Over the past three years Sudan’s troubled Darfur region has achieved increased visibility, thanks to the tireless efforts of activists. Unfortunately, the “Darfur” that has seized the public imagination is largely a fiction, conceived in isolation from the rest of Sudan. The comparative brightness of the spotlight separates Darfur from the larger, darker landscape of Sudan. It blinds us to what is happening in the South, where a pivotal peace agreement signed two years ago threatens to fall apart.
This single-minded view of Darfur arises partly from media myopia. But it also stems from the trouble Darfuri rebels had trying to join their cause to that of other marginalized black African regions struggling against the Arab-dominated central government in Khartoum. The Darfuri rebels were not as well organized as those in South Sudan. They were latecomers to the U.S.-brokered peace talks aimed at bringing the long and bloody North-South civil war to an end. The fact that Darfuris comprised 40 percent of the Sudanese army fighting against the South raised southern hackles, as well.
So early in the fall of 2004, with the agreement threatening to stall and the Bush team wanting to chalk up a success in time for the Presidential election, the fateful decision was made to exclude Darfur from the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. When the CPA was signed in January 2005, President Bush’s special envoy, John Danforth, expressed hope that the CPA would serve as a “model for settling the conflict in Darfur.”
As it turned out, the exclusion of Darfur was a disaster. The power-sharing and wealth-sharing features of the CPA fanned the hopes of Darfuri rebels. And the Sudan government, spared having to fight on multiple fronts, could concentrate on Darfur.
Darfur’s exclusion helped Sudan President Omar al-Bashir portray that conflict as an anomaly, a traditional competition for water that turned deadly. Bashir fails to acknowledge the murderous role his own government played. Instead of sending in regular Army units, whose Darfuri troops might mutiny, Khartoum armed and trained Arab militias to attack the Fur, the Zaghawa, the Masalit, and other tribes. Harvard scholar and activist Alex de Waal describes it as “counter-insurgency on the cheap.” But the genocidal intent was clear. In his book, Darfur: a short history of a long war, de Waal cites a directive from Janjaweed militia commander Musa Hilal’s headquarters: “Change the demography of Darfur and empty it of African tribes.”
To a great extent the Save Darfur Coalition and other activist groups have bought the myth of Darfur as a separate struggle. Activists echo Bashir’s assertion that the conflict began with a 2003 rebel attack on an air force base at Al Fasher. Overlooked are similar attacks that took place in Darfur in the 1980s and 90s, when Arab militias assisted by government bombers launched raids on the Fur and Masalit - years before the conflagration we know as “Darfur” caught the attention of the world, and was called genocide.
Darfur is in large measure a manifestation of the same racism that characterized the 21-year long North-South civil war, in which Arab supremacists sought to Arabize and Islamicize Sudan and take over the country’s oilfields at the expense of the Dinka and other black tribes. All these conflicts grew from Khartoum’s long oppression of its hinterlands, in the east, the west, and the south. While their histories differ, the tactics and justification are the same: civilians are targeted by proxy militias, in an effort to “drain the swamps” for rebels.
The perception of Darfur in isolation is particularly dangerous now. Why? Because much as Darfur was cast into the shadows for the sake of the CPA three years ago, now it is the CPA that languishes in the shadows. And while the world remains fixated impotently on Darfur, the Khartoum government is quietly sabotaging the CPA to the point that the civil war may be re-ignited. This would be catastrophic not only in the South, but in Darfur, where four million civilians depend on already precarious humanitarian aid.
Khartoum is stalling on key provisions of wealth-sharing: the Boundary Commission, charged with establishing the border that passes through the oilfields, and a National Oil Commission, to monitor contracts and pipeline flow. Both were to be jointly administered by North and South. But owing to Khartoum’s foot-dragging, neither body has met. Two years into the CPA it appears increasingly that Khartoum – or at least some hardliners within the Islamist regime – want to see the CPA fail.
Strange things are happening in Khartoum itself. President Omar al-Bashir, who came to power in a military coup in 1989, seems not fully in control, as factions within the oligarchy vie for power. On February 12, opposition leader Hassan al-Turabi appealed to the Sudanese people to rise up against Bashir – much as they rose up in 1964 to topple the regime of a predecessor, Ibrahim Aboud, who like Bashir had come to power in a coup. Hassan al-Turabi, an Islamist ideologue with a reputation for opportunism, has allied himself with rebels seeking more democratic representation for Darfur and the South.
All this bears watching. The point is this:
Having brokered the CPA, the Bush administration has an obligation to monitor its implementation. Having played a role in excluding Darfur, and seeing the consequences, the administration needs to recognize that no lasting peace can be achieved in Darfur or the South at the cost of the other. Sudan must be addressed as a whole.
David Morse is an independent journalist whose articles have appeared in Salon, Esquire, The Nation, and elsewhere. He is working on a book about Sudan.