Reports: Peoples


The three and a half million people living in Darfur region, geographically isolated and neglected by central government in Khartoum, have been adversely affected by conflict since the early 1980s. The relatively peaceful equilibrium between its ethnic groups has been destroyed by environmental degradation - the spread of the desert and the effects of the Sahel drought - coupled with the divide-and-rule tactics of central government and the influx of modern weaponry. Members of the elites of the major ethnic groups are engaged in a struggle for political status, and failing to tackle the underlying problems of equitable allocation of water and land. Meanwhile outside access to the region is now so tightly controlled that detailed information about the current plight of the indigenous people is increasingly difficult to obtain.

Darfur was an independent sultanate until 1917, when it was the last region to be incorporated into the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. The Arabic word Dar roughly means homeland, and its population of nearly four million is divided into several Dars; not only of the Fur people, as its name suggests, but also of several other communities, determined by livelihood as much as ethnicity. These ecological and social distinctions are more meaningful than the administrative divisions imposed by government. Ethnicity is not in itself clear-cut, given the long history of racial mixing between indigenous "non-Arab" peoples and the "Arabs", who are now distinguished by cultural-linguistic attachment rather than race.

The Fur, largely peasant farmers, occupy the central belt of the region, including the Jebel Marra massif, the richest and most stable area in terms of soil fertility and water resources. Also in this central zone are the non-Arab Masalit, Berti, Bargu, Bergid, Tama and Tunjur peoples, who are all sedentary farmers.

The northernmost zone is Dar Zaghawa, part of the Libyan Sahara, and inhabited by camel nomads: principally the Zaghawa and Bedeyat, who are non-Arab in origin, and the Arab Mahariya, Irayqat, Mahamid and Beni Hussein. It is the most ecologically fragile of the three main zones and most acutely affected by drought. Its occupants have frequently been active in armed conflicts in the region - either against settled farmers or amongst themselves - amid growing competition for access to water and pasture.

Cattle rather than camels are herded by the Arab nomads of the eastern and southern zone of Darfur, who comprise the Rezeigat, Habbaniya, Beni Halba, Taaisha and Maaliyya. The area is less severely affected by drought than the northern zone, although still highly sensitive to fluctuations in rainfall and less ecologically stable than the central zone.

In addition to the distinction between cattle and camel herders on the one hand and settled farmers on the other, there is a significant urban population of traders, government officials and other professionals.

Armed raids on rich agricultural areas and skirmishes with rival groups are part of the historical way of life for the nomadic herders, and constitute a survival strategy in the face of natural calamity and threatened destitution, enabling the maintenance of their social fabric. While the Fur and other cultivators did not traditionally have the same degree of military organisation, their relations with the nomads alternated between negotiation and hostility over the intrusion of nomads' herds on to farming land.

The pattern of conflict changed from low-intensity, small-scale outbreaks from the 1950s to the 1970s, to high-intensity, persistent and large-scale battles in the mid-1980s. The earlier conflicts were predominantly clashes between nomadic groups over accesss to pasture and water, or theft of animals. Since the mid-1980s there has been a more systematic drive by the nomads to occupy land in the central Jebel Marra massif, on the scale of a civil war, with entire villages wiped out and thousands of lives lost on both sides. While drought-stricken livestock herders attempt to survive by encroaching on the fertile central zone, the Fur have fought back to retain what they see as "their" land.

The attempts of successive governments to achieve peace have been alternately ineffectual and heavy-handed. Arms were channelled into Darfur by the central government under Sadiq al-Mahdi (1986-89), which armed the southern Baggara Arabs as a militia to fight against the SPLA (at that time threatening insurgency in the region), and also armed the northern Arab tribes, who were loyal to the Ansar of the Prime Minister's Umma Party. Although the Fur farmers are also largely supporters of the Umma Party, the government's preference appears to reflect the influence of the "jallaba" merchants whose primary commercial interest was in the livestock raised by the nomads. This contrasts with the situation in eastern Sudan, where the mercantile interest in large-scale farms predominates, and where nomadic pastoralists are treated as a hindrance - a more common scenario in many African countries.

The power struggle in neighbouring Chad spilled over into Darfur, with Idris Deby, then leading the opposition, using Sudanese territory to launch attacks on the government of Chadian President Hissene Habre. In this way the Zaghawa - who were aligned with both the Ansar and with Deby, since their ethnic group straddles the border - also obtained modern weapons. In response, Habre helped to arm the Fur. Colonel Ghadafi of Libya encouraged the notion of an Arab "corridor" into central Africa, which lent at least moral support for the Darfur Arabs' incursion into the fertile Jebel Marra area hitherto occupied by the Fur. Arabs and Fur clashed bloodily around both Jebel Marra and the southwest of the region in 1988-89. A peace conference in mid-1989, mediated by the Sultan of the minority Masalit, temporarily settled some of the issues: the government was forced to admit publicly that the problem was not merely one of banditry.

The complex realities of Sudan's political and religious alignments are vividly illustrated by the life of Daoud Yahya Bolad, a Darfuri who became an SPLA guerrilla commander after years of activism on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood / National Islamic Front. Bolad was born near Nyala around 1952, into a Fur family with strong connections with the Mahdist Ansar sect. Arabic was his second language, learned through memorizing the Quran at primary school. The national education system that formed his identity also led him to a sense of disillusion with the sect into which he was born. The "Sudanization" being carried out at school promoted a view of local Darfur culture as primitive and unacceptable compared with the model of riverain Sudanese culture to which pupils were expected to aspire, while the central Umma/Ansar leadership was prepared to exploit the loyalty of Darfuris without offering genuine development or local pride. At secondary school Bolad's reaction was to abandon the Ansar for the Muslim Brotherhood, a modern party which appealed to his ingrained religious sensibilities in a way that was impossible for the avowedly secular Sudan Communist Party which was in many respects its mirror-image. Since he was a nationalist, the regional DarFur Development Front was less attractive, and since he was not an Arab, the Arab Baath Party would have been unsuitable. Mahdist loyalty was probably also more easily transferrable to the Muslim Brotherhood because of the marriage of its leader, Dr Hassan al-Turabi, to Wissal, the sister of Sadiq al-Mahdi.

Muslim Brotherhood members at the University of Khartoum were seen as heroic participants in the October 1964 uprising against the Abboud military regime, although their subsequent tactics against political opponents included beatings and intimidation. As a young Islamist zealot in his years as an engineering student at the University (1971-78), Bolad embraced these undemocratic methods and became chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Khartoum University Students' Union. During the early and mid-1970s the leaders of the Brotherhood were frequently interned or in exile, and the student section of the movement became in practice its executive body, coordinating between the leadership and its cells, and coordinating street protests against the Nimeiri regime until the 1978 reconciliation with Turabi. Bolad became a master of religious and political rhetoric, and was frequently detained by Nimeiri's security forces. He worked closely with Turabi and Ali Osman Muhammad Taha, who became Minister of Social Planning under the Bashir regime, and with other key NIF figures.

(A fellow Darfuri, Dr Ali al-Haj, who helped found the Darfur Development Front, later joined the Islamists but was unable to raise popular support in Darfur. He was appointed by the Bashir regime as a negotiator with the SPLA between 1989 and 1994, in addition to his role as Minister for Economic Planning.)

On graduating from university in 1978, Bolad chose to return to Nyala to start a carpentry firm with finance from an Islamic bank, and remained active in building the Muslim Brotherhood, renamed National Islamic Front in 1985. The crisis in Darfur in the late 1980s prompted him to side with his Fur tribesmen when 27 Arab tribes formed an alliance against the Fur. The perception that this alliance was tacitly backed by the central government, in which the NIF was a coalition partner, seems to have turned him against his former colleagues. In late 1989, after Bashir's NIF-led coup, Bolad left the country. He resurfaced nearly two years later in Khor Gimbil, south of the Jebel Marra massif, as the commander of the SPLA's Darfur division. The SPLA's incursion into Darfur was at first successful, but was eventually defeated by a combination of the army and local Arab militias, who viewed themselves as enemies of the Fur. The military governor who commanded the forces against the SPLA in Darfur and brought about the capture of Daoud Bolad was Al-Tayib Ibrahim Muhammad Kheir, known since university days as Al-Tayib Sikha ("Iron Bar"), a former contemporary and underling of Bolad. In late 1991 Bolad appeared in a video recording on Sudan television, a battered but composed prisoner, and was accused of treason. However, his past history as an NIF stalwart was extremely embarrassing for the regime, and he died a week later in unexplained circumstances before his trial could take place.

Bolad's abandonment of a religionist and outwardly nationalist movement in favour of an ethnic, regionalist stance reflects the frustrations and cleavages in Sudan's political culture.

1983-87: Zaghawa and Mahariya against the Fur: The drought of the early 1980s drove nomadic Zaghawa and Arab groups southwards into the central Fur region of Jebel Marra. Some sought water and pasture for their animals, but many had lost so much animal wealth that they were seeking to settle permanently. The Zaghawa who moved to urban centres had some success in petty trade, but those who kept to rural areas encountered hostility from the Fur farmers - who realized that the move might this time be permanent - and from government forces who accused them of camel rustling. The Fur elite in local government resisted the nomads' intrusion rather than seek accommodation. Police and army burned down numerous Zaghawa settlements and extra-judicially executed local Zaghawa leaders. The influx of modern weaponry increased dramatically: an estimated 50,000 AK47s, G3 rifles, RPGs and heavy machine guns were available in Darfur, equivalent to one for every adult male.

1987 to present: The Arab alliance against the Fur The element of racial prejudice became further entwined with the environmental roots of the conflict with the formation of an alliance of 27 Arab nomad tribes and their declaration of war against the "Zurug" (black) and non-Arab groups of Darfur. The response of the Fur was to form their own militias, at first for local self-defence and later as part of a short-lived but significant linkage with the SPLA.

The main aim of the nomads was to seize land, and they would often give notice to Fur villagers before the raids to make way for the "liberating" or "cleansing" forces. Nonetheless, the toll on population and resources was high. By the time of the 1989 peace conference, an estimated 5,000 Fur and 400 Arabs had been killed; tens of thousands had been displaced and 40,000 homes destroyed.

The Sahel drought, coupled with interference by government and the struggle for local political power, appears to have polarized the ethnic groups whose identities and inter-relationship had hitherto been fluid. The only way out of the crisis will be the recognition of its environmental and developmental origins, and the negotiation of equitable access to resources in a fragile eco-zone.

Drafted for Minority Rights Group 1995