Darfur: A Short History of a Long War. Written by Alex De Waal and Julie Flint

The title of this book is the first thing which really attracted me, when coming across it in the book store. “A Short History of A Long War (in Darfur) made me think that this book is a good one to read as I would therefore be able to get well informed about the conflict in Darfur from as early as the British colonization of Sudan till the resent tragic situation, just in a hundred and fifty pages.

I have always felt incapable of collecting much information about the origins of the Darfur conflict; whenever I begin to search for information through United Nations reports and articles, I soon become discouraged due to the poor organization of data and the lack of an objective analysis of the origins of parties involved in the Darfur conflict. As the Darfur conflict includes many parties, each with different demands and objective, one has to know everything about each of those groups, including who are they, when did they interfere in Darfur, where did they come originally, and what are their demands?

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Consequently, one would be able to evaluate the current situation in Darfur and hence is able to evaluate the different measures taken by the United Nations, United States and African Union to resolve the problems. The second thing that grabed my attention about this book is its writers. First, Alex De Waal is, as mentioned in the book, a writer and activists on African issues, and a fellow of the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard, as well as the director of Justice Africa in London.

These are the activities which he was engaged in during writing this book; however I became more interested in the book when I knew that De Waal had been appointed as a consultant to the African Union mediation team in Darfur during the years 2005-2006. Therefore, I thought to myself that this should be the best source from which I can get unbiased information about the origins of the conflict in Darfur. I think that this book has helped me a lot in terms of finding valuable and readable information about the “very complex” situation in Sudan’s Darfur.

However, I do have several reservations concerning the writers’ interpretation about some aspects of the problem in Darfur and about the recommendations they give about possible international intervention measures which the international community has to take. In addition, this paper will include a criticism of other articles which the writer (De Waal) writes after the publishing of this book in which he refers to the book “Darfur: A short history of a long war” and which he himself considers as a natural extension for his recommendations and analysis covered in the book.

As a start, the book is mainly reflects the opinion of the authors concerning what has led to the complicated situation in Darfur nowadays. The writers analyze it from an anthropological point of view. In other words, the authors thoroughly analyze the ethnic and racial origins of all the parties related to the Darfurian conflict.

The main topics which the book covers explaining the ethnic affiliation of the concerned parties are mainly: a description of the significance of the location of Darfur in Sudan, the early occupants of Darfur, the conflicts which resulted of new tribes or groups arriving to Darfur by time, and finally an evaluation of the current situation in Darfur and recommendations about what should be the international community reaction. The first three topics, mentioned above, were extensively discussed in the first five chapters of the book, which I therefore view as the most important part of the book.

First, the writer describes Darfur as very important for agriculture as its location combines between all livestock routes, which are used by herders in Sudan. Moreover, Darfur has lakes which collect water from the seasonal rain in Sudan, and so not like other parts of Sudan it has its water reserves if drought occurs and does not rely on the Nile River all the time for agriculture. As a result, herders and farmers were always attracted to this spot in Sudan and competed to own land there, through the “Hakura” ownership system in Sudan. (The “Hakura” system is one which gives tribes the collective ownership of land).

Also the writers highlight the geo-political implications of Darfur since that it shares borders between Sudan and Chad. This will lead us to the second and third issues which the writers discuss. These topics are who the original inhabitants of Darfur are and who joined them as years passed. Darfur had original inhabitants of Fur (Muslims who are originally from Chad and who do not regard themselves as Arabs), Arabs (who kept coming to Darfur since the eighteenth century, and whose most prominent tribes in Darfur is the Abbala Rizeigat), Zaghawa and Masalit. 1 They were all camel herders.

As expected the tribes had gone into conflicts with each other due to disputes over livestock. The three tribes were working together for few decades peacefully before a conflict erupted. However, as such a dispute occurred, individuals had to show support for their ancestral groups as time came for the dispute to be resolved; hence some groups were to be paid compensations and others were to pay the compensation. Through this anecdote the writers deduce that the reparation system and the cultural ways through which disputes are resolved in Sudan had obliged people to cling to their ethnic ancestry. 2 To me this is only partially true.

Based on what I have read in this book, I think that it did not have to come to the point of resolving a dispute for people to start acknowledging their ancestor lineage, but people do this even before sitting to resolve the problem; meaning that from the beginning when one individual starts to accuse another individual of stealing a livestock (example a sheep) the accused person will argue that he is being accused merely on the basis that he belongs to another ethnic lineage, therefore from that point the two individuals concerned with the theft would rely on their relatives/tribes and not themselves and an obvious law to resolve the conflict.

Going back to the population composition in Darfur, the writers argue that the Masalit are a very significant group in Darfur. 3 The authors explain their point by going back to the nineteenth century, when the Masalit’s power reached its peak in Darfur as they had tried to attain an independent rule. The status of those above mentioned ethnic groups has changed as time passed in terms of political dominance. This attributes to many factors, which are extremely complex, and which the writers try to simplify through out the book. The writers try as much as possible to describe what the factors which led to the so-called dominance of Arab ethnicity in Sudan, and Darfur in particular, during the resent years are.

They argue that the government in Khartoum has been finding great difficulty in giving up a small portion of its authority to arising opposition movements in Sudan, and therefore the government has been trying to gain alliance from as many ethnic groups as possible in Darfur and giving them privileges in Darfur as a reward. The authors argue that the Khartoum government had been encouraging the Islamist movement in Darfur and had given individuals of Arab origins political leadership privileges in Darfur all along. Moreover the authors go further in order to prove this, saying that during the 1980s when regional elections took place in Darfur (in 1981), Arab racists called for unification, calling on the Zaghawa and other Arab groups to be united for unification.

The call of “Arab Alliance” went to the extreme when in 1982, armed men attacked a market place in Darfur ordering everyone to announce which tribe they belong to. Consequently, Arabs affiliates were allowed to leave unhurt with their processions, while non-Arabs were attacked and abused by all means possible. 4 The authors argue that this had especially made the government make sure to take the Arabs as their allies. As further evidence, the period of war between Gadaffi (Libya) and Chad in 1987-1989, had proved that the loyalty of Arabs is essential for the Khartoum government to remain in control and sweep off any opposition. The writers go on as they explain that the Sudanese government has allowed Gadaffi to use Darfur in his efforts to fight Chad, in return for weapons.

Therefore, in Darfur, Arabs (supporting Gadaffi and Sudanese government) fought against the Fur (supporting their Chadian origins and who are terrorized by Gadaffi). 5 This ended up by the Arabs maintaining the upper hand in Darfur. Moreover, during the drought which hit Darfur in 1990, the Khartoum government had been reluctant to help the Darfurians to fight the drought and the famine, because it was sure that the Darfurians would not rebel as long as their Arab allies are keeping an eye on the situation there. To me, this is true to a great extent because going back to international archives and news real, I find that the situation during the famine in Darfur is exactly as the writers describe in this book.

They argue that as a result of the drought in Darfur – the lakes had dried out because of the decrease Nile level and very low rain rate – and the Government’s reluctance to help its people while the international community was unwilling to help Sudan as well because of its aiding to Gadaffi’s war, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (under the leadership of Bolad) decided to invade Darfur thinking that they will gain support from the traumatized Fur (Darfurians). The SPLA thought that they can start a rebellion through out the country taking Darfur as a starting point. Unfortunately to the SPLA, Baggara Arabs and Fursan Arabs reported the SPLA presence in Darfur to the government and fought them capturing the leader, thus bringing down the rebellious attempt. 6 The Sudanese army helped the Arab tribes in the process, as soon as SPLA’s presence was reported. Moreover, many Fur villages were destroyed by the Sudanese army and Arab tribes as a response to the attempted interference in Darfur by SPLA forces.

In my view, the writers have not given enough analysis of this particular situation; as they ignored explaining why the Fur’s resistance was much dependent on Bolad’s initiative. The writers did not explain the reasons behind the reluctance of Darfurians to revolt against the government at the time when they were facing a terrible famine, mainly due to the leaders’ selfishness to maintain power. Finally, the Janjaweed, who are (arguably) the principle supporters for the Sudanese government in Sudan and who have attacked innocent civilians in Darfur from the beginning of the conflict in 2004, are Arabs who ironically formed this heavily armed rebellious group in order to pressure the Sudanese government to give them some land ownership rights in Darfur and in other parts in Sudan.

The authors argue that the Janjaweed have been recruited by the government and are receiving aids (weapons, food, etc) and benefits ever since the SPLA and Masalit rebels have been challenging the government authority in Darfur. On reading this book, I could not help myself but to wonder if the authors’ have written such a book in such a short time (the resent conflict had started in Darfur by mid 2004 while the book was published in the beginning of 2005) just to attract media attention to the situation and thus help the United States unleash a propaganda campaign helping the US forces gain the international community’s approval when deciding to take a military action in Darfur.

In other words, is this book a part of a US induced propaganda campaign? And are the writers “agents” recruited by the US to help start such campaign? One could argue that this is not true about the book and the writers. First, the book does not discuss the issue of genocide as much as other writers discuss it in their books nowadays, and so he is not trying to rely in gaining the international community’s sympathy towards Darfurians as victims of genocide. The authors talk about the genocide in Darfur from an objective point of view; meaning that he acknowledges the presence of a genocide7, but still he dismisses the idea of international intervention because there is no legal basis for such intervention.

De Waal argues that there is no substantial evidence to prove that the killings in Darfur are derived from ethnic reasons as some describe that “Arabs are killing Africans”. Moreover, he argues that it is impossible to legally deprive the Sudanese government from access to weapons as nothing proves that the government would not provide safety and security to the Darfurians using these weapons. Therefore, one could deduce that the authors clearly oppose the idea of military intervention in Sudan which Susan Rice (assistant secretary of state for African affairs from 1997 to 2001) has proposed for the US government. And so, the writers are not merely writing the book for the sake of propaganda.

De Waal clearly refuses any International intervention in Darfur via force as he writes in one of his articles “Any principle of intervention can readily be abused – as by the French in central Africa – or become a charter for imperial occupation. There may be cases in which imperial rule is the lesser of two evils, perhaps to end genocide (a current preoccupation) or to end slavery (a late 19th century one), but philanthropic imperialism is imperial nonetheless. ” In this article the writer refers to his book Darfur: a short history of a long war, and therefore one could not but relate the ideas of the writer in the book to the writer’s argument in this article.

A weak point in this book is that the references and footnotes used by the authors are mostly oersonal interviews which they have made themselves. They have not used an ample amount of reports and articles which are published by the Untied Nations or the African Union, and most importantly there are no reports used by the organization “Atbaa Bela Hodod” (Doctors without limits) who are of the first organizations which witnessed the killings and the vandalism in Darfur from the beginning, and as a result have many important and reliable documents concerning the situation in Darfur. This makes me wonder about the motives and reasons behind the authors’ decision to ignore such important accounts.

Obviously, this book is very condensed, and as the title suggests, it contains vast information about the Sudanese population composition since the eighteenth century. Indeed, this is necessary for a book which analyses the current situation from an anthropological perspective. However, the complexity of the information presented makes it really difficult for the readers, especially ones who have no background on the subject. However, again this is not the writers’ fault, since the situation is “super complex”. On the contrary, the authors have done a great job when writing this book, since that the readers (me included) have not been able to collect readable and reliable information about the subject prior to 2004; as before that the international community was kept in the dark.

Perhaps, the writers would have made it even easier on the readers if they have written a more detailed book, so that they can have more space to clearly relate the ethnic origins to the current struggle in Darfur for power. In conclusion, I am fully aware of the complexity of the conflict in Darfur and was therefore surprised that this book has covered this much information about all the parties taking part in the conflict. I am more surprised at the fact that I have grasped a lot of the information in this book and have drawn deductions and relations between events of my own. However, some of the events which are taking place nowadays (2007) in Darfur can not be connected or explained by the analysis of the authors in the last chapter in the book. For instance, last month, United States officials managed to meet the rebels in Darfur.

In this meeting, the United States officials hoped that they could reach a compromise with the rebels, through which they can be able to set up a meeting between the rebels and the Sudanese government. However, the US officials did not reach any sort of reasonable compromise with the rebels’ representatives. The rebels told the US officials that they would not go to negotiations with the Sudanese government except under two conditions. First, is that the Sudanese government pay reparations to the rebels and the surviving Darfurian civilians (who had to suffer during the conflict for the past 4 years). Second, is that the Sudanese government should declare that it will give up the power to the rebels to rule starting next year.

Of course, these conditions are utterly ridiculous, as if this is accomplished before negotiations, then what would be left for negotiations between the rebels and the Sudanese government?! Undoubtedly, the US officials were offended and angered by such demands made by the rebels, it indicates that the rebels are either not taking the US efforts to resolve the conflict seriously, or that the rebels are not seeking any attempts to resolve the conflict soon. Both possibilities are quite unacceptable. The source from which I attained such information is quite reliable as I happen to know very well a Human Rights officer in Darfur and is a witness of these resent negotiations and meetings.

Unfortunately, this attitude taken by the rebels is not explained in the book. Obviously this instance occurred after the book has been written, but the analysis in the book does not make the reader ready to accept or understand such attitudes by rebels in Darfur. To me the writers had to give more space in their last chapter to discussing the possible demands that would be asked for by rebels, why those particular demands and under what conditions. But again one has to admit that politics is very unpredictable, and thus if the authors were to discuss that, then they would be putting themselves in a critical situation especially if there expectations were completely wrong.