Causes and solutions for Darfur By Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim
August 15, 2004
A humanitarian crisis of horrendous magnitude is unfolding in Darfur, a mostly desert region in western Sudan. What are the causes and dynamics of this latest African tragedy? What should be done about it? And why should Americans be part of that effort?
The answer, put simply, is nicely expressed in a proverb from northern Sudan, where I come from, that tells me that I can't feed my donkey only when I need to ride it, but must keep it well all the time so it is ready when needed. Similarly, solutions to the decade-old conflict in Sudan must keep up with problems as they develop, must adapt and change as necessary if they are to remain relevant and effective.
The underlying cause of the present disaster in Darfur is the failure of traditional systems for the allocation of land and water resources and the mediation of conflict. This failure is compounded by a combination of drastic ecological changes and cynical human manipulation. As the ability of local communities to cope with drought and famine declined over the last two decades, and the capacity of their traditional systems of conflict mediation over rapidly diminishing resources became overwhelmed, opportunistic politicians took advantage of the situation.
It is difficult to separate or rank these underlying and aggravating "causes," as they tend to interact with and reinforce each other, sometimes linking to broader or very local factors.
Failure of traditional systems can be traced back to when British colonial administrators imposed an alien notion of "native administration" on African communities, whereby so-called paramount chiefs had jurisdiction over specific territory and its population, including the exclusive power to allocate land. The imposition of that system undermined the fluidity and flexibility of traditional land tenure and informal conflict mediation systems.
After independence, national governments continued discredited colonial policies or imposed their own authoritarian models. As control over allocation of land changed hands, and with growing armament and the polarization of ethnic identities, traditional conflicts acquired drastically different dimensions and scale.
Casualty figures in such crises are hard to find and even harder to verify, but it is beyond doubt that tens of thousands of innocent civilians have been killed and hundreds of thousands driven from their homes in one year in Sudan. The scenario is familiar throughout post-colonial Africa, but the magnitude and scale of the present crisis in Darfur are unprecedented in recent history due to protracted regional instability and the impact of power struggles among politicians.
While privately owned firearms were rare until the 1980s, automatic rifles and submachine guns are now seen as essential for individual and family survival because of the total collapse of law and order and complete absence of government. A succession of local conflicts erupted after the drought and famine of 1984-85, but the recommendations of the reconciliation conference of 1989, which would have traditionally settled such disputes, were never implemented.
Other armed conflicts that contributed to the present crisis include the civil war in southern Sudan that resumed in 1983, and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's military adventures in Chad, just west of Darfur.
During the civil war, the Sudan government armed various militias from Darfur to fight as proxy in the south. This was first done by the then-elected Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi in 1987, and subsequently by the Islamic military regime of General Umar al-Bashir and Dr. Hasan al-Turabi, the leader of the National Islamic Front (NIF). The significant progress in the peace process in the south has therefore unleashed a large number of highly armed, ruthless and lawless militia on Darfur. The region has also been a bone of contention in the power struggle between al-Bashir and al-Turabi factions of the NIF since 1999.
Regarding Gadhafi's role, when he abandoned his regional ambitions after his military defeat of 1988, the ruthless forces he had gathered, armed and trained were dispersed. Many of them brought to the multiple conflicts of Darfur not only a massive amount of sophisticated weapons, but also a deliberately cultivated Arab racism.
In Darfur itself, the alliance of two rebel movements, the Sudan Liberation Army and the Islamist Justice and Equality Movement, launched a spectacularly successful attack on el-Fashir airport in April of 2003. The Sudan government responded by unleashing its militias to ruthlessly suppress the rebellion, fearing that al-Turabi could use it in his struggle with al-Bashir.
The government relies on militias, though it is unable to control them, because some of its official army may defect to the rebel side since many of the officers and troops are from Darfur. Helpless Darfur civilians are caught in the middle, attacked and manipulated by both sides, just as happened to helpless civilians in southern Sudan for the last 20 years of the civil war.
The Darfur crisis therefore reflects the paradox of the post-colonial state in Africa, asserting the prerogatives of sovereignty, without really being sovereign "on the ground," and without fulfilling its responsibilities to its citizens. While immediate and effective action must be taken to relieve the suffering of civilian populations, longer term strategies must also confront this paradox by consistently holding African governments accountable for their sovereign responsibilities even in times of relative peace.
At present, western governments are happy to deal with corrupt regimes to exploit oil and other resources and to reap huge profits from trade in arms and ammunitions to all sides of a civil war or armed conflict, with no accountability to African populations. The arms used to kill civilians in Darfur are all manufactured in developed "civilized" countries. Yet, when a crisis like that in Darfur breaks out, the same western governments express outrage and profound concern, though such tragedies are made possible by their own policies and industry.
Situations like Darfur now, or like Somalia, Liberia and Rwanda earlier, require the international community to act collectively through international organizations to respond to the emergency aspect, as well as to address underlying causes. Unilateral intervention is not only counter-productive wherever used, but also diminishes our ability to respond effectively in future situations where our national security and interests might be even more at risk.
Both short-and long-term responses must be based on the clear understanding that conflict over power and resources is a permanent feature of all human societies, but need not and should not be violent. Where there is violent conflict, the west must understand that it can't end violence and mediate conflict without addressing underlying causes as well as providing immediate relief for victims. Neither is appropriate or sufficient alone, nor should either be done in ways that obstruct or constrain the other.
Americans should ask themselves how helping Sudan will serve U.S. interests. In other words, why should we care? There are pragmatic reasons, like the price of oil in the world market; both Sudan and neighboring Chad are oil-producers. And the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001, and their aftermath have shown that the United States shares the same vulnerability of all societies and cannot secure itself by isolation.
But the most compelling reasons to care about the crisis in Darfur are moral; as in the Golden Rule, we care for others so that they care for us. But how can we limit this to our compatriots in the United States or fellow Christians across the world, and not our physical neighbors in a foreign country or of another religion? Whether our indifference is due to "difference" or "distance," how does it reflect on our own humanity?
We sometimes hide from our moral failure behind expressions like "compassion fatigue," the idea that these situations are so frequent that we can't possibly care for all of them. This seemingly innocuous expression can in fact disguise our embarrassing indifference under the pretense of this supposedly "understandable" stance without actually having cared enough to act on any of these disasters. The fact that they are too many indicates that we are not really responding appropriately.
If it acts collectively and consistently in all cases through international organizations like the United Nations and African Unity, the international community can and should do whatever is necessary to protect civilians and mediate armed conflicts.
But this system of collective, consistent and institutional action must be constantly maintained to operate in all cases, not "invented" for selected crisis we wish to resolve. We share the same donkey and must all cooperate to keep it well and ready for any of us to ride when needed.
An-Naim is a professor of law at Emory University. He is a native of Sudan.