In November 2023, members of Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and their allied militias went house-to-house in Ardamata on the outskirts of El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur. They looted property and rounded men up for execution. A community Facebook page, El Geneina Darndouka, estimated the death count to be as high as 2,000 people. Among the dead was Muhammad Arbab, an 85-year-old Masalit leader, who was killed along with his son and eight grandchildren in an attack on their home.

Sudanese who had been forced off of their land in Darfur and were living on the outskirts of El Fasher in Abu Shuk Camp begin farming again, 2007. Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.

Sudan’s civil war broke out in Khartoum in April 2023. The RSF, Sudan’s most powerful militia force, seized the airfields and palaces of its erstwhile patron, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). The war quickly spread to West Darfur, where civilians from different social groups had been arming themselves against each other and against the violent systems of governance and resource extraction that had bolstered the RSF. Initially, fighting erupted between social groups rather than between armies. By May, the first mass graves were found, and hundreds of thousands of people fled across the Chadian border, 20 kilometers from El Geneina. In June, footage of the spectacular assassination of Khamis Abbakr, the governor of West Darfur and a leading figure in Masalit politics, circulated on social media. Hours before his death, Abbakr described the situation in El Geneina as genocide in what would become his last TV interview.

The violence recalled the intense, genocidal violence in Darfur that began in the mid-1990s and reached its height in the early 2000s. Darfur’s system of governance at the time was dominated by the militias that would form the roots of the RSF, to whom the SAF outsourced security. The militias supported communities that practiced mobile pastoralism and those that had moved from mobile pastoralism into a new looting-based economy. Armed Masalit groups, first organized by Abbakr, fought against them. The system thrived off intercommunal violence among the ethnically diverse populations that lived in El Geneina, with the farms and pastures of West Darfur at the frontline of this violence.

Having come to rely on the RSF and its allied militias for security in the region, the SAF struggled to maintain control over garrisons in major cities when the current war first reached Darfur. By October, the SAF’s capacity to maintain garrisons all but collapsed. In November, the SAF withdrew from their base in Ardamata, a garrison and airfield where many displaced Masalit people had settled, setting off another round of devastating violence against the Masalit population.

The Masalit describe the events of 2023 as a second genocide. Observers of Sudan often interpret this violence—intended to destroy national, ethnic, racial or religious groups—through culturalist explanations. But behind the racialized violence in Darfur is a decades-long history of climate migration, austerity politics and export-led growth that has significantly altered the region’s relationship to land and livestock and people’s relations to one another.


Dar Masalit and the Afro-Arab Divide


El Geneina, the capital of the West Darfur state, has long been the political center of Dar Masalit—the homeland of the Masalit people, straddling the border between Chad and Sudan. This region, which was an independent sultanate in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was incorporated into Sudan in 1924 under British colonial administration.

For much of the twentieth century, Dar Masalit was a destination for mobile pastoralists from the west and north. Today, many Darfurians, as well as outsiders, draw a stark distinction between herding and farming across the Sahel. Mobile pastoralists are often categorized as Arabs, while farmers—many of whom speak Nilo-Saharan languages as well as Arabic, Darfur’s lingua franca—are classed as Africans. But this racialized Afro-Arab binary does not capture the interconnectedness of these two livelihoods. Historically, herding communities lived in stationary or semi-mobile clusters of farayg (tents), typically with access to fields and watercourses. The most mobile groups moved across fairly narrow and predictable circuits, traveling from wetter to drier pastures. Meanwhile, farmers often kept animals, sending them to nearby pastures, and people from these farming communities would sometimes adopt more mobile herding livelihoods.[1]

Mobile pastoralists are often categorized as Arabs, while farmers—many of whom speak Nilo-Saharan languages as well as Arabic, Darfur’s lingua franca—are classed as Africans.

In the 1970s, an influx of migrants arrived from neighboring Chad, a Cold War frontier at the time that was aligned with France and Libya. In 1973, a massive drought wiped out as much as 70 percent of the country’s cattle, prompting Chadian cattle and camel herders to flee east through Dar Masalit, where many settled.[2] Drought in North Darfur also led many mobile pastoralists, along with their livestock, to move to the wadis (seasonal river pastures) south of El Geneina. Many switched from camel to cattle herding, as the pastures were more suitable, while others moved from herding to farming.

Further droughts in the 1980s crowded even more people into the fertile Dar Masalit, as pastures deteriorated and pastoral routes shifted due to desertification and climate change. This new influx of people intensified pressures on communal relations, and by the 1990s, conflicts began to emerge between the Masalit people and the pastoralists.

The escalating tensions were not solely the result of climate migration and the Cold War militarization of Chadian politics. Neoliberal policies also placed new pressures on rural pastoralists. In the 1970s, governments across Africa ramped up borrowing from international creditors to finance development strategies and consolidate newly independent states. By the early 1980s, global oil shocks and the collapse of the gold-based currency system led to a long-running financial crisis. In many African states, this crisis marked a shift to export-led growth strategies.

Export-led growth began to upend the pastoralist societies of western Sudan. In the 1970s, most families in Darfur kept cattle or sheep as a reliable way of saving up farming wealth, with a few wealthy families holding about half the cattle. Herding stock in a village was cared for by farmers in a few bush camps or manuring fields or entrusted to mobile pastoralists. Farmers supplied meat to El Geneina, and itinerant livestock traders sometimes bought large male animals, keeping prices high.[3]

The shift to livestock exports was not due to government intervention; the state regarded herding and farming systems in western Sudan as “subsistence activities,” and they barely featured in the five-year plans of the period. Rather, a host of cash pressures beset populations living at the margins of markets as they were forced to cope with new patterns of climate, migration and accumulation. Beginning in the 1980s, demand for live sheep for Eid al-Adha and camels in Saudi Arabia and Egypt put increased pressure on producers and pastures. Over the course of the 1990s, Sudanese sheep exports went up sevenfold, and camel exports rose a hundredfold.[4]

At the same time, the drought and climate crisis pushed some groups in Darfur away from pastoralism. To the north of El Geneina, some pastoralist systems collapsed entirely. Yet, the fertile wadi lands around El Geneina continued to attract pastoralists. Pressure on these lands intensified, and relationships between already-arrived farming groups and newcomer herding groups became increasingly tense.

The global financial crisis of the 1980s, and the austerity that came in its wake, radically destabilized the already frayed relationships.


The Racialized Politics of Austerity


Under Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s longstanding dictator who came to power in 1989, the state adopted a neoliberal response to the multidimensional crisis caused by climate change, debt overload and the failure of debt-funded development policies aimed at fostering national unity. He imposed austerity policies that involved replacing government investment in social services with user fees that were unaffordable for much of the population. In Darfur, rather than building schools or water points to help Masalit people and their neighbors, his security forces exacerbated local disputes over boundaries and political representation. The security forces deepened polarization between Masalit groups and their neighbors, crystallizing pre-existing cultural and linguistic differences into a racialized Afro-Arab binary. These new divisions cast Masalit people as Black/African and pastoralists as Arab, despite both groups living in Africa, speaking Arabic, intermarrying and sharing lands.

The politics of representation became a key arena for state intervention. In colonial times, rural governance in Darfur and Kordofan was structured around the Native Administration—leaders who had the power to collect taxes, administer justice, oversee land tenure and mediate between communities. Many of these leaders came from prominent families whose authority predated the colonial state and was rooted in the control of land and custom. The Islamist government repurposed the Native Administrations, inventing a new chiefly title, amir, the Arabic word for “commander,” which also carries Islamic significance. In the mid-1990s, al-Bashir’s governor in West Darfur created eight amirchieftaincies along supposedly tribal lines, with all but one assigned to groups identified as Arab. The newly appointed amirs posed a threat to Masalit land governance, exacerbating the tensions that already existed as a result of climate-driven migration.

In 1995, these tensions led to the outbreak of violence in Darfur. Following the announcement of administrative reforms in August, raiders identified as Arab attacked Masalit villages to the east of El Geneina, killing 75 people. The government began supplying these raiding groups with weapons, and toward the end of the 1990s, armed groups, led by amirs, conducted raids across West Darfur. The first major violence in El Geneina took place in 1999, when tit-for-tat shootings between farmers and herders turned into a rampage through villages to the south and east of the capital. Masalit sources suggest that as many as 2,000 people were killed.

Responding to the growing insurgency, the government outsourced security to both militias and irregular forces drawn from land-poor Arab groups led by amirs.
Masalit, Fur and Zaghawa people were all identified as African, according to the racialized Afro-Arab binary emerging in media, popular consciousness and the calculations of the security forces. By 2003, leaders from these groups had formed rebel armies to counter the spread of Arab militias and the new pressures on land that impelled them. Responding to the growing insurgency, the government outsourced security to both militias and irregular forces drawn from land-poor Arab groups led by amirs.

The militias were run by intelligence officers based in military garrisons belonging to the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), located in Darfur’s towns. The mobile counter-insurgency militias, run by the intelligence officers, were known as Janjaweed. After 2013, with the rebel forces weakened, the counter-insurgency militias unified into a new force, the RSF, under the command of Muhammad Hamdan Daglo, known by his nickname Himedti. The RSF eventually pushed nearly all insurgent militias out of Darfur and into Libya and South Sudan. Outsourcing security to these militias aligned with the privatization agenda of the Bashir government. It was intended to keep costs down, given that militia soldiers were paid less than regular soldiers. Emboldening these militias, however, turned out to be a fateful move, creating a dual military structure divided between aggressive, mobile militias and static, garrison forces.

Amirs led the pro-government militias that attacked the Masalit villages. Masalit and other groups continued to form rebel armies, which their enemies described as zurga or Black/African. With the consolidation and militarization of the Arab/African binary, violence intensified. Human rights investigators chronicled the racial slurs that counterinsurgency militias used during village burnings, rapes and murders. This violence was mostly targeted against the settled population, identified as African. Millions of Sudanese were forced into displacement camps, most of them around cities like El Geneina, where the presence of the RSF and groups of armed civilians belonging to different ethnolinguistic communities meant that petty confrontations would often morph into street massacres.

In 2010, when the International Criminal Court first indicted al-Bashir for genocide, it built its case around these events. Following a protracted period of half-implemented peace deals and insecurity, a military campaign led by RSF leader Himedti between 2014 and 2016 defeated most of the armed groups in Darfur. Many of the insurgents were pushed towards dirty war jobs in Libya and South Sudan. Himedti, meanwhile, was welcomed into the center of state and regional politics.


Taking Stock of Darfur’s Livestock


As the conflict in Darfur stalemated, Sudan’s sheep exports to Saudi Arabia shot up.

Sheep exports helped mitigate the long economic crisis that began after South Sudan’s independence in 2011. During the 2000s, southern oil wealth transformed Sudan’s economy and its balance of payments. With South Sudan’s independence, however, Sudan could no longer balance its books. Livestock exports became vital, amounting to roughly a quarter of Sudan’s total foreign currency earnings by 2012. In 2017, Sudan and Somalia together accounted for 80 percent of Gulf imports of livestock. [5] But these earnings still could not cover the consumption requirements of Sudan’s cities—whose populations were expanding due to rural violence.[6] Moreover, Gulf demand for livestock continued to place pressures on land and pastures in Darfur, contributing to communal tensions that sporadically erupted into violence.

Gulf demand for livestock continued to place pressures on land and pastures in Darfur, contributing to communal tensions that sporadically erupted into violence.

The uprisings that started in 2018 and eventually overthrew al-Bashir were fueled, in part, by the confluence of urban migration—spurred by rural violence—and Sudan’s economic crisis. In cities, protestors took to the streets demanding bread and freedom. Under Himedti’s leadership, the RSF initially cracked down violently on protestors. Ultimately, however, it joined forces with the Sudanese army to oust al-Bashir.

The protestors forced the creation of a new civil-military government under Abdullah Hamdok. But the new government prioritized making peace between rebel and government-outsourced militias over meeting the popular demands of the Sudanese people. Himedti, the de facto vice president, was sent to make peace with Darfurian armed groups fighting in Libya or South Sudan.

Former Darfurian rebel groups, including the faction led by Abbakr, signed the Juba Peace Agreement with Himedti in October 2020. Under the agreement, many Darfurian armed groups returned from Libya to Sudan. Some rebel leaders, including Abbakr, were given posts in the Hamdok government. Over the ensuing months, however, a number of these former rebel groups allied with the SAF and RSF against the civilians, ultimately joining the October 2021 coup against Hamdok’s government.

Even during the relatively peaceful years that preceded the coup, the Juba agreement did not end violence in Darfur. Many local groups held on to their weapons, and many young men moved out of pastoralism and farming into looting and land-grabbing. Violence occasionally broke out in Dar Masalit between local groups of armed civilians, now straitjacketed into the racialized Afro-Arab binary.

The military coup also failed to lead to a lasting entente between Sudan’s two armies. In April of 2023, large-scale violence erupted when the RSF and SAF turned on each other. After years of outsourcing the SAF lacked the capacity for mobile warfare. Meanwhile, the RSF excelled at street battles but struggled to dislodge the SAF from their fixed positions in garrisons and airfields, leaving both armies in a stalemate.

Starting in May of 2023, as the RSF swept through Darfur, they allied with the Arab militias led by the amirs, some of whom seized on the outbreak of war to push Masalit people out of El Geneina. In El Geneina, the RSF and its allies expelled up to 70 percent of the Masalit population.

The RSF and its allies came to control much of Darfur, while the SAF defended its garrisons in the five Darfurian state capitals: El Geneina, Zalingei, Nyala, El Fasher and El Daein. In November 2023, however, the SAF’s 15 Division in Ardamata appeared to surrender its position without a fight. The collapse of the garrison at Ardamata, one of West Darfur’s largest Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps, led to large-scale attacks on Masalit groups. Initial reports suggest that thousands of women fled from Ardamata to the Chadian border, as hundreds of men were rounded up and killed.

Amid these mass atrocities and displacements, the livestock trade appears to be expanding. Although Sudan no longer produces foreign trade statistics, Atar, a new Sudanese online publication that monitors shipping from Port Sudan, reports that most ships departing Port Sudan are carrying livestock bound for Saudi Arabia.[7] In March, Sudan’s finance minister announced that 4.7 million head of livestock had been exported in 2023, compared to less than 2 million heads the year prior.

The civilian government failed to follow through on its promise to conduct an animal census for Sudan. But such a census would likely reveal that most of the country’s livestock is in the west of the country, now under Himedti’s control. This data would also likely find that mobile pastoralists’ livestock-rearing practices are more efficient than others, suggesting there is an economic rationale for turning the stressed wadis around El Geneina into pastureland. According to Sudanese academic Magdi el Gizouli, the Janjaweed spearheaded an agrarian transition that liquidated subsistence farming and herding in western Sudan, replacing it with commercial livestock systems that the war and national economy now depend on.[8] The genocide in El Geneina is part of this transition.

One of the factors behind Himedti’s success has been his ability to gain control over key sectors of rural production, including gold, sesame and livestock. The militarization of rural governance has allowed him to extract or extort wealth from producers. Indeed, his access to resources appears to be key to his ability to resupply his vast army, spread out across the country. Some observers question the RSF’s ability to tax markets and producers.

But if the war turns out to be a long one, control over rural production and militias will determine the ability of Himedti—and the neoliberal militia he commands—to control Darfur.


[Edward Thomas has worked in Sudan for many years as a teacher, human rights worker and researcher.]





[1] Hartmut Lang and Uta Holier, “Arab Camel Nomads in the North West Sudan: The Northern Mahria from a Census Point of View,” Anthropos 91/1-3 (1996).

[2] J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins, Darfur: The Long Road to Disaster (Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2008)

[3] Dennis Tully, Culture and Context in Sudan: The Process of Market Incorporation in Dar Masalit (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1988), p. 132-138

[4] World Bank (2003) “Sudan Stabilization and Reconstruction: Country Economic Memorandum,” Washington, DC: World Bank, vol 2, p.46

[5] Mark Duffield and Nicholas Stockton, “How capitalism is destroying the Horn of Africa: sheep and the crises in Somalia and Sudan,” Review of African Political Economy (2023)

[6] Edward Thomas and Alex de Waal “Hunger in Sudan’s Political Marketplace,” World Peace Foundation Occasional Paper (Somerville, MA: Tufts University, 2022).

[7] Atar Network Team, ‘Tijārat al-sūdān al-khārijīya: al-yawm al-thānī baᵓd al-ḥarb [Sudan’s foreign trade: the day after the war],’ Atar 2, October 19, 2023, p. 4.

[8] Magdi el Gizouli, “ḥarb ᵓla sīqān al-ḍān [A war on the sheep shanks]” Atar 7, November 23, 2023.

How to cite this article:

Edward Thomas "Land, Livestock and Darfur’s ‘Culture Wars’," Middle East Report Online, April 10, 2024.

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