Category Archives: Darfur

Scope of the Great War of Africa, 1996–?

From Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 130-146:

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a vast country, the size of western Europe and home to sixty million people. For decades it was known for its rich geology, which includes large reserves of cobalt, copper, and diamonds, and for the extravagance of its dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, but not for violence or depravity.

Then, in 1996, a conflict began that has thus far cost the lives of over five million people.

The Congolese war must be put among the other great human cataclysms of our time: the World Wars, the Great Leap Forward in China, the Rwandan and Cambodian genocides. And yet, despite its epic proportions, the war has received little sustained attention from the rest of the world. The mortality figures are so immense that they become absurd, almost meaningless. From the outside, the war seems to possess no overarching narrative or ideology to explain it, no easy tribal conflict or socialist revolution to use as a peg in a news piece. In Cambodia, there was the despotic Khmer Rouge; in Rwanda one could cast the genocidal Hutu militias as the villains. In the Congo these roles are more difficult to fill. There is no Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin. Instead it is a war of the ordinary person, with many combatants unknown and unnamed, who fight for complex reasons that are difficult to distill in a few sentences—much to the frustration of the international media. How do you cover a war that involves at least twenty different rebel groups and the armies of nine countries, yet does not seem to have a clear cause or objective? How do you put a human face on a figure like “four million” when most of the casualties perish unsensationally, as a result of disease, far away from television cameras?

The conflict is a conceptual mess that eludes simple definition, with many interlocking narrative strands. The New York Times, one of the few American newspapers with extensive foreign coverage, gave Darfur nearly four times the coverage it gave the Congo in 2006, when Congolese were dying of war-related causes at nearly ten times the rate of those in Darfur.

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Why Darfur and Not …?

Black Star Journal recently linked to a long and thought-provoking post back in July by Ethan Zuckerman at My Heart’s in Accra about why the West seems much more concerned about Darfur than about a number of even more horrible conflicts in Africa.

Because you may or may not be an Africa-based journalist, let me unpack the question for a moment. There are a number of international conflicts that have claimed more lives and displaced more people than the conflict in Darfur. The Second Congo War and its ongoing aftermath is believed to have killed more than 5.4 million people, mostly due to “excess mortality” connected to disease and starvation. Other conflicts compare to Darfur in terms of brutality and displacement, but have received far less attention. War between Ugandan forces and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda has displaced more than a million people from their homes, and one in three boys in the region have been abducted, for periods of time or permanently, by LRA forces. The war between Ethiopia and Islamist forces in Somalia – supported by the US military – has created 1 million internally displaced persons and 450,000 international refugees.

It’s admirable that activists have been able to draw so much attention to Darfur. I’m interested in the phenomenon not to criticize focus on Darfur over other conflicts, but because I’d like to help people working on other conflicts gather attention and resources. I see Darfur as a rare example of an international crisis that’s gotten huge attention in the US despite the fact that most Americans have no direct, personal connection to the region. (I’m not the only one trying to do this – John Prendergrast, who’s focused on Darfur for the International Crisis Group, is one of several Africanists who’s started a new organization, Enough, designed to harness some of the attention around Darfur and call attention to situations in DRC, Uganda, Somalia and elsewhere.)

Agreeing with the analysis that attention paid to Darfur is unprecedented, my friend offers a two-part analysis, which I’ve modified to a three part analysis:

– The time was right. Guilt over the failure to intervene in Rwanda, especially on the part of North American and European nations, offered an opportunity to demand intervention in another African conflict.

– In the US, there was already close attention paid to Sudan by human rights and by evangelical Christian communities, based on a perception of the Sudanese civil war as a religious conflict between the Muslim north and Christian (and animist) south. (My contribution to the analysis, based on my experience talking to evangelical friends about their anti-Khartoum activism as early as 2000.)

– The conflict in Darfur has been reducible to a fairly simple media narrative, with good guys and bad guys… even thought this narrative doesn’t accurately reflect the reality on the ground.

It’s this last point my friend and I focused most of our discussion on. The process of covering the conflict in Darfur has convinced my friend that a narrative centered on a merciless proxy army raping, chasing and killing innovent civilians in an attempt to ethnically cleanse a region isn’t wholly accurate. “This isn’t good guys versus bad guys. This is bad guys versus bad guys.”

The rest of the post then provides supporting examples, and faults aid agencies like Save Darfur and reporters like Nicholas Kristof for sacrificing accuracy for advocacy.

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Sudan’s Second Civil War, 1980s

From The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2005), pp. 358-360:

As in the case of Chad, Sudan’s second civil war drew in an array of foreign players. Mengistu‘s regime in Ethiopia supported the cause of the southern Sudanese in retaliation for Khartoum’s support for Eritrean secessionists and Tigrayan rebels. In Libya, Gaddafi, who had once supported the Eritreans but who switched sides when Mengistu came to power, joined Mengistu in supporting the southern Sudanese. Numeiri meanwhile supported an anti-Gaddafi Libyan group, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, which set up offices in Khartoum in 1981 and broadcast propaganda programmes attacking Gaddafi. Numeiri also gave assistance to anti-Gaddafi groups from Chad. The United States, for its part, despite the repression Numeiri unleashed in southern Sudan, invested heavily in his regime to bolster him as a counter-weight to Gaddafi and Mengistu, both of whom it regarded as pro-Soviet activists; US assistance to Numeiri totalled $1.5 billion.

With American support, Numeiri was confident he could deal with any threat posed by rebels in the south. But he was beset by a host of other difficulties. Hoping to establish Sudan as the ‘breadbasket’ of the Middle East, Numeiri had encouraged massive investment in mechanised agriculture, but the overall result was a decline in agricultural production and a foreign debt of $12 billion that Sudan had no means of repaying. When drought struck in 1983 and again in 1984, causing mass hunger, Numeiri, like Mengistu in Ethiopia, ignored the consequences, desperately trying to avoid jeopardising Sudan’s image as a suitable destination for agricultural investment. Only after an estimated quarter of a million people had died was he prevailed upon to take action. Forced by foreign creditors to accept austerity measures, Numeiri found his grip on power slipping. Shortages, inflation, unemployment, deteriorating social services and rampant corruption caused widespread discontent. The famine itself provided a rallying point for organised protest. A coalition of trade unions and professional groups, including lawyers, doctors and civil servants, led the opposition. When urban strikes, riots and demonstrations erupted, not even the army was willing to stand by Numeiri. In April 1985, after sixteen years in power, he was overthrown.

An election in 1986 brought to power northern politicians fully committed to the establishment of an Islamic state. As prime minister, Sadiq al-Mahdi, the leader of the Umma Party, pronounced himself in favour of ‘the full citizen, human and religious rights’ of non-Muslims. But he also declared: ‘Non-Muslims can ask us to protect their rights – and we will do that – but that’s all they can ask. We wish to establish Islam as the source of law in Sudan because Sudan has a Muslim majority.’ The sharia code introduced by Numeiri in 1983 remained in force.

Under Sadiq’s regime the north experienced many of the benefits of liberal democracy – parliamentary debate, a vigorous press, an independent judiciary, active trade unions and professional associations. But for the south there was unrelenting warfare. The SPLM refused to accept a ceasefire or to take part in the election, demanding a constitutional convention. Sadiq responded by arming Baggara Arab militias in western Sudan – murahalin – licensing them to raid and plunder at will in the Dinka and Nuer areas of Bahr-al-Ghazal, just as their forefathers had done in the nineteenth century. Dinka and Nuer villages were attacked and burned, their livestock stolen, their wells poisoned; men, women and children were killed or abducted and taken back to the north where they were traded or kept as slaves. Atrocities were commonplace. In revenge for an SPLM attack on a Rizeigat militia group in March 1987, Rizeigat survivors attacked Dinka men, women and children in the town of Al Diein in southern Darfur, setting fire to six railway carriages where they were sheltering, killing more than 1,000; those who were not burned to death were stabbed and shot as they tried to escape. A report on the massacre, written by two Muslim academics at the University of Khartoum, blamed the killing on the government. ‘Government policy has produced distortions in the Rizeigat community such as banditry and slavery, which interacted with social conflicts in Diein to generate a massacre psychosis … Armed banditry, involving the killing of Dinka villagers, has become a regular activity for the government-sponsored militia.’ Rizeigat militias, they said, made a practice of selling Dinka women and children to Arab families for use as servants, farm workers and sex slaves. ‘All this is practised with the full knowledge of the government.’

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Darfur Conflict Spreads into Central Africa

Lydia Polgreen of the NYT reports on the southward spread of yet another conflict not worth stopping, although France has intervened at the request of the current government of the CAR.

KALANDAO, Central African Republic — The Central African Republic — so important as a potential bulwark against the chaos and misery of its neighbors in Chad and the Darfur region of Sudan — is being dragged into the dangerous and ever-expanding conflict that has begun to engulf Central Africa.

So porous are its borders and ungoverned are parts of its territory that foreign rebels are using the Central African Republic as a staging ground to mount attacks over the border, spreading what the United Nations has already called the world’s “gravest humanitarian crisis.”

The situation is so bad in some places that 50,000 residents have fled the Central African Republic to find refuge in Chad, of all places, while starvation threatens hundreds of thousands who remain.

“This is the soft belly of Africa,” said Jerome Chevallier, a World Bank official who is trying to help stabilize the Central African Republic. “It has little protection from whatever might strike it.”

There’s much more on Darfur and the fighting in Chad at Passion of the Present.

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The Perpetually Invisible Crisis in Darfur, Western Sudan

On 26 July 1985, The Times (of London) reporter Paul Vallely wrote a story about aid efforts in western Sudan entitled “Riding the Lifeline Lorry.” Here’s what Robert Kaplan has to say about it in his book, Surrender or Starve: Travels in Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea (Vintage, 2003): “To my mind, it was the best single feature story I ever read about the famine. It’s too bad the U.S. public never got to see it.” And here’s Kaplan’s retelling of the story in his chapter entitled “Aid: Rolling the Rock of Sisyphus” (pp. 195-196).

For weeks the requests had been trickling into the old British garrison post of El Geneina, the furthermost town in the west of Sudan….

These particular requests came from the chief of police at Beida, through the cursive handwriting of the little border town’s scribe. At first they were for food. Then last week came a plea for shrouds.

“We have nothing in which to bury our dead, and 15 children died yesterday,” said the letter addressed to Peter Verney, the Save the Children (SCF) representative in Geneina.

As Vallely related the story, so little food was coming into Geneina from Khartoum on account of floods and other difficulties that there was not enough to send onward to Beida, about fifty miles south along Sudan’s western border with Chad. Those dying of starvation in Beida were all Chadian refugees, and the local Sudanese commissioner Sherife was not cooperating in the release of emergency grain. Finally, however, Verney managed to secure 150 sacks of food and seed. Then the head of the Sudanese haulage firm doubled and tripled the price. Verney did not have enough cash on hand to pay for the lorry and in desperation went to the local army brigadier in Geneina, Ibrahim Muhammad, who told Verney, “This is the situation everywhere. No food is reaching the extremities. It reaches the hands but not the fingers. Of course you can have one of my trucks.

Three hours after leaving Geneina for Beida, the food lorry got caught in a torrential rain. Vallely and the driver whom Verney had rented were stuck for nine hours in the mud; sixty peasants helped to dig the two men out.

It was two days before we reached Beida…. We were welcomed by Muhammad Ahmed Bashir, the local chief of police. Over sweet tea on the rafia mat before his office he was effusive in his thanks for the food.

“I will put it straight into the store with the other food.” The other food? “Yes, we already have 140 bags in store but we have had no authority from Sherife or his nephew Ali Mansour to release it.”

Because of Sudanese bureaucracy, Chadians were starving to death with food only a few feet away. The next day, Ali Mansour, the executive officer of the rural council, agreed to distribute the grain. “You will take my photograph,” he said to a news agency photographer with Vallely. “This will be good for me.”

The distribution caused a riot among the refugees. Sudanese soldiers responded by lashing at the crowd with whips in all directions. The news agency photographer started snapping away, even though editors had become bored with pictures of starving Africans. The photographer confided to Vallely that starving Africans being whipped had novelty value that would result in his pictures gaining wide distribution. Sure enough, the photos of the riots in Beida were picked up in Europe.

Nearly two decades later, we’re still “rolling the rock of Sisyphus.” The Washington Post editorialized on 3 April 2004:

ACCORDING TO THE United Nations, one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises now afflicts a Muslim people who face a horrific campaign of ethnic cleansing driven by massacre, rape and looting. These horrors are unfolding not, as Arab governments and satellite channels might have it, in Iraq or the Palestinian territories, but in Sudan, a member of the Arab League. Maybe because there are no Westerners or Israelis to be blamed, the crisis in Darfur, in northwestern Sudan, has commanded hardly any international attention. Though it has been going on for 14 months, the U.N. Security Council acted on it for the first time yesterday, and then only by issuing a weak president’s statement. More intervention is needed, and urgently.

The victims of the ongoing war crimes are non-Arab African people who have lived in the Darfur region for centuries. In February 2003, as the Sudanese government began to negotiate a peace agreement with rebel movements representing the non-Arab peoples of the south, an insurgent movement appeared in Darfur demanding more government resources and power-sharing. The Khartoum-based government responded by sending troops and by enlisting Arab tribes in the region as allies. Early this year, after the breakdown of a cease-fire, it launched a scorched-earth offensive in the region that, according to the United Nations and human rights groups, has taken on the character of an ethnic war.

According to a report issued this week by Human Rights Watch, “the government of Sudan and allied Arab militia, called janjaweed, are implementing a strategy of ethnic-based murder, rape and forcible displacement of civilians.” More than 750,000 people have been forced from their homes, and 100,000 more have fled across the border to neighboring Chad, an area of desperate poverty and little water. The dead number in the tens of thousands, though no one knows for sure how many: Humanitarian aid groups have had almost no access to the Darfur region.

For years Sudan’s government, a dictatorship headed by Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan Bashir, waged a similarly ruthless campaign against the rebellious south. At last, under considerable international pressure — much of it from the Bush administration — it agreed to a cease-fire and negotiations that now inch toward a peace settlement. Some of the governments that pushed for that accord are concerned the deal may be disrupted if the international community also presses Mr. Bashir about Darfur. They should take a lesson from the 10th anniversary this month of the Rwandan genocide, which the United Nations failed to stop: Political and diplomatic calculations should never prevent the international community from intervening to stop mass murder.

As usual, the best coverage for this type of out-of-the-way story is not in the international media, but in blogs such as Head Heeb, who has been assiduous in covering Darfur: on 21 April, 18 April, 25 March, 19 March, 16 February, 10 February, 4 February, 30 January, 7 January, and elsewhere.

UPDATE: Foreign Dispatches offers a blistering assessment of the statement by the U.N. “Human Rights” Commission on this tragedy.

Absolutely incredible! Instead of condemning Sudanese actions, the UN “Human Rights” Commission actually decided on a message of solidarity with the Sudanese government! …

UPDATE: This VOA article entitled “Human Rights Commission Losing Credibility, NGOs Warn” is also worth reading; frankly, I’d say the Human Rights Commission and the parent UN lost their credibility a very long time ago, and only now are the NGOs belatedly waking up to that reality.

UPDATE, 4 May 2004: Sudan has just been re-elected to the UN “Human Rights” Commission. What purpose does this serve?

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