According to 800zipcodes, the 50-year war between North Sudan and South Sudan has marked Sudan’s modern history, but there are also other hotspots within the country. Like many other African countries, Sudan is basically an artificial creation, and in independence in 1956, the new state inherited a number of inherent contradictions.
Since the beginning of the 2000s, there have been armed conflicts in the western region of Darfur, in the east around the Red Sea and in the states of Southern Kurdufan and the Blue Nile in the southern part of what is today Sudan after the country’s division in 2011.
Sultanate of Darfur
The large, semi-desert region of Darfur is inhabited by Arabs and black African peoples. Among the Africans, three ethnic groups dominate: fur, zagawa and masalite. For an outsider, it is not always easy to see the difference between blacks and Arabs.
Darfur served for centuries as its own sultanate, albeit loosely cohesive. From the late Middle Ages, Islam was the dominant religion among most ethnic groups.
Darfur was weakened in the 18th century by internal conflicts and wars against neighboring sultanates and in 1875 became an easy prey for Egypt, which ruled over northern Sudan and wanted to expand its empire. When the British took power in 1899, formally in cooperation with Egypt, Darfur regained some of its autonomy, but in 1916 the area came back under British control. Then World War I was going on and the British wanted to prevent the Ottoman Empire from gaining control of Darfur.
During the continued colonial era, the Arab clans from the region around Khartoum benefited from education and government employment. Most economic investments also took place around the capital, while more remote regions fell behind.
Struggle for assets
This unequal distribution of resources continued after Sudan’s independence in 1956. Darfur was also embroiled in the midst of the many conflicts involving Sudan, Chad and Libya. when the countries were created during the colonial era.
When an already politically and socially divided Darfur was hit by severe drought in the 1980s, famine and hardship led to armed clashes between different ethnic groups. The increasingly scarce resources pitted Arab clans who lived as nomads in need of pasture for their livestock against settled African ethnic groups who cared for their agricultural land.
In the hunt for wells and pastures, nomads from northern Darfur drove their flocks south, into the lands of the settled farmers, while the farmers’ crops were threatened by drought. More and more Darfurians began to suffer from constant food shortages, and still do.
Open war breaks out
The conflict continued unabated, albeit at a low level, until 2003, when it took the form of open warfare between African guerrillas and government-backed Arab militias. Death toll rose dramatically and the Darfur conflict struck the world with horror. The uprising has claimed at least 300,000 lives since 2003 and forced nearly 3 million people to flee.
Initially, the government’s policy was to rule by dividing. Khartoum incited Arabs against blacks. Some Arab clans were given weapons and encouraged to form militias. The blacks called them janjawider (roughly “lawless riders”). Government fighter jets bombed villages, where the rebels were believed to have sympathizers, and then the villagers were attacked by the Janjawids. Women were systematically raped as part of the war.
The uprising in Darfur was started by two loosely allied rebel groups: the Sudan Liberation Movement / Sudan Liberation Army (SLM / SLA) and the smaller Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). SLM / SLA had the most supporters among the majority people fur. Its supreme leader was Abd al-Wahid Muhammad al-Nur. SLM / SLA soon split into a fur faction led by al-Nur (SLM-Nur) and a zagawa-dominated faction led by Minni Minnawi (SLM-Minnawi). A number of breakaway fractions have arisen since then.
JEM was led by Khalil Ibrahim from the Zagawa people, until his death in 2011. Khalil belonged to the same subgroup of Zagawa as Chadian President Idriss Déby and thus JEM has had the support of forces outside Darfur. However, the JEM emerged as an Islamist movement, which at least outwardly seemed to place greater emphasis on religious than ethnic affiliation. A dozen other rebel groups joined together in the Freedom and Justice Movement (LJM).