this is not the genocidal campaign of a government at the height of its ideological hubris, as the 1992 jihad against the Nuba was, or coldly determined to secure natural resources, as when it sought to clear the oilfields of southern Sudan of their troublesome inhabitants. This is the routine cruelty of a security cabal, its humanity withered by years in power: it is genocide by force of habit.
So says Alex de Waal in a recent London Review of Books article which is the single most illuminating thing I’ve read on the crisis in Darfur. He resolutely avoids falling into the standard clichés:
It is hard to find a news account of the present war in Darfur that does not characterise it as one of ‘Arabs’ against ‘Africans’. Such a description would have been incomprehensible twenty years ago, when Darfurian conceptions of ethnicity and citizenship were still cast in the mould inherited from the Sultanate of Dar Fur and the string of comparable Sudanic states that stretched westwards to the Atlantic.
He argues that the history of Darfur is one of neglect and geography. First the region suffered from famine:
A succession of local conflicts erupted in Darfur in the wake of the drought and famine of 1984-85. On the whole, the pastoral groups were pitted against the farmers in what had become a bitter struggle for diminishing resources. The government couldn’t intervene effectively, so people armed themselves.
Then it also suffered from neighboring wars:
Another geographical misfortune is that Darfur borders Chad and Libya. In the 1980s, Colonel Gaddafi dreamed of an ‘Arab belt’ across Sahelian Africa. … Gaddafi’s formula for war was expansive: he collected discontented Sahelian Arabs and Tuaregs, armed them, and formed them into an Islamic Legion that served as the spearhead of his offensives. … The Libyans were defeated by a nimble Chadian force at Ouadi Doum in 1988, and Gaddafi abandoned his irredentist dreams. He began dismantling the Islamic Legion, but its members, armed, trained and — most significant of all — possessed of a virulent Arab supremacism, did not vanish. The legacy of the Islamic Legion lives on in Darfur: Janjawiid leaders are among those said to have been trained in Libya.
These leaders were natural allies of a weak government faced with a rebellion in a remote region:
Faced with a revolt that outran the capacity of the country’s tired and overstretched army, this small group knew exactly what to do. Several times during the war in the South they had mounted counter-insurgency on the cheap — famine and scorched earth their weapons of choice.
It is a dense article, but it is worth reading a few times if you want to understand the history of the region in terms that don’t reduce it to essentialist notions of religion or ethnicity.