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Inside Darfur: Ethnic Genocide by a Governance Crisis
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Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 24.2 (2004) 3-17

Ethnic Genocide by a Governance Crisis

Mahgoub El-Tigani Mahmoud


In this study, I argue that the Arab-oriented central government's biased policies vis-à-vis the Darfur non-Arab African Sudanese is a major source of the current crisis in the region. Equally importantly, I contend those writers who negate the ethnic component of the crisis are irresponsibly falsifying or obliterating the painful realities of the situation, and escalating the impact of racism in the Darfur scourge. My argument draws heavily on the work of Sudanese writers, many of whom are closely related to the indigenous groups of Darfur, as well as the work of Sudanist scholars and other Sudanese formal and popular sources. While the hazards of human geography exist_as they exist in all world deserts, from Australia to the African Sahara_the Darfur crisis is not a geographical slot machine opened and closed by a bunch of weeds or showers of rain. The crisis is political and state-made. It results from the misadministration, abuse of authority, and economic greed of a governing elite committed against the powerless Africans of Darfur. Above all, the crisis demonstrates a deep disrespect for human dignity by the fundamentalist religious ideology of Arab supremacy.

Social and Ethnic Composition

The Darfur region, an area about the size of France, lies in western Sudan; to the northwest it borders Libya, to the west Chad, to the southwest the Central African Republic, to the south the Bahr al-Ghazal region of Sudan, and to the east the Kordofan and Northern regions. Historically, Darfur has been considered a strategic location, according to Baballa Haroun Nor Adam, "being the trade route linking the ancient Kanem Borno kingdoms with central and Nilotic Sudan, and a meeting point for caravans plying that route across Africa." Darfur has three ethnic zones: the northern includes Arab and non-Arab people, mainly camel nomads (Zaghawa). The central zone is inhabited largely by non-Arab sedentary farmers such as the Fur and Massalit, who cultivate millet. In the south live Arabic-speaking cattle nomads, the Baggara. "All are Muslim," writes R. S. O'Fahey, "and [yet] no part of Darfur was ever ethnically homogeneous. For example, once a successful Fur farmer had a certain number of cattle, he would 'become' Baggara and in a few generations his descendants would have an 'authentic' Arab genealogy." Rather than by skin color or other physical traits, Darfurians, like other Sudanese, have always identified themselves in ethnocultural or tribal terms. These terms have only recently been polarized into Arab versus African identifications in response to deep political and ideological disputes in which state repression and economic underdevelopment of the country's marginal regions have played a significant role.

The region has been inhabited for centuries by Arab and non-Arab ethnic groups. The Fur, the oldest non-Arab group, make up approximately 36 percent of the total population (5.5 million by the 1996 census). "Arabic is more likely a second language rather than the primary language at home," writes Richard Lobban. "The skilled use of Arabic is emblematic of higher social position; the awkward use of the language can be twisted to imply people of a lesser degree of social status." Saif Elnasr Idris, a Darfurian activist, contends that despite "extensive [social and economic] interaction and inter-marriages between members of these tribes, it would be difficult to assert that there has developed any real assimilation among the tribes. Most of them maintain original languages, customs and traditions_a fact which suggests that ethnic conflict could easily be triggered amongst them."

Economic Resources, Drought, and Migration

The Fur-inhabited region is endowed with rich agricultural lands, and perhaps up to 65 percent of the inhabitants live on agriculture. Except for the camel-riding Meidoub and Zaghawa tribes in the north, the non-Arab tribes engage in farming and cultivation. The Arab ethnic groups are mainly engaged in animal rearing, "moving from place to place with animal herds, as dictated by the seasonal cycle and the availability of water and pastures." The region is equally endowed with mineral resources, which have...