Monday, May 1, 2006

Darfur: background to the conflict in the Sudan

The high-water mark for peace prospects in Sudan probably came in 2004 with an agreement between the UN and the Sudanese government that it would disarm militias and facilitate humanitarian aid efforts. Eventually, 2000 African Union troops were deployed to the Darfur region. However, peace talks between the government and the two rebel factions (the Movement for Justice and Equality and the Sudanese Liberation Army) have consistently stalled over disarmament.

Two years of hand-wringing later and the UN has managed only limited sanctions against Sudanese leaders and a referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court. The ICC, of course, will not be able to act until after the dust has settled – having no power or ability to swoop in and seize suspects.

The stalemate arises from the fact that the Sudanese government won’t allow UN peacekeepers in until a peace agreement with the rebel factions has been signed.

According to the New York Times, the UN Security Council doesn’t want to send a force in as a compulsory measure under Chapter VII for a number of reasons. First, China and Russia would not support such a move. Both China and Russia have strong economic links with Sudan, especially China which accounts for 64% of Sudanese exports and 10% of its imports. Second, there has not exactly been a rush to volunteer peacekeeping troops by the international community.

But what are the origins of the conflict? Typically, the Guardian has an excellent interactive timeline and Le Monde has quite a good summary of more recent events.

Sudan is ethnically, religiously and linguistically divided between a predominantly Arab/Muslim north and an African/Christian (and Animist) South. In Darfur province in the Northwest the janjaweed militia (basically government proxies) have been attempting to drive out ethnic Africans. There are many internally displaced persons as a result, and many international refugees who have crossed into Chad.

The situation has certainly heightened Chad/Sudan tension, with both sides accusing the other of supporting anti-government rebel groups within its territory.

While there were Christians in the Sudan area in the sixth century, the present conflict probably has nineteenth century roots. In 1882 a rebellion expelled Egyptian and British colonial rule and established a strict Islamic state; the rebellion was only suppressed by the colonizers in 1889. Sudan was then jointly administered by Egypt and the UK until its independence in 1956.

Promises of self-rule for the south within a federal system were reneged upon by the new independence government sparking civil war from 1955 to 1972. The war was rekindled in 1983 following the imposition of Sharia law on non-Islamic people in the South. Another possible reason for the central government’s reluctance to relinquish any control of the South is that it holds 75% of Sudanese oil fields.

That said, the present rebels in Darfur (the northwest) are a somewhat separate issue from the old North-South civil war, except insofar as the conflict has clear ethnic overtones with Arab militias (backed by an Arab government) attempting to displace the African locals.

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