Sudan: Darfur and the failure of the responsibility to protect

from Chatham House
Published on 24 Oct 2007

War in Darfur and international responses

Darfur is a typical north-east African civil war, (1) consisting of multiple overlapping conflicts interspersed with large-scale off ensives by the government army and its proxies and rebels. During 2001-2003, local disputes were exacerbated by the breakdown of local governance and combined with the ambitions of a frustrated provincial elite to fuel an insurgency, which escalated more quickly and bloodily than either side anticipated. The government response was both ham-fi sted and ruthless-characteristics of Khartoum's counter-insurgencies since the 1980s. The result was massacre, displacement and famine, an overall death toll probably exceeding 200,000, the deepening of distrust between Darfurians and the political leaders in Khartoum to the point of bitter hatred, and the fragmentation of Darfurian society into a state approaching anarchy, characterized by multiple local conflicts.

Darfur is a complex Sudanic society that straddles the desert and savanna. (2) An independent Muslim sultanate until 1916, Darfur became a neglected appendage to Sudan for a brief 40-year colonial interlude. The following 40 years of independent rule saw few developments in Darfurians' way of life, which remained desperately poor and underserviced. Worse, the civil war in neighbouring Chad spilled over into Darfur in the 1980s, (3) and the government in Khartoum turned a blind eye as militia drawn from Darfur's Arab tribes armed themselves with the support of their Chadian brethren and tried to seize land from their Fur and Masalit neighbours.(4) Throughout the 1990s, parts of Darfur intermittently erupted into conflict owing to a combination of the depredations of land-hungry Chadian Arab groups and Khartoum's penchant for addressing local conflicts by distributing arms to one side to suppress the other-a policy that almost always came down in favour of the Arabs.

While Darfur's conflicts smouldered, Sudan was engaged in a large and protracted civil war between the central government and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). Commonly characterized as a war between north and south, this is better described as a connected set of wars between a dominant central elite claiming Islamic and Arab identity, and the peoples most marginalized by that elite, including southerners, the Nuba people of southern Kordofan, and a number of groups in eastern and south-eastern Sudan, all of them non-Arab, many of them non-Muslim. The basic pattern of grievances is shared by all the marginalized peoples: they were denied their share in political power and national wealth, and the government used divide-and-rule tactics to allow local militias to run amok and destroy their modest livelihoods. (5) In retrospect, the mystery is not why the war in Darfur broke out, but why it took so long to do so.

The Darfur rebels included the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/ SLA), with a broad base of support across Sudan's major ethnic groups (principally non-Arab but including some Arabs) and the Justice and Equality Movement ( JEM), whose leaders have links with Sudan's Islamist movement. From the outset, the armed resistance was an amalgam of village defence groups and aspirant elites, divided on ethnic and political lines. (6) The main infrastructure for armed resistance was tribal, and the largest segments-Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit-rarely coordinated. Rivalry between the two SLA leaders, Abdel Wahid al Nur (Fur, with a following among diverse ethnic groups) and Minni Minawi (Zaghawa) became intense and bitter, and diff erences between these two and the leader of JEM, Khalil Ibrahim, were also signifi cant. These divergences prevented the Darfur resistance from forming a united political front.

The main government proxies were the Janjaweed, from a segment of Darfur's camel-herding Arab tribes, and more recent Arab immigrants from Chad, who had their own territorial ambitions in Darfur. The Sudan government made a deal with these Arab groups whereby they were allowed to pursue their own agenda with impunity, in return for suppressing the rebellion. Other Darfurian Arabs initially remained outside the confl ict, though some joined the counter-insurgency in 2003 and others were drawn in the following year as the rebels took the war to the east and south of Darfur.


(1)Julie Flint and Alex de Waal, Darfur: a short history of a long war (London: Zed, 2005); Alex de Waal, ed., War in Darfur and the search for peace (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

(2) R. S. O'Fahey, State and society in Darfur (London: Hurst, 1980), and The Dar Fur sultanate (London: Hurst, 2007).

(3) Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins, Darfur: the long road to disaster (Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2006).

(4) Ali Haggar, 'The origins and organization of the Janjaweed in Darfur', in de Waal, ed., War in Darfur and the search for peace, pp. 113-39.

(5) Alex de Waal, 'Darfur's deadline: the fi nal days of the Abuja peace process', in de Waal, ed., War in Darfur and the search for peace, pp. 267-83.

(6) Julie Flint, 'Darfur's armed movements', in de Waal, ed., War in Darfur and the search for peace, pp. 140-72.