THE HUMAN crisis in Sudan's arid Darfur region, where 30,000 have died and a million are said to be homeless, has provoked charges of a second, Rwanda-style genocide and calls for urgent western military intervention in Africa's largest nation.
The UN Security Council has ordered Khartoum to disband its militias in Darfur. The U.S. Congress, humanitarian groups, America's Christian religious right and other foes of Sudan's military regime are demanding armed action.
Inevitably Sudan has become an election-year political football and media frenzy. The White House has been currying favor with Christian militants and blacks by intensifying hostility to the isolated Khartoum regime, which the U.S. has been trying to overthrow for a decade.
Caution is strongly advised. The Darfur disaster is not -- as oversimplified by western media -- a case of murderous government-backed Arab militias, called "Janjaweed," slaughtering helpless blacks. Nor can Khartoum end the strife at will: Its writ in Darfur is barely existent. Darfur is not a case of ethnic-religious terrorism as in Kosovo and Bosnia. The real story is far more complex.
Darfur is Sudan's poorest, wildest region. One of the Islamic World's first anti-colonial movements, known in the west as the Dervishes, burst from the wastes of Darfur in the 1880s. Led by the fiery "Mahdi," the Dervishes drove the British imperialists from Sudan, an event immortalized in the splendid Victorian novel, Four Feathers. The Dervishes took Khartoum, slaying Britain's proconsul, Sir Charles "Chinese" Gordon.
The "martyred" Gordon's death roused a storm in Britain, resulting in a punitive army sent up the Nile (including the young Winston Churchill) that destroyed the Dervish army at Omdurman. But remote Darfur remained a hotbed of rebellion.
Arms and money
In recent times, two anti-Khartoum insurgencies simmered in Darfur, backed by neighboring Chad and Eritrea, both of whom are U.S. clients. CIA has reportedly supplied arms and money to Darfur's rebels. Washington recently developed interest in Chad, which has oil and gas deposits.
Washington is using Darfur's rebels, as it did southern Sudan's 30-year-old insurgency, to destabilize the Khartoum regime, whose policies have been deemed insufficiently pro-American and too Islamic. More important to the increasingly energy-hungry U.S., Sudan has oil, as well as that other precious commodity, water.
Last year the Darfur insurgents launched wide-scale attacks on government garrisons after receiving new arms and supplies from abroad, gravely threatening Khartoum's hold on Darfur. Sudan, whose army is weak, raised local militias in Darfur to fight the rebels. Civilians were caught in the crossfire.
Far from a case of Arab whites versus African blacks, all concerned are dark-skinned Sudanese Muslims. The main enmity is between rebels, nomads and farmers, tribes and clans. As in southern Sudan, most of the violence stems from land grabs, banditry, cattle rustling, women stealing and local vendettas.
This is not genocide, a severely overused term. Swiss aid groups, with no political axe to grind, deny genocide claims.
Law and order
But Darfur is certainly a humanitarian crisis meriting foreign aid and African Union troops to bring law and order that Sudan's overstretched army cannot provide. Janjaweed bandits should be punished. But rebel groups must not be encouraged to avoid peace talks with Khartoum in hope of outside military intervention.
Foreign meddling in southern Sudan's civil war, particularly supply of arms and money to Christian and animist separatists by western aid groups and Protestant charities, prolonged that conflict and delayed a peace settlement for decades.
Now western intervention in Darfur could meet strong local resistance from Sudanese, an amiable but tough people, unravel the fragile, painfully achieved north-south peace accords and re-ignite civil and tribal conflicts that could tear Sudan apart and turn it into a second chaotic Congo.
Many westerners imbued with neo-imperialist fervor or a case of white man's burden are calling for another western army to march up the Nile and smite the latter-day Dervishes of Khartoum. Such crusading zeal should be curbed. Sudan is neither a second Rwanda nor a threat to the west.
The worst of Darfur's crisis appears over. Let humanitarian groups do their work. Continuing U.S. attempts to overthrow Sudan's government are only making things worse. Allow Africa to solve its own problems.
Copyright © 2004, CANOE