtigal [see bibliography at end]) and a Lebanese official, Na’um Shuqayr, who worked for British intelligence in Egypt and the Sudan and who wrote in 1903 a monumental history of the Sudan in Arabic.

(2) just under 400 Arabic documents issued by the sultans or their officials dated between c. 1700 and 1916 exist in photographic form. The majority were photographed by me in and around al-Fashir, Kutum and Mellit in 1970 and 1974 (a detailed catalogue can be found on my Website, It is my intention to make the original photographs available on my Website in the near future. Later researchers like Drs. Lidwien Kapteijns, Joerg Adelberger, Ulrich Braukämper, and Michael La Rue were unable to find many more such documents, so the conclusion must be that I had a “window of opportunity” at the time. But there is also another explanation (see below). I list at the end all the articles by me and others that give the text and translations of Darfur documents from the sultanate.

(3) information I noted on hakura in the British Province Archives in al-Fashir and Kutum in 1970 and 74. The archives comprized about 600 files and I made some 250 pages of notes from them. Most of my notes will be given in annotated form in my forthcoming Darfur and the British. A Sourcebook (London: Christopher Hurst, 2009). Sadly, the original files were accidently destroyed some time in the early 1980s and I am the only researcher to have used them.

(4) oral informants: I interviewed the owners of the documents and others. Again I am preparing my fieldnotes for dissemination on the Web.

A note on language and terminology; generally the language, except for the two earliest items from about 1700, is unproblematic. The two earliest charters are written in a kind of phonetic Arabic that renders a reliable translation moot (I have read them with some of the Sudan’s greatest scholars, including the late Drs. M.I. Abu Salim and ‘Awn al-Sharif Qasim; neither could decipher them with any confidence). In the documents themselves the term, hakura, is rarely used; the commonest term is iqta’ from the Arabic root, qata’a, literally “to cut off”. Now, iqta’ has a long and complex history in the Islamic world and does not always mean “fief, feudal estate” (as it is translated in Wehr/Cowan Arabic-English Dictonary). Generally the transfer of terms from European historiography to the non-European world is a dodgy exercise. Incidentally, hakura is not a common usage in Arabic; Lane in his classic dictionary of Arabic defines it as “a piece of land retained and enclosed by its proprietor” for agricultural use, while ‘Awn al-Sharif in his dictionary of Sudanese Arabic simply refers to its Darfur meaning, which he may have got from me since he was familiar with my writings.

In Mandani’s book and in many other writings on the land tenure system in Darfur, there is an implicit assumption that the sultans applied the hakura system to the whole sultanate. Nowhere in my published writings have I clearly addressed the issue on how widespread the hakura system was, so here I want to make amends.

From the geographical distribution of the documents I and others have photographed and the information given in The Western Darfur District Handbook from 1936, it is clear that there were two geographical areas that were the principal beneficiaries/targets of the hakura system, namely,

(a) north/central Darfur around al-Fashir and Kobbei stretching northwards to Kutum and Mellit and some way into parts of Dar Zaghawa.

(b) southwestern Darfur, i.e. the Fur heartlands around Zalingei, the historical province of Dar Diima comprising twelve Fur chieftancies or shartayas, still ruled by the title-holder the Aba Diimang – the present holder of the title which can be translated as “lord of Diima”, Fadil Sissei, is about the twentieth of his name, as they say in Scotland and Ireland of clan chiefs.

This limited geographical localisation is not hard to explain; the area around al-Fashir was attractive by reason of its proximity to the sultanate’s capital from 1792, al-Fashir, while Dar Diima contains some of the most fertile and well-watered land in the Sudan, not to say Darfur. In other words, on the evidence we have, there is no reason (and there are some contra-indications) to say that the hakura/iqta’ system was co-terminous with the sultanate. There are few references to hakura in eastern Darfur and none south of Nyala, i.e. in the Baqqara Belt. Thus there is no evidence for the claims that the sultans gave hakuras to the Arab cattle nomads (Baqqara), but not to the Arab camel nomads (Abbala).

I see no reason here to repeat what I have written in The Darfur Sultanate and various articles (see at end), except to note a change from my 1980 book to the sultanate book of last year, namely in the latter I emphasise that these grants were never freehold or in anyway absolute in any Anglo-American legal sense. All such grants were given and could be taken away at the behest of the sultan; eminent domain applied in Darfur as else- where. The sultan was the state.

Professor Mamdani’s discussion is confused on several points, but he gives generally a not unreasonable account of what I wrote in my 1980 book, although he seems to have ignored or been unaware of the book by myself and Abu Salim from 1983, not to speak the many articles I and others have written over the years since. There are some problems; he begins his discussion with a typology of the Sudanic state based on the outdated generalizations of the Swedish ethnographer, Tor Irstam. In fact, Sudanic states are surprisingly diverse in their structures. Mamdani too easily jumps from the Sinnar Sultanate to Darfur; al-Fashir and Sinnar are a thousand kilometers apart and occupy very different ecologies. What Spaulding has illuminatingly written about Sinnar can not willy-nilly be transferred to Darfur.

Mamdani makes play with a thesis of detribalisation/retribalisation; thus the sultans were progressive and broke down tribal particularisms by means of the hakura system, while the British were racialistically addicted to tribalism. Frankly, both propositions are absurd. What the hakura or estate system meant in ethnic terms is almost impossible to decipher from the documents. That outsiders were granted estates in tribally-owned territories is well-documented, but that of course was the sultan’s prerogative. The immigration into such estates of settlers from elsewhere is well-attested and pace Mamdani sid al-fas does not mean an estate-manager, but rather a tenant who had been granted tenancy rights within an estate, as I thought I had made clear in my writings. Under a different aspect there was indeed a form of detribalization under the sultans; from about 1800 the sultans and those close to them increasingly recruited officials, slave and free, from all the peoples of the state. The Darfur Sultanate was no longer an ethnic Fur monopoly, although Fur remained the court language. One informant told me that the last sultan ‘Ali Dinar (reigned 1898-1916) dictated his correspondence in Fur which was taken down directly in Arabic (documents from his reign are very sophisticated productions), much like a French lord dictating a charter to be turned into Latin.

Mamdani attributes retribalisation to the British; whether this was the case in other parts of the Sudan can be argued, but in Darfur they simply tinkered with the boundaries they had inherited from the sultanate. Significant changes were rare; in the early 1930s the then Deputy Governor of Darfur, A.J. Arkell, confronting the administrative muddle in and around al-Fashir argues for the restoration of the administrative boundaries set out by Sultan Muhammad al-Fadl (1803-38), i.e. a hundred years before (the document is reproduced in my Darfur and the British).

Retribalization (I wrote a paper for the World Bank under that title in 2006) in Darfur and extensive attempts to redraw boundaries usually in favour of Arab groups (for example in Dar Masalit in the early 1990s) are phenomena of the 1980s to the present with the demand for mono-ethnic tribal dars, which is when the hakura idea seems to have come into the political mainstream. Historically, not even the most remote Fur shartaya, say Konyir or Wona in western Jabal Marra, was ever solely inhabited by Fur alone, let alone in the rest of Darfur. How hakura transformed itself from meaning estate in eighteenth and nineteenth century documents to “tribal landownership rights” (DPA, paragraph 158) is unknown to me. I may have inadvertently contributed through a translation into Arabic, al-Dawla wa’l-mujtama’ fi Darfur, of my 1980 book elegantly made by ‘Abd al-Hafiz Sulayman ‘Umar (without reference to me), a school headmaster (not Darfurian) who taught in Darfur for some years (published Cairo: Centre for Sudanese Studies, 2000). When in Abuja in 2006, I was struck by the number of Darfurians there who had copies of the translation with them.

Again in Abuja, I was struck by the way hakura was equated with the notion of a mono-ethnic tribal homeland with the dominant ethnicity having absolute freehold rights. At the local level, there are now many conflicts, Salamat versus Ta’aisha, Masalit versus Arab, Birged, Misiriyya versus Zaghawa around Ghor Abeshei, Fur versus Bani Halba, Fallata versus Habbaniyya etc. being fought out within the hakura paradigm.

Professor Mamdani is, of course, right to stress the importance of land as an issue. The Darfurians will have sort out among themselves a future land policy. Personally, I do not think mono-ethnic “racially pure” homelands is the way to go.

R. S. O’Fahey is Professor at the University of Bergen. His website contains the finest collection of online historical documents on Darfur.


See further O’Fahey, Darfur Sultanate, 311-36.

Below I list only publications that deal directly with pre-colonial Darfur documents.

J.O. Hunwick (2002), “A Mahdist letter from Darfur”, Sudan Africa. A Journal of Historical Sources, 13, 21-5.

Nachtigal, Gustav, Sahara and Sudan, transl. A.G.B. Fisher and J.H. Fisher, vol. 4. London, 1971.

R.S. O’Fahey (1972) (with Abdel Ghaffar Muhammad Ahmed) “˜Documents from Dar Fur’, fascicle 1. Occasional Paper no. 1, Programme of Middle Eastern and African Studies, Department of History, University of Bergen, 54 pp.

– (1973) (with Abdel Ghaffar Muhammad Ahmed), “˜Documents from Dar Fur’, fascicle 2, Occasional Paper no. 2, Programme of Middle Eastern and African Studies, Department of History, University of Bergen, 63 pp.

-(1979) “˜Two early Dar Fur charters’, Sudan Texts Bulletin, Coleraine, i, 13-17.

– (1981) “˜The case of Adam’s ear’, Sudan Texts Bulletin, Coleraine, iii, 44-53, but see L. Kapteijns, pp. 54-5.

– (1981) (with Jay Spaulding), “˜A sultanic present’, Sudan Texts Bulletin, Coleraine, iii,

– (1986) “˜Dar Fur in Kordofan. The Sultans and the Awlad Najm’, Sudan Texts Bulletin, vii, 43-63.

– (1986) (with Sharif Harir), “˜Two husbands and a daughter from Dar Fur’, Sudan Texts Bulletin, vii, 30-42.

– (1990-1) “˜The Archive of Shoba: Parts One & Two’, Sudanic Africa: a Journal for Historical Sources, i, 71-83, & ii, 79-112.

– (1992) “˜A Prince and his Neighbours’, Sudanic Africa, iii, 57-94.

– (1983) (with M.I. Abu Salim) Land in Dar Fur. Charters and Related Documents from the Dar Fur Sultanate. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 180 pp.

Shuqayr, Na’um, Ta’rikh al-Sudan al-qadim wa’l-hadith wa-jughrafituhu, Cairo 1903, 3 vols.

Eltounsy, Mohammed, Voyage au Darfur, Paris, 1845.

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3 thoughts on “Prof. Mamdani and Darfur: Some Comments on the Land Issue

  1. Prf. O’Fahey, thank you for this: “Frankly, both propositions are absurd.” with reference to Mamdani’s core narrative. There is indeed much of interest in the book, but it is marred by a weird fixation on certain themes.

    I am, however, more concerned that many of the people commenting on land issues in Darfur seem to think that there is some “rational” solution to the land tenure problem by a few weeks of consulting by experts and some good will by the various parties.

    But the history of land tenure across the whole Sahel, and into most of southern Africa as well, should caution us that Sahelian economies are very, very far away from regularity in land tenure.

    One reason for this is the one you mention- written records have become less meaningful, rather than more meaningful. Preserving the hakura documents is wonderful for historians (both professional and amateur) but meaningless for an honest policymaker, since there is no way of knowing how surviving documents came to be surviving rather than destroyed or lost. No reasonable person would agree that a land tenure system should be based on a selective reconstruction on the past.

    Another reason is that, by much oral testimony, janjawid and others have deliberately altered the “oral” archive of land, by razing hundreds of villages and forcing the displacement of millions.

    It may be that the forced displacement and consequent urbanization makes it imperative to spend far more attention on urban land development- an enormously politically paralyzing and controversial undertaking in other African settings- than on rural land issues. As you hint at- the hakura issue may be rearing its head not in terms of rural land but in terms of the heavily newly populated semi-urban peripheries. I have seen little on this issue.

    My opinion is that the enormity and endurance of land tenure irregularity means we should be deeply skeptical and discouraging of large-scale attempts to resolve the issue from the top (the CPA parties have not done anything on land after 4 years!) but rather encourage lots of small-scale initiatives, especially focusing on improving capacity for local dispute resolution.

    All the other countries of the Sahel have reasonable, muddling, systems for dispute resolution. Probably one of the basic principles is: “You solve it yourselves and if someone gets killed all kinds of people will spend a long time in jail.” This seems to work effectively in minimizing violence in most countries, though does not move forward on the longer-term project of clarifying land tenure. But there is a reason other countries prefer to adopt ambiguity rather than drawing sharp boundaries, and that reason applies to Darfur with even more force.


  2. I quite agree with Ana Majnun’s comments. Land tenure patterns are constantly evolving, often rapidly. It is for this reason that we should try and ensure that the historical record is not manipulated.
    Sean O’Fahey

  3. Well folks, ar least you are dealing with the the key issue in establishing long-term stability in Darfur. However, everything I read is far too simplistic. Imagine every possible scenario on land tenure and you might begin to understand the multitudes of realities in Darfur. This ‘fragmentation’ is being typified through the manner in which the conflict has evolved; multiple small-scale clashes occurring in a relentless manner, involving all the factions. Fur, cattle-herding ‘Arabs’, camel-herding ‘Arabs’, any one of over 15 Fur rebel groups, tribal militia, government military, and bandits, are all involved in a free-for-all of strike, counter strike and reprisal. Arabs are fighting Arabs. Arabs are fighting government troops. Fur are fighting Fur. A recent UN official described the situation as “all against all”. This description is a little crude but you get the idea.
    Aside from productive cropping land near wadis most land in Darfur is ‘commons’. This is the arid Golz which grows a huge resource of pasture during the wet season of 3 months. This resource is progressively grazed throughout the dry season by migrating herds of cattle and camels. It is from this group that the so called Janjaweed were recruited.
    Most claims of land tenure will involve the productive land near wadis where sorghum, millet, and vegetables are grown. Since the exodus of the Fur much of this land lies vacant. The Fur know exactly where their historical boundaries are located. In many cases the animal herders do not dispute this. Many such groups (the ‘baddies’) want the Fur to return to reactivate the traditional trading economics. Arab communities are suffering too. Arab IDP camps exist too – a fact that does not attract the media’s attention as it does not fit the perpetrator-victim model. Although being offered vacant cropping land by government the animal herders have no stomach for digging in the sun. .
    Arab communities are commonly inviting Fur from IDP camps to return home. However, there is evidence that rebel commanders are resisting this. This presumably is to maintain leverage for compensation as part of a settlement. Women from IDP camps commonly travel to work their farms on a daily basis. In fact many Fur communities still persist in the countryside and are protected by their so called adversaries (for a tax).
    Darfurian law is based on tribal law. Therefore, a resolution must involve remobilisation of this traditional procedure. Land resolution can only be solved on a case-by case basis, by the people them selves. Any initiative based on a regional basis is futile.
    A greater concern is the rise in banditry. This faction is largely the result of the government disinheritment of their mercenaries after the main conflict waned. This faction operates with impunity within large tracs of countryside not controlled by tribes and their militia. They are the main threat to humanitarians operating in outlying areas. They also attack and loot livestock from communities without sufficient self-defence militia.
    Compared with the likes of the West Africa and Rwanda civil wars the Darfur conflict has retaines are degree of ethic. Massacres are rare. Deaths resulting from the many armed strikes seldom exceed 10. Most ID P camps are actually being protected by the government controlled towns around which they cluster. However, ‘eye for an eye’ law has persisted in Darfur for thousands of years as had ‘blood debt’. Although obnoxious to our western morals this system had stood the test of time. The Darfur conflict spiralled out of control through heaping reprisal upon reprisal. An imbalance was created through the arming of Arabs by government. Fur males of fighting age had to group into two defendable mountainous regions which they still hold. Clearly the women and children were sent to the safety of IDP camps. Many of these men had 2 or more wives.
    A massive obstacle to peace is the situation surround the Chad border. While we may have inkling into the situation in central Darfur, no one understands the border region. The largest number of casualties involving the region in the last 2 years resulted from clashes between Sudanese-backed Chadian rebels against Chadian troops. Heavy weapons are amassed along the border.
    Last; evidence of genocide has yet to surface in Darfur. Based on field evidence the writer strongly doubts that intentions of genocide have ever existed in the Darfurian conflict. The animal-herding Arabs and the agricultural Fur are, in essence, cousins. A degree of goodwill still exists, as does an underlying ethic based on their strong religious beliefs. They are, after all, both of the Islam religion.
    It is politicians and faction leaders, manoeuvring for power and wealth, who prolong the Darfur crisis.

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