The conflict in Darfur is a humanitarian crisis with deep historical, social, political, religious, and economic roots.
It is many things at once and different things to different people, including:
- A civil war between the Islamist central government of Sudan (fought largely by its proxy Arab militia) and the non-Arab rebels of a long-marginalized and neglected province in the West known as Darfur. This conflict is not unlike the long civil war fought by the Sudanese government and the rebels of another marginalized and exploited province in Southern Sudan. Both these civil wars have been about Khartoum keeping the country together on terms that favor its elites and about sending a message to other restive areas that rebellions against the status quo will not be tolerated and will be deterred using any means necessary.
- The acceleration of an internal ethnic conflict between Darfur’s Arab nomadic herders and non-Arab farmers, fueled by racist ideologies artificially constructed and inflamed by Khartoum in an area in which both parties (both black, both Muslim) historically co-existed in peace until the Darfur tribal wars of the late 1980’s and 1990’s.
- A series of coordinated vicious attacks on non-Arab African agriculturalist villages by paramilitary bandits known as the Janjaweed, whose intent is largely opportunistic: looting, murder, rape, and destruction. These militias are supported by Khartoum in an attempt to terrorize civilian populations thought to be sympathetic to the growing rebellion in Western Sudan (Darfur).
- A conflict over land and scarce water resources: an environmental war. Herders and agriculturalist tribes compete intensely for arable land in an area devastated by desertification, brought on by global climate change.
- A conflict over oil wealth between multiple regions and stakeholders in Sudan. With Khartoum controlling the country’s natural resources (most of them located elsewhere in the country), vast and untenable inequalities have been created between the regions, leaving the majority of the population to live in abject poverty.
- A spill-over of other conflicts in a highly unstable region of the continent with roots in Cold War alliances, Islamic jihadist movements, land grabs, demagoguery, and resource wars in which international players are involved.
- A proxy war between the US and China for economic supremacy in the globalized economy.
- A proxy war, this one representing a re-emergence of US Cold War ideology, with Islam supplanting Communism as the propagating force of “evil.” Intervention by the US and Western powers could represent an effort to stabilize African dominoes much the way the US did with Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America during the last half of the 20th Century.
- A spark in a tinder box that could have been contained if the international community had been able to build consensus around intervention in a sovereign nation. If lessons learned from failure in Rwanda and Bosnia a decade earlier could have been applied, the conflict would not have become this entrenched. It is a crucial test of supranational organizations such as the African Union and the United Nations, and their ability to protect innocent civilians in situations where sovereign governments do not, will not, or cannot.
- A humanitarian crisis of monumental proportions; a place to which millions of dollars in humanitarian assistance flow, yet the underlying causes of the crisis go unaddressed. This crisis is another test of the ability and willingness of the members of the international community to mediate in internal conflicts and craft peace when doing so imperils their own economic and/or political interests.
- A situation in which impunity for crimes against humanity currently reigns, serving as a dangerous precedent in an increasingly fractured world.
- The daily descent of the largest country on the African continent into a failed state with radical Islamic sympathies and a history of harboring terrorists in an era characterized by the Global War on Terror.
- An internal matter in a remote, largely unknown province populated by extremely impoverished people with low strategic value to the international community. This conflict is a testament to the cynical belief that some societies may, in the words of Lael Brainerd from the Brookings Institution, literally be “too poor for peace,” falling prey to a “doom spiral” where “poverty is both an intractable cause of insecurity and a consequence of it.”
- The latest in a series of past and concurrent atrocious, and complicated and violent conflicts on a continent around which there is growing compassion fatigue.
Next: Context: Why the Conflict? Why in Sudan?