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World Begins to React to the Tragedy of Sudan

By Edmond J. Keller

GRCA Publication



In the last two weeks, both houses of U.S. Congress, as well as Secretary of State Colin Powell called the crisis in the Darfur region of the African country Sudan, genocide. The world is now faced with its worst current humanitarian crisis.

While there is some debate, it is generally agreed that crimes against humanity of horrendous proportions are being committed. Yet there is no commonly agreed upon approach within the international community for resolving the crisis, which has its roots in decades of ethnic and religious conflict.

For all but 10 of its 48 years of independence, Sudan has been involved in civil war. Sudan is about the size of the United States east of the Mississippi River, and has a population of some 38 million, 70 percent of whom are Muslims.

The first phase of civil war lasted from 1956 to 1972. This conflict involved a rebel movement from the south, which is predominantly Christian and animist, against the central government in the capital Khartoum. In 1972 they reached a peace agreement and 10 years of relative peace ensued. However, after the military government in the early 1980s reneged on its commitment to regional autonomy for the south and declared its intention to transform Sudan into an Islamist state, based on the strictest principles of Islamic (Sharia) Law, the civil war re-emerged.

Over the past 21 years, this conflict has resulted in the deaths of more than 2 million people.

The government of Sudan has employed a scorched earth policy in the south, often using Arab militias as proxies against the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army (SPLA) and other rebels. It was the activities of these militias that first attracted the attention of Christian evangelical groups in the West, who were concerned about the rape and pillage of Christian communities in war zones, as well as about the practice of raiding southern villages in search of prospective slaves to be sold on the international market.

By the end of the 1990s, the SPLA was able to fight off the Sudan national army as well as the militias that supported it, creating a mutually hurtful stalemate that laid the groundwork for peace negotiations between 1995 and 2000. The two warring sides agreed that the sub-regional African organization, the Inter-Governmental Authority for Development, should be invited to be a third party mediator. This initiative was complemented by the United States' interest in settling the Sudan problem. Importantly, rather than take a direct role as a mediator, the United States chose to work behind the scenes, along with other interested parties, such as Norway and the United Kingdom, in support of the efforts of the Inter-Governmental Authority.

Presently, a final settlement of the crisis in southern Sudan seems near. But reaching a settlement with the SPLA, which represents only about 20 percent of the country's population, would be only a partial solution to the crisis. Sudan is comprised of more than 140 different ethno-linguistic groups, such as the Fur, Zaghawa, Masaaleit and Beja, none of whom were represented in these negotiations. Yet these groups have grievances, and as the peace talks in neighboring Kenya proceeded, some groups became more and more vocal about being marginalized and left behind.

Enter Darfur. In early 2003, tensions in the Darfur region in Western Sudan reached a boiling point and the newly formed Sudan Liberation Front (SLF) surprised the central government with a dawn attack on a military installation in the region. The SLF was soon joined in the field by the Justice and Equality Movement. The difference between the two groups is that the former advocates a secularly based state and the latter does not have a position on the matter. The two groups, however, are unified in their sense of grievance against the central government. While before they felt a kinship with Arab Muslims, some non-Arab Muslims in Darfur now see the current governmental campaign against them as racist, and this reinforces their sense of less than first class citizenship.

The government of Sudan was surprised by the SLF attacks and embarrassed. War in the south had spawned tensions in other parts of the country, and as a result, the central government had seen its sovereignty wear thin. In Darfur, it resorted to enlisting local militias, popularly referred to as the janjaweed (armed men on horseback) to help prosecute the war. These militias are mostly Arab, while the rebels are mostly non-Arab black Muslims. Importantly, since the early 1980s disputes in the Darfur area between Arabs and non-Arabs over land had become common. Given this, it is understandable that this conflict has become racialized. While the conflict in the south in many respects has been about religion, in Darfur it is more about race and economic resources.

The alliance between the central government and the janjaweed has resulted in more than 30,000 deaths and 1.2 million internally displaced persons. In addition some 200,000 have taken refuge in neighboring Chad. The government often provides support for the combined forces of its army and the militias. On their part, the janjaweed behave like a predatory hoard, murdering, pillaging and raping as they sack and burn non-Arab villages. They are holed up in several camps that often times are mere kilometers from refugee camps, and in spite of the government's denial of involvement with the militias they are known to share camps, supplies and logistical support with government forces.

Most of the attention for resolving the conflict is given to addressing the humanitarian aspects of the crisis: to stop the killing, avert the loss of 10,000 lives in camps per month, and to provide those most affected with adequate food, water, shelter and health care. While this is a necessary first step, more attention needs to be given to assigning blame and prosecuting those responsible for these crimes against humanity.

A step in this direction could grow from the recent involvement of the African Union in placing peacekeepers and cease-fire monitors inside Darfur. However, the African Union force, with the assistance of troops from other United Nations' countries, should be much more robust; it should grow from a force of 300 to the 5,000-10,000 range, and peacekeepers should have the authority to disarm and regulate the janjaweed (whose camp locations are known), deliver the most serious perpetrators to justice, and provide the kind of security needed to create a secure environment for displaced communities to return home and resume their normal way of life.

Some are calling for direct U.S. military involvement, but a more realistic expectation should be for the United States to provide the humanitarian, material and military intelligence, and logistical support that could address short-term fixes for the humanitarian crisis and lay the groundwork for long-term solutions to Sudan's political and social crises, not only in Darfur but also throughout the country.

This would mean a new role for the United States in Africa. Rather than directly imposing democracy and human rights on an African population, we should take a leadership role at the United Nations and in other international and regional forums in order to create a real enabling environment for human security and thereby democracy and human rights. This approach would call for some direct U.S. involvement as well. This is not only a moral imperative for the United States, but a strategic one as well. Failed and collapsed states are the breeding grounds for the international terrorism that is of the utmost concern for this country.

This month the United States' Permanent Representative to the United Nations, John Danforth, was instrumental in pushing through a Security Council resolution calling for an inquiry into the charges of genocide in Darfur, an increase in the number of international peacekeepers in the region, and tough sanctions against Sudan if militia and other government-sponsored attacks in the region continue. Eleven out of the 15 members of the Security Council voted for the resolution, but China and Russia, for economic reasons, and Algeria and Pakistan, for political reasons, abstained.

What is clear is that the resolution is not enough. It must be followed up by decisive and effective implementation. Unless the United States assumes a bold role in this process, it is unlikely to bear productive fruit.

As a complement to this effort, the United States should use its political leverage in the international community to gain the support of other African and Arab states in pressing the Sudan government to agree to an all-parties conference of national reconciliation. At that time all relevant actors in Sudan should have the opportunity to make credible commitments and promises that would chart a productive road ahead. Otherwise, Sudan's ongoing crisis could further spill over its borders, becoming a wider regional and even a global problem.

Globalization Research Center - Africa