Darfur’s Arabs Taking Arms against Khartoum

Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies Commentary (November 2007)

Dr. Andrew McGregor

November, 2007

In 1915 ‘Ali Dinar, the Fur Sultan of Darfur, sent a prominent Arab leader a message in which he called the tribal chief a nafah al-bugr’(‘one who blows under a cow’s tail to induce it to give milk’). To complete the insult the sultan included a pair of sandals the chief could use to run away. The chief, a seasoned desert warrior named Musa Madibbu, retorted that he would soon be watering his horses in the capital. The exchange was typical of the long and contentious relationship between the African Muslim rulers of Darfur (‘land of the Fur’) and their Arab subjects. Today many of their descendants are uniting against a common foe, Khartoum.


Janjaweed on the Move

The weakness of Darfur as a state was always the failure of most of the Arab tribes to ‘buy in’ to the idea of a multi-ethnic Fur-ruled sultanate. Arab tribes were perpetually in rebellion, defying the authority of the Sultan. Despite this, the Arabs and the African Muslims worked closely to make Darfur a wealthy conduit for the shipment of ivory and non-Muslim African slaves. Loyal Arabs formed the Sultan’s cavalry, and individual Arabs from all over Sudan served the regime at the highest levels. All official communications and government documents were written in Arabic. The ruling dynasties of Darfur,like most royal families of the region, held elaborate genealogies tracing their ancestry to the noblest clans of Arabia and Yemen. Yet when the sultanate finally fell in 1916, British-armed Arab tribesmen helped give it a push.

After the British conquered Darfur they devoted a great deal of time to creating maps in which the province was neatly divided into sections according to ethnic groups. In reality the many tribes of Darfur, Arab and non-Arab, have always lived in a wild patchwork of territories held by sedentary tribes,

Criss-crossed by corridors used by the nomads to move their herds to seasonal pasturelands. The local economy depends on the exchange of goods between nomads and farmers, and many Arabs are coming to realize that destroying relations with their African neighbours is not in their best long-term interest. In an unforeseen complication for Khartoum, several Arab and Arab-led militant groups have joined the fight against the government in Darfur. The spokesman for one of these groups rejected the acts of the Arab Janjaweed militia accused of atrocities, “even if they are Arabs… Arabs are part of Darfur, and are merged and inter-married with the people of Darfur.”

On the last point the rebel was absolutely right. The saddest moments of this manipulated conflict have come when Janjaweed killers have had to ask potential victims whether they are Arabs or zurqa (‘blacks’) before deciding to kill them. Most of the anti-Khartoum Arab rebels are drawn from the largely neutral cattle-rearing Baqqara Arab tribes of south Darfur, the Rizayqat, the Ta’aisha, and the Bani Halba. Their camel-rearing cousins in north Darfur are extremely poor and suffer greatly from desertification. After promises of fertile land from Khartoum, the northern Arabs became the backbone of the Janjaweed militias who follow Khartoum’s version of ‘Arab supremacism’. The Baqqara tribes do not see them-selves as subordinate to the Nile valley Arabs who rule in Khartoum; they can recall the time when the Baqqara ruled the entire Sudan from 1885 to 1898. Still there are many in Khartoum’s Arab elite who privately despise the Baqqara as little better than the zurqa..

By their neutrality in the conflict, the Arab tribes of the south have found themselves excluded from the peace settlement. Their leaders recently walked out of a meeting with African Union peace envoy Salim Ahmad Salim when they were informed they could only have five minutes of his time. Many of the Arab rebels claim they took arms against the government when they realized it was the only way to get a seat at the peace negotiations. However, not all Baqqara have avoided the conflict. Rebuffed by the traditional chiefs, Sudanese intelligence has subverted the traditional power structure by enticing younger leaders to join the Janjaweed with gifts of cash and promises of influence. Arab rebels claim that thousands of disenchanted Janjaweed are now joining the fight against Khartoum, though this figure is probably exaggerated. Allegiance to the Janjaweed in the northern Arab tribes remains very strong.

Some Baqqara Arabs suggest they are as impoverished and disenfranchised by the regime as the rebels, on top of which they now find themselves blamed for the savagery of the Janjaweed. After hundreds of years of holding themselves largely distinct from the rest of Darfur society, the Arab rebels now complain of Khartoum’s ‘divide-and-rule’ policy, designed, in their eyes, to keep the people of Darfur from sharing in the new resource wealth of Sudan. There are reports that 30,000 Chadian Arabs have crossed the border with the assistance of Arab leaders in Darfur to settle on lands from which the non-Arab tribes have been driven out. Many of the new arrivals belong to tribes divided by artificial colonial borders. Such a large-scale migration could only be carried out with the knowledge and permission of the Khartoum government. By the time the new UN peacekeeping force is deployed in January, there may be nowhere for the displaced to return to. Even West Darfur’s governor called it “a strategic attempt to occupy land.” In a demonstration of the ‘cycle of violence’ at work, many of the Chadian Arabs are fleeing retribution attacks from African groups originally hit by cross-border raids of the Sudanese Janjaweed. The continuing presence of Chadian Arabs in Darfur will make negotiations on land redistribution almost impossible.

Are Darfur’s Arabs finally ‘buying in’ to the idea of Darfur? Maybe not yet, but self-interest is a great motivator. Darfur’s Arabs have not benefited from their attacks on their African neighbours. Some feel they have been manipulated by an Arabist ideology foreign to Darfur. Identification with the Janjaweed and their violent Arabization of Darfur has brought once proud tribes into international disgrace, including those who have had little involvement in the conflict so far. At the moment the situation in Darfur remains extremely fluid. If significant numbers of Darfur’s Arabs decide their interests lie with their neighbours rather than the Khartoum government, the conflict may take on a very different form by the time UN peacekeepers deploy next January [2008].

This article first appeared in the November, 2007 issue of the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies’ Strategic Datalink.