The decades-long conflict in Sudan's Darfur region has its roots in constant neglect and tensions between sedentary farming communities and nomads.
These have been compounded by a local drought and desertification, an expanding population and the manipulation of ethnic rivalry. Ironically, the main grievances - most notably competition for land and resources - are common to all of Darfur's seven million inhabitants but have been exploited in a "divide and rule" tactic that pits one tribal group against another, observers say. The result has seen an escalation of fighting since early 2003, leaving thousands of Sudanese dead, and hundreds of thousands displaced. Occurring within a vast region of northwestern Sudan, the conflict belies the popular myth that the country is divided along ethnic lines, between an Arab Muslim north and a Christian or animist, black south.
In Darfur, where the vast majority of people are Muslims and Arabic-speaking, the distinction between 'Arab' and 'African' is more cultural than racial. Regional analysts say this raises fundamental questions about the country's ongoing bilateral peace process, by exposing the imbalance of negotiations that include only one of Sudan's rebel groups - the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) - and only three of its so-called "marginalised areas" - the Nuba mountains, Abyei and Southern Blue Nile.
"You can't implement a peace agreement in the midst of civil war," warned a western diplomat.
Use of militias
Armed raids on rich agricultural areas of Darfur have historically been part of the way of life for the region's Arab nomadic herders.
The minority Arabs engaged in low level skirmishes with sedentary farmers until the 1970s. But since the mid-1980s, following a prolonged drought in 1983, skirmishes with subsistence farmers developed into larger-scale battles as the nomads were pushed further south.
At the same time, successive northern governments began using Arab militias to crush rising dissent in the region, including an SPLA-led rebellion in 1991-1992. Analysts say this gave the Arab nomads leverage with the government, which rewarded them with local administrative positions, financial gains and arms, at the expense of the "African" tribes. "Government policies were instrumental in transforming 'traditional' tribal conflict over access to receding grazing land and water into a new type of conflict driven by a broader ethnic agenda," says the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank.
The fiercely independent Fur - who had ruled the independent sultanate of Darfur (which means homeland of the Fur) until 1916 - along with the Zaghawa, Massalit and other tribes rebelled. The Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) rebels emerged in February 2003 as a response to years of government-sanctioned attacks, unpopular central governance, lack of development in the region, and an ever more precarious existence, say analysts. Calling for a "united, democratic Sudan", greater political autonomy and a greater share of resources, the rebels asked the people of Darfur "of Arab background" to join with non-Arabised indigenous forces in the struggle against Khartoum.
The government, which views the insurgency as a security threat, has called on Darfur's tribes to "defend" their homes and property, and support the government's attempt to fight the rebels, the national Humanitarian Aid Commissioner, Dr Sulaf El Din, told IRIN.
"Some are coming forward and some are not. This does not mean that the government is biased against one group."
As a result, a militia known as the Janjaweed was formed, comprising Sudanese and Chadian horse and camel-riding Arab nomads, opportunists and "criminals", regional analysts said.
The Janjaweed are held responsible for much of the devastation in Darfur and have allegedly been given support by the government. Khartoum strongly denies the accusations. "First the soldiers arrived and started shooting and burning people's homes, then the Janjaweed came to kill and loot everything," said a displaced man outside Nyala in southern Darfur. A tribal leader in western Darfur told IRIN the army used to attack villages just before the militias to lay the groundwork and confiscate people's weapons.
"But now the militias have been given access to good arms, they are better than the army's," he claims. "The Janjaweed are fighting for land and they have found that they can fight this with the government's resources, the whole country's resources. It's a chance they never dreamed of," a Darfur member of parliament told IRIN. Hundreds of villages and neighbouring farmland have been completely destroyed.
Food prices in western Darfur have increased dramatically from 1,800 Sudanese dinars to 7,000 for a bag of millet, while commercial traffic has all but stopped. Livestock have decreased in value as locals desperately try to sell off their cattle before they are looted.
Political solution to a political problem
The government says it is trying to contain the violence and insists that the conflict is "local", resulting from arms flowing into the region from Chad and Libya.
"There is no rebellion in Darfur, just a local conflict among specific tribes," Information Minister Dr Al Zhawi Ibrahim Malik told IRIN. "The government has not armed the militias." He attributed the reports on militia atrocities to propaganda and exaggeration. "Those with their own agendas are trying to give a very sad view of what is happening," he said. "The propaganda in the west is trying to exaggerate what is taking place in Darfur." Observers note that the government has taken some positive steps to stem the crisis in recent weeks.
Extra resources are being set aside for Darfur, in an apparent recognition of problems associated with the lack of development.
Peace conferences are being organised, and some of the Janjaweed have been recruited into the Popular Defence Forces (government paramilitary units) and border intelligence units in an attempt to give them a new role.
But regional analysts say the essentially political nature of the conflict is not being addressed sufficiently. A western diplomat described the security-driven response to date as being "devoid of political or social dimensions". Another diplomat said there were "no signs of the government ceding power to Darfur". "Khartoum perceives that it has already made enough concessions to the southern SPLA, so it is determined not to lose more to its northern constituency," he commented. Only a handful of aid agencies have been allowed to operate in the region. Humanitarian sources said a "lack of transparency" regarding security information had led to travel permits being withheld for weeks.
This had prevented badly-needed aid from reaching both rebel-held and government areas.
Meanwhile, neighbouring Chad has been brokering talks aimed at reaching a peaceful settlement to the conflict.
But a nominal ceasefire agreement with the SLA which lasted for three months - from September to December - was accompanied by a massive escalation in militia attacks. Darfur MPs told IRIN the peace process - which broke down in December amid mutual recriminations - was "a waste of time". Darfur's second rebel group, the Islamist Justice and Equality Movement - a breakaway group from the SLA - had been excluded from talks, they said, while the ceasefire was not even respected.
Both rebel groups, which are unhappy with Chad's mediation, have said the inclusion of international monitors is a precondition to further negotiations. But Khartoum has so far refused to allow the international community to observe the talks, resulting in a deadlock. "Chad alone cannot broker peace - it is also affected by this war. Tribes from Chad are fighting in Sudan and they are affected politically so it cannot act independently," one Darfur MP said. Chadian President Idris Deby is himself a Zaghawa, but remains friendly with Khartoum. "I formally reject these allegations that Chad might be involved in the destabilisation of Sudan," he told Chadian radio. "We have the best possible relations between our states, and between President Omar al-Bashir and myself."
According to the ICG, Deby dedicated about 2,000 troops to take part in joint operations against the SLA. He also reportedly deported about 35 Darfur intellectuals who arrived in Chad in October to advise the politically inexperienced SLA during ceasefire negotiations.
The way forward
In the absence of a ceasefire, opinions are varied about the way out of this conflict.
Observers say immediate efforts must be made to rein in the attackers. "The government must acknowledge the failure of its past policies, protect its civilians, stabilise the region, and then work towards an equitable political solution with all of Darfur's tribes," one observer said. The UN has called for an internationally monitored "humanitarian ceasefire" that would automatically lead to more international aid, a larger international presence on the ground, less insecurity, and space for further talks. A growing number of voices including the SLA say Darfur should be discussed as part of the wider Sudanese peace process. "There has to be a peace settlement in Darfur before signing a comprehensive agreement [with the SPLA]," said one Darfur MP.
"It has to be treated equally with the rest of the marginalised areas. If they are given their autonomy, then it also has to be done to Darfur." But others say this would hold up the Kenya talks with the SPLA unnecessarily, and be viewed as a "reward" for armed insurrection. In the long-term, observers say, the peace process - brokered by the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) - will probably help to address Darfur's political grievances, by automatically leading to federalism, more development, wider participation in the political arena and access to resources. The blueprints for the disputed areas of the Nuba mountains, Abyei and southern Blue Nile will likely serve to deal with the Darfur situation.
SPLA leader John Garang has also warned that as a governing side during the interim period, it will not be a party to repression in the region. But while the debate continues, people continue to die. Even now, with 30,000 people forced to flee in December alone into neighbouring Chad, Darfur is receiving relatively little international attention. One donor described reaction to the conflict as a "collectively mishandled crisis". A combination of a lack of accurate information on the conflict, exacerbated by few aid agencies being able to work on the ground and little media coverage have meant that the conflict has not received the attention it deserves, he said.
"Humanitarians' reluctance to threaten the wider peace process, and an emphasis on post-conflict planning and development, have also hindered a quick response," he added. "We could have done better, if we had kept it on the agenda."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions