Darfur's uneasy and often violent merger with Sudan dates back to 1916 when
foreign colonizers defeated the Kingdom of Darfur and integrated it with Sudan,
an independent British and Egyptian territory since 1899.
Prior to the
World War I-era conquest, Darfur had existed for hundreds of years as a Muslim
sultanate whose rulers gained power through their role in the region's slave trade.
And it is that unique history of independence and political organization that
continues to fuel much of Darfur's fight to seek a bigger share of the wealth
and power from the Sudanese government.
Three main ethnic groups -- the
Fur and the Masalit in the central zone and the Zaghawa in the north -- make up
the 30-some tribes that coexist in Darfur. Over the years, mixing and intermarriage
between Darfur's tribes have blurred the lines between these ethnic groups.
90 percent of Darfurians are Muslim.
Sudan's independence in 1956, the central government set up "people's
councils" to replace the chiefs that had led the region's
tribes, but, according to many Darfur experts, failed to allocate
enough funding for local services such as police, schools and
A sense of marginalization and neglect grew in Darfur and the people began
to blame the national government in Khartoum for the region's lack of development.
Darfur has received less education, health care and development assistance and
fewer government posts than any other region, according to Alex de Waal, a fellow
at the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard University.
"If the governor
of Darfur wanted to mount a police operation against bandits, he had to commandeer
vehicles and fuel from two rural development projects. ... If he wanted to hold
an inter-tribal conference to resolve a dispute, he had to ask wealthy citizens
to cover the expenses," de Waal wrote in the article "Counter-Insurgency
on the Cheap."
Following a military coup in Sudan in May 1969, the
new Sudanese government divided Darfur into three states: Gharb Darfur in the
west, Shamal Darfur in the north and Janub Darfur in the south. The new division,
purportedly aimed at ending clashes with local pro-independence rebels in Darfur,
prevented the Fur majority from influencing local politics and gave the Arab-dominated
central government more control over the area.
Governors, deputy governors
and the council of ministers responsible for the administration and economic planning
for each state were appointed by the central government, a system that continues
"Every time the government wants to appoint officials, they
will appoint people that agree with his (President al-Bashir's) policy,"
said Ali Ali Dinar, outreach director of the African Study Center at the University
Added to the restive political situation came a series
of droughts beginning in 1984 and a wave of desertification -- desert sands creeping
into the interior of Africa causing changes in soil composition -- that depleted
arable farmland and increased conflict between Darfur's ethnic groups. The droughts
and loss of farmland has threatened the existence of the nearly 60 percent of
Darfur's 4 million inhabitants who live as subsistence farmers.
made villages more protective of their resources and less inclined to share their
pastures and wells with migrating tribes. With the region on the brink of famine,
Darfurians often settled arguments over resources with violence, and resentment
toward other tribes and the government increased.
And while administrative
changes and government appointments influenced the political makeup of the region,
a regional war between Libya and neighboring Chad added a lethal element to the
Darfur mix -- a ready supply of weapons.
In 1989, Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir
led a successful coup and installed an Islamic government in Khartoum. Al-Bashir's
political Islam appealed to many Darfurians but only a handful of them were elevated
to high positions in the government's administration, further adding to their
sense of neglect.
In 1994, the central government returned to the native
administration council form of governance set up by the British and installed
chiefs to oversee areas. This administrative reform came with little additional
funding from the central government and prompted the chiefs, now in control of
scarce land, to use armed vigilantes for local-level ethnic cleansing.
of the present conflict in Darfur has its origins in land rights and the shortcomings
of the local administration. But the central government, too, is implicated in
Darfur's plight, with neglect and manipulation playing equal parts," according
to de Waal.
the late 1990s, the government shifted from an Islamic political
identity to one guided by the Arab elite after Hassan al Turabi,
the driving force behind Sudan's Muslim-driven policy, lost a
power struggle with al-Bashir and was removed from his position
as speaker of the parliament. Turabi's dismissal created a split
in the regime that drove the regional Islamist party cells into
the opposition and prompted the few Darfurians that had benefited
from the rise of Islam to leave the government.
A manuscript called "The Black Book"
surfaced in May 2000 that outlined Darfur's grievances toward the central government.
Penned in secret by a group calling itself the Seekers of Truth and Justice, it
used sensitive records from state archives to show "the imbalance of power
and wealth in Sudan" and the dominance of three tribes from Sudan's Nile
valley in the north of Khartoum.
The book's publication caused a stir in
Sudan after copies of it appeared mysteriously in mosques and other public places.
It became the most talked about document in the country and acted as a call to
action, though not at first a call to arms, against the central government.
Mahmoud Logma is one of the Black Book's 15 authors and now a represents the Justice
and Equality Movement, one of the main rebel groups in Darfur.
that time when we were writing the book, we were not thinking of rebellion. We
wanted to achieve our aims by democratic and peaceful means," said Logma
in an interview with the Financial Times. "Later we realized the regime would
only listen to guns."
In February 2003, rebels from Darfur attacked
military installations triggering an armed response from the central government.
Khartoum considered this rebellion in Darfur as a danger to al-Bashir's
administration, according to Charles Snyder, the senior representative on Sudan
for the U.S. Department of State. Because of region's history of political independence,
the rebels in Darfur constituted a greater threat to the government than the resistance
in the south and its reaction, Snyder said, "was a threat to the heart of
the regime and the response was probably maniacal, but nonetheless, consistent
to a threat to the core."