Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Alex de Waal in the TLS on Sudan

A second important article on Sudan and its conflicts appeared a couple of weeks back in the London Times Literary Supplement, by the ever-astute and indefatigable Alex de Waal. The full article is behind a subscriber wall, here, but below is the publicly available opening:

Clashes in Darfur
Alex de Waal
Times Literary Supplement

Review of:

DARFUR: The ambiguous genocide
by Gerard Prunier
176pp. Hurst. £15.95. US: Cornell University Press. $24.
ISBN 0 8014 4450 0 1 8506 5700 X

Amat Acyl Aghbash is known to few, and then mostly for his grisly end: he stepped backwards into the spinning propellers of his Cessan aeroplane in 1982. The plane was a gift from Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi; for ten years, Ahmat Acyl was both a commander in Libya’s multinational pan-Sahelian “Islamic Legion” and the leader of a Chadian Arab militia known as the Volcano Brigade. Today, Acyl’s fighters from the Salamat of south- central Chad, and the Sudanese intermediaries who smuggled their weapons, can stake a good claim to be the original Janjawiid – the Sudan Government-backed militia now infamous for genocidal atrocity in Darfur.

Acyl’s name crops up in most histories of the long-running wars between Libya, Chad and Sudan. His supplier’s name doesn’t. It was Sheikh Hilal Mohamed Abdalla, whose Um Jalul clan’s yearly migration routes took them from the pastures on the edge of the Libyan desert in Northern Darfur to the upper reaches of the Salamat River where it crosses from Sudan into Chad. Renowned for their traditionalism, their camels and the vast reach of their semi-nomadism, the Um Jalul were a logical intermediary for Libya’s gun-running. Their encounter with the Salamat militia, first social, then commercial and finally military, forged the Janjawiid, which is now headed by the Sheikh’s younger son, Musa Hilal.

Acyl preached an Arab supremacist ideology, advocating the rule of the lineal descendants of the Prophet Muhammad and his Koreish tribe over Muslim lands. Specifically, the Juhayna Arabs, a group that includes both Salamat and Um Jalul, should control the territories from the Nile to Lake Chad. Darfur, an independent Sultanate until just ninety years ago, lies in the centre of this land, with its fertile massif and access to the headwaters of the Salamat River. The Koreishi ideology, mobilized via a shadowy group known as the “Arab Alliance” or “Arab Gathering”, motivates some of those involved in today’s vicious war for Darfur. Understanding this hideous violence demands a grasp of complex local histories that is possessed by few Sudanese and fewer foreigners. Generally relegated to a footnote of Sudanese history, as Gerard Prunier explains in Darfur: The ambiguous genocide, Darfur warrants its own political ethnography. Without this, it is not possible to understand the events of the past two years, nor the weighty moral and legal questions that surround them.

Darfur’s is indeed an ambiguous genocide. Between 60,000 and 150,000 are said to have died during the crisis and some 2 million now live in camps. But the crudity of the violence obscures fine-grained particularities of motive that only make sense within the unique history of Darfur and its neighbours. Theirs is no centralized blueprint for racial annihilation, but rather a shading of different agendas and opportunistic alliances, facilitated by a cruelty that has become routine. The pivot of these is the Um Jalul, and its aspiring leaders’ links with Chadian Arab militias, Libya’s grandiose ambitions and – more recently – Khartoum’s security cabal.

The Um Jalul are a clan of the Mahamid, who are in turn a section of the Abbala (“camel-herding”) Rizeigat tribe of Northern Darfur and Chad. Their Bedouin roots can be traced back at least five centuries, when their patrilineal ancestors crossed the Libyan desert, entering Darfur from the north-west. The Abbala Rizeigat were thus in Darfur when the Fur Sultanate emerged in the early seventeenth century and a part of its bilingual Arab-Fur identity from the outset. In the mid-eighteenth century, the Sultan granted the Baggara (“cattle-herding”) Rizeigat jurisdiction over a huge area of land south-east of the Sultanate’s heartlands. Known as hawakir, such territorial grants are the basis of Darfur’s land tenure today; who controls them is the subject of bitter political struggle. The Baggara’s Abbala cousins, more mobile and living in the more densely administered northern lands, were less fortunate. Until today, many Abbala Rizeigat ascribe their role in the current conflict to the fact that they weren’t given territory a quarter of a millennium ago. The Baggara Rizeigat by contrast are neutral.

Other Abbala also did not receive hawakir. After annexing Darfur on January 1, 1917 – almost the last territory to be added to the Empire – British colonial officials attempted to tidy up the confusion of Darfur’s ethnic geography. Another Northern Darfur Arab group, the Beni Hussein, were collected in one district over which they were given control. The Abbala Rizeigat had their eyes on a territory north of the region’s centre; but the leading families of their two main sections – Mahamid (including Um Jalul) and Mahariya – could not agree on who should be paramount chief, or nazir. Since 1925, there have been at least six attempts to unify the different sections under a single leader. None has succeeded. One stratagem used by the rival sheikhs to increase their chances was to enlarge their numbers by attracting followers from Chadout to the West. The Um Jalul had an advantage here: there are more Mahamid than Mahariya clans in Chad, and in the 1970s the Chadian sections were armed by Libya and organized by Acyl. It was this warlord who He began to enmeshed Darfur in Chad’s racial war; and, pursuing his provincial ambition, Sheikh Hilal inadvertently led the Um Jalul into a maelstrom.

As we turn the political ethnographic lens, we find that the contours of Janjawiid mobilization correspond to the political fractures and family power struggles within the Abbala Rizeigat. Heads of Mahamid lineages have key positions, while most leading Mahariya families are uninvolved. Meanwhile a third section, the Ereigat, plays a different but equally critical role.

After British annexation, in the 1920s, the Ereigat had few camels of their own. Some got jobs at the colonial police stables, and their sons in turn went to school and joined the police and Army. One of these boys, Abdalla Safi el Nur, rose to become an Air Force general and was Governor of Northern Darfur at the time when the Janjawiid mutated from a tribal militia tolerated by the Sudan Government into brigades organized under Government Military Intelligence. Another scion of the Ereigat became an army general and, now retired,heads Sudan’s parliamentary defence committee. Meanwhile, the Baggara Rizeigat (the southern cattle-owning branch), who are far more numerous and powerful, are themselves divided. Though several are leading lights in the Arab Gathering. But , the paramount chief, Nazir Saeed Madibu, is trying to steer a neutral course.

This is far from the whole story of the origins of the Janjawiid; but it is a means to understanding who is fighting on one side of this war and why, and for recognizing that extreme violence is the choice of a small minority. Such is the poor state of basic documentation of Darfur that these facts have not been narrated. Unfortunately, this is still the case. Prunier’s account makes not asingle mention of these key figures, Ahmat Acyl, Hilal Abdalla and his son, Musa, nor of the Koreish and its manifestos, nor indeed of the Abbala Rizeigat and the Um Jalulthough all are essential to understanding Darfur’s descent into war and atrocity.

The history of the Darfur rebels, the eventual enemies of the Janjawiid, is equally important and also little documented. They spring from convergent resistance movements based among Darfur’s three largest non-Arab groups – the Fur, the Zaghawa and the Masalit. Multiple versions exist of the origins of the two main rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), not least among the members of the two groups themselves. All concur that the SLA has sympathies with the Southern Sudan-based Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), and took both arms and advice from the latter in 2003, but that it emerged independently of the SPLA two years earlier from an alliance of Fur militiamen and Zaghawa desert fighters. The SPLA’s late leader, John Garang, who was made Sudan’s First Vice-President five weeks ago and has since died in a helicopter crash, fought for a secular, pluralist and united Sudan dominated by Sudan’s non-Arabs – an alliance of Southerners and the marginalized groups in the North – though many in his movement have made the case for a separate Southern state. Until 2003 – when SPLA members helped to write the SLA manifesto – the main SPLA role had been to train Masalit volunteers, who crossed from Sudan into Eritrea. A couple of battalions of these Darfurian rebels were transferred to Southern Sudan, from where they planned to return home to bolster local self-defence units.

Thwarted by the Government, many deserted and went back home in 2001. The SPLA then lost interest in Darfur, while the local rebellion quietly gathered force. After reconnecting, in January 2003, Garang and Darfur’s guerrillas regarded each other with ambivalence. The SLA could indeed become part of a grand alliance of Sudan’s marginalized peoples; but Darfurian leaders fear that they will be manipulated – and with good cause. The SLA was catapulted to prominence before it could develop internal political institutions, so that it is an amalgam of village militias and rural intellectuals marshalled by indigenous warrior tradition and the discipline of former Army NCOs. The Fur and Zaghawa wings have often disagreed; and on one occasion even fought each other.

The origins of JEM are even more controversial. The leadership is drawn from the ranks of Darfurian Islamists, widely believed to have received funds from Islamists abroad. In contrast to the amateur public relations machinery of the SLA, JEM runs a sophisticated political bureau. JEM’s roots lie in the fragmentation of Sudan’s Islamist movement in the late 1990s, as the twin dreams of national development as an Islamic state, and the emancipation of all Muslims as equal citizens, regardless of race or colour, , disintegrated into internal squabbling. The implosion of the Islamic project was clear when, in December 1999, President Omar al Bashir dismissed the Government’s √©minence grise, Hassan al Turabi, sheikh of the Sudanese Islamists, and later put him in jail. Darfur’s Islamist leaders were already disaffected. . . . .

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