Darfur: Origins of a Catastrophe

Women and children at a camp in west Darfur
Women and children at a camp in west Darfur (Ben Parker/ap)
Sunday, February 19, 2006

Outsiders have never cared much about Darfur. In 1935, when the British ruled this large region in western Sudan, the governor wrote proudly that "we have been able to limit education to the sons of Chiefs and native administration personnel"; he hoped this would keep Darfur backward. Things barely improved after 1956, when Sudan gained independence and the leaders in the far-off capital paid little attention to their country's wild west. By the 21st century, in Gérard Prunier's estimation in Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide (Cornell Univ., $24), the area was arguably poorer than it had been in the 19th. Modernity had placed the commerce of the ancient Darfur sultanate -- trade in elephant tusks, ostrich feathers and, yes, slaves -- outside the scope of permissible exchange. It had neglected to provide an alternative.

Darfur's poverty set the stage for the calamity that began in 2003 and is the starting point for Prunier's inquiry into the origins of today's genocide. Poverty fueled the fights over land and water between agriculturalists and nomadic tribes, providing the kindling for the conflict. But poverty alone did not explain why Darfur's agriculturalists formed two rebel movements to attack the central government's outposts, or why the government hit back with genocidal violence. At times during the fighting and related famine, which have killed upward of 300,000 people so far, Sudan's government dismissed the whole business as a land dispute among local tribes. Only the most credulous believed it.

The real trigger for the conflict was manufactured by Sudan's government, with an assist from Libya's Moammar Gaddafi. For nearly all of its known history, Darfur had not been a binary society of African versus Arab: Its people belonged to a mosaic of tribes, all of them Muslim and all of them black. But in 1985, Libyan forces arrived in Darfur to deliver food aid and set about arming some nomadic tribes, who then became identified as "Arabs." The following year, Sudan's newly elected leader, Sadiq al-Mahdi, embarked on his plan to forge an "Arab and Islamic Union." By emphasizing the new central government's Arab identity, this policy led the government's provincial allies to be dubbed "Arabs," too. Thus was racial polarity constructed where none had previously existed.

The trigger still needed to be pulled, however. In 2003, two insurgencies that had risen out of many "African" agriculturalists' resentment of the Khartoum-backed "Arabs" reached critical mass, killing several hundred government troops in a series of raids and skirmishes. For a regime that had fought a civil war with Sudan's south for more than 20 years, this hardly counted as a major loss, but the reaction was ferocious. Precisely because the rebels were Muslim, they were more threatening to Sudan's rulers than their Christian and animist opponents: So long as the nation divided along religious lines, the Muslims would retain control, but a split within Muslim ranks could spell the end of the Khartoum elite's dominance. So the government responded by unleashing its Arab militia allies -- not only against Darfur's rebels but also against the tribes from which the rebels drew support. The result was the butchering of fathers and the rape of mothers, the tossing of children into fires, the torching of villages and the poisoning of wells: this century's first genocide.

Prunier's short book explains this sequence, but doesn't do so elegantly. The author, an Africanist at the University of Paris, indulges the specialist's urge to condescend: He derides media accounts of the conflict, scorns politicians' pronouncements and sneers at pop stars who "mediatize" African crises. The genocide awaits a better chronicler. Unfortunately, there is still time. Millions of Darfur's villagers continue to live precariously as refugees. The threat of famine hasn't gone away. And the violence continues.

Reviewed by Sebastian Mallaby, a Washington Post editorial writer and author of "The World's Banker: A Story of Failed States, Financial Crises, and the Wealth and Poverty of Nations."

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