It has been twenty years since Darfur was plunged into conflict. I wish I could say this was a matter for the history books. Unfortunately, the killing continues, although the world’s gaze shifted elsewhere long ago. Since then, there has been a popular uprising overthrowing a corrupt, genocidal regime. More recently there has been a counter-revolution placing the military and its Islamist allies back in de facto power. The one constant has been the lack of justice for the people of Darfur.
With Rebecca Tinsley I visited this arid, remote western region of Sudan in 2004, some months after the killing began. Our findings were published on the front page of The Independent under the banner “If this isn’t genocide, then what on earth is?”
I had met clan leaders who told me of the indignities their people had suffered at the hands of the ruling regime. They described the terror caused when the government bombed their villages, causing millions to leave their farms and possessions, fleeing to squalid IDP camps. The planes were followed by local armed Arab militiamen riding horses and camels. They looted, raped and killed the Black Africans, leaving the Arabs unharmed.
Soon, half the population was in IDP camps or inhospitable refugee settlements across the border in Chad where they remain, two decades later. For years, the military junta in Khartoum tried to force Sudan’s Black African Christians to become Muslims and ‘Arabised’ the Black African Muslims. The leaders articulated an exclusionary form of hate speech that dehumanised those who did not self-identify as Arab and Muslim. Not surprisingly, ten million non-Arabs living in the southern part of Sudan seized the chance to form an independent country, South Sudan, in 2011. But this victory didn’t help the people of Darfur.
The regime assured the world beyond Sudan that the massacres in Darfur were the result of a competition for land brought about by climate change. The international community preferred this explanation, although eventually the bloodshed was so intense that the UN and African Union approved a toothless peacekeeping force. With too few resources to investigate reports of violence, and without the necessary political will of the diplomats who sent them to Darfur, the peacekeepers’ hands were often tied.
Some of us predicted that when the peacekeepers left, the killing would resume. Which brings us to the present day, with regime proxies attacking Black Africans. It is too easy for those of us living thousands of miles from the violence to see Darfur as an intractable conflict which will drag on for decades, like Somalia, Haiti, Palestine, or the DRC. Those persecuting the people of Darfur know that a steady stream of low-level massacres will barely get a mention in the most intelligent media, even on the continent of Africa.
Following the 2021 counter-revolution, the international community has been on hand in Khartoum, trying to midwife a transition from military rule to civil government. Some citizen groups are on board with the process while others are sceptical because the military has a track record of broken promises. Moreover, the Islamists who dominate the economy and who have provided the military with its racist and exclusionary ideology are back in positions of influence.
So, what should be done?
My years involved in international events has shown me that there cannot be lasting peace or prosperity without justice. They are two sides of the same coin.
To secure justice there must be mechanisms that deliver it along with a means of enforcing the promises made by the parties signing peace agreements. That in turn requires the international community not to lose interest at the point when the military and the Islamists believe they can revert to their old ways. Too often there is attention deficit as diplomats, politicians and media move on to the next raree-show.
But tragedy on such a colossal scale cannot be reduced to a peep show. We have to sustain our commitment and be clear-eyed about demanding that benchmarks are met, and quick to apply personal smart sanctions on those breaking their commitments. Sudan is desperate for debt relief and foreign investment, so the international community has plenty of leverage if it chooses to use it. The real question is whether the rest of the world has the will to remain focused on Sudan’s unsteady path to a democratic, pluralist society based on a rule of law.
I was on hand to help Waging Peace begin its journey all those years ago, and I have worked with its team ever since, tabling questions, writing articles, and raising the plight of Sudan whenever I can. I have the greatest possible admiration for all that Waging Peace does. Thank you for your support for Waging Peace’s work. It is as necessary now as it was when it began.