Current Situation: January 2009

Two years ago we presented a series of articles describing the situation in Darfur. Since then, much has happened but sadly, so little has changed. Or as a recent editorial headline in The New York Times lamented, "Another Year Later". 50,000 more have died. An additional 500,000 have been displaced. Sudanese President Bashir has been charged with War Crimes but remains in power, with the continued support of China which benefits from its economic influence. Various factions within Bashir's own country prefer the order he provides to the possible unremitting chaos that might follow his departure. Humanitarian efforts have been insufficient and frequently obstructed. Agreed to United Nations peacekeeping operations have been thwarted at every turn. Two years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine things getting worse, but they have as the suffering extends over a wider geographic area.


Many of those outside of Sudan have long advocated external military force to bring stability to the area. At first troops from the African Union tried to address the problem. This task shifted to a combined United Nations and African Union force (UNAMID) with an agreement to allow 26,000 troops into Darfur as of January 2007. The Sudanese government obstructed this effort and even now, less than half of that contingent is in the area. Those troops are in danger from rebel attacks, further indicating the inability of rebel leaders to control their own forces.

Peacekeeping efforts are also hindered by insufficient resources and equipment, and limited access to necessary areas due to poor transportation. The July 2008 indictment of President Bashir has been used as a pretext for the Sudanese government’s rejection of the legitimacy of the United Nation and other international agencies. Cease fires among combatants have been brokered and broken so often it is hard to keep track. Two primary factors prohibit a cessation of hostilities. Many of those with arms are not beholden to those negotiating these agreements. The government uses the pretext of ferreting out rebels to wage assaults at will, often attacking innocents and foreigners as well.


International aid workers are even more vulnerable than peacekeeping forces and subject to frequent attacks. Although they have to gain permission from the Sudanese government to bring food, medicine, and education, they have somehow been able to operate refugee camps, keeping close to 2 million displaced people alive. The government also uses the pretext of protecting aid workers from rebel attacks to bomb many areas indiscriminately. Those outside of Sudan were concerned that the indictment of Bashir would give him the justification for preventing access to aid workers given his long history of obstructing aid.

Humanitarian workers are vulnerable to more than physical harm. Their efforts are easily exploited as a propaganda tool by Sudanese leaders who label them agents of hostile Western governments seeking to limit once again Sudan’s autonomy in a 21st century version of neo-imperialism. These claims are effective given the country’s long history of foreign domination beginning with Arab traders, then Ottoman rulers and finally the Europeans. This mistrust of outsiders is always an easy 'sell', especially when used to deflect the incompetence or evil of their own government. One shocking component is Sudan’s current program of selling surplus agricultural produce to neighboring Arab countries as many of its own people starve. Despite receiving a billion pounds of free food, the government is selling the locally grown food and has just put $5 billion into new agricultural projects with the intention of increasing these exports.


One of the original causes of the crisis in Darfur was that the area was used as a proxy arena in the regional conflict between Libya and Chad. Now the problems of Darfur are generating unrest in those countries as well as others nearby (Figure 22). Borders between Chad and the Central African Republic (CAR) are so porous that rebel groups set up operations in neighboring countries to wage attacks. Sudanese rebel groups mount their assaults from the CAR. The region is so unstable that many refugees have fled into both Chad and Sudan. Those who hope to overthrow the Chadian government have set up operations in Sudan and CAR. The result is increasing chaos, violence, displacement and the suffering of innocent people. As the problem of Darfur is enmeshed in these regional conflicts, so too must the solution broaden its scope beyond the already overwhelming circumstances of the area of western Sudan.

The original conflict in Darfur was simplistically cast as Arab versus African, masking a fluidity and complexity of individual and group identity. Recent actions by the government have served to concretize these distinctions. The Sudanese government has been encouraging Arabs from neighboring countries to come into Sudan and live in those areas from which millions have been displaced. The government has issued citizenship papers, land, and arms to 30,000 Arabs to settle in Darfur, simultaneously changing the ethnic composition of the area and ensuring that the former residents will not be able to return to their homes, thereby "cementing in place the demographic consequences of genocide."


During the height of the conflict in 2003 and 2004, the worst violence came from coordinated air and ground attacks against rebel groups and innocent civilians from Arab militia groups, the Janjaweed, who operated with the support of the government. Now these Arab groups are fighting amongst themselves, often over land acquired from these earlier assaults. Yet even more chaos ensues as violence between rebels, militias and bandits seems largely unchecked by government authority. Indicative of the declining influence of the central government was the attack in May 2008 by rebel forces on the capital, Khartoum, far from Darfur (Figure 18). The government did repel this attack and still these coordinated tactics when convenient, especially in the case of recapturing land that the rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), acquired via support from neighboring Chad (Figure 22).

One result of six years of refugee camps has been the formation of Shabab, a far reaching youth culture comprised of young men who know little else apart from the life of these camps. The last six years have given them access to education and ideas to which they would not have been exposed had they continued their traditional village existence. They are bound neither to the government nor to traditional tribal norms of elder statesmen who for generations ran the local affairs of politics and economics. They are also militantly pro-rebel and use their collective force to demand the following:

  • disarming the government militias
  • prosecuting those responsible for war crimes
  • expelling anyone who settled on land stolen from the displaced farmers
  • carrying out all UN resolutions on Darfur.

For those familiar with the history of Sudan since independence in 1956, the conflict in Darfur was in part, another example of the continued effort by the elite in Khartoum to exert authority over less powerful regions of the country (Figure 18). For decades, war raged between the North and South and more than 2 million killed people have been killed. International intervention resulted in the Navaisha Accords in 2005. The ever widening chaos of Darfur has managed to unsettle this tenuous agreement as Bashir uses the ongoing strife to abandon or ignore many of the terms. A census in 2008 was to set the stage for national elections in 2009 with the ultimate decision in 2011, whether or not the oil rich South would declare its independence. Bashir has yet to even remove Sudanese troops from the area. He has renewed military action, using Arab militias against the local population.


There have been efforts to hold Sudan’s President and others accountable. In addition to UN resolutions, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued arrest warrants for military and government officials. These indictments were literally years in the making and subject to intense scrutiny and debate. The Sudanese government has resisted, at first rejecting the charges and then insisting on handling all prosecutions internally. They have challenged the legitimacy of the Western agenda and charged international agencies with neo-imperialism. The result has been strong internal support for Bashir as the bulwark against complete chaos should he be removed from office. Greater is the fear that Al Qaeda will return or rebels will topple the government. Bashir also has backing from the Arab League and the African Union as they both protect one of their own and challenge the dangerous precedent of indictment against a sitting head of state.

Likewise, Western economic sanctions and threats of a no-fly zone provide Bashir with more power to limit humanitarian aid and wrap himself in the mantle of defender of Sudanese autonomy and national integrity. The officials of the ICC believed they were fulfilling the court’s mandate by charging Bashir with genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Darfur in July 2008. Subsequently members of the UN Security Council debated whether to suspend the indictment against Bashir, some preferring to wait until the crisis has passed, concerned that it might hamper efforts to bring peace to the region via diplomacy. Others see value in saying to the world that this man is reprehensible and responsible, and wonder if claims of undermining the peace process are merely a ploy to gain more time.


Incredulity remains and worsens in the face of the ever widening tangle of affairs in Darfur and the broader region. Despite UN actions, Russia and China supply the country with arms, support, and economic development, which all strengthen Sudan. Economic sanctions and the threat of a no-fly zone do more to derail humanitarian efforts than bring peace or stability. Peace negotiations are a sham. It took two months to hold a meeting in 2007, and even then most of the rebel groups did not send representatives to the October meeting in Tripoli. Governmental declarations of cease fire are meaningless because so many of the people with guns are not party to the agreement. There is resentment and mistrust of outsiders. The international community spent years brokering peace between the government in Khartoum and Southern Sudan but have not stayed on site to administer its implementation. Would they do the same with Darfur?

The fragmented nature of the conflict has generated a piecemeal approach in terms of economy, education, agriculture, and regional tensions. What is needed is a more comprehensive approach. Even the humanitarian argument seems inadequate. In a telling article in December 2008, former US Secretaries of State William Cohen and Madeline Albright identified a different approach, claiming that the argument to help Darfur should go beyond humanitarian concerns. Rather the United States should recognize the real dangers from genocide which include the advantage terrorists gain from the instability it breeds, the drain on humanitarian resources, and the tarnished image of the US from its failure to act. But Bashir is smart and patient. Global concerns over economic decline distract many. Time and inertia are on his side.

Norman B. Leventhal Map Center (