The Sudan & The Darfur

by Gillian Lusk

CovertAction Quarterly, Spring 2005


And they keep on dying. Over a year since Sudan's lslamist government began slaughtering its own citizens in the remote western region of Darfur, those citizens continue to be killed by a government that claims to represent them. In April 2004, many people marked the commemoration of the Rwandan genocide of April 1994 by saying "Never again!" Yet Darfur's genocide is still underway!

Among those warning that "Rwanda in slow motion" was taking place were Sudanese, journalists, human rights activists and the Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, who had helplessly watched his own United Nations troops helplessly watching Rwanda's genocide unfold .3 Also among them was the man who had headed the U.N. Peacekeeping Operations Department at that terrible time and who is now head of the entire U.N. machine, Kofi Annan.

Three months after the Rwandan's tenth anniversary, on July 22, the United States Congress declared that genocide was taking place. Four days later, on July 26, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, issued a "genocide emergency," signifying that genocide was taking place or was "imminent."' Five months after Rwanda's anniversary, on September 9, and after much shuffling in the corridors of power, Secretary of State Cohn Powell declared that genocide had indeed occurred. He then announced that the U.S. government wasn't going to do anything about it.' International law requires action once genocide is established. A Department of State official told me the U.S. government had already done what international law required, a reference to the two U.S-sponsored resolutions put to the Security Council,' demanding that Khartoum disarm its Janjaweed militias', which it has not done.

Eight months after the Rwandan anniversary [in December 2004], the ordinary villagers of Western Sudan continue to die at the hands of the National Islamic Front (NIF) regime which rules them and the world still watches helplessly. Perhaps 150,000 people have already died, virtually all of them innocent and unarmed civilians. Some medical people put the death toll at double that." In the midst of such a slaughter and in a country devoid of accurate statistics and cursed with a regime that doesn't want anyone to know the true figures, no one can be sure. Many die uncounted.

Estimates of the current death rate range between a few hundred and 1,000-plus a day. Most are ordinary villagers. Some are killed by the NIF regime and the militias it controls. Some die of earlier injuries or because illness and hunger have weakened their resistance to the many virulent diseases that prowl through the camps of over 200,000 refugees in neighboring Chad or the camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) inside Darfur, which provide a kind of refuge for hundreds of thousands more. Little children die first.

However, many of the men - and from some villages, most - are already dead, lined up by the government militias and shot. They were almost all country folk, leading a traditional life herding sheep, goats and cattle and farming family plots of millet and tomatoes. They are the poorest of the poor in a country where in normal times, one American-sized plate of food would be far more than the majority of people eats in a day. Their possessions would not fill one giant modern suitcase - indeed, this is one of the many forms of wheeled transport that is not available to them. They rely on donkeys and sometimes camels or horses.

This tragedy raises two questions: Why is the Government of Sudan killing these villagers? And why is the "International Community" not trying to stop the killing? These two questions are necessarily connected.

The starting point inevitably has to be in the Sudan and there, the question to ask is less "Why are the rural people of Darfur being killed?" than "Why is the Sudan Government killing them?" That might sound rhetorical: It is not. Khartoum's Islamist regime has done its utmost to steer attention (domestic and foreign) away from itself. This works well, for the interested governments - African, Arab, Asian and Western - can then hide behind the fig-leaf Khartoum has helpfully offered them. After all, diplomatic convention insists that in the common run of international relations, governments do not attack each other, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union. Thus a kind of conspiracy has developed which helps to prevent other governments from speaking out, let alone actively intervening, while conveniently allowing the NIF government to pursue its own murderous agenda. Which it has done.

The "Other" Disposable People

So why is Khartoum slaughtering its own people in Darfur? For the same reason that it did so, more slowly but just as murderously, in other regions, mainly the South and the adjoining Nuba Mountains." They got in the way. They constituted a political threat to the NIF's vision of a Sudan ruled according to its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. Just like Jews, as well as Slays, Romas and other "others" for the European Nazis of the 1930s and 1940s, they don't fit into the grand scheme of things and are therefore utterly disposable. In the distorted vision of the fanatic, they are "other" and not fully human. The moment they pose - or are judged by the government to pose - a political threat, they are dealt with, often by extermination.

The Darfur disaster is not simply a civil war or ethnic conflict, as the Sudanese regime has tried, with some success, to persuade the world. It is true that, in the main, people deemed "African" have been attacked by people deemed "Arab." These are not the convenient divisions that some outsiders would like to imagine, though. Virtually the entire population of Sudan is of African descent. Many in Northern Sudan (which includes the western region of Darfur) also have some Arab ancestry - and even more claim it. This is because Arab origins mean you can claim to be a descendant of Prophet Muhammad. Have a look at the Book of Genesis with all its "begat begat stretching back over the centuries and you will get some idea of the significance of genealogy in a largely oral (because illiterate) desert society where religion is woven into the fabric of society in all its aspects.

This is one meaning of "Arab" in Sudan. Nevertheless, there are plenty of threads which run in the other direction. In Darfur, the epithet "Arab" has traditionally often been used by settled peoples (mainly "African") as an insult for nomads: in Africa, settled farmers tend to consider themselves superior to pastoralists, just as settled Europeans often look down on wandering Roma people. Darfur is one of the most ancient homes of Islamic scholarship in Africa, so much so that it merits a "school" named after it within Egypt's Al Azhar University, one of the globe's main centers of Islamic scholarship. This tradition was developed in Darfur by "African" peoples, mainly the Fur." If people are seen as "African," it is not just because they are not nomadic - many "Arabs" are also settled and some "Africans" are semi-nomadic, for many keep herds of livestock. "Africans" tend to have two distinguishing features: they see themselves as belonging to an indigenous tribe (for instance, Fur, Zaghawa) and most of them speak their tribal language as their first language, with Arabic as a lingua franca.

This is not then a question of skin color: most outsiders and indeed many Sudanese couldn't begin to distinguish the "Africans" and the "Arabs" from one another. This crisis is not primarily about traditional rivalries over ethnicity or access to land and water. The Khartoum government is exploiting competition over resources, replacing traditional conflict resolution mechanisms with conflict itself, organized and paid for by the Islamist regime.

One of the givens in reports of the Darfur slaughter is that this is not about religion because both sides are Muslim. The audible sigh of relief is misplaced. Everything the Sudan government does is in some sense "about religion" because it is an Islamist government. In other words, its raison d'être is to impose its vision of an Islamic state on Sudan and beyond that, on the Arab world, the Islamic world, Africa and even the wider world. The fact that after 15 years of ruthless rule it has failed to impose this vision even on its own country does not (contrary to what a lot of foreign officials seem to think) mean that it has given up its dream. If you believe you are implementing God's plan, you may not give up so easily. Religious fundamentalists of every hue have known this throughout the ages. Yet it is a hard truth to grasp for Westerners, especially Europeans living in "post-Christian" societies where faith is widely seen as a matter of personal choice, not a driving force of society, let alone of politics.

The Sudanese regime knows this and devotes considerable effort to a "charm campaign" that projects an image of itself as having abandoned what it called its "Salvation Revolution" and its "Civilization Project.' The message is: "We're just cynical power-hungry corrupt politicians like yourselves." This goes at least some way towards explaining why Western governments have convinced themselves they should "engage" with the NIF, despite not only Darfur and years of killing in the South and elsewhere, but also an integral role at the heart of the Islamist International, aka al Qaeda.

Soon after it had taken power, the NIF invited international Islamists from many countries to Khartoum, founding the People's Arab Islamic Congress (PAIC), later seen as a precursor of al Qaeda. Its Secretary General was Mustafa Osman Ismail (aka "Mister Smile"), now Sudan's Foreign Minister. One Islamist guest was Usama bin Laden. He stayed five years, owning a tannery (tanneries are useful relay stations for chemicals) and owning 'farms" used as terrorist training camps."

Usama went back to Afghanistan in 1995. The NIF regime later claimed that it had offered to hand him to the U.S. government, which refused. This was categorically denied by leading politicians of the time, including Sandy Berger, Madeleine Albright and Susan Rice." Pro-Khartoum lobbies kept the story going, presenting the N IF as innocent hosts to a passing Persian Gulf businessman. It is this emphasis that most makes the "attempted handover" story implausible. Usama was an integral part of the Sudanese system and the NIF is an integral part of the international Islamist movement. There is no way the NIF could have betrayed him without bringing down the wrath of that international movement (arid we saw on 9/11 what that can produce). It would also have destroyed its credibility with its own small but highly efficient support base. However, since Western observers were more interested in Clintonesque politics than Sudanese politics, it is widely believed that Khartoum tried to hand Usama back but was refused.

The NIF is far from being an "average" thuggish government, as many seem to believe. Originally called the Muslim Brotherhood when it spread to Sudan from neighboring Egypt in the 1930s and 1940s, the NIF spent years preparing for power." Students of Islamist extremism take it as meaning that Islamists work on a different time-scale from most of the world. This is very clear in the NIF which, in a society already used to a developed sense of history and a slow pace of life, trained its cadres to spend years infiltrating the system to take power." "Sleepers" patiently bided their time in remote outposts until the NIF, a tiny but highly organized party, seized power from an elected government in a military coup on June 30 1989. Others were open about being Muslim Brothers but benefited from the traditional tolerance of Northern Sudanese to each others' politics. This was a society where everyone had a relative who was an Islamist, just as everyone had one who was a Communist or a Baathist or belonged to one of the two major parties, both religiously based but Islamic rather than lslamist. It didn't occur to most Sudanese that the Islamists were seriously planning to take power or, since they had little base in the army, that they would succeed."

The main political actors in the NIF's 1989 coup were not the military men led by Brigadier General Omer Hassan Ahmed el Beshir, now an improbable President and Field Marshal. The people who were and still are in charge were civilians, a mixture of lawyers, doctors and other professionals, most with doctorates from U.S. and other Western universities. The Sudanese Islamist movement's most famous face was that of Hassan Abdullah el Turabi, a man with a mission and a masters degree in law from London and a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris - which played a not inconsiderable role in keeping the French government on his side.

The coup was timed to sabotage talks to end the war in the South, talks patiently put together mainly by the Northern political secularists of left and centre who saw clearly that a "multi-cultural" country could not continue to privilege Northern Muslims. This multi-denominational united country is far from being the basis of the North-

South peace deal now being pushed through by the U.S. and Britain. [The deal's] "one state, two systems" formula consigns the North to the Islamists in perpetuity, which is a major reason that it will not work for Northerners who long to escape from under the Islamist yoke and who treasure the idea of democracy.

The NIF remains the totalitarian party it has always been. Though Hassan el Turabi was in 1999 pushed sideways by the government's most powerful man, his former deputy Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, little else has changed in the NIF, though it did (not for the first time) change its name." Nonetheless, since it has not changed its spots, most Sudanese still call it the NIF.

In its first years of power, its most visible atrocities involved war and forced Islamisation in the South and Nuba Mountains, with torture everywhere." Northern politicians and the educated elite were "tortured into exile." Particular targets were the many intellectuals of the center and left who, while mostly practising Islam, demanded a secular political system. Most are now in exile in the West or the Persian Gulf area, and are distraught to find many on the Western left siding with the government they have fled.

This is the NIF that has committed such horrific massacres in Darfur. The armed fronts of the opposition umbrella, the National Democratic Alliance, have been active mainly in the Nuba Mountains and South, where the Sudan People's Liberation Army holds sway, and also in the East, bordering Eritrea and Ethiopia." Yet from the start, the NIF had perceived the vast Darfur (the size of France but virtually devoid of hardtop roads) as a potential threat. It attempted to disarm those in "African" ethnic groups holding weapons and at the same time, armed "Arab" groups. Arabism is an easy ideology for Islamists to exploit because of the importance of Arab roots, culture and language for Muslims. The Quran was written in Arabic, after all.

The NIF has also used "divide-to-rule" with a tenacity that would have impressed Imperial Romans. It has consistently armed militias to fight its proxy wars, just as it has armed the Janjaweed in Darfur. And just as it has in the South and the southern "buffer zones," it has also used its own armed forces to back up the militias, from aerial bombing of villages to providing uniforms. Now, in the name of "reining in" the Janjaweed as the U.N. Security Council has requested, it is integrating these killers into the regular armed forces and police, where they "disappear" into the ranks - until it is time for the next depredation.

The immediate trigger for these depredations was attacks by a new opposition front in Darfur, the Darfur Liberation Front, which rapidly renamed itself the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA). It had grown from self-defense groups of some "African" tribes, trying to protect their kinsfolk from "Arab" and sometimes government-inspired raids. The pattern of earlier government repression is clear from the number of arbitrary arrests of lawyers and human rights activists in Darfur in the months before the conflict broke, as evidenced in multiple reports and "Urgent Actions" from Amnesty International and from Sudanese activists." The SLA briefly took the provincial capital of El Fasher in April 2003.

This is now taken as the starting point for the conflict, even though the government-backed militias were armed and ready to go. They did go. Like several NDA parties, the SLA demands a politically secular constitution for Sudan and was rapidly accepted into the NDA. Neither this nor its near total avoidance of killing civilian S21 earned it international respectability, however. This was largely because of an intense but often covert campaign by the NIF regime to present Darfur as a "civil war." This in turn enabled Western, Arab and African governments to evade their responsibilities to intervene to save lives by claiming to be "even-handed." Blaming both sides equally where only one was committing ethnic cleansing.

The picture has been complicated by the existence of another Darfur rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement. The JEM consists of Islamists seen linked to El Turabi, who has claimed the JEM for his own. Though it has little recorded military activity, it is rich where the SLA is poor and, unlike the SLA, it is expert at dealing with the [foreign] media. Since it wants a different Sudan from the SLA, its equal place at the peace talks in Chad" and later Nigeria has not helped the larger and more powerful SLA. Recently, two and possibly three more "rebel movements" have sprung up, all conveniently Islamist indeed the National Movement for Reform and Development says it split from the JEM because it was too close to the government.

In the South and Nuba Mountains, the NIF has spent 15 years creating proxy militias to muddy and bloody the waters. Many Sudanese believe it is doing the same in Darfur.

The NIF has consistently used a tactic of testing potential external enemies to see how far it can go. In Darfur, it has gone a long way. It will have learned a lot and will have regained the confidence that was somewhat dented by the international sanctions after the Sudan-backed assassination attempt on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in June 199527 and the U.S. bombing of El Shifa pharmaceutical factory, in August 1998.28 The U.S. invasion of Iraq also gave it nightmares. It need not have worried. The international perception of a failed if not neo-colonial operation in Iraq has weakened the West and strengthened the NIF. Western governments can no longer go to the U.N. Security Council and get a resolution through that criticizes a terrorist government for committing genocide, let alone does something to stop it." This is a major change.

All this has immeasurably strengthened the Sudanese government. With aid and debt relief offered by the West if it signs up to the Naivasha peace deal with the SPLA, it appears to have saved itself when five years ago it was likely to fall, toppled by a combination of Sudanese and foreign pressure. To stay in power is the NIF's greatest aim and, as it has through its history, it will make many compromises to do that. However, these are merely tactical. For it has a much greater aim than holding power for its own sake, as it has convinced other governments it wants to do. It in fact remains wedded to its Islamist agenda, domestic and foreign, and as it showed when it waited patiently for years to take power, it is ready to bide its time to hold on to it.


Gillian Lusk is Deputy Editor of the London-based fortnightly newsletter Africa Confidential and specializes in Sudanese matters. She lived in Sudan in 1975-1987 working most of that time as a journalist. She was Chairperson of the Sudan Studies Society of the United Kingdom (SSS UK) in 2000-2004. She writes and broadcasts regularly on Sudanese politics.

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