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Darfur's Tribes

The Situation in Sudan and the Conflict in Darfur

Issue 1, May 2008

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Home Key Internal Players Darfur's Tribes
Darfur's Tribes Print


Darfur’s population of seven million people is a patchwork of between 40-90 tribes co-existing in an area the size of France.  Although the crisis in Darfur is usually characterized as a conflict between Arab and non-Arab/African tribes, much confusion and controversy exists about this racial/ethnic distinction.  Darfur expert Alex de Waal has described the African-Arab dichotomy “historically and anthropologically bogus,” writing in 2004 that “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 (Darfur’s non-Arabs are arguably more devout than the Arabs); and until very recently, conflict between these different groups was a matter of disputes over camel theft or grazing rights, not the systematic and ideological slaughter of one group by the other.”  Centuries of intermarriage have further blurred ethnic distinctions.

Darfur’s history has not always been one of destruction.  It prospered as an independent Sultanate for centuries, albeit benefiting from the human slave trade.  Darfur endured one of the shortest colonial rules of any area on the continent (under Anglo-Egyptian rule from 1916-1956).  It is geographically disadvantaged as a remote, landlocked region without proven stores of valuable minerals.  Lack of infrastructure separates it from the rest of Sudan, and it remains surrounded by neighbors in crisis.  Yet, for much of its history, Darfur enjoyed a relative peace inclusive of Arab nomadic herders in the North and African farmers in the South.  (It would seem that the distinctions Arab and African stem more from lifestyle than racial identity.)  Located on the route to Mecca for West African Muslim pilgrims, Darfur’s tribes absorbed Islam peacefully.  A sophisticated tribal council system mediated disputes between nomadic and agriculturalist populations.  Migration in and out of the area created a mosaic of ethnic and social groups co-existing without serious conflict.

Arab Versus Non-Arab Tribes

The balance between nomadic and agriculturalist tribes in the Darfur region depended on the stability of its already harsh climate.  Arab nomadic herders would come south to graze their herds on southern farmland seasonally, returning to the northern grassy areas with the rainfall.  As the Sahara Desert began to consume the Sahel region through the process of desertification, this balance became untenable.  Desertification occurs when previously arable land is lost to desert sands and rainfall disappears.  Northern herders began to stay in the South year-round, and the land became further degraded by overuse.  Competition ensued for scarce resources.  Tribes became enemies as a population explosion exacerbated the situation.  Dutch expert Agnes van Ardenne-van der Hoeven estimates the human population of Darfur increased by 500% and the sheep population by 900% over the last century.  These factors collided to create huge upheaval in the region.  In an interview for The Atlantic Monthly in 2007, Alex De Waal recalls a conversation with an Arab Sheikh named Hilal Abdalla in which he said, “The way the world was set up since time immemorial was being disturbed.  And it was bewildering, depressing.  And the consequences were terrible.”

Most agree that desertification is being caused by global climate change.  Climatologists forecast that the Sahara desert already advances 5 km south each year and this rate is expected to continue increasing.  These predictions, if true, do not bode well for relations anywhere in the Sahel.

Relations with Khartoum and Other States – The Acceleration of Conflict Among Darfur’s Tribes

Sudan’s neighbors have played a significant role in the Darfur conflict, taking it from a largely land/resource based conflict to an ethnically charged one.  In the 1980s, Libya’s leader Moammar al Ghadafi began to meddle in the affairs of his African neighbors in an attempt to establish Pan-Arabist hegemony in the region.  His weapons were racist and Arab-supremacist ideologies as well as AK-47s, adding to the existing tensions among the tribes of Darfur.  The tribal system, which had for centuries mediated disputes over land and grazing rights, broke down amidst increased competition for resources and new “racial” tensions.

An interview with Masalit tribe member Ahmed Juma Abakar by National Geographic journalist Paul Salopek vividly illustrates this “puzzling” phenomenon in which Muslims were turned against Muslins.  Salopek (who was jailed by the Sudanese government while researching this story) describes Abakar’s worldview this way:  “…a member of one of the African farming tribes driven out of Darfur at gunpoint by the Janjaweed, the Arab nomads armed by the Arab-dominated Government of Sudan,…(h)e detested Arabs.  Yet he himself spoke Arabic.  He also served sugary tea in shot glasses like an Arab, wore a white Arabic robe, and prayed five times a day toward Mecca.”

The last tribal council met in 1990 and ended in failure. Khartoum did not fill this void with government police and judicial presence, so tribes began to organize militias led by warlords.  When Khartoum divided Darfur into three regions (see timeline), it further decimated the ability of tribal institutions to deal with conflict.  Not surprisingly, wars broke out in the region in 1987-1989 and 1996-1997 between Arab nomadic tribes and non-Arab agriculturalists.  Further exacerbating this series of civil wars within the Darfur regions was a growing recognition among non-Arab/black African tribes that Khartoum, within its larger neglect of the region, favored their Arab tribal enemies.  Dissatisfaction with general marginalization of Darfur by Khartoum began to coalesce along ethnic lines, and momentum grew towards a rebellion against the Government of Sudan by non-Arab Darfuri tribes.


In 2000 and 2002, portions of “The Black Book” began to circulate on the streets of Khartoum, detailing the structural inequalities between the North and other areas of Sudan.  Written in part by members of the largely non-Arab, black African Western Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), it spread like wildfire and set the stage for the rebellion against Khartoum in Darfur.  (See Key Background Documents for more on “The Black Book.”)


Next:  Key Internal Players:  The Darfur Rebel Forces