“The worst humanitarian crisis in the world today”—so relief agencies and news reports refer to the catastrophe still unfolding in the westernmost Sudanese province of Darfur. With the United Nations estimating that 50,000 people have been killed and 1 million displaced, the description is apt.

But the dead and uprooted Darfuris are not victims of a natural disaster or even a localized civil conflict. Rather, the Darfur tragedy is symptomatic of a larger syndrome afflicting several regions of Sudan.

Conventional wisdom ascribes war in Sudan to ethnic or religious divides between north and south, Arab and African and Muslim and non-Muslim. In Darfur, where the entire population is Muslim, the violence is commonly described as “Arab militia attacks on black Africans.” However, the underlying cause of the conflict in Darfur—as with the other fronts of Sudan’s civil war—is political, not ethnic. Ultimately, the Darfur crisis can only have a political solution.

Since the ’80s, Darfur has been crippled by desertification, leading to famine, social breakdown and heightened competition for resources between pastoral and nomadic ethnic groups. Sudanese government policies of neglect, exclusion of local groups from power and predatory economic practices compounded the problems. Meanwhile, the regime consciously encouraged an “Arab” identity for the nomadic tribes—as against the “African” farmers.

The frustrations of the two rebel groups in Darfur, the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement, are essentially the same as those in other regions rebelling against the central government in Khartoum. Although most international attention has focused on the 21-year conflict between Khartoum and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in the south, discontent with the central government extends from Darfur in the west to the Muslim Beja peoples in the east. In February 2003, the Darfuri groups took up arms because Khartoum seemed on the verge of cutting a separate deal with the southern rebels through the U.S.-sponsored peace process.

In an effort to cripple the opposition in Darfur, the government unleashed the Janjaweed militias, allowing them to lay siege to the villages of the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups from which the rebels draw most of their base. There was mass civilian flight. The government inhibited the work of aid agencies by denying visas, limiting equipment availability and submitting aid workers to intrusive surveillance, leading to even greater death tolls among the affected villagers.

Although the government of Sudan has eased restrictions resulting in modest improvements in the delivery of much-needed aid, humanitarian assistance is only a short-term measure. In the words of one U.N. worker, “We are putting plasters on the wound here. What we need is a robust peacemaking program.” However, security efforts to date fall well short of peacemaking—or even traditional peacekeeping.

Proposals by the African Union to expand the mandate of its small contingent from cease-fire monitoring to civilian protection have been rebuffed by the Sudanese government. Instead, Khartoum’s claims that it will provide protection to civilians through the creation of “safe areas” remain very much in doubt since these areas are guarded by government forces that were not only complicit in previous violations but have also absorbed former Janjaweed militias. Corralling civilian populations into zones protected by their erstwhile persecutors is unlikely to result in either short-term security or a lasting political solution.

With the United Nations deciding whether to impose mild sanctions on Khartoum, what is desperately needed in Sudan is a sustained and comprehensive peacemaking effort that links the peace negotiations between Khartoum and the SPLA with the conflicts in Darfur and elsewhere. The international community must not allow Sudan to continue to stonewall such an effort through piecemeal peace talks and delayed compliance with half-baked resolutions. The United Nations should seek more than humanitarian Band-Aids for the wounds in Sudan’s body politic.

The regime in Khartoum must begin to share power and increase participatory democracy. Only attention to these core issues will bring lasting relief to the people of Darfur as well as their compatriots in the rest of Sudan.

How to cite this article:

Maren Milligan "Darfur: Worst Humanitarian Crisis," Middle East Report Online, August 24, 2004.

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