No Genocide in Darfur

2 October 2006

No Genocide in Darfur

By Gwynne Dyer

On one issue, at least, George Bush and George Clooney are in perfect accord: what is happening in Darfur is a genocide, and Something Must Be Done. But it isn’t a genocide, and Nothing Will Be Done.

“What you’ll hear is, well, the government of Sudan must invite the United Nations in for us to act,” said President George W. Bush in mid-September. “Well, there are other alternatives, like passing a UN resolution saying we’re coming in with a UN force in order to save lives.” But for all Bush’s tough talk, he wasn’t really ready to fight his way into Darfur, so the actual UN resolution says that Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir must approve the force. “Philanthropic imperialism” has a dwindling constituency in Washington.

Actor George Clooney is still up for it, though. If the proposed force of 20,000 UN troops was not in Darfur by the end of September, he told the United Nations Security Council three weeks ago, the scene will be set for “the first genocide of the 21st century.” There would be no point in sending UN troops later: “You will simply need men with shovels and bleached linen and headstones.” As if the UN could actually come up with 20,000 troops to send, and would authorise them to fight their way into Sudan against Bashir’s will.

The end-of-September deadline for putting a 20,000-strong force of United Nations troops into Darfur, including large numbers of soldiers drawn from NATO countries, was always a fantasy. The deadline has passed without any softening of the Sudanese government’s total rejection of the plan, and no Western troops are heading for Sudan any time soon. Instead, the existing force of 7,000 troops from African Union countries that tries to protect the refugee camps, under-equipped and poorly supplied though it is, will stay at least until the end of the year.

This is the best available outcome, and may even save some tens of thousands of lives — especially if the Western countries now give that African Union force the money, fuel, night-flying helicopters and other resources it needs to do the job. It will continue to be grim in Darfur, but at least the West has avoided a military intervention in Africa that would have made the Somalia debacle in 1992-93 look like a success story.

Darfur, the western region of Sudan, is as big as France, but it has only six million people. They are all black Africans and all Muslims, but some were Arabised long ago, while other groups, notably the Zaghawa and the Fur, have retained their original African languages and ethnic identities. (Darfur means “home of the Fur”.) Resources are scarce, and the various groups are often in conflict over them.

Nevertheless, Darfur remained relatively quiet during the dreadful war (two million dead in the past twenty years) between the African ethnic groups of southern Sudan, where most people are Christians or animists, and the Muslims of the Arabised north who dominated Sudan’s government, army and economy. It was the peace settlement between north and south in 2003 that triggered the revolt in Darfur.

That peace deal gave the southern rebels a share in the central government, a half-share of the oil revenues now pouring in from wells that are mostly located in “southern” territory, and the right to a referendum on independence from Sudan in six years’ time. So some leaders of the Zaghawa and the Fur decided to emulate the southerners: launch a revolt in Darfur, and try to cut a similar deal with Khartoum in return for ending it.

The regime in Khartoum used the same tactic that it had employed extensively in the war in the south: it armed and paid Arabised groups (the Janjaweed militia) to fight the rebels. And just as in the south, the bulk of the victims were innocent civilians. A great many people died, and almost half the population fled to refugee camps that sprang up inside Darfur and across the frontier in Chad.

International aid agencies try to care for the refugees and the African Union sent a 7,000-strong force to protect them, but none of the foreigners took sides in the fighting. At peace talks in Abuja last May Khartoum offered the rebels posts in the provincial government and a share of oil revenues, and one rebel group, Minni Minawi’s Sudan Liberation Army, accepted the deal. However, two rival groups didn’t — and even the SLA split, with breakaway factions joining the rejectionists to form the National Redemption Front.

In July fighting resumed, with Minnawi’s SLA now cooperating with government troops and the Janjaweed against the remaining rebels. What is needed is not outside military intervention against either side, but a return to the peace table. Alex de Waal, an advisor to the African Union mediation team at the talks, reckons that another $100 million on the table would probably have persuaded most of the rebel hold-outs to accept the deal.

Darfur is not another Rwanda, another Cambodia, another Holocaust in the making, as the “Never Again” slogans of protesters in the West suggest. It is a cruel war of a kind lamentably common in Africa, and the most useful thing non-Africans can do is to support the African Union’s mediators and its troops on the ground.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“What…will”)