Are "Arabs" Killing "Black Africans" in Darfur? the De Facto Reliance on "Arab versus Black African" as the Basis for Understanding the Fault Lines of the Darfur Conflict Is Reflective of the Profoundly Reductive Nature of Much of the Reportage on Darfur and What Amounts to an Almost Wilful Denial of the Historical Relationships and Overlaps between Darfur's So-Called Arabs and Africans

By Ray, Carina | New African, January 2009 | Go to article overview
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Are "Arabs" Killing "Black Africans" in Darfur? the De Facto Reliance on "Arab versus Black African" as the Basis for Understanding the Fault Lines of the Darfur Conflict Is Reflective of the Profoundly Reductive Nature of Much of the Reportage on Darfur and What Amounts to an Almost Wilful Denial of the Historical Relationships and Overlaps between Darfur's So-Called Arabs and Africans


Ray, Carina, New African


African newspapers have followed the war in Darfur closely over the last several years. Yet, much of the reportage casts the violence as a race war perpetrated by "Arabs" against "Black Africans". This racialised language clouds, rather than clarifies, the complicated nature of this deadly conflict, in which a brutal government counterinsurgency strategy has mobilised Arabised African nomads in its fight against a just armed uprising by Darfur's settled population.

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Just as it is widely acknowledged that the media in America and Europe have forcefully kept Darfur on the international agenda, so too has the African media kept the issue of Darfur alive. Since the escalation of the war in 2003, African newspapers have increasingly featured news and commentary on Darfur. Indeed, Africans all over the continent have been writing and reading about Darfur on a regular and increasingly frequent basis.

A recent search of the allAfrica database, for instance, turned up over 1,500 articles on Darfur published between 2004 and 2007 in English-language African newspapers alone. Given that French, Arabic, and African-language newspapers were not searched, these articles represent only a fraction of actual reportage. Nonetheless, they unequivocally demonstrate that vigorous discussions about the conflict have taken place throughout the continent, and by all indications will continue to do so until a just and lasting resolution has been put into place.

As I surveyed the articles, I was struck by the fact that most African newspapers posited race as the primary causal factor of the obscene violence in Darfur. The war was regularly described in oversimplified racialised terms that reveal an anti-Arab bias and construct Darfur's so-called Arabs as foreigners. Indeed the complex identity politics involved in the conflict have been largely reduced to a narrative of "good versus evil" or "African versus Arab". Strikingly, the racial labels that have been used to demarcate the fault lines in this conflict are often the same as those used by the Western media.

Typical of much of the reportage on the violence in Darfur is the following description found in a 6 July 2004 New Vision (government-owned daily newspaper in Uganda) article:" ... thousands have been killed and more than a million black Africans have fled attacks by Arab militiamen [emphasis added]." While the article focused on various African Union, United Nations, and United States' pronouncements on Darfur, the only causal factor given to explain the violence was racial difference. This point is reiterated later when we are informed that "UN officials and human rights groups have accused Sudan of backing the Arab militias, engaged in a campaign to expel African farmers [emphasis added]."

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Given the absence of any other explanatory tools for understanding the multiple sources of the violence, and most especially the central government's longstanding practices of marginalisation, underdevelopment, repression and neglect of its "peripheries", the reader is left to conclude that what is occurring in Darfur is a race war perpetrated by "Arabs" against "black Africans". Racial antipathy is therefore posited as the reason why groups that historically lived, traded, intermarried, and interacted with one another, for the most part, in a synergistic fashion, are now in the midst of a deadly war in which the obscene imbalance of power between a well-armed brutal government and its ruthless militias on the one hand, and the Darfurian rebels on the other, has led to the unconscionable deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Darfurian civilians and the displacement of millions more.

Opinion pieces also expressed the view that the root of the violence was to be found, as one headline put it, in the fact that "bigotry still assaults black Africans". The most extreme example of this trend appeared in 2004 in the popular Nigerian daily newspaper.

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Are "Arabs" Killing "Black Africans" in Darfur? the De Facto Reliance on "Arab versus Black African" as the Basis for Understanding the Fault Lines of the Darfur Conflict Is Reflective of the Profoundly Reductive Nature of Much of the Reportage on Darfur and What Amounts to an Almost Wilful Denial of the Historical Relationships and Overlaps between Darfur's So-Called Arabs and Africans
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