A Revival of Tribal Tradition to Help Repair Darfur

In El Daien, Sudan,in the heart of Arab Darfur recently, a who's who of tribal leaders lounged under tents in the sand, the men discussed politics and the conflict, and there was dancing and a brass band to herald the revival of a traditional festival. Video by Stephanie McCrummen/The Washington Post
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 5, 2008

EL DAIEN, Sudan In the heart of Arab Darfur recently, a who's who of tribal leaders lounged under tents in the sand -- sheiks and sultans, umdas and elders, intellectuals, businessmen and spiritual gurus. In the dry afternoon heat, the men discussed politics and the conflict in this western region of Sudan. There was dancing and a brass band to herald the dignitaries' entrances and exits.

A dutiful attendant fanned one of the gurus.

But the gathering -- a revival of a traditional festival that brought such leaders together to solve problems -- was hardly as grand as it used to be, back when tribal authorities governed Darfur. Instead of high-profile guests such as King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, the modern-day version scored only a second-tier U.N. official. Instead of 40 days of revelry, there were three.

"When my father was nazir, they used to have it every year," lamented festival host Said Mahmoud Musa Madibbo, the current nazir, or supreme leader, of the Arab Rizeigat tribe. "Now, security matters and the financial situation make it quite difficult."

The glory days of Darfur's traditional leaders have been in decline for decades, with government institutions usurping tribal authorities and five years of conflict further undermining this region's old social order, leaving a vacuum for other forces to fill.

Darfur has been rearranged by the Arab-led government's campaign against ethnic African villagers and rebels, and by the more recent fragmentation of society into dozens of rebel and militia factions. Experts estimate that 450,000 people have died and more than 2.5 million have been displaced.

On the Arab side, the Arab-dominated government has doled out cash to minor sheiks who became unduly powerful by recruiting the notorious Janjaweed militias to wage its war. On the African side, traditional leadership is being replaced by a host of rebel commanders.

Across the region, a culture of banditry is taking hold, with young, jobless men following the counsel of the AK-47.

As foreign diplomacy fails to resolve the Darfur conflict, some Sudanese academics and activists are advocating a return to the cast-off tribal potentates to help repair this riven society. Thus the three-day festival was revived -- a kind of soul-searching pep rally aimed, organizers said, at reawakening a sense of purpose among the beleaguered leaders.

"Everyone has tried to suppress them, and now they've almost become incompetent," said the nazir's nephew, Walid Madibbo, the main organizer of the festival. "But these are people who could win the trust of their community. If they connect with the masses, I think they could easily connect with their hearts."

The leaders who gathered, for only the second time in 40 years, wore their whitest white robes in this sleepy market town in southern Darfur -- the capital of the Rizeigat, Sudan's largest Arab tribe -- where donkey carts are still the most effective means of transport and cellphones with Mariah Carey ring tones are nearly as common.

They attended lectures on conflict resolution and the importance of culture in binding society together. They spent long afternoons talking easily over glasses of tea in the nazir's sandy compound. They prayed together at sunset. And later, they danced under the stars and shared shots of date liquor.

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