Darfur: A HISTORY

New Internationalist, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Darfur: A HISTORY


Multi-ethnic Darfur

Darfur's people are a complex mosaic of between 40 and 90 ethnic groups, some of 'African' origin (mostly settled farmers), some Arabs. All Darfurians are Muslim. The Arabs began arriving in the 14th century and established themselves as mainly nomadic cattle and camel herders. Peaceful coexistence has been the norm, with inevitable disputes over resources between fixed and migratory communities resolved through the mediation of local leaders. For much of its history, the division between 'Arab' and 'African' has been blurred at best, with so much intermarriage that all Darfurians can claim mixed ancestry. Identities have been defined in different ways at different times, based on race, speech, appearance or way of life.

An Independent Sultanate

At the heart of Darfur is an extinct volcano in a mountainous area called Jebel Marra. Around it the land is famously fertile, and it was here that the earliest known inhabitants of Darfur lived - the Daju. Very little is known about them. The recorded history of Darfur begins in the 14th century, when the Daju dynasty was superseded by the Tunjur, who brought Islam to the region.

Darfur existed as an independent state for several hundred years. In the mid-i7th century, the Keyra Fur Sultanate was established, and Darfur prospered.

In its heyday in the 17th and 18th centuries the Fur Sultanate's geographical location made it a thriving commercial hub, trading with the Mediterranean in slaves, ivory and ostrich feathers, raiding its neighbours and fighting wars of conquest in the surrounding region.

Darfur under siege

In the mid-i9th century, Darfur's sultan was defeated by notorious slave trader Zubayr Rahma, who was in turn subjugated by the Ottoman Empire. At the time, this included Egypt and what is now northern Sudan. The collapse of the Keyra dynasty plunged Darfur into lawlessness. Roaming bandits and local armies preyed on vulnerable communities, and Islamic 'Mahdist' forces fighting British colonial control of the region sought to incorporate Darfur into a much larger Islamic republic. A period of almost constant war followed, until 1899 when the Egyptians - now under British rule -recognized Ali Dinar, grandson of one of the Keyra sultans, as Sultan of Darfur. This marked a de facto return to independence, and Darfur lived in peace for a few years.

Colonial 'benign neglect'

Ali Dinar refused to submit to the wishes of either the French or the British, who were busy building their empires around his territory. Diplomatic friction turned into open warfare. Ali Dinar defied the British forces for six months, but was ambushed and killed, along with his two sons, in November 1916. In January 1917 Darfur was absorbed into the British Empire and became part of Sudan, making this the largest country in Africa.

The only aim of Darfur's new colonial rulers was to keep the peace. Entirely uninterested in the region's development (or lack thereof), no investment was forthcoming. In stark contrast to the north of Sudan, by 1935 Darfur had only four schools, no maternity clinic, no railways or major roads outside the largest towns. Darfur has been treated as an unimportant backwater, a pawn in power games, by its successive rulers ever since.

Independence brings war

The British reluctantly but peacefully granted Sudan independence in 1956. The colonialists had kept North and South Sudan separate, developing the fertile lands around the Nile Valley in the North, whilst neglecting the South, East and Darfur to the west. They handed over political power directly to a minority of northern Arab élites who, in various groupings, have been in power ever since. This caused the South to mutiny in 1955, starting the first North-South war. It lasted until 1972 when peace was signed under President Nimeiry. But the Government continually flouted the peace agreement. This, combined with its shift towards imposing radical political Islam on an unwilling people, and the discovery of oil, reignited conflict in the South in 1983. …

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