The collapse last year of African Union-led talks aimed at resolving the Darfur crisis leaves a solution as far away as ever. A Sudan expert who advised the AU during the talks explains the background to the conflict and asks whether it constitutes genocideby Alex De Waal / March 22, 2007 / Leave a comment
The war in Sudan’s Darfur region has perplexed experts on Africa and experienced diplomats alike, so it is unsurprising that it has bewildered the wider public. This guide to the conflict answers ten simple questions.
1. Where is Darfur? Darfur is the westernmost region of Sudan, Africa’s largest country. It straddles the Sahara desert, the dry savannahs and the forests of central Africa. Darfur borders Libya, Chad and the Central African Republic, and is equidistant from Africa’s coasts at the Red sea and Atlantic ocean. It is as large as France, though sparsely populated. The people of Darfur live off the land, cultivating during the rainy season (June-September) and herding animals.
Darfur was an independent sultanate from about 1600 until 1916, when it was merged with neighbouring Sudan as it became the last big territory to be absorbed into the British empire. In an earlier era Darfur had been one of Egypt’s main trading partners—its sultan exchanged letters with Napoleon in 1798. Under the British, Darfur was a backwater ruled by a few colonial officers, who delegated most of their powers to tribal chiefs. After Sudan’s independence in 1956, Darfur was again neglected, with little economic development, few roads and the poorest education and health services in all of Sudan.
2. Who are the Darfurians?
Darfur literally means “land of the Fur,” after the non-Arab ethnic group that controlled the sultanate and who live in the central part of the region. The Fur, however, comprise no more than 25 per cent of the population of the region (around 6.5m in total). There are another 30-odd non-Arab groups living in Darfur, including the Masalit and Zaghawa, who, like the Fur, retain their own languages while speaking Arabic as a lingua franca. Most are farmers, but some have a strong tradition of nomadic pastoralism.
About a third of Darfur’s population are descended from Arabs who migrated across the Sahara from the 14th to the 18th centuries, intermarrying with locals so much that most are physically indistinguishable from their non-Arab neighbours. Cattle-herding Baggara Arabs predominate in southern Darfur, and camel-herding Abbala Arabs live in the north, seasonally migrating with their herds from the desert pastures to the central savannahs. Darfur also has a long history of migration from west Africa, and is home to many Hausa and Fulani, whose…