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Africa And Aboriginal Tuesdays: "Asking The Right Questions About Darfur, Sudan" Part I Exclusive Q & A With Professor Sean O'Fahey, Northwestern University and the University of Bergen

Today launches its multi-part investigative interview series on the crisis in Darfur, Sudan.

Through an in-depth series of interviews with experts, specialists, opinion leaders, religious leaders, activists, and government officials; hopes to help its readers arrive at the truth of the matter in Darfur, and to identify the basis for a lasting peace in the region and Sudan. The series, "Asking The Right Questions About Darfur, Sudan", begins with an exclusive interview with Professor Sean O’Fahey of Northwestern University and the University of Bergen (Norway). Professor O’Fahey is a specialist in Islamic Sudan and Eastern Africa and has authored several books specifically on Dar Fur. Publisher Cedric Muhammad says of the motivation and format of the special series:

"We are launching this series because I believe that many within the mainstream media and some leaders have done all of us a disservice in not properly explaining the current crisis in Sudan and its roots. Some have allowed ideological, partisan and special interests to influence and corrupt their research process, premises, arguments and conclusions regarding Darfur in particular, and Sudan in general. The result has been the manipulation and increase of the lack of knowledge among people, particularly Blacks living in America and the people of Africa, as it relates to their understanding of one another.

"So we decided that should look for a fuller explanation, locating individuals of various perspectives, stations, and fields of expertise, in search of the truth – facts, proper interpretations of the facts, and solutions to the complex problems of this region and nation. I honestly believe that if Darfur and Sudan can be placed on the road to peace and prosperity the same can be done for all of Africa. But no problem as serious and complicated as this can be solved without the knowledge of the truth. And the truth can best be investigated and obtained by properly asking the right people the right questions at the right time".

Today's interview with Professor O'Fahey, conducted via e-mail by Publisher Cedric Muhammad, revolves largely around the question of ethnicity and identity in Darfur, Sudan.


Cedric Muhammad: In a recent op-ed you wrote published by The International Herald Tribune you gave a snapshot of how difficult it is to neatly classify and differentiate members of tribes and ethnic groups in Darfur, writing, "For example, once a successful Fur farmer had a certain number of cattle, he would ''become'' Baqqara, and in a few generations his descendants would have an ''authentic'' Arab genealogy."

In addition the pictures I have seen of those being styled as 'Arab' militia members are dark-skinned Black men, by the standards of most people living in the West.

Also I know that writers like A.M. Ahmed and S. Harir have suggested that the population in Darfur can also be divided into four groups: 1) The Baggara (cattle nomads), 2) the Abala (cattle nomads), 3) the Zurga (the local name for non-Arab peasants derived from the Arabic word for black), and 4) the inhabitants of the urban centers.

And, finally I know that you have been a leader in stressing that linguistic, migration, and occupational factors are essential aspects of identifying ethnic structures in Darfur. So, in light of that, what do you think of the insistence by many, in depicting what is happening in Darfur as Arabs vs. Black Africans?

Professor Sean O'Fahey: It is both very recent and very misleading. For example, the use of the term “Zurqa” “Blacks” to distinguish non-Arab peoples from Arabs has a long history in the region, but only recently has it acquired racial/racist overtones. We will come back to this below. Colour classifications have a long history in the Sudan - see for example O´Fahey and Spaulding, Kingdoms of the Sudan (London 1974) - but without necessarily racist implications.

Cedric Muhammad: Mohamed Suliman, several years ago offered an interesting perspective dealing with how ethnicity and race can go from being perceived or secondary factors in a conflict to becoming the primary or central force. I think his thesis is applicable to what is happening in Darfur. Here is some of what he presented in a 1997 paper he submitted to an international workshop:

"Ethnicity, far from presenting a historical leftover, has been recast as a modern phenomenon, with people re-tribalising in the face of pressure so that ethnicity is no longer seen as a cause, but rather as a consequence of war, (Fukui & Markakis, 1994 also Gurr and Harff, 1994). However, with the passage of time an inversion of ethnicity from being an effect into being a cause is indeed possible.

Many violent conflicts continue over long periods of time, hence the need to understand what time does to causes, perceptions and manifestations of violent conflict.

The passage of time blurs some processes, enforces others and obliterates some altogether. We can only guess what the consequences of today’s acts will be, given the number of subjective factors in action and the very real possibility that a subjective factor may invert and become an objective one and vice versa.

… some factors, like ethnicity, and cultural and religious affiliations - initially abstract ideological or political categories effective mainly in the realm of perception - can be transformed by the passage of time into objective, ‘material’ social forces. Ethnicity, for example, often the product of violent conflict, can end up becoming an objective cause of enduring or future violence, proving that, with time, effects can become causes.

Ethnic, religious and cultural dichotomies remain, however, very potent in people's perceptions of violent conflict. However, the longer a conflict endures, the higher the ethnic barrier will rise and the greater the possibility that the ethnic divide will augment the initial causes of the conflict and may even surpass them, with time, to become the dominant factor."

Professor O’Fahey, Do you think that this is what is happening in Darfur today, that ethnicity is being inverted from an effect to an actual cause in violence?

Professor Sean O'Fahey: Yes, the term I would use is the politicization of ethnicity. The question then arises, who does the politicizing? The marginalization of Darfur, exacerbated in the early 80s by drought and concomitant desertification, led to cleavages between Arab and non-Arab groups politically, despite efforts by leaders on both sides, for example the former governor, Ahmed Ibrahim Derreig, to overcome the cleavage. A turning point came in 1988 with the decision by the then Prime Minister, Sadiq al-Mahdi, to arm the nomads to fight against the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) to the south. Thus emerged the Murahillin, semi-government militia who turned their guns on the “African” farmers to the north. Localized conflicts or disputes over wells and grazing rights, traditionally settled by mediation, now began in the late 80s to coalesce into a wider conflict which increasingly took on an ideological/racist tone.

Cedric Muhammad: It is clear from the history and by most accounts that there are significant ecological factors that have exacerbated tensions between ethnic groups in Darfur. The almost incessant drought since 1967 and its role on economics has been explored and acknowledged today, but virtually no one blaming either the Sudanese government or opposition groups is pointing to the earlier dynamic of armed conflict amongst tribal groups that revolved around environmental scarcity and degradation. Why do you think that is and could you elaborate on this dynamic?

Professor Sean O'Fahey: The nature and scale of the drought/desertification crisis was far beyond the resources of any Khartoum Government to comprehend and deal with. Darfur is a long way away from Khartoum and very, very marginal. Politics in the capital are the politics of the capital. With the re-emergence of the Southern conflict in 1983, Khartoum´s energies were focused southwards, not westwards. But you are right to emphasise the ecological factors; the problem is to determine how these factors have influenced political and other developments in the region. To put it more simply, when and how does a conflict between tribe A (who happen to Arabic-speaking) with tribe B (who speak Fur, Tama, or whatever) over grazing and water develop into a racial conflict?

Cedric Muhammad: You have written that it was only in the mid-1960s that Darfurians began to enter the national political arena and assert their own identity. How did this engagement in politics affect ethnic identity and previously existing conflicts between tribes and ethnic groups?

Professor Sean O'Fahey: The emergence of the Darfur Development Front in 1966 was a positive trend. For the young Darfurian intellectuals who were its prime movers, ethnicity was not really an issue. In regard to local conflicts, as I have said above, there were mechanisms of mediation, often elaborate and almost ritualized, to deal with them.

Cedric Muhammad:What ways have the Sudanese government and Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) used ethnic groups and tribes in Darfur as proxies in their war with one another?

Professor Sean O'Fahey: In the early 90s, A Darfurian, Daoud Boulat, an Islamist turned separatist, attempted an invasion of southern Darfur on behalf of the SPLA. He was defeated and killed. My impression is that since then the SPLA have very wary of any involvement in Darfur. I expand on this point below.

Cedric Muhammad:Much has been made of a relationship between the Sudanese government and "Arab" militias. Do similar relationships exist between the SPLA and other tribes?

Professor Sean O'Fahey: I am no expert here. You would have to contact Douglas Johnson at Oxford or Sharon Hutchinson at Madison. A very insightful book on this general topic is Deborah Scroggins, Emma´s War (New York, 2002).

Cedric Muhammad: Can it be said that every tribe in Darfur has its own militia?

Professor Sean O'Fahey: This is probably an exaggeration. One would need to know more on the military structure(s) behind the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M) and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).

Cedric Muhammad:You recently stated that an oil pipeline is a factor in what is going on in Darfur. Are there oil interests seeking to manipulate the situation or who stand to benefit from the worsening condition in Darfur?

Professor Sean O'Fahey: I was to some extent misunderstood on this point. On the question of a possible pipeline across southern Darfur, there is no definite information. The oil issue comes into the quation inasmuch as the dominant motive for the Khartoum Government and the SPLA to come to some sort of agreement is precisely oil. Both sides need peace so that both can exploit the oil revenues (bearing in mind that the oil-producing areas lie approximately on the North/South divide). Given this fact, and the willingness of the Observer Group at the Naivasha talks [USA, UK and Norway] to go along with the situation, Darfur was practically speaking ignored. In this sense oil has become a factor in the Darfur conflict.

Cedric Muhammad:What is the legacy of the British presence in Darfur? Are any of the problems today attributable to the rule of that nation over the Darfur region? More specifically, did the British favor or play a role in the elevation of one ethnic group over the other in a way where the effects linger today?

Professor Sean O'Fahey: Actually, older Darfurians remember the British very fondly; they were only there for forty years (1916-56) and there were never more than about 20 administrators (given Darfur´s size, comparable to France, this was hardly overkill). What they did, when the British invaded Darfur in 1916 and annexed it to the Sudan, was to kill the sultan, Ali Dinar, but otherwise leave his system of administration intact. When I first went to Darfur in 1968, most of the chiefs and other dignitaries I interviewd were the sons and grandsons of Ali Dinar´s chiefs. This system, which to my perhaps innocent eye, worked very well, was destoyed in 1974 and after by the government of Jafar al-Numayri. Frankly Darfur has been a mess ever since.

Cedric Muhammad: Professor, what do you think is the remedy to the situation in Darfur? Is it a massive humanitarian effort; a political settlement between the Sudanese government and all rebel and political opposition groups; disarmament of all of the tribal militias; reparations or some form of redress for past injustices, grievances, or none or all of the above?

Professor Sean O'Fahey: Now you are asking me about matters beyond my competence. But I am sceptical to large-scale outside intervention. My guess is that the Sudanese in general, the Khartoum Government, and the Janjaweed will all react very negatively to outside intervention - the precedence of Iraq comes to mind. Pressure on the Khartoum Government to allow NGOs like MSF (“Doctors without Borders”, who are already there) and others to operate in Darfur freely would be the obvious step, but to combine NGO activity with military intervention could lead to great difficulties. The recent decision of MSF to withdraw from Afghanistan illustrates the problem. The sticking-point for the Khartoum Government will be their policy towards the SLA and JEM; they will not want to legitimize them in the way they have been forced to with the SPLA. This issue will turn on how strong the SLA and JEM are on the ground. Here, I can offer a final generalization; sedentary people are generally slower to mobilize than nomads, for obvious reasons, but historically Darfur has always been ruled by the sedentary peoples of the region.

Tuesday, August 3, 2004

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