Submitted by BF Bankie
Juba, South Sudan

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Darfur People: Too Black for the Arab-Islamic Project of Sudan

by Abdullahi Osman El-Tom, Ph.D

Email: Abdhullahi.Eltom@Nuim


“Any village you pass through you must burn.  That way, when the villagers come back, they will have a surprise waiting for them” (An Antanov pilot
ordering a ground commander of a government army battalion in Darfur, Sudan; US Senator John McCain 2004).

“An Antanov pilot over Darfur reports to his Khartoum commander: There is nothing under me except grass cottages, Sir.”

“I order you to bomb them and expel their religion (tallay deenhum; render them unbelievers)”the commander orders back”.  


Since its Independence in 1956, Sudan has been dominated by three ethnic groups from the Northern Region of Sudan which constitutes no more
than 5% of the population of the state.  Using the state machinery, a tripartite coalition of these ethnic groups has promoted a policy of Arab
Islamism that ensures a near-total control over wealth and power in the country.  The minority power is further enhanced by monopoly over
modernity and modernization that was once a preserve of the colonial elite.  This monopoly has been maintained at a huge cost, resulting in
poverty, disease, famine and regional uprisings including the current one in Darfur.  

Key words: Darfur, Janjaweed, ethnicity, SLA, SLMA, JEM, Fur, Zaghawa, Masaaleit

Author’s Testimony:

The eminent Sudanese scholar Francis Deng once said; “what divides us is what we don’t talk about” What we don’t talk about is in effect a taboo
that has stifled debate and prevented true discussion among past and current Sudanese scholars.  This situation has made it impossible to debate
certain issues whose examination is crucial to solving the most obstinate of Sudan’s persistent problems.

Well, in some way, that taboo has long been broken.  A milestone in its destruction was the courageous publication of the Black Book of Sudan. With
80,000 dead, 2m displaced in Darfur (November 04), and the numbers are expected to rise, the Darfuris are left with no time for niceties, and
certainly not for taboos.  As Martin Luther King expressed, an abscess can only be cured if its ugly pus is fully exposed to the air.  Let that be the
mission of this article.

Before we proceed any further, let me define where I stand with regard to the current crisis in Darfur.  From the reader’s perspective, discerning the
author’s label is crucial to buying into the goods.  As a matter of principle and like many others the world over, I take the view that war is neither an
ideal nor an effective way of conflict resolution, particularly if the conflict is primarily political in nature, such as the current problem in Darfur. As a
matter of fact, most of us, from and in Darfur have never been party to the decision to raise arms against the government of Khartoum.  Despite,
many Dafuris, including government supporters concur with the grievances and the objectives of Darfur rebels but do not share raising arms to
pursue these objectives.   

However, once the armed struggle started, most Darfuris found themselves with little choice but to take a stand and only one stand.  Let us,
Darfuris, and particularly those who are deemed too African for Sudan, face it; we simply cannot afford to let the armed movement fail.  Fortunately,
the realisation of the objectives of Darfur Movement needs not be entirely achieved through armed struggle.  It is not too late to lay down arms and
continue the struggle through peaceful negotiations of the problem.

Darfur Problem:

Scholars working on the current Darfur crisis have often looked inside the Region in search of its causes.  Not surprisingly, this approach reduces
discussion of the problem to localized indices like drought, environmental degradation, conflicts over local resources and tribalism (see below).  This
paper departs from this approach for two reasons.  Firstly, Darfur is not an isolated region.  It is part and parcel of a national structure and which the
policies of Khartoum governments have played a great part.  Secondly, Darfur is not in any way unique in its problems.  Its plight is shared by other
regions in Sudan and with which it is intricately connected.  Darfur should be seen as an indivisible part of a defective whole that is bedevilled by the
hegemony of a favoured tranche over the rest of Sudan. To this I turn now.

Darfur, Land and People:

Darfur, the size of France and covering an area of 160,000 square miles, lies between 22 and 27 Longitude East and 10 and 16 Latitude North. It
has a population of 6 million, which constitutes roughly a fifth of Sudan’s current population.  Darfur is inhabited by numerous ethnic groups that are
all Muslims.  The majority of Darfur’s population is now classified as Black African, some retaining their original African languages but using Arabic
as a lingua franca.  Others have long lost their indigenous languages and have been speaking Arabic, as their mother tongue, for centuries.  Major
ethnic groups in Darfur on the so-called Black African side are the Fur, the Masaaliet, the Zaghawa the Salaamat, the Meidobe and the Berti.  On
the Arab side are the Baggara, the Rizaigat, the Zayadia, the Maalia and the Beni Halba.  It must be noted that this list consists of only a handful of
ethnic groups in Darfur and that division between one group and another is fluid, ideological and subject to continuous change.    

The population of Darfur is categorised in different ways, each time according to the purpose at hand.  Sometimes, the division is based on
language whereby you have Arabic speakers versus non-Arabic speakers.  Equally you have distinctions based on mode of livelihood whereby you
have pastoralists, sedentary farmers and urban dwellers.  Yet, another division stresses the extent of ideological claim to Arab identity or culture.  A
far less useful way is to use ethnic boundary as a marker between one group and another like the Fur, the Zaghawa, the Massalit, ..etc (see Ibrahim
2004 and 1984, Ahmed and Harir 1982, O’Fahay 1980, Abdul Jalil 1984 and Sulaiman 1997).

The current crisis has changed all previous population categorisations.  It precipitated a new division that operates as an ideology that is
consciously enacted on the ground as an arbiter of alliance among various ethnic groups.  Darfur can now be primarily divided into two broad
categories, Arabs, mostly but not all nomads, who have a strong claim to Arab culture and ancestry and Black Africans (Zurga) who regard
themselves as essentially non-Arab and African in origin.  Surprisingly, many ethnic groups in the latter category speak Arabic as their mother
tongue and have, at least until a few years ago, courted both Arab ancestry and culture.   For the latter category, Africanism has finally superseded
language, Islam and the influence of Arab culture as a determining factor of identity.  For them, Africanism connotes both historic belonging to the
land and pride in their darker colour but above all distinctiveness from their new Arab opponents.   

Information on Darfur’s history is still scant and hard to come by.  Notable exceptions are the writings of O’Fahay who stood as a pillar among the
few who toiled hard to unveil the history of Darfur (O’Fahey 1969 and 1980; also Theobold 1956). From the 14th century right through to the 19th
century, Darfur was dominated by three Kingdoms, the Dajo between the 13th to the 16th century, the Tunjur who ruled Jebel Mara until the 17th
century and the Keira Dynasty which was only partially defeated by the Turks in 1874.   Hence Darfur was, to a great degree, a separate sultanate
until it was annexed to current Sudan by the British in 1916.  With the exception of a brief period of its history (1887-1898), Darfur stood as separate
kingdom whose borders encroached into Chad but occasionally moved east deep into the current Region of Kordofan.  (see also Ibrahim 2004).    

The paucity of knowledge of Darfur’s history is not accidental.  Rather it is a logical outcome of the orchestrated state campaign to obliterate the
history of non-Northern Sudanese.  The success of this campaign is so spectacular that many of the target populations have accepted their
banishment from history.  In official Sudanese discourse, Darfur has always presented as a Region of no history in line with other marginalized areas
in the Sudan.  As a child growing up in Darfur, I was taught to look beyond the Red Sea and explore my history as part of the Arab peninsula and its
glorious Arab Islamic Empire.  When I was a young boy at Alfashir secondary school, our four classrooms were named after the famous four Islamic
Khalifas. i.e. Successors of the Prophet Mohammed (Abu Bakr, Omer, Othman and Ali).

When Arab-Islmic history gives way, it is replaced by symbols from northern Sudan and rarely by those from the marginalized areas in the country.  
The hostels in both the intermediate and secondary schools that I attended bore the names of Sudanese historical figures like Tihraqa,  Nijoomi,
Abu Likailik and Dinar; the last being the only Darfuri who was occasionally honoured by this deliberate reinvention of history.    

The onslaught on Darfur history was so overwhelming that the local people too participated in it.  The blatancy of this project to clear history of non-
Arab elements was so much exemplified by an order of a then fanatic Minister of Culture and Information (1980s) to decree that all pre-Islamic
symbols in the National Museum in Khartoum be removed and replaced by artefacts that reflected Islamic culture and history.  Such a vision of
history has now become evident among the marginalised, particularly in Darfur.  My own District town of Umkeddada in North Darfur is now divided
into four residential quarters officially known as: Muzdalifa, Safa, Taqwa and Al-Slam.  Two of these names refer to pilgrimage spots in Saudi Arabia
and the third (Taqwa) can simply be translated as –Islamic- “piety”.  Only one of the four chosen names (Alsalam) refers to a general human virtue
but that too equally resonates with Islamic philosophy, teaching and thought.  After all, the word Salam is a derivative of the term “Aslama ” (Became
a Muslim), and is central to Islamic greeting formulae and is also used in Islamic prayers.     

The evolution of nations is a long and arduous process that cannot be pinned down to a definite date in its history.  Sudan as a nation is no
exception and its birth cannot be referenced to a single date. Nonetheless there are certain landmarks in its history and I will take the liberty of
starting from just over a century ago. The Mahdist state in Sudan, 1885-1898 was a land mark in the formation of the present official Sudanese
national identity but only if we leapfrog history and omit the golden era of Amara Dunqus, the king of the first Black Sultanate in central Sudan.    
The Mahdits era is important not only due to its ability to bring together a substantial territory of the current Sudan under one rule, but because it
was the last indigenous leadership that colonialism used as basis for modern Sudan. The cleavage of that Mahdist state is central to our plight
today.  So much energy, historisim, national and western scholastic endeavour have reduced that cleavage to simple religious differences.  Hence
you have northern Muslims versus Christian cum animist south.  But the Mahdist state reflected the realities of Sudan differently and this image
might be a better base for analysing current Sudan.  

In the Mahdist reign, the state witnessed intense struggle between two main groups, the Ashraf (honourable descendents of Prophet Mohammad)
who identified with the Mahdi and the Gharraba (Westerners of Darfur and Kordofan) who sided with Alkhalifa Abdullahi.   In some ways, the seeds
of what was to become the nucleus of Sudanese identity were sown.  The Ashraf, were to be staged as the core of that identity as against the
Gharraba who occupied a position of inferiority in the new mould.  Although the Mahdist movement was instigated by the ills of the Turkish rule
(1881-1885) which included slavery, the abolition of slavery was not central to Mahdist policies.  In the Mahdist policies, slavery was tolerated if not
encouraged by the state  because trade with the outside world came to a halt.  More damagingly, a slave mentality was augmented during the
Mahdist regime through the institutionalisation of Arab hegemony during the reign of the Khalifa. Ironically, The Mahdi did little about slavery in the
Sudan under the pretext that there was no clear statement regarding its abolition in the Koran.  At the same time, he channelled considerable
energy into banning the use and sale of tobacco which did not feature in the Koran (Hashim 2004:12).....

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