darfur, sudan / "colonial policy purposefully developed the arab-controlled north, while neglecting the (mostly african) south"

exclusive feature
Lafayette Gaston
The Liberator Magazine 4.3 #11, 2005


In 1983, Colonel John Garang came from his post in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, to Torit to help negotiate a settlement to a mutiny undertaken by southern troops. One account says that Garang himself was then brutalized by northern troops, causing him to retreat into the bush with a following of 3,000 troops, starting the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). However, problems in the Sudanese state date much further.

The British colonial policy purposefully developed the Arab-controlled north, while neglecting the (mostly African) south. The two sides have been warring off and on since just before independence in 1956. A peace agreement was signed in 1972, but tensions continued. The northern government divided the south into three provinces, instituted sharia, or Islamic law, across the south -- going against the 1972 accord -- and brutally crushed southern troop mutinies under Nimeiri. These factors and the discovery of oil around the southern city of Bentiu returned the country to full scale war.

The north-south divide, however, has a long history. We know that as early as 3500 B.C. Egypt fought for reunification under Menes, establishing the capital at Memphis, which no longer stands. With time a great deal of "mixing" occurred between Asiatic peoples and ‘black’ Africans. As the Asians gained power in the lower Nile region social dynamics began to change. African women were taken as concubines and the offspring of these unions began to reject their African heritage, regarding themselves as Asians. This has persisted throughout the centuries.

After the death of the Prophet Muhammed in 632, Muslim Arabs advanced in conquest of North Africa, converting the entire region to Islam. Cairo, in converted Muslim Egypt would evolve into one of the world’s most prosperous trade centers. Beginning from medieval times Arabs conducted slave raids into the Sudan, meaning "land of the blacks." When possible, they employed Africans to do this work. One of these groups was the Fur.

The independent sultanate of the kingdom of Fur (1596 to 1916) was once dominant in the region. The Fur had converted to Islam in the 14th century, and thus regarded other nonbelievers as infidels, justifying bondage. Cheikh Anta Diop, while outlining the reasons that Islam was adopted so easily in Africa, tells us of a dynamic by which many African cultures began to rework their founding narratives to directly link themselves to the prophet Muhammed. This, according to Diop, debased the historical traditions of certain African societies at the expense of being able to view themselves within the context of the Islamic narrative. Thus, there existed very African societies whose historical consciousness, in part, revolved around Islam.

imilarly, many cultural practices remained very much the same, if not unchanged, via a mostly surface influence of Islam. Diop further informs us that another reason Islam's fluid adoption by these communities was the similarities of its metaphysical outlook to the traditional beliefs of the converted peoples.

This said, ideologies of certain predominately Muslim areas spread, allowing for such treatment of non-Muslim Africans. In fact, groups from Darfur once fought along side the government against the SPLA until recently.

Identity, therefore, is a complex issue in this region. This is complicated by kinship rules. Most Muslim and Arab groups are patrilineal; many non-Muslim African groups are matrilineal. Thus, ‘mixing’ produces indeterminate identities for the resulting offspring, depending on the groups involved, making determination of ethnicity identity on the basis of phenotype very difficult in some situations.

In February 2003, the SPLA and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) launched a massive offensive on el-Fasher, the capital of Darfur, which, by government accounts, crippled its forces, leaving a security vacuum, which the militias (Janjaweed) filled. Hence, the militias are outside of their control and thus the rebels are responsible for the situation on Darfur. Khartoum publicly calls the militias "thieves," but the arming of Arab militias to suppress the rebellion -- and attack civilian communities -- has been used since 1986. In fact, some have been incorporated into police and military forces. Now the government cannot disarm them, so they are still attacking villages while rebel factions have pledged to fight so long as the situation in Darfur continues.

There are 2,372 AU peacekeepers in Darfur -- roughly the size of France. However, the AU lacks capacity to deploy troops itself and help has been slow to come. Where the peacekeepers are, the violence has dropped -- there simply aren’t enough of them, resulting in a terrible humanitarian situation, as Darfur’s 2 million refugees can neither farm or return home, creating famine. UN peacekeepers are coming, but Darfur cannot wait until September for increased AU presence. Stability in the region is vital now. Calls of "never again" haven’t materialized into support for the AU, so it’s our job to help. Please, write you congressperson demanding immediate assistance for the AU peacekeepers. Peace is Darfur’s only hope.

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