Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 November 2006
Issue No. 818
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Troubling times

The UN calls for peace in Darfur as Sudan's neighbour's concerns about the spillover impact of the world's worst humanitarian crisis gathers pace, writes Gamal Nkrumah

These are heady days for Sudan. The country is waging wars in its far-flung provinces that it cannot win. To be fair, peace deals have been signed with easterners and southerners by the central government in Khartoum. Westerners have yet to sign a conclusive peace accord with the Sudanese authorities.

Behind the talk of war and peace, many fundamental questions about the political future of Sudan and the precise nature of its relations with its neighbours remain unanswered. Violence in Darfur cannot be viewed in isolation of the wider regional context. Relations between Sudan and Chad have taken a turn for the worse this week and the two neighbouring states' bilateral relations are at their lowest ebb. This is a moment of maximum relevance to Sudan and its neighbours.

The Sudanese government has a multitude of domestic, regional and international problems. Sudanese government officials, however, have been putting on a brave face. The Sudanese authorities expelled the United Nations Secretary- General's Chief Envoy to Sudan Jan Pronk last week after he publicly accused the Sudanese government of mobilising the Arabised Janjaweed militias against the indigenous non-Arab communities of Darfur. He claimed this was done in reprisal raids following heavy losses in recent fighting between government forces and armed opposition groups in Sudan's westernmost war-torn province.

The spread of the Internet has made Pronk's statements all the more substantial. In his popular Internet blog, Pronk warned that in spite of the peace agreement signed with one armed opposition Darfur group -- the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) headed by Arko Minni Minnawi -- the Sudanese government continues to "seek a military solution" to the crisis in Darfur. As if to corroborate Pronk's hypothesis, fighting has escalated in recent weeks not only with the two other armed Darfur opposition groups that have refused to sign a peace deal with the Sudanese government -- the SLA faction headed by Abdel-Wahid Al-Nour and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) -- but also with the SLA Minnawi faction. Ironically, Minnawi is now officially a member of the Sudanese government in his capacity as special advisor to Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Beshir.

The Sudanese authorities countered by proclaiming that Pronk is stepping up "psychological warfare against the Sudanese army" with the goal of demoralising the Sudanese armed forces. "For us, Pronk is history," Sudan's Ambassador to the UN Abdel-Mahmoud Mohamed told Al-Ahram Weekly.

"Pronk was never impartial. He made it clear from the word go that he was sympathetic to the cause of the Darfur rebels," Ambassador Mohamed explained.

The armed opposition groups of Darfur have been careful not to make any secessionist rumblings. They simply want greater autonomy within Sudan. They also seek a greater degree of political involvement in Sudanese political affairs and more development assistance, arguing that for decades Darfur was neglected as an economic backwater.

The fighting in Darfur appears to have spilled over into at least one neighbouring state -- Chad. The Chadian authorities accuse the Sudanese airforce of bombarding four eastern Chadian villages -- Bahai, Tine, Karyari and Bamina -- a charge the Sudanese authorities flatly deny.

"Sudan has to stop, otherwise we are going to take measures," threatened Chadian Foreign Minister Amhad Allammi. "We are not going to accept any other aggression. Our forces will take all necessary measures to respond".

The conflict in Darfur is often depicted as one between Arabs and Africans. In reality, however, there is no such thing: there is no clear basis for distinguishing the ethnic groups of the Sahel along racial lines. The Arabs of Darfur, like their kinsmen throughout the Sahel are often indistinguishable physically from the indigenous non-Arab Africans. Linguistically and in terms of lifestyle, however, there are clear differences among the Sahel's ethnic groups. The so-called "Arabs" are pastoral peoples who have for centuries resisted a settled subsistence in agricultural lifestyle. The indigenous peoples on the other hand are largely settled agriculturalists -- and have been since time immemorial. There are indigenous, non-Arabised groups, however, who have adopted a nomadic existence, and some Arabised tribes especially along the banks of the Nile in Sudan who have opted for an agrarian lifestyle.

In the ephemeral world of African politics, the nomadic Arab tribes of the Sahel who have roamed the area since the widescale Arab migration in several waves following the Arab conquest of North Africa and the mass conversion of the indigenous African inhabitants of the region to Islam, have become pawns in a wider power play involving regional and international heavyweights. An all-out assault on the Arab tribes of the Sahel would be ruinous to all concerned.

The nomadic Arab tribes have become an inalienable part of this stretch of Africa. Their exclusion from any political settlement would be of detriment to all concerned.

The threatened expulsion of the Arab tribes of Niger and the escalating tensions in Chad and Darfur seem to symbolise the Zeitgeist of the Sahel belt of Africa, which straddles the entire continent from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Red Sea in the east. The nomadic Arab tribesman of Africa's Sahel belt have now been cast as the villains of the piece.

Ethnicity has become an issue for the nomadic Arab tribes of the Sahel. Once they freely roamed the arid wastes, today they struggle for acceptance in the countries they find themselves in. In the past, they never respected the borders drawn by European colonial powers in the wake of the 1884 Berlin Conference which effectively partitioned Africa among the European powers of the day. The inner demon of the nomadic free spirit does surface periodically and that could destabilise the entire region.

Being a nomad has become an occupational hazard. Many factors have come into play. In all probability, this renewed age-long feud between pastoral and settled agriculturalists is the result of global warming and the attendant environmental degradation and desertification. The Arab tribes of the Sahel, including those of Darfur, have emerged as the proverbial bogeymen -- a boundary-busting mix of trigger-happy brigands who fall on hapless villagers, burning their villages, raping women, looting and destroying property. The so-called Janjaweed of Darfur are the archetype.

It is in this context that the contribution of the Arab League and politically influential Arab countries like Egypt are of paramount importance.

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