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Understanding The Conflict In Darfur Sudan History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

In the early 2000s, Darfur, located in western Sudan, was in the news. The reason was due to mass killings that took place. Scholars have isolated three predominant reasons for the killings. One being that it was an ethnic issue between the Arab North and the African South. The second being a matter of religion, the North was Muslim while the South was Christian and native religion. The third reason was natural resources and nomadic tribes that resided in the area. Most scholars believed that one or a mixture of the three reasons listed caused the violence in Darfur. This topic was important because hundreds of thousands of people have died and millions displaced due to the conflict. Another reason was due to the fact that the United Nations have not acknowledged that what happened in Darfur was genocide. If they acknowledged that fact, they would have to act.

Going back through history could provide the origin of the conflict in Darfur. By doing so, it was possible to see how historians agree or disagree on these issues. Each scholar brought his or her own strength to the debate of what caused the war in Darfur, Sudan. Most of the authors narrowed their argument down to one or two main causes. Whether it was ethnic conflict, religion, land, cultural identity, politics, resources, or a mixture of any of these, each scholar used their research to the best of their ability to explain to the public why their argument best explained the root of what has seemed to be constant warfare.

Amir Idris author of the 2005 book Conflict and Politics of Identity in Sudan, looked at the conflict as being the product of a “radicalized state that transformed cultural identities into political identities.” [1] He stated that this was the cause of the current conflict but he came to this thesis by looking into the past of Sudan. He focused on the enslavement of people as being where these identities emerged. He quoted Douglas Johnson on the Darfur kingdom, established in the seventeenth century AD, and how they raided the southern part of the country. [2] Idris continued his slavery argument by showing how in Northern and Central Sudan owning land was having a high social status but tilling one’s own land was socially humiliating. [3] This was where the importance of slaves came in. Northern Sudan obtained slaves from Southern Sudan through raids. [4] 

These raids focused on the non-Muslim/non-Arab peoples of these states. [5] By attacking those who were not Arab or followed the same religion as themselves they used this as “social justification” for slavery. [6] As Northern Sudan continually invaded the South, this undoubtedly would cause tension between North and South Sudan. This also brought forth the basis of Idris’ argument. With the North constantly raiding the South there was a constant racialized interaction. [7] Northern Sudan Muslims claimed they were the descendants of distinguished Arab ancestors. [8] Though Southerners eventually converted to Islam, they were not accepted into society because they were African. [9] Idris argued that those involved with the slave trade were the ones who came up with the racialized terms. [10] By coming up with terms that described those who were not Arab or Muslim as inferior, slave traders could use that as justification for enslaving people.

Religion and race tend to go hand-in-hand in Sudan. Idris brought up religion in passing when he stated that Muslims saw themselves as “superior to those of the non-Muslim and Arab groups.” [11] In these societies just because a person was Muslim did not mean that they were safe from enslavement as Idris pointed out. [12] Slave raids brought Western Sudan Muslims to the North. [13] 

Amir Idris’ argument about the fighting in Sudan can be applied to Darfur. Race has often been one of the issues looked at when scholars have investigated the causes behind the war in Darfur. The racial tension brought forth during the slave raids of the 18th and 19th century undoubtedly left scars that would reappear in the early 21st century. The Arab versus non-Arab conflict showed through Idris’ argument was a possible reason behind the systematic killings that took place in Darfur.

In The World’s Worst Humanitarian Crisis,: Understanding the Darfur Conflict, an article written by Ahmad Sikainge in 2009, he argued that the conflict in Darfur was due to an “explosive combination of environmental, political, and economic factors.” [14] The first area Sikainga explored was the environment. He gave a brief overview of the climate in Darfur. The Northern part of Darfur was vast desert, the South contained rich savanna, and the Central part of Darfur was plateau. [15] This striking difference between the North and the South undoubtedly caused tension. For people located in the north to see their southern neighbors with far more natural resources had to cause some feeling of animosity.

Sikainge stated in his article that it was not only the vast difference in the climate that was partly responsible for the outbreak of war but also the land system, which brought fourth questions of ownership. He presented the Hakura system, which was the land ownership system established by the Fur Kingdom that ruled until 1874. [16] This system revolved around communal land ownership. [17] The local chief was responsible for allocating land to members of his group, which they would cultivate. [18] The chief of the Hakura would be responsible for settling any disputes that arose. [19] However, post-Sudanese independence rulers saw this system as outdated and put forth policies that affected the chief’s authority thus taking away his authority of settling disputes. [20] 

Sikainga highlighted one important cause of conflict was between the Northern Darfur nomads and pastoralists in the South. [21] As the climate changed, nomads of the North were forced down into parts of the South where the Hakura system was in place, and any conflict that arose between these two groups were settled locally as was custom. [22] However, as stated above post-independence rulers did away with the Hakura system, and the local chiefs were no longer able to resolve conflicts. [23] 

Sikainga, in his article, covered his basis as he also looked into the ethnic conflict that was present in Darfur. He stated that post-colonial government saw many Arabic speaking elites taking high-ranking positions. [24] These elites were mainly from the North and Central parts of the country, where the population was mostly Arab, and tried to forge a national identity between Islam and Arabism. [25] Sikainga pointed out that this national identity caused a rise in resistance in the non-Arab and non-Muslim South. [26] 

In his article, Sikainga looked at multiple viewpoints as the source of conflict in Darfur. He did not focus on one particular aspect of the conflict but instead he argued that multiple aspects led to the genocide in Darfur. He looked at the environmental issue, land ownership, and race as being explosive causes, each contributing to the conflict in Darfur.

In the 2007 book Explaining Darfur: Lectures on the Ongoing Genocide, authors Agnes Van Ardenne-van der Hoeven, Mohamed Salih, Nick Grono, Juan Mendez, and Fouad Ibrahim look into the conflict of Darfur. They went about laying the groundwork with basic information. Once established, they dived into the cause or causes behind the conflict. As the authors of this book pointed out, there seemed to be a fallacy that the fighting was about resources. [27] 

Much like other scholars, these authors looked at race being one the main causes behind the fighting. [28] In addition to race, they looked into the heritage of slavery between Arabs and Africans. [29] This slavery went back to the 18th century, a topic that Amri Idris addressed in his book. As Arabs enslaved Africans, this caused the “creation of an inferiority complex among those of the African ethnic groups.” [30] The Arabs until recently were semi-nomads who commanded a larger amount of territory than their African counterparts did. [31] These authors pointed out that land was another contributing factor for the near constant conflict. For the Arab Janjaweed who attacked African ethnic groups their aim was to expand their territory and power. [32] 

The authors pointed out there were not always conflict between nomads and farmers. They pointed out that farmers, after harvesting their crop would allow nomads to bring in their cattle to eat the residue and fertilize the soil. [33] However, as the climate changed pushing the desert further south and with an increase in population, the friendly relationship turned hostile. [34] Traditional law once resolved this conflict over land, now the government in charge has turned a blind-eye to the conflict. [35] 

Race and religion have been presented, so far. This was most likely because these two topics are the most explored and researched by scholars. Not only are these two topics most explored but also they are both the most obvious causes to the conflict. It was also perhaps easy to research these two topics as there are more primary sources available. One scholar that went outside of the scope of these two topics in the crisis in Darfur was Fana Gebresenbet.

She looked at the climate and environmental factors as being causes of the conflict in Darfur. One reason that the environment was important was due to pastoralism and dry land agriculture in the area. [36] In the Darfur states, there has been an irregular but marked decline in rainfall. [37] This decline in rainfall would be devastating for pastoralist and those who relied on the land. The area that was suffering from this decline in rainfall was Northern Darfur. [38] This decline naturally caused a decline in productivity. [39] While the people who lived in Darfur are used to harsh condition the current change in the environment has put strains on the people. [40] 

Two other authors who expanded on the work that Fana Gebresenbet did were Balgis Osman-Elasha and Amin El Sanjak. These authors looked at how droughts in Northern Darfur have driven people into Southern Darfur. [41] People of Northern Darfur are mostly Arabs and Muslims, while people in Southern Darfur are mostly African and either Christian or have their own religion. It was not hard to believe that there would be some conflict between these ethnically and religiously different people. Both authors recognized that the conflict was the result of many complex problems but they focused on natural resources. [42] 

As drought became more common, nomads migrated to the wetter parts of Southern Darfur. [43] However, as more people moved into the South, the added population put further stress on resources there. Osman-Elasha and Sanjack cited weak institutions and administrative power, because of their late response to the conflict over resources. [44] They stated that since the collapse of the traditional administration system, which handled conflicts over resources, it took more time to deal with these conflicts, which allowed them to grow. [45] Ahmed Sikainge showed the local administrative system and land ownership was set up during the Fur Kingdom, which existed until 1874. [46] 

Fana Gebresenbet, Balgis Osman-Elasha and Amin El Sanjak looked outside what other scholars have looked at by focusing on the environment and resources. As the environment changed people would undoubtedly have to adapt to the changes. However, with little resources already and with the changes in environment making the situation worse, violence over resources is a good argument into the crisis in Darfur.

Sources are important to any scholars’ research. Other scholars will look at the sources that they decide to use for their research to see where and what types of sources they used. By looking at sources, they can also point out any sources that may be bias to what the scholar argued. A good scholar would try to incorporate sources that went against their argument so that they can disprove what that source argues.

The sources that Amir Idris used are mainly secondary sources from scholars who have written on Sudan. The sources that he used backed up his argument. One author that he cited multiple times was Douglas H. Johnson. The reasons that are not many primary sources were because oral tradition was in these areas were widely used in these areas. Muslims did bring written records to the area. However, considering that Muslims were often the ones enslaving people in Southern Sudan, their records might reflect their bias.

Ahmad Sikainge much like Amir Idris used secondary sources. The sources that Sikainge incorporated into his article were ones that primarily dealt with race, and the issue of land. Each author that Sikainge used he did so efficiently. He used research from Alex de Waal who has written on the subject of Darfur.

The authors of Explaining Darfur: Lectures on the Ongoing Genocide used secondary sources one of which was a report done by the United Nations. What was good about bringing in a report from an international organization was that it is less likely to be biased. They also incorporated maps to show the ethnic groups of Darfur. Scholarly work was important. However, there was always the possibility of bias towards one thing or another. By bringing in work from a supposedly neutral source, they bolster their argument.

The sources that Fana Gebresenbet used to show her argument are primarily based on the changing climate in Darfur. While she did use secondary scholarly work, she also incorporated works from numerous organizations. She used multiple reports published by the International Panel on Climate Change to show how the climate in Darfur has changed. Gebresenbet also used work published by the Global Humanitarian Forum and The World Initiative for Sustainable Pastoralism. She also used a report from the United Nations Environment Programme, another non-governmental organization. Not only did she utilize these reports in her work but she also used graphs to show how the rainfall had decreased in certain areas. These graphs are on many pages throughout her work.

Balgis Osman-Elasha and Amin El Sanjak both used secondary sources and works published by non-governmental organizations. Their work focused on the environment similar to Fana Gebresenbet. Non-governmental organizations such as Food and Agriculture Organization, Foundation for Environmental Security and Sustainability, World Meteorological Organization, and African Centre for Technology Studies did some of the reports that Osman-Elasha and Sanjak used in their work. They used multiple reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and United Nations Environment Programme. Much like Fana Gebresenbet, Osman-Elasha and Sanjak used graphs and maps to show how rain decreased while the population in Darfur increased.

Scholars presented their argument in a way that made it easy to pinpoint what they were trying to convey. Most of the authors focused in on one or two reasons behind the conflict in Darfur, while other authors looked at broader reasons and incorporated multiple aspects. Each of the books and articles presented has their aspects that build on the understanding of Darfur. However, each book and article has its flaws.

In Conflict and Politics of Identity in Sudan, Amir Idris argued that it was fighting between Arabs and non-Arabs that has caused the conflict. Idris also brought up religion as it built upon his argument. While two aspects undoubtedly caused turmoil in the area, Idris’ focus was so narrow that he failed to consider that perhaps race and religion are but one of many problems for Sudan. While he did bring up valid points concerning slavery, his failure to broaden his area of focus by not including other possible arguments left his work, while good on points of slavery and the conceptions of race categories, somewhat lacking.

Ahmad Sikainge’s article The World’s Worst Humanitarian Crisis’: Understanding the Darfur Conflict was a good article that outlines multiple aspects of the conflict. Because his focus was not so narrow, he was able to bring in more sources that better round off his argument. He looked at the environment, land ownership and the ethnic conflict as being reasons for the Darfur crisis. It was hard to find any flaws in Ahmad Sikainge’s article because he was incredibly thorough in covering his basis.

Explaining Darfur: Lectures on the Ongoing Genocide authors Agnes Van Ardenne-van der Hoeven, Mohamed Salih, Nick Grono, Juan Mendez, and Fouad Ibrahim looked at race, slavery, land, and the changing climate as causes of the conflict. They covered many topics well. However, they did not look into the matter of religion, which is an important topic in Sudan.

Fana Gebresenbet wrote that the environment and climate change was the primary cause of the conflict in Darfur. Because Gerbresenbet focused solely on the environment, she did not bring up other points of view. She did address the importance of the environment to pastoralist as they are tied to the land. However, she based the entire conflict of Darfur on the environment and land issues. While both are important for people who rely on the land for their source of food and income, she does not even address other causes that could have contributed to the conflict.

Unlike Gebresenbet, Balgis Osman-Elasha and Amin El Sanjak both recognized that many complex issues contribute to the conflict in Darfur but they focused on natural resources. They do bring in the land system that other scholars have mentioned in their work. While they do not go into detail about the other “complex issues,” they acknowledged that the feud over land and resources was just a part in conflict.

Undoubtedly, many problems contributed to the conflict in Darfur. Some scholars argue that it was ethnic feuding with religious undertones, feuds over limited resources due to changing climate, or land. The written scholarship on the conflict has been extensive. Scholars took their own unique approach to what may have caused the conflict in Darfur. They presented arguments may or may not convince readers of the origins of the conflict. However, they do show the many problems have plagued Darfur and Sudan for centuries. The ‘genocide’ that was taking place in Darfur will undoubtedly not be resolved until these issues are dealt with.

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