The Media Are Oversimplifying the Conflict in the Sudan

R. S. O'Fahey, professor of African history at the University of Bergen, Norway, in the International Herald Tribune (May 15, 2004):

The genocidal war in Darfur, Sudan’s westernmost province, is being presented in the news media as a war between Arabs and Africans. This simplifies and misrepresents a very complex ethnic reality. .

Darfur, an area about the size of France, has three ethnic zones. The northern includes Arab and non-Arab, mainly Zaghawa, camel nomads. The central zone is inhabited largely by non-Arab sedentary farmers such as the Fur, Masalit and others, cultivating millet. In the south there are Arabic-speaking cattle nomads, the Baqqara.

All are Muslim, and no part of Darfur was ever ethnically homogeneous. For example, once a successful Fur farmer had a certain number of cattle, he would ‘‘become’’ Baqqara, and in a few generations his descendants would have an ‘‘authentic’’ Arab genealogy.

Historically, Darfur was a sultanate, established around 1650 and dominated by the Fur people, but ruled by a title-holding elite recruited from all the major ethnic groups. Under the sultan, the settled peoples, basically non-Arab, were able to control or keep out the nomads; the sultanate’s ultimate sanction was heavy cavalry.

The sultanate was destroyed in 1874. Although today’s conflict is much bloodier, as a historian I am struck by the parallels between the present situation and the 1880s. When the sultanate was restored in 1898 by Ali Dinar, he spent most of his reign driving the nomads back, until he was killed by the British in 1916. They then discovered that they had no alternative but to continue his policy. They also kept the old ruling elite intact; many of today’s educated Darfurians are descended from that elite.

From 1916 to 1956, Darfur was a backwater ruled by a handful of British officials. Its only resource was young men who migrated eastward to find work in the cotton schemes between the Blue and White Niles. It was only in the mid-1960s that Darfurians, both Arab and non-Arab, began to enter the national political arena and assert their own identity....

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