One of the most basic tensions that exists for Sudan is its integral inclusion in two separate yet overlapping regions: East Africa and the Middle East (Figure 22). As part of both the Arab and African worlds, Sudan and its Darfur province have conflicting, competing, and sometimes complementary concerns. In recent decades, pressure from others in each region has greatly affected internal developments. The fact that both areas have strong Muslim components does not serve as a unifying agent. One can see in the internal tensions of Sudan the ways in which Islam has been affected by geographic expansion. Furthermore, internal divisions within the country not only reflect these regional concerns but have been directly shaped by them as well.


The spread of Islamic fundamentalism has been a crucial aspect of world affairs in recent decades. Although Islam is as diverse as the people who practice it, the current wave of fundamentalism contains some common elements. Moderates in the Muslim world struggle over the ways in which to combine the teachings of the Koran which call for jihad and limited rights with the realities of the modern nation-state. More extreme elements promote supra-national identification and action. One of the major advocates of this approach, is Libya's Moamar Qaddafi who announced his intention to create an Arab Belt spreading across the Sahara and beyond (Figure 22). Although Qaddafi tones down his message when he speaks to the West, he has been willing to back his ambitions with arms and money, especially to those in East Africa.


By the 1970s, Qaddafi's goal was an Arab belt throughout East Africa. Neighboring Chad (Figure 16) (Figure 22), with its African, Christian and pro-French government, was a huge obstacle to his objective which he pursued within the context of racism. He hoped to use the Darfur region, in the western portion of Sudan as a base for Chadian rebels who sought to overthrow the existing regime. President Nimeiri did not share Qaddafi's goals and resisted as much as he was able, although his authority was weak and he committed his country's limited resources to civil war in the South. Sudan's leaders were distracted by internal strife and not overly concerned with Darfur. These two factors enabled the Libyan president to gain access to the area and supply weapons. Chad's President Habre armed the Fur to combat Qaddafi's Sudanese allies in Darfur. When other conflicts arose within Darfur, the ready supply of weapons was used for local hostilities rather than the Chadian conflict. Qaddafi also flooded the area with propaganda, promoting fundamentalist Islam and Pan-Arabism. Although the facts did not reflect a genuine Arab/African split, continuous rhetoric blamed Africans for supporting Chad and encouraged Arabs to take action against them, either in Chad or their own country.

This potential powder keg erupted in the 1980s when severe drought hit the area. The social and economic arrangement that had stood for centuries was based on the mobility of herders and their balanced interchange with farmers. With the severe drought, farmers began blocking herders from crossing their lands to reach limited water supplies or use their land for grazing. Herders were willing to fight for access and were assisted in this effort with the arms supplied by the Libyan government. Once weapons were present, they were available to both herders who sought access to the land and farmers who wanted to protect their holdings. Both groups suffered from drought and the resulting famine, and believed that Nimeiri's government ignored the problems of the province, one of the many factors that led to his downfall in 1985.

In addition to weapons, it was at this point that the Arab/African dichotomy was placed onto the herder/farmer conflict. Propaganda, largely provided by Qaddafi and later reinforced by Sudan's new president, Bashir, fueled and perpetuated a distinction that although contrary to fact, provided an easy distinction between the two groups. The economic crisis swayed loyalties to those who promised economic advantage. Low level armed conflict persisted for the next twenty years and this claim of ethnic tension as a proxy for economic differences would be one of the foundation causes for the massive conflict that would erupt in the early years of this century.


Once Bashir came to power in 1989, he welcomed the support of President Qaddafi. In exchange for money, oil, and weapons in Sudan's civil war against the South, he allowed Libyan forces to operate freely from Darfur in its ongoing conflict with Chad. Bashir's anti-American stance extended well beyond the politics of East Africa. In 1991, he supported Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War, making Sudan a pariah in much of the Middle East (Figure 22). For domestic political reasons, Bashir embraced fundamentalist Islam and increasingly allied himself with militant forces, including Osama bin Laden who was provided refuge in Sudan until 1998. Bashir brought Sudan into the domestic political affairs of Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea as he worked to export militant Islam to these neighboring countries.


These regional activities caused the people of Darfur to see themselves as part of larger entities. The process of ethnic identification is multi-layered but central is the notion that people see connections between themselves and others outside of their immediate vicinity, noting common heritage, language, values, history, and behaviors. For the people of Darfur, this construction happened within the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, regional tensions, and global warfare. They were called upon by their own politicians and others in the Arab and the African world to identify with distant partners although the bases of cohesion were not readily apparent. Political leaders in Khartoum asked them to declare if they were part of the Riverine Arab community or a different, African one. Qaddafi posed the same question. These labels attributed by the outside world masked economic and political differences that were readily subsumed into these ethnic divisions. The spreading conflict wrought by the drought was easily translated into an Arab/African dichotomy. But the people of Darfur do not live in opposing camps but in overlapping ones. These constructions have not only hurt them but prevented them from seeking solutions to the problems they actually face, much to the relief of the governments of Sudan and Libya. Even after the conflict between Chad and Libya faded, the seeds of division had been planted and they would be sown in horrific ways in the early years of the new millennium.


1. How have the people of Darfur been used as pawns to further the aims of other countries?

2. Outsiders claim that there are distinct groups within Darfur-Arabs and Africans. Is this an accurate description? Why have these distinctions persisted?

3. How do the labels attached to the people of Darfur not only misrepresent the problems of the area but limit potential solutions?

  • Burr, J. M.. Africa's Thirty Years' War: Chad, Libya, and the Sudan, 1963-1993. Boulder: Westview Press, 1994.
  • Flint, Julie and de Waal, Alex. Darfur: A Short History of a Long War. London: Zed Books Ltd,, 2005.
  • Jok, Madut. War and Slavery in the Sudan. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
  • Lesch, A.M. The Sudan: Contested National Identities. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.
  • Power, Samantha. "Dying in Darfur." The New Yorker. August 30, 2004.
  • Prunier, Gerard. Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005.
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