Ethnicity, Land, Legitimacy: A Review of “War in Darfur and the Search for Peace”
War in Darfur and the Search for Peace is by far the best and most authoritative introduction to the Darfur crisis that I have read. But so fast-moving is the crisis, even since the publication of this book last year, that it is increasingly inaccurate to talk of a Darfur crisis, since the conflict(s) now include much of eastern and central Chad and spill over into the Central African Republic (CAR). I shall come back to this point.
The book comprises fifteen substantial studies starting with a lengthy overview by the editor. What follows is not so much a review, but a commentary on some on the themes in the book that have struck me as an historian of the region; I do so under four headings, ethnicity, land, legitimacy and intervention. Most of what I discuss here is documented in greater detail in my The Darfur Sultanate. A History (New York: Columbia University Press: forthcoming), which focuses on the history of Darfur until 1916, when it was conquered by the British and annexed to the Sudan.
A thread that runs virtually through all the contributions is ethnicity. The population of Darfur can be divided into those who claim Arab descent and speak Arabic and those who do not or at most vaguely claim Arab descent but for whom it is in no sense a living issue. The former are about a third of the population; the latter thus two-thirds (the 1956 Census (table 6.2)—the only fully published one—gives 375,100 “Arabs” out of a total population of 1,328,765: the UN and other agencies now operate with a population figure of 6-6.5 million, which seems too large).
Behind these bald statements lies a complex of ideas about ethnicity that might be described as sacred geography, Islam and being Arab comes from the north and east, pagans and slaves come from the south/southwest. As a nineteenth-century Fur song puts it, “The people who are Fartit [pagans in the south] are slaves and yet go free "¦ we Fur go and bring them among us and teach them our Islam”. Or as some Fur elders told the British administrator, A.J. Arkell, in 1935,
‘[The first unnamed Fur sultan] gradually spread Islam and his empire further south, by sending in turn to the “king” of each hill and telling him, “Become Moslem, or I will fight you. Given such an alternative most of the people fled south and became Fartit [i.e. pagans], leaving much of Darfur uninhabited. The sultans used to bring people from the east to occupy the empty land.’
Foundation traditions like this will be found among virtually every ethnic group in Darfur and eastern Chad (see Hasan & O’Fahey, Sudan Notes and Records, 51, 1970, 152-61, for a particularly interesting example, where the “Fartit”, literally wake up one morning and discover they are Arab!). Ethnicity is a very slippery concept in Darfur; for example, the Fallaita (or Fallata) cattle nomads of southern Darfur are Fulani immigrants over centuries from West Africa and most still speak their own language, but are treated as Arabs. Indeed, the most elaborate “Arab” genealogy I ever photographed in Darfur was shown to me by a Fulani holy clan who were very proud of their origin from Massina in Mali; they have been in Darfur since about 1720.
This sacred geography has been updated in the present conflict, but now with the emphasis on “Arabness” (Ar. ‘uruba) rather than Islam. A key document is the so-called Quraysh 2 Declaration of 1998-99 (there is some doubt about its authenticity; see Flint & de Waal (2005), 53-4). This sets out, in effect, the Janjaweed agenda; Quraysh, the name of the Prophet’s tribe, is used because many Sudanese Arab tribes trace their descent to Juhayna, a Qurayshi who migrated to the Sudan from Arabia. A premise, not given in Quraysh 2, is that when the Arabs came, Darfur was an empty land. Haggar, 130-3 translates Quraysh 2; an interesting point is that the Khartoum Government, composed of the northern peoples, Ja’aliyyin, Shayqiyya and Danaqla, are considered in the declaration as an obstacle to proper Arab rule being “part of the interwoven Nubian-Egyptian texture (min al-nasij al-Nubi al-mutamassir, the latter word can be translated “would-be Egyptian” and would have a negative connotation in the Sudan). This crudely anticipates the Black Book, which first appeared on the streets of Khartoum in 2000 and whose main thesis was that the Sudan was run by and for the benefit a small group of Northerners, less than 5% of the population (Flint & de Waal (2005), 17-8) The Black Book is said to have been the work of a group of followers of the Islamist leader, Hasan al-Turabi, and who were among the founders of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) in Darfur.
How widespread and operative this revamped racism is remains to be discovered.
The issue of land runs like a thread throughout the contributions, but especially in Jerome Tubiana, “Darfur: a war for land?”, 68-91. Like ethnicity, the land issue has become the subject of historical re-invention. Put simply, the sultans developed a system of land-grants (Ar. hakura, pl. hawakir) and land management that was flexible and subject to change as circumstances dictated, based on the principle that all land was ultimately the sultan’s. Estates could be granted and could be re-assigned. The British froze the system and the production of a document issued by the sultans (the oldest such go back to about 1700; I photographed about 400 such charters) in court was taken as proof of de facto freehold ownership (see further my Darfur and the British, forthcoming). This continued to be the case after independence, but in 1971 the modernising regime of Ja’far al-Numayri abolished tribal administration (idara ahliyya), promoting in its place “local government” (idara mahaliyya); by the mid 1970s (helped by the oil crisis, which meant that the administrators had hardly enough petrol to leave town (Morton, 1993) neither tribal or local administration functioned in any real sense. Although tribal administration was re-introduced in 1985 and again in 1994, it was flawed from the outset by the Khartoum Government’s interference in and politicisation of who was chosen as chief and by the redrawing of Darfur’s internal boundaries (namely the division of Darfur into three states [Ar. wilaya] which make no sense ethnically or ecologically). Within this context, land ownership became an issue both because of mechanised farming and arbitrary lawmaking by the central government (Ruenger, 1987)
Contrarily, among Darfurians there arose “the simplistic and idealised terms with which the traditional system is often remembered today in Darfur have little to with the fluid and highly localized system described so well by O’Fahey and Salim [O’Fahey & Abu Salim, Land in Dar Fur, Cambridge, 1983], 12-21]. This false remembrance has had two consequences; one is the term hakura has become enshrined in the abortive Darfur Peace Agreement of May 2006 as “tribal landownership rights” (DPA, paragraph 158), which is the one thing it has historically never meant. Of course, one might argue that people have the right to re-invent or re-use their past. But the other development out of this new focus on land is the increasingly heard demand, especially from Arab groups, both old-established, such as the so-called northern Rizayqat—hitherto the backbone of the Janjaweed, and recent immigrants from Chad—such as the Salamat (currently trying to carve out a “homeland” in Ta’aisha country), for mono-ethnic tribal “homelands”. The administrative/tribal units established under the sultans are still largely operative in Darfur, however modified. Except for some parts of Jabal Marra and around Zalingei which are overwhelmingly Fur ethnically, no part of Darfur was ever ethnically homogenous. Each “homeland”, Birged, Berti, Zaghawa etc. contained groups from elsewhere, and there were recognised mechanisms for incorporating them peacefully into the host community. But now land and ethnicity seem to be inextricably intertwined and will be increasingly difficult to unravel.
It is hard to say what will be the future of the land issue. If, as seems increasingly likely, urbanization in Nyala, the IDP camps and elsewhere is here to stay, then the land issue will take new forms. There are several factors here, one is ecology and climate change, areas about which little is known in Darfur (the fashionable tendency to cite Darfur as an example of “climate-generated conflict” may be true, but there has been precious little research to prove or falisify it), another is a tendency for the nomads to settle down and turn to animal-management from an urban base. The old division between between sedentary and nomad has been disappearing over the last fifty years; the present crisis has simply speeded it up.
Legitimacy and Intervention
In the run-up to independence in 1956, both the British and the Northern Sudanese leadership were much concerned about the South; both sides recognised that there was a problem of legitimacy; why should the Southerners, neither Muslim nor Arab, accept rule from Khartoum? The Equatoria Corps mutiny in 1955 concentrated minds on both sides on this issue, and the consequences are still there. But Darfur was never discussed in these meetings; why? Because Darfur was Muslim and seemingly represented at the negotiating table either by the Umma party (the Mahdists) or the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose leading figure, Isma’il al-Azhari was a Westerner (from Kordofan, but from a northern family). The Umma had their base among the Baqqara or cattle-keeping Arabs of the south, while the DUP were strong in the towns especially among the northern Sudanese trading class (Ar. jallaba). But such support was skin-deep: I remember one Fulani family telling me in 1970 that while they voted Umma, they did not read the ratib (the Mahdist prayerbook); they belonged to the Tijaniyya Sufi brotherhood, still the dominant Islamic grouping in Darfur.
Khartoum thus assumed a legitimacy in Darfur it never had, but so long as they did not, like the British, disturb the order of things, the colonial dispensation could continue. And, when I first travelled in Darfur in 1969 and 1970, it was very much a colonial outpost—the khakhi uniforms, the army officers and civil servants clubs, the resthouses, and open-air cinemas, showing Egyptian films (completely meaningless to those Darfurians who could afford to see them)—I grew up in colonial Kenya, so I could recognise a colonial outpost when I saw it. The only time in al-Fashir I saw cinema-goers galvanized was at a showing of Pontecorvo’s “Battle of Algiers”; the audience rose as one man to cheer Massu’s paras marching into the Kasbah in Algiers. When I remonstrated with my companions that they were cheering on the colonialists, their response was simple, the FLN had used women to plant bombs in pied-noirs cafes, they had no sharaf or honour to use women in their fight. For Darfurians in the late 60s/early 70s the “Government” was barid, “cold” and ba’id “far away”. I often travelled with a research assistant from the National Records Office [i.e. the Sudan National Archives], whose director, the late Dr. M.I. Abu Salim, one of his country’s greatest scholars, emphasised to the chosen assistant the need to keep his Government affiliation to himself.
As under the British, Darfur continued to export men, to serve in the army, to work in the Gezira cotton schemes or as builders in the towns. But under the surface, as Alex de Waal documents, by the mid-1980s things were changing; famine returned and, one way or another, has never quite left since (de Waal, 2005)
But there was one issue that was to change the relationship between Darfur and Khartoum, Chad. In the 60s and 70s, Darfur’s trading hinterland was Chad and the Central African Republic. Many of the big merchants in al-Fashir and Jinayna were fluent in Fench. But Chad was and is a non-country.
Here, Haggar, 113-39, writing on the origins of the Janjawid is prescient in emphasising the Arab/non-Arab conflicts in Chad as a factor in the very similar conflicts in Darfur. But before considering the Chad factor, there are some historical dimensions.
At one level Darfur/Chad conflicts mark the re-assertion of the region’s distinctive identity; in other words the conflicts there can no longer subsumed under a North/South paradigm that has dominated political analysis of the Sudan, but now must be seen in an East/West paradigm.
The two oldest state structures in the region were the Darfur and Wadai Sultanates, both emerged in about 1650 from an older state-forming tradition. Wadai was conquered by the French in 1910 and incorporated into French Equatorial Africa; Darfur had a more complicated later history, but was only finally annexed to the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan in 1916. Both states had very similar systems of government; both rested on the dominance of the largest ethnic group in their respective areas, the Maba and Fur, but both contained a plethora of smaller ethnicities, Arab and non-Arab, many found in both states. Both state/regions were under colonial rule for fifty and forty years; both were regarded by their colonial rulers as inutile or useless, to use the French categorization of their colonies; both were very lightly administered, which meant that the ethno/administrative structures inherited from the sultanates survived more or less throughout the colonial period into independence.
Chad was a fragile state from the beginning; very quickly the Muslim/Arab dimension began to overturn the Southerner-dominated state as inherited at independence in 1961 This, as Haggar and other contributors note, from the the 80s had a knock-on effect in Darfur, but where it took a specific ideological and political dimension that had not been been present before, namely Islamism (a number of Khartoum Islamist leaders are from Darfur) and Arabism, as we have seen.
But Chad has seen intervention by outside powers, pre-eminently France and Libya, in its nearly fifty years of semi-independence on a scale experienced by no other African state. This pattern of intervention by especially the former colonial power was aggravated by Khartoum using Darfur as base from which to involve itself in Chad. But ethnic realities in Wadai/Darfur, the Zaghawa/Gura’an rivalries and the movement of Arab cattle nomads eastwards, has brought the Chad conflicts into the Sudan (Nolutshungu, 1996, 225-6, predicting a civil war in Darfur), as is amply documented in various contributions in War in Darfur.
And now the European Union is taking intervention to new levels by inserting some 4,000 European troops into eastern Chad, ostensibly to protect the Darfur refugees there. They will be stuck in the middle of an increasingly complex multi-ethnic multi-sided kaleidoscope of conflict. This may not be a very good idea.
A. de Waal, Famine that Kills. Darfur, Sudan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
J. Flint & A. de Waal, Darfur. A short history of a long war. London: Zed Books, 2005.
J. Morton, “Tribal administration or no administration”, Sudan Studies Series,. on line.
S.C. Nolutshungu, Limits of Anarchy. Intervention and state formation in Chad. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996.
R.S. O’Fahey, The Darfur Sultanate. A History. London: Christopher Hurst & New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.
R.S. O’Fahey, Darfur and the British. A Sourcebook (forthcoming).
Mechtild Ruenger, Land Law and Land Use Control in Western Sudan: the case of southern Darfur. London: Ithaca Press, 1987.