Darfur: Give Them a Megaphone Instead

Harlem’s Canaan Baptist Church, long associated with human rights activism, hosted a fundraising rally for women in Darfur, on June 13.  Billed as “Voices for the Voiceless,” the program featured speeches and fund-pitches by the program’s emcee, business developer Judith Price, and main speaker, peace activist and church leader Dr. Thelma Adair, with proclamations by the UN Assistant Secretary General for Gender Issues, Rachel N. Mayanja, and the Borough of Manhattan Deputy President.  There were musical and dance performances by Sweet Honey in the Rock, Diane Harvey, Earthdriver, the Piragramac Dance Company, and Canaan Youth Mass Choir.

I took my 14 year-old son to this event hoping that he would hear “voices” that contrasted with the mainstream mantra on this issue: that Arabs are committing genocide against Black Africans in Darfur, requiring “humanitarian” intervention by the US or UN.   He had been assigned to write a report on Darfur by his middle school social studies teacher, which was then graded down because — his teacher told me, point-blank — “he failed to express the main point I wanted him to make, that Arabs are committing genocide against Black Africans.”  My son had taken issue with that perspective and cited articles that supported his point of view.

Unfortunately, the diagnosis of the crisis and prescription for its solution presented by the speakers at the “Voices” event merely echoed The Mantra, the Save Darfur Coalition chorus orchestrated by our hegemonic institutions.  These are thoroughly at odds with any humanitarian outcome to the crisis.

Program MC Judith Price began the program with The Mantra: Arabs are committing genocide against Black Africans.  Dr. Adair followed this with a strident call for military intervention.

The oversimplification embodied in The Mantra ignores the fact that, in Darfur, all parties concerned are Black and African and Muslim and indigenous to the region.  According to Alex de Waal, a fellow of the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard, advisor to the African Union, member of the African Union mediation team that negotiated the May 2006 peace agreement in Darfur and author of Darfur: A Short History of a Long War:

. . . The story is not as simple as the conventional rendering in the news, which depicts a conflict between “Arabs” and “Africans.”  The Zaghawa — one of the groups victimized by the violence and described in the mainstream press as “indigenous African” — are certainly indigenous, black and African: they share distant origins with the Berbers of Morocco and other ancient Saharan peoples.  But the name of the “Bedeyat,” the Zaghawa’s close kin, should alert us to their true origins: pluralize in the more traditional Arab manner and we have “Bedeyiin” or Bedouins.  Similarly, the Zaghawa’s adversaries in this war, the Darfurian Arabs, are “Arabs” in the ancient sense of “Bedouin,” meaning desert nomad, a sense that has only in the last few decades been used to describe the Arabs of the river Nile and the Fertile Crescent.  Darfurian Arabs, too, are indigenous, black, and African.  In fact there are no discernible racial or religious differences between the two: all have lived there for centuries; all are Muslims.1

Columbia University Africa specialist Mahmood Mamdani clarifies further:

Let us begin by distinguishing between three different meanings of Arab: ethnic, cultural and political.  In the ethnic sense, there are few Arabs worth speaking of in Darfur, and a very tiny percent in Sudan.  In the cultural sense, Arab refers to those who have come to speak Arabic as a home language and, sometimes, to those who are nomadic in lifestyle.  In this sense, many have become Arabs.  From the cultural point of view, one can be both African and Arab, in other words, an African who speaks Arabic, which is what the “Arabs” of Darfur are.  For those given to thinking of identity in racial terms, it may be better to think of this population as “Arabized” rather than “Arab.”

Then there is Arab in the political sense.  This refers to a political identity called “Arab” that the ruling group in Khartoum has promoted at different points as the identity of power and of the Sudanese nation.  As a political identity, Arab is relatively new to Darfur. . . .  The major change in the political map of Darfur over the past decade was the growth of the Islamist movement, led by Hassan Turabi.  Politically, Darfur became “Islamist” rather than “Arab.”2

Charges of genocide are also suspect.  In Darfur, an estimated 200,000 people have died, a tragedy, to be sure.  Yet, why haven’t charges of genocide been leveled in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where an estimated four million people have been killed by the army and irregular forces linked to the government?3  It is noteworthy that the UN Security Council’s special commission on Darfur refused to charge the Sudanese government with genocide.  Mamdani cites Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, a US ally and past chairperson of the African Union:

Before you can say that this is genocide or ethnic cleansing, we will have to have a definite decision and plan and program of a government to wipe out a particular group of people, then we will be talking about genocide, ethnic cleansing.  What we know is not that.  What we know is that there was an uprising, rebellion, and the government armed another group of people to stop that rebellion.  That’s what we know.  That does not amount to genocide from our own reckoning.  It amounts to of course conflict.  It amounts to violence.4

In fact, the US is the only country in the world that has formally made this accusation against the Sudan.  Nor are the Sudanese government and its allies the only perpetrators of atrocities, although they clearly bear the major responsibility.  For example, when the Minni Minnawai faction of the SLA signed the May 2006 Darfur peace agreement and received President Bush’s blessing, Minnawi took this as license to begin — with the assistance of the Janjawiid — “ethnically cleansing” members of the majority Fur tribe, social base of the other SLA factions, driving 50,000 more Darfur residents from their homes.5  Gerard Prunier, Director of the French Center for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa, says of Minnawi, “As he is the sole signatory of the DPA (Darfur peace Agreement), his repeated casual violations of human rights at all levels make a mockery of the so-called ‘peace process’ he is supposed to implement.”6

Mischaracterization of the conflict as ethnic tends to conceal its real sources.  It hides a long history of small-scale non-ethnic conflict over resources, long-term regional divisions, the marginalization of regional populations by Khartoum, and their impoverishment as the result of policies dictated by international financial institutions and western powers.  The current conflict is ultimately rooted in the pattern of underdevelopment imposed by the British Empire, in which the peripheral regions were neglected except insofar as their populations and resources could be exploited by the colonizers.  This relationship remained essentially unchanged after independence, when the British transferred control of the country to a “post-colonial trading and agrarian elite.”7

During the late 1970s, economic crisis deepened in the Sudan, as it did in most other Third World nations, when the western powers began tightening credit.  Subsequently, the economic crisis was further exacerbated by the neo-liberal “structural adjustment” policies imposed by the IMF.  Between 1978 and 1984, the per capita GDP in Sudan fell from $468 to $288 as a result of six currency devaluations imposed by the IMF.  Already buffeted by economic crisis, the same drought and famine that hit the entire Sahel region of Africa in the 1980s hit the Sudan as well, further squeezing the population and intensifying competition for resources.8  The Darfur Joint Assessment Mission (D-JAM), a coordinating body consisting of international agencies including the World Bank, the African Union, and the United Nations, reported that:

The current crisis in Darfur is the outcome of marginalization along several dimensions, including with respect to political, economic and social opportunity, access to basic services and public resources.  With creeping desertification, encroachment on stock routes and competition over scarce land and water resources between pastoral and settled groups have contributed to a major conflict which has many layers of complexity.9

In recent years, Washington has increasingly turned its attention to Africa — and its oil.  In 2002, US Secretary of State for Africa Walter Kansteiner asserted, “West Africa’s oil has become of national strategic interest to us.”10  The Bush administration established a new joint military command for the African continent, AFRICOM, increased military aid for sub-Saharan Africa (while cutting development and relief assistance), and trained military officers from Chad, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic.11  The US plans to establish an enormous naval base in São Tome, which, together with its existing base in Djibouti, will place US forces within easy striking distance of all of Africa’s major oil producers.12

The Sudan is the second largest producer of oil on the continent, and China controls up to 80% of Sudan’s oil production.  Recently discovered oil fields in southern Darfur will produce an estimated 500,000 barrels of oil a day.13

President Bush’s October 2006 Darfur Peace and Accountability Act couldn’t be more explicit in reference to Washington’s direct interest in Sudanese oilfields: “The pervasive role played by the government of Sudan in Sudan’s petroleum and petrochemical industries threatens U.S. national security and foreign policy interests.”14

Sudan has figured prominently in Washington’s geopolitical strategy both for its oil and for its historically strategic location, at the crossroads of the Middle East, North and Sub-Saharan Africa.  Back in 2001, US General Wesley Clark reported:

As I went back through the Pentagon in November 2001, one of the senior military staff officers had time for a chat.  Yes, we were still on track for going against Iraq, he said.  But there was more.  This was being discussed as part of a five-year campaign plan, he said, and there were a total of seven countries, beginning with Iraq, then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Somalia, and Sudan.15

Many sources argue that the Darfurians are being used as a chess piece in Washington’s efforts to gain control over Sudan’s oil, establish a malleable client regime that will adhere to Washington’s geopolitical strategy and its “war on terror,” and oust its Chinese rivals from the Sudanese oilfields.16

Those who call for intervention ignore the role that foreign intervention has played to date in inciting and intensifying the carnage in the Sudan.  Successive US administrations have sought to fragment the Sudan and weaken the central authority or impose “regime change” by aiding regional insurgencies and imposing sanctions.  Discussing the Clinton administration’s position with respect to the SPLA insurgency in southern Sudan in 1999, former US President Jimmy Carter pointed out:

The people in Sudan want to resolve the conflict.  The biggest obstacle is US government policy.  The US is committed to overthrowing the government in Khartoum.  Any sort of peace effort is aborted, basically by policies of the United States. . . .  Instead of working for peace in Sudan, the US government has basically promoted a continuation of the war.17

In 1983, a civil war broke out in southern Sudan, sparked at least in part by Chevron’s oil discoveries.18  Chevron was forced to abandon its oilfields after rebels killed several employees.  Later, the US armed and trained John Garang’s SPLA during the two decade-long insurgency, and has reportedly provided support to the SLA and JEM in Darfur by way of the SPLA, regional allies, and private US-based arms merchants.19  US use of regional insurgencies, when faced with unreliable or intractable governments, is nothing new, nor is disguising such divide-and-conquer strategies with rhetoric about “humanitarian assistance” and “campaigns” to aid oppressed peoples.  Remember the Miskitu Indians in Nicaragua?  They, too, had legitimate grievances.  The Reagan and Bush, Sr. administrations also armed and funded them to oppose the Sandinistas and pushed them into an alliance with the Contras.

Those who ingenuously call for military intervention, whether by Washington/NATO or the UN, may want to reflect on and study recent “humanitarian interventions” in Somalia, Kosovo and, of course, Iraq.  Ask yourself; will such intervention really help the population of Darfur?  Can a government that abandoned the residents of New Orleans to slaughter Iraqis for oil be entrusted with a “humanitarian intervention” in Darfur?  Can a UN force that responds to the interests of its paymasters in Washington and has been accused of repression in Haiti, sex trafficking and rape in the Congo, and crossing its arms while thousands were massacred in Rwanda be a reliable guarantor of public security and wellbeing in Darfur?20

Alex de Waal wrote:

I don’t believe there is a military solution.  It will not defeat the holdout rebel groups.  What it will do is, it will kill more people, create more hunger, create more displacement and make the situation even more intractable. . . .  I think the key thing to bear in mind is that the solution to Darfur is a political solution.  No solution can be imposed by any amount of arm twisting, any amount of bluster, any amount of military force.  Even if we sent 100,000 NATO troops, we would not be able to impose a solution.  The solution has to come through political negotiation.21

In the end, the conflict in Darfur will not be solved by well-intentioned liberals in the US providing a “Voice for the Voiceless” and calling for foreign intervention, but by the people of Darfur and the Sudan themselves.  People of good will in the US can best help this process by demanding that Washington keep its hands off Sudan, lift the sanctions — which primarily affect the Sudanese people — and provide unconditional emergency relief to the populations affected by years of famine, “structural adjustment,” and war.



1  Alex de Waal, “A Tragedy in Darfur,”   Boston Review of Books, October/November 2004.

2  Mahmood Mamdani, “How Can We Name the Darfur Crisis?  Some Preliminary Thoughts,” Black Commentator 109, 14 October 2004.

3  International Rescue Committee, “The Lancet Publishes IRC Mortality Study from DR Congo; 3.9 Million Have Died: 38,000 Die per Month,” 6 January 2006; Roger Howard, “Where Anti-Arab Prejudice and Oil Make the Difference,” The Guardian, 16 May 2007

4  Mahmood Mamdani, op. cit.

5  Xan Rice, “Darfur Returns to Chaos after Peace Deal Fails,” The Guardian, 9 August 2006; Jonah Fisher, “Cracks Emerge in Darfur Peace Deal,” BBCNews, 29 July 2006; Avery Wear and David Whitehouse, “Save Darfur from US Intervention,” International Socialist Review 50, November-December 2006.

6  Gerard Prunier, “Darfur’s Sudan Problem,” OpenDemocracy, 9 September 2006.

7  Wear and Whitehouse, op. cit.; and Prunier, op. cit.

8  Wear and Whitehouse, op. cit.

9  Darfur Joint Assessment Mission. D-JAM Track II, <http://www.unsudanig.org/darfurjam/>.

10  Qtd. in F. William Engdahl, “Darfur? It’s the Oil, Stupid,” Geopolitics-Geoeconomics,   20 May 2007.

11  Ibid.

12  John Bellamy Foster, “A Warning to Africa: The New US Imperial Grand Strategy,” Monthly Review 58.2, June 2006.

13  Engdahl, op. cit.; “New, Secret Oil Installations in Darfur,” afrol News, 14 June 2007.

14  Deb Riechmann, “Bush Strengthens Sanctions on Sudan,” Associated Press, 13 October 2006.

15  Carl G. Estabrook, “The Darfur Smokescreen,” CounterPunch, 23/24 September 2006.

16 Howard, op. cit.; Engdahl, op. cit.; Dennis Brutus. “You Shouldn’t Send in Killers to Stop the Killing,” Socialist Worker, 13 October 2006.

17  Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, “United States Terrorism in the Sudan,” Media Monitors, 22 October 2001.

18  Engdahl, op. cit.; John Prendergast and David Mozersky, “Regional Intervention in Sudan’s Civil War,” Harvard International Review 26.1, 1 April 2004.

19  Rainer Chr. Hennig, “Eritrea, Chad Accused of Aiding Sudan Rebels,” afrol News, 7 September 2006; Ahmed, op. cit.; Engdahl, op. cit.; Jad Mouawad, “Oil May Allow Sudan to Escape Sanctions’ Pain,” New York Times, 30 May 2007.

20  Stephen Lendman, “UN Peacekeeping Paramilitarism: The Rules of Imperial Management,” CounterPunch, 15 February 2007.

21  Qtd. in Estabrook, op. cit.


Michael Friedman is a Ph.D. Candidate in Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Behavior at City University of New York.

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