Journal Essay

Darfur, the ICC and American Politics

Peter K. Bechtold

Summer 2009, Volume XVI, Number 2

Dr. Bechtold is the chairman emeritus of Near East and North Africa Studies, Foreign Service Institute, U.S. Department of State. He is the author of Politics in the Sudan: Parliamentary and Military Rule in an Emerging African Nation (Praeger, 1976). He first visited Darfur in 1972 and most recently in 2008.

During the past half-decade, those Americans following international affairs have been inundated by media accounts of genocide in Darfur, supplemented by full-page advertisements in the major newspapers, sponsored mostly by the Save Darfur Coalition. During the first half of 2008, activists tried to link the Beijing Olympic Games to Darfur by labeling them the “genocide Olympics.” They even enlisted some prominent American athletes in a lobbying effort via “Team Darfur.”

Just prior to the games in July 2008, the activists scored an apparent victory when the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court (ICC) filed a petition against the sitting Sudanese president, Omar H. A. al-Bashir, charging him with 10 war crimes and crimes against humanity and responsibility for genocide in Darfur. The application was acted upon by a pre-trial chamber of three justices, who issued an arrest warrant for Bashir on March 4, 2009, in The Hague.1

Bashir responded by publicly ridiculing the ICC actions and setting off on an extended tour of the three provinces in Darfur, where he was met with wild acclaim by mostly very large audiences. His government ordered 16 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to leave Sudan forthwith, accusing some of their members of political interference in Sudan’s domestic affairs, especially in Darfur, and also of providing “tainted evidence” to the ICC abroad. (The chief prosecutor, Professor Luis Moreno Ocampo, had not been in Darfur or Sudan as yet.) In late March 2009, President Bashir defied the arrest warrant by traveling to Eritrea, Egypt, Libya and an Arab League meeting in Qatar — where he was lionized, to the chagrin of Western media and governments.

As of this writing, those outsiders concerned about Darfur can be grouped into three categories. First, there are the overwhelmingly Western activists who insist that “justice for the victims” must prevail in Darfur regardless of political consequences, and that “impunity for war crimes can no longer be tolerated” as a “signal to tyrants the world over.” Second, there are the “realists” among political actors and observers, who admit that justice is a most worthwhile principle but “should not take precedence over peace.”3 Third, there are the academic experts on Sudan in Europe and the United States who reject the genocide charges out of hand and are relatively sanguine about human-rights violations in Darfur, pointing to shared responsibility among rebels, government forces and proxies. They also provide a historical context that rebuts charges of genocide by the activist community. One is tempted to add a fourth category solely for the ICC prosecutor, who has engaged in a virtual crusade against Bashir and Khartoum in a lecture tour, using highly incendiary language seemingly at odds with the responsibilities of a senior official on an international court.3

To unravel this confusing situation, especially in view of the new Obama administration’s commitment to make Darfur and Sudan a “high foreign-policy priority,” this article will examine in summary form the multilayered issues. At least six layers can be identified: the situation on the ground in Darfur, at present and in historical context; the internal politics of Darfur; the politics of Khartoum; the politics of Sudan, especially the relationship between the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 and the Darfur crisis; the role of regional actors; and what might be called “the politics of Washington.”

Most Western media accounts of the crisis in Darfur describe deliberate attacks by the Sudan Armed Forces on orders of the “Arab” or “Arab-dominated” government in Khartoum or their “Janjaweed” proxies against innocent and defenseless “African” villagers. They include stories of massive atrocities such as large-scale murder, rape used as a weapon, the burning of villages, and forced dislocation from homes to refugee camps for internally displaced persons. Some insinuate that Khartoum is implementing a policy of Arabization through the “ethnic cleansing” of existing “African” populations in Darfur. The leader of the Sudanese Liberation Movement (SLM), Abd al-Wahid Muhammad Nur, goes further and charges forced Islamization by the “Islamo-Fascist” regime in Khartoum.4

Such descriptions are highly misleading; they distort realities on the ground and, sadly, contribute to prolonging the very real conflict and add to the suffering of many people in Darfur. To set the record straight, there follows some historical, demographic and political context for this very real humanitarian crisis.


More than four decades of studying Sudan intensively have persuaded me that understanding this fascinating country requires, at a minimum, full awareness of its size, its human and ecological diversity, and its inadequate infrastructure. The tenth-largest country on earth and the largest in Africa at almost one million square miles (2.5 million square kilometers), Sudan contains fewer all-weather roads than most American counties, much less states, at least prior to the year 2000. When I was first in Darfur in 1972, there were fewer than five kilometers of pavement in a territory the size of France.

Given the extensive rainy season as one moves southward and the debilitating sandstorms (haboob) in the north, transportation over land is haphazard at best, in Darfur as in the entire country. Added to this, the Nile River is not navigable for transport except for short distances and by small craft in limited stretches; and the narrow-gauge, single-track railroad built by the British military more than a century ago is as antiquated as it is inadequate. The result is a recipe for classical underdevelopment. Indeed, since Sudan acquired its modern identity in the 1820s under Ottoman rule, no government has been able to exercise adequate control beyond a modest perimeter of perhaps 250-300 km from the capital. Hence, distribution of food from producing to consuming areas, provision of educational and health services, tax collection, and even the recruitment of soldiers have been limited and haphazard.

As a result, groups in outlying areas have been left to their own devices. They expect little from Khartoum and have minimal loyalty to the central authority. I have heard constant complaints from residents in the west, south, east and even the north of the country about the lack of services. These conditions have been well-documented in numerous studies and are unchallenged by government offi cials and politicians. When feelings of marginalization have escalated — for understandable reasons or, perhaps, due to local politicians agitating their populations — confl ict has erupted. The more remote the region, the more severe the problem. The two most remote regions have been southern Sudan, especially the Sudd area, and Darfur.5

In the absence of effective government, conflict resolution has been based on customary law (sulh), arbitration and negotiations among local chiefs. Many anthropological studies as well as Sudan archives, including from colonial times, document the high success rate of these traditional methods. When negotiations failed, armed conflict might return for awhile, until the next round of sulh, under different auspices perhaps. It is noteworthy in this context that international intervention, with or without the ICC, is unlikely to be accepted and more likely to be resisted, as happened when the British tried to intervene during World War I and the French in neighboring territories, as well as the Libyans, in the 1980s and 1990s.


This situation would be challenging enough if the country and its people were homogeneous. Unfortunately, Sudan is one of the world’s most heterogeneous nations. Serious anthropological research has identified almost 600 different tribal groupings speaking up to 400 different languages and dialects. Most northern Sudanese are Muslims, but they tend to divide into more than a dozen rival sects (tariqah); there are several million Christians as well.

Meanwhile, in the southern region, up to 200 religious identities have been documented. Most of these are referred to as “animist” or African traditions, with minorities of Christians (10-15 percent) and Muslims (about 5 percent). Signifi cantly, all indigenous Darfuris are Muslim, and most belong to the Mahdiyyah/Ansar tariqah. Religious diversity in Darfur is not an issue, notwithstanding early reports in the American media. This is not to say that religion plays no role in the modern conflict. In fact, Khalil Ibrahim, a leader of arguably the largest rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), has been reported to be a strong Islamist, and his theological orientation has been cited as one reason for the factions within the group.


Given the bewildering demographic diversity and the topography and dimensions of the country, it is not surprising that loyalty has been localized to family, clan, tribe and village. Political organizations since the 1920s and especially after World War II have centered on religious and tribal identities, and the country’s body politic has been a rich kaleidoscope reflecting these diverse yet unequal groupings. Not surprisingly, it has been extremely difficult to produce a “national” consensus on anything, and all Sudanese governments have suffered from severe instability. Three times the nation was ruled by democratically elected parliaments, multi-party and Western-style democracies, all of them coalition governments, as no party or faction could come close to gaining a majority of seats in parliament. And three times these parliamentary democracies were aborted by military coups whose leaders promised more effective government than the hapless civilians. 6 Each coup was followed by purges of political elites putatively responsible for the mess. The last such coup occurred on June 30, 1989, when military officers led by Major General Omar H.A. al-Bashir seized power from Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi and established rule by the Revolution for National Salvation (RNS), presumably to overcome all the mistakes of the past. It punished members of the former regime more drastically than any earlier government since independence. This led to accusations of massive human-rights violations and a significant exodus of political refugees to Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Europe, Canada and the United States. Most of these exiles and victims of human-rights abuses were northern Muslims. Many of them have come together to oppose the RNS regime and have formed various coalitions, such as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM), led for many years by John Garang and now by Salva Kiir. It is apparently a model for at least one major Darfurian rebel group, the SLM.


For the above-stated reasons of ethnic heterogeneity, geographic diversity and distance from the center, regional rebellions, whether large or small, brief or protracted, have dominated Sudan’s political history since independence in 1956. The better known are the North-South civil wars of 1955-72 and 1983-2004, concluded by comprehensive peace agreements in Addis Ababa (March 1972) and Naivasha, Kenya (January 2005). Yet, throughout these decades, lower-intensity fi ghting occurred in Darfur, South Kordofan, and the eastern region of the Red Sea Hills. Local politicians had formed the Darfur Liberation Front, the Nuba Mountains Federation and the Beja Congress as political movements with purely regional agendas. During parliamentary rule, these groups were represented in the national assembly, but during periods of military rule, they frequently resorted to armed revolts.

One key event for all these movements was the formation of the Kutla al-Souda, the Black Bloc, in the 1950s during the transitional period prior to independence, when embittered southerners aligned with indigenous African groups in the north, e.g., the Fur and Nuba in the west and some Beja from the northeast. This rather loose alliance of some educated “blacks” was revived in 2002-03 just as pressure for resolving the South vs. Khartoum conflict was mounting dramatically under international auspices. One additional source of inspiration may have been the publication in 2000 of the Black Book, whose authorship is attributed to the JEM leader Khalil Ibrahim. It documented that over 80 percent of all government jobs since independence, from those of cabinet ministers to ministerial drivers, had been allocated to “Arabs” from the Danaqla, Shaigiyya and Jaaliyyin tribes and that westerners had been “systematically excluded.”

Ironically, when the SPLM agreed to a comprehensive settlement with Khartoum, the SLM leadership in Darfur took notice and began to agitate for a similar result. With Khartoum completely focused on negotiations in Kenya, especially under substantial American pressure, the SLM apparently saw an opening for a surprise attack on government outposts in February 2003 and launched what is now known as the Darfur crisis.


The Darfur region was one province at independence; it is now divided into three: North Darfur with El-Fasher as its capital, South Darfur with Nyala as its capital and West Darfur with Geneina as its capital. Scholars count as few as 80 and as many as 123 different tribes. In population size and tribal diversity, Darfur ranks first among Sudan’s regions, although at least one million Darfuris — some claim two — have been living in the metropolitan Khartoum province.

Contrary to many journalistic oversimplifications, all Darfuris are African and Muslim. When traveling through the region, outsiders, i.e., non-Darfuris, find it almost impossible to tell one ethnic group from another. The only obvious difference is in the lifestyles of the different ecological zones. The northern third is sheer uninhabited desert; the central third is mostly pastoral except in the higher elevations around Jebel Marra (the highest elevation in Sudan), which allows for some cultivation; and the southern third receives relatively more rainfall, permitting limited agricultural activities.

The two lifestyles then are a function of ecological conditions: semi-nomadic pastoralists further north, mostly herding camels and goats, and agricultural villagers further south growing vegetables and maintaining cattle rather than camels. In journalistic reports, the former have been labeled “Arab” and the latter “African” even though that distinction is rather trivial. All are African, indistinguishable in skin pigmentation (except to anthropological experts), and they all speak one of several versions of Arabic. In my research going back to the 1920s, it is evident that accommodation was worked out between the agriculturalists and the pastoralists with generally acceptable defi nitions of Dar (homelands) and the provision of cordoned-off passageways for herds to access water. The only trouble occurred whenever droughts lasted two to three years and encroachment by camels and goats into vegetable gardens brought out stick-wielding youths (now wielding guns).

Historical records going back at least to the mid-seventeenth century reveal an unending series of tribal contests over limited resources. Because there are no rivers in all of Darfur, not even one perennial creek, human habitation mostly centers around baobab trees, which function as water holes. Control of these “oases” makes life possible, and fi ghting over scarce resources becomes existential. Robert Collins has described the rise and fall of local kingdoms and other dynasties over some 350 years.7 More often than not, the smaller tribes aligned themselves with larger federations, such as Fur, Zaghawa, Rizaigat, Berti, Taaisha, and Habaniyya.

The region was virtually untouched by the rest of the world prior to World War I, when the British colonial authorities decided to rein in the ruling sultan of Darfur. They destroyed his military, killed him and annexed Darfur to Sudan in 1916-17. With their erstwhile European rival France in control to the west in Chad and beyond, the Darfur-Chad border gained some significance, but no detailed demarcation. Many tribes lived on both sides of the border and moved freely within their Dar (traditionally recognized homeland), so that the Dar Fur would abut the Dar Masalit and the Dar Beni Halba, and so on.

As it turned out, major “Darfurian” tribes, for example the Masalit and especially the Zaghawa, straddle both sides of what has suddenly become an “international” border. Their members are ruled from Khartoum and N’Djamena, thousands of miles apart and totally irrelevant to these tribesmen. Irony abounds: how can a Masalit live in the Land of the Fur (Darfur) but the “bi-national” Zaghawa also live partly in the Land of the Fur? They also provide Chad with its president, Idriss Deby.

This approaches tragicomedy when Western journalists like Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, foremost among crusaders for “action” against the genocidaires in Khartoum, encounters a Zaghawa translator in a Chadian refugee camp, hires him to accompany him into Zaghawa land in Western Darfur and then generalizes his singular experience to describe what has been going on in all Darfur. Kristof is later followed by Hollywood actors such as George Clooney and Mia Farrow, whose entire experience and subsequent lectures before mass audiences in the United States are based on these Chadian/Zaghawa narratives.

As indicated above, the ICC prosecutor, Professor Moreno-Ocampo, has never been in Darfur either (as of July, when he submitted his indictment brief) but only in Chad. His evidence is second-hand at best and derives from dubious sources: one major party to the conflict, the overwhelmingly Zaghawa-based Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), and those Masalit who similarly straddle the Chad-Darfur border.

Several scholars have documented that serious fighting raged in Darfur throughout the 1980s and 1990s, including battles involving Fur, Rizaigat, Masalit, Abbala, Zaghawa and Baqqara tribes. Often these battles pitted landless tribes, usually “Arab,” against those with recognized Dars. In addition, during the 1990s, many Chadian refugees streamed into western Darfur as a result of the latest chapter in the decades-long Chadian civil war. One must add to this toxic brew the meddling and outright interference of Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi. The colonel had ambitions for a Saharan federation but minimally wanted to absorb the Aouzou strip of northern Chad, which the Europeans had “wrongfully” assigned to Chad rather than Libya. Qadhafi had even positioned an “Arab Legion” in the northern parts of Darfur. (The Libyan units did not undertake military operations, but their presence added to the general destabilization.)

By summer 2001, the security situation was precarious once again. A group of Fur and Zaghawa activists met on July 21 at Abu Gamra in Jebel Marra and swore an oath on the Koran to cooperate in their opposition to the perceived Arabization of Darfur.8 The chief Fur activist was Abd al-Wahid M. Nur, a native of Zalingei and a communist lawyer who had earlier formed the SLM. It followed most of the script of the SPLM and, according to some sources, had received some logistical support as well. Abdalla Abakkar represented the Zaghawa faction, and Mansur Arbab the Masalit.

In short, the SLM launched the current Darfur crisis on February 26, 2003, by attacking Gulu near Jebel Marra, killing dozens (CIA estimate, hundreds) of uniformed personnel. The JEM went into action a few weeks later and attacked government outposts in their region. On one occasion, in April 2003, in what was perhaps a joint operation, several hundred government personnel were taken prisoner and about 200 were killed in prison with their hands tied. The barracks near El-Fasher were burnt and six small aircraft were destroyed on the ground. The Darfur rebellion was on.

Khartoum and its military were completely focused on negotiations with the SPLM in the south and were in no position to respond directly in Darfur. As many have pointed out, a very large proportion of Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) are actually recruited from the impoverished region of Darfur and “could not be trusted to shoot at their cousins.” What to do? The regime decided to revive an old tactic used in parts of the southern campaign, i.e., arm tribes with historic animosities against the current rebels and let them do the fighting.

Throughout 2003 and the first half of 2004, this became the war scenario, and the resultant killings of guerrillas in their home villages and the accompanying destruction (like the “collateral damage” suffered by Iraqis, Gazans and others) have become the narrative for Darfur activists in the United States and parts of Western Europe. On the positive side, the clamor received the world’s attention, and international organizations responded with massive humanitarian aid. On the negative side, the stabilized situation, beginning in 2005, produced only a partial peace agreement. It was concluded in Abuja, Nigeria, in May 2006 with one rebel faction (led by Minni Minnawi, who was appointed vice-president and special adviser on Darfur). Two other factions refused to sign, despite considerable pressure from international mediators. Since then, those who rejected the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) have been fighting the “traitors” who signed it. When I visited Darfur in spring 2008, there were at least 19 separate rebel groups fighting each other and occasionally raiding trucks belonging to relief organizations.

The JEM and SLM leadership continue to refuse to participate in peace negotiations, while the government in Khartoum has committed to take part. Time and again, the government has gone to peace conferences, but the rebels have refused to negotiate, most recently in late March 2009 following the ICC warrant. Abd al-Wahid has been quoted as saying, “Why should I accept the peace offerings of Khartoum when the American people are behind me, and we can get a better deal, like our southern brothers in their CPA at Naivasha?” It is noteworthy that both Abd al-Wahid and his JEM counterpart live in European hotels and use these bases for lobbying receptive journalists and some parliamentarians. So far, the UN and other foreign leaders have failed in their efforts to bring about unity among the rebels so that they could negotiate with one voice. Given the record of these rebel leaders, it is not clear that negotiation ranks high among their priorities. Do they want peace? If so, what kind and with what sorts of guarantees? Do they want to resurrect the Sultanate of Ali Dinar or the ancient Zaghawa kingdom that used to rule the Chad Basin, Waddai and “Darfur” in medieval times? They won’t say. What they will say is that they want to bring down the rule of General Bashir and his regime. Evidently, toward that end, they play along with the Western activists and provide fodder for Professor Ocampo, hoping that he will deliver, if the United States will not.


Like other geographically distinct areas, Darfur has its own political and economic competition. Whereas the latter centers mostly on land ownership and the provision of services in an ecologically dismal region, the former follows the familiar pattern of primordial loyalties: family, clan, tribe, village and/or region, spiced with some elements of generational and ideological conflicts.

Not surprisingly, political alliances of a more lasting nature have been grounded in tribal identities and are reinforced by the divide between landholding and landless tribes. In this regard, most of the fighting in recent decades has involved competition over scarce resources of land and water, often to the detriment of the (smaller) “Arab” tribes, who tend to be relatively poorer in Darfur than the more settled “Africans.” Several studies have shown a long list of such skirmishes since independence in 1956, well-chronicled in academic research and government archives.

Similarly, interest aggregation along these lines has led to the formation of political movements such as the Zaghawabased JEM and the more Fur- and Masalit- based SLM, the latter evidently styled after the Southern SPLM.

As described above, these two groupings launched the current Darfur crisis in early 2003 by attacking government outposts and killing hundreds of uniformed police, but their joint operations were not to be sustained for long. Instead, both SLM and JEM suffered internal splits and also disagreed on tactics and strategy vis-à-vis the Khartoum government. By 2008, the rebel movements had fragmented into roughly 20 distinct groupings.

Observers and mediators from the United Nations and the African Union, along with other special envoys from the international community, have failed to persuade these splinter groups to coalesce so as to speak with one voice. This failure to come together has been a major hindrance to peace negotiations and continues to this day to frustrate those seeking a political solution. It may also explain why the Bush/Rice administration backed off from its confrontation with Khartoum after 2005.

Well-informed researchers have described the JEM base as drawing heavily from the Kobe branch of the Zaghawa confederation centered around Tine (Tina) on the Chad border. Some have gone further and suggest that the majority of JEM’s rank and file hail from the Chadian side rather than the Darfurian. Add to this the image of Zaghawa aloofness, perhaps harking back to the days when the region was ruled by a Zaghawa kingdom. The Zaghawa are also better off; they traditionally controlled regional trade as merchants. In sum, one can see why JEM had limited appeal for other tribes. Afinal complicating factor has been the close identification of JEM leader Khalil Ibrahim with his erstwhile mentor, the national Islamist leader Hassan Turabi, who has been an opponent of the ruling Congress Party and has been arrested repeatedly since falling out with the top leadership in 1999.

Because Chad’s current president, Idriss Deby, is himself Zaghawa and owes his success to a Chadian civil uprising launched from Darfurian territory, relations between the two countries have been heavily affected by internal Zaghawa politics. Mis- and disinformation on this has been spread by writers like Nicholas Kristof, who blamed Khartoum for “exporting its genocidal campaign into Chad.” To the contrary, it was JEM that launched an attack on Sudan’s capital in May 2008, employing some heavy armor but also a substantial number of child soldiers.

Just as a great many residents of Darfur do not support the rebels, not all Zaghawa support the JEM. Even the Kobe sultan has been reported to oppose the movement, as is generally true in Darfur. The overwhelming proportion of rebels are quite young, whereas many elders seem to support President Bashir and want to work with Khartoum.

Another split results from the fact that the JEM leadership has been based in Europe and is seen as too ideological by many in Zaghawa land. A manifestation of this divide occurred in 2004, when Gabriel Abdul Karim Badri and Nourene Manawi Bartcham led a break-away faction, the National Movement for Reform and Development (NMRD), ostensibly in opposition to the influence of Dr. Turabi and his Popular Congress.

The SLM/SLA grouping is more difficult to identify and characterize, if only because it has shrunk in numbers and split into numerous factions. Beginning as a coalition of Fur and Masalit, with a sprinkling of others from the central Jebel Marra massif, it early on espoused the strategy and tactics of the southern-based SPLM/A. It called for a “new Sudan” devoid of Islamist rule and for wealth-sharing on behalf of long-marginalized areas. It attracted some younger fighters but not tribal elders. It soon lost local support due to tactics such as raiding neighboring villages and UN relief convoys. But its first major crisis occurred in May 2006, when the “secretary-general,” Minni Minnawi, agreed to a peace agreement in Abuja, Nigeria, and joined the Khartoum government as one of several vice-presidents and as special adviser on Darfur. From that period on, his followers and those of the exiled leader Abd al-Wahid Muhammad Nur have engaged in almost endless fighting, causing death, destruction and displacement within their local communities, even attacking some UN convoys and NGO relief activists.

In fact, most fighting in Darfur during the past three years has been rebel-onrebel, both within the old SLA and also against the JEM. This has been duly noted by many international observers but ignored in the Western media, which continues to report sensational news from Darfur, often in the passive voice — “villages and aid workers have been attacked and many killed” — without attributing these acts to the perpetrators. This leaves the impression that the assailants must have been Bashir and his henchmen. This is not to suggest that government forces have been inactive or blameless, but UN observers and others agree that the preponderance of killing and destruction is due to rebel action. They also agree that the widely used term “Janjaweed” has lost its meaning. It now refers to any group of bandits, who are as likely to attack “Arab” communities as “Africans” or each other.

As of this writing, it is difficult to imagine how Darfur’s Humpty Dumpty can be put back together again. Some observers have floated the name of the former all-Darfur governor, Ibrahim Ahmed Direige, as an elder who might be able to bridge ethnic divides, but he has been away from Darfur and Sudan too long. It is doubtful that the much younger rebels will submit to a symbol of what they consider to be the flawed “old Sudan.”

What will become of the one-to-two million Darfuris who have settled in the capital region and are considered by many to be the largest ethnic community in Khartoum?


When outsiders write or speak about Khartoum, they conjure up images of a homogeneous Arab-ruled capital, politically unified and imposing its will upon the peripheral parts of Sudan, at least the southern region and Darfur. Nothing could be more misleading. Neither the political class nor the population at large have ever been united or achieved consensus on political, economic, social or religious issues. Rather, Khartoum has been a microcosm of this very large and diverse country with residents from all its regions, although the largest proportion have been natives of the central Nile area. Rich and poor, Muslim and Christian, educated and illiterate live side by side there. And they live freely; the informed observer does not sense the presence of the sort of police state that is more evident in Sudan’s neighbors to the north, south and west.

Similarly, in Khartoum’s political culture, one does not encounter the usual hallmarks of the one-party state, where citizens are afraid to speak publicly. This has even been true during periods when all regular political parties have been outlawed, as during the Numayri regime (1969-85) or the early years of Bashir’s “Revolution of National Salvation.” If this observation seems at odds with popular images in the Western media, often fed by dire comments from Sudanese exiles, Sudanese are notorious for complaining about all their country’s rulers, going back to independence, and in exaggerating the hardships back home. This should not imply that there have not been serious violations of political and human rights, as well as some incidents of torture in the early years of the Revolution of National Salvation (RNS), but any informed comparison with neighboring states would reveal Khartoum’s political culture to be more liberal and the associated atmosphere more lenient than in Egypt, Libya, Ethiopia or Saudi Arabia. Others might add Uganda, Kenya, Chad and Congo to the list of countries where political freedom is more proscribed than in Sudan. Political refugees tend to come home sooner or later, and one hardly ever hears of any exile who would prefer citizenship in neighboring Arab or African states.

Today in Khartoum, the political kaleidoscope is as rich as ever. The RNS has split into two factions: the current rulers around the pragmatic vice-president, Ali Osman Taha, and the more “ideological” wing headed by his former mentor, Hassan Turabi. Both are recalculating their positions in light of the arrest warrant for the titular leader, President Bashir.

The same can be said for the opposition parties, many of which have joined together in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Yet they all suffer internal splits as well: The Umma party, the Democratic Unionists, even the Baathists and the Communists, all have at least two rival organizations each. The same holds for regional groupings. The SPLM represents many but not all southerners and enjoys the support of most Dinka but hardly any among the dozens of smaller southern tribes, especially in the Equatorial region. As in Darfur, their members are divided between those who desire national unity under a confederal structure and those who clearly prefer secession and independent statehood.

All of these groups had been looking forward to the national elections scheduled for June 2009 (now probably rescheduled for February 2010), and many had hoped to be able to vote the ruling party out of office. The actions by the ICC in July 2008 have had several negative consequences. One was to throw into doubt the timely holding of elections; another was to generate almost unnatural enthusiasm for President Bashir. Even his staunchest opponents have closed ranks and rushed to his defense; in such an atmosphere, fair and open elections as in 1958, 1965, 1968 and 1986 have become more elusive.

Similarly endangered is the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005, which ended more than 22 years of civil war between the SPLM/A-led southern rebels and the national government. The SPLM and much of the wider world had been anxious to see the CPA process through its scheduled stages — updated census, national elections and referendum on self-determination — while monitoring the peace and wealth-sharing provisions in the interim. All this has been jeopardized by the relentless pressure of outside activists, mostly in the United States, who know little about the balance of political forces in all parts of Sudan. (In mid-May the president of South Sudan and head of the SPLM, Salva Kiir, rejected the census results.)

Outstanding issues such as the border demarcations around Abyei in southernmost Kordofan and transparency in the disbursement of oil revenues — while significant and worth pursuing — have been used in one-sided attacks on Khartoum instead of more evenhanded analysis. Washington seems predisposed to think ill of Khartoum, and the ongoing demonization by Western publics of Bashir and his government threatens to undermine the spirit of cooperation and the very real progress that has been made in recent years by the parties on the road to national reconciliation.


Geographically enormous, Sudan shares borders with nine states and lies only a short distance across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia. All 10 neighbors have a vested interest in Sudan’s stability, none more than Egypt, which depends on the Nile for survival, and Saudi Arabia, whose holy cities lie across from Eastern Sudan, the historic transit area for Muslim pilgrims from the entire African Sahel. Chad, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Ethiopia and Eritrea and Sudan all share tribes that straddle their respective borders and whose loyalties are to local rather than to their national leaders. Not surprisingly, regional insurgencies along these borders have flared up intermittently since independence and have been a familiar feature for most African states. There have been skirmishes with Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, Congo/Zaire, Chad and even Egypt (Halaib Triangle). One expects periodic conflicts to occur. Unfortunately, this phenomenon has been exploited by Western activists in a way that exacerbates the problem instead of contributing to a peaceful resolution.

All scholars of Sudan are familiar with alternating episodes of cooperation and conflict between any given pair of neighboring governments. Usually these events occur in cycles and are managed through traditional methods, such as sulh (customary mediation and law). Thus, Eritrea has supported Darfur rebels materially but has also played peacemaker; the same is true for Libya, Ethiopia and Uganda. One major reason for the insistence in recent years by the Bashir government on having African Union monitors stationed in Darfur is the belief that Africans would be much more likely to relate to and understand tribal identities, conflicts and movements across borders. After all, these borders were designed by West European powers more interested in their own strategic advantages than in the needs of local populations.

In early 2009, the government of Qatar hosted a meeting on Darfur that was attended by representatives of JEM and Khartoum. They agreed to resume talks leading toward reconciliation, but after the ICC warrant was handed down on March 4, the JEM representatives announced that they were “no longer interested in talking with a criminal” (Bashir). Toward the end of the month, Qatar hosted a previously scheduled meeting of Arab League heads of state, who warmly welcomed President Bashir. Foreign news services reported that “the only thing the Arab leaders agreed upon was to back Bashir in his conflict with the ICC.” The Arab League’s now-formal position was echoed more informally by numerous statements of African leaders who also criticized the ICC action. Some African states indicated their intention to review membership in the ICC; others called for mass resignations if that court continued to act with “an evident double standard.” How will Washington respond to these new developments?


In September 2004, the American government went on record in referring to the violence in Darfur as “genocide.” First, Secretary of State Colin Powell, on orders from the White House, then President George W. Bush himself, stated publicly that genocide was occurring. Neither suggested, however, that this designation would lead to concrete U.S. action in the near term beyond diplomatic activity in concert with the United Nations. A closer look shows that the trail of U.S. government pronouncements actually originated on Capitol Hill in July 2004 with a resolution calling the fighting in Darfur a “genocide” and holding the Sudanese government culpable. As often happens, resolutions find their way into reporters’ questions at press briefings, and the White House eventually had to decide whether or not to go along with Congress. Revealingly, one year later, the special envoy on Sudan, former Senator John Danforth, admitted during an interview with BBC’s Panorama that “ the White House described Darfur as ‘genocide’ to please the Christian right.” (This was reported by both The Independent on July 2 and BBC News on July 3, 2005)

It is noteworthy that no other country in the world has followed the American lead. Neither has a single American or European scholar of Sudan known to me ever agreed that a genocide has occurred in Darfur. Mass killings, yes; crimes against humanity, yes; forced dislocation of large numbers of innocent civilians, yes — but genocide, no. On at least one occasion, in a public debate in 2004, a fellow panelist and Darfur activist replied to a question, “The world has gotten disaster fatigue because there have been so many; but if we speak of genocide, that gets attention.” If true, then talking about genocide is a tactic. But at what cost is it being used?

Although there have been news reports of mass killings — up to 450,000 by some claims — not a single mass grave has been located in Darfur despite careful monitoring by space satellites and ground patrols. The Sudanese government admits to about 10,000 killed as a result of war; reputable neutral observers place the figure at around 40,000. No one can be sure because no actual count exists. The “working” numbers of UN Special Envoy John Holmes are admitted extrapolations from estimates in one of 20 districts in Darfur early on in the conflict. In a recent article, Professor Mahmood Mamdani of Columbia University explains the discrepancies as resulting from groups counting the numbers who “died” instead of those “killed.”9 Yet, these bloated numbers have been employed again and again to justify calls for even military action against Sudan. How to explain the activist campaigns, and the government’s response?

I encountered reports of Darfur killings first in a 2004 New York Times op-ed by Nicholas Kristof, who described the gruesome brutalization of an African woman whose relatives he had met in a camp (of Zaghawas, as it turned out later). Other stories followed, and Kristof acquired notoriety as a journalistic Darfur activist by keeping the heat on the White House and repeatedly challenging President Bush to act to prevent the slaughter of “hundreds of thousands” allegedly planned by Khartoum.

Other, mostly American, journalists arrived in the region and filed stories about malnourished children, their mothers too frightened to leave camps to collect fire-wood, and tales of rape and murder. These stories may have been the impetus for world action as NGOs and aid missions arrived under international auspices. Two European scholars with 46 years of combined experience in Darfur referred to these writers derisively as “helicopter journalists.” By contrast, a few thoughtful analyses by authors who spent several weeks on the ground produced a much more nuanced picture.10

Yet, with the passage of time, a humanitarian crisis that had been stabilized by late 2004 and seemed under control from mid-2005 onward except for sporadic fighting in isolated areas, somehow morphed into a morality tale of good versus evil, with roles clearly assigned by the growing activist community in the United States. Journalists who wrote about alleged Arab savagery were given print and air time, while those who actually spent weeks rather than days in the area and reported a more complex situation were bypassed in the major media and had to resort to the blogosphere for publication.

These developments coincided with the growth of an activist campaign that was to capture the attention of media, academia, and national and state legislatures. Most important has been the aforementioned Save Darfur Coalition, cofounded in July 2004 by the American Jewish World Service and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Commission. Over time, it attracted roughly 170 other groups, collected large sums of money through a well-organized national campaign and persuaded a number of state legislatures to divest from Sudan.

Its most effective tactic initially may have been the purchase of full-page ads in major news publications. Complete with heartrending pictures of suffering women and children, the ads challenged viewers with a question posed on behalf of their own grandchildren: “What did you do about preventing the genocide in Darfur?”

Rallies were scheduled in major cities (but usually without any Darfurians participating); highly tendentious “documentaries” and other materials were distributed across college campuses; Hollywood personalities (George Clooney, Mia Farrow, Don Cheadle) were recruited to the cause. In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, pressure was put on China to use its influence in Khartoum to force the regime to be more “forthcoming.”

China appointed a special envoy who actually succeeded in persuading Bashir to permit UN peacekeepers into Darfur, but the coalition wanted more. At the time of student riots in and about Chinese-occupied Tibet, the coalition pressed for public action against China because of its Sudan policy. Even though China was not occupying Darfur, U.S. athletes were requested to take a public stance against their Olympic hosts on behalf of Darfur, an act that would have amounted to a violation of the Olympic oath. When this move backfired and the co-chair of “Team Darfur” was refused a visa for China, relentless pressure on clearly confused athletes produced a comical vignette: A naturalized Sudanese 1500-meter runner was chosen to carry the U.S. flag at the opening ceremonies. He was hailed as a refugee who “escaped the horrors of Darfur” and had become a “symbol of American values.” In fact, the runner escaped from rebel attacks in his native village near the Kenya border and had never been in Darfur.

The excesses of Save Darfur became costly. A favorable article by The Washington Post’s foremost writer on lobbies and PACs, Jeffery Birnbaum, revealed (on July 1, 2007) that none of the large sums collected by Save Darfur had made it to that region but financed a large full-time staff and expensive political action. The organization’s printed claims about events in Darfur and America were vastly exaggerated and had become an embarrassment. The leadership was replaced, and work was transferred mostly to a daughter organization, the Enough! Project. In the interim, however, Save Darfur had spawned a French branch, Urgence Darfour, and coordinated closely with the British Aegis Trust. Politicians in these three countries have become outspoken activists on Darfur. In the United States, some student-activist groups have also formed, especially Stand (Students Taking Action Now: Darfur) and the Genocide Intervention Network (GI-net).

There can be no doubt that the Darfur activists have created an atmosphere conducive to demonizing Sudan’s leadership in the United States and, evidently, also among staff of the ICC, at least the chief prosecutor. President Bashir has de facto been convicted in the American court of public opinion, and American leaders are under pressure to respond to the images still in our media. Thus, every major candidate for president in 2008 felt compelled to comment publicly about the “horrors” of Darfur.

Meanwhile, Khartoum, the Arab world and most of Africa see the Darfur crisis quite differently: a humanitarian catastrophe resulting from increased desertification, coupled with population growth in an already marginalized area, leading local insurgents to mount the sort of regional rebellion that has happened periodically throughout recorded history. One can certainly debate the appropriateness of the government’s retaliation against the insurgents, but the latter did not merely “take up arms against the central government,” as endlessly repeated by Western media. They killed hundreds of uniformed officials, burnt their barracks and destroyed small aircraft on the ground — details usually left out of these reports. At what point are countermeasures proportional or not? Israel in Gaza? The United States in Iraq and Afghanistan? Clearly, honest observers can debate these matters.

But the question arises as to why American activists, including some high officials (e.g. U.S. ambassador to the United Nations), continue to claim an “ongoing genocide” as recently as early 2009, while UN officials estimate that “only” around 100 persons per month have lost their lives in the past four years (and most of them from rebel-on-rebel attacks). Yet the ICC prosecutor claims that figure to be 5,000. And why has there been virtually no attention given to the infinitely greater loss of life in northeastern Congo or in the continuing humanitarian catastrophe in Somalia, both cases easily worse than Darfur ever was.

Omar al-Bashir is on record as believing that the campaign against his regime has been orchestrated by Washington, which supported anti-Khartoum rebels throughout the 1990s, and that he has been on the short list for regime change. His conclusions are based on (1) the overt military and political support for the rebel SPLM, especially during the second Clinton administration; (2) American newspaper reports alleging slavery supposedly condoned by Bashir’s regime, complete with stories of “slave redemptions” (unmasked as fabrications several years later); (3) the missile attack on the Shifa pharmaceutical factory falsely identified as a chemical-weapons site; (4) media campaigns labeling him the “world’s worst dictator” (Parade Magazine); (5)the ratcheting up of sanctions to affect the northern provinces only. All these measures convinced Bashir that he and his regime had been singled out by Washington because they were "Islamist"> This perception has stifened his resolve to resist cooperation with any groups even vaguely associated with Washington, such as NATO and certain NGOs. 11It has simultaneously led him to discount reports of human suffering as part of Western propoganda, to everybody's loss.

During the past year, some isolated voices challenging these Darfur Narratives so popular in a few Western countries have increased, yet they still are refused access to major media. It is instructive that the Save Darfur Coalition, the Enough! Project and their European allies refuse to enter into public debates with scholars of Sudan. It remains a mystery why the alleged "free press" will not give space to those challenging the activist Darfur narrativr, and why many colleges and Washington-based think tanks do not invite speakers with alternative and academically rooted perspectives.

The Obama administration has pledged an atmosphere of open-mindedness and dialogue with various "countries of concern." The newly appointed special envoy to Sudan, Major General Jonathan Gration (U.S. Air Force, retired), has stated his willingness to listen and learn. Will he do that? And if he does, will President Obama be able to deflect the heat from all the vested domestic interests that have accumulated during the past half-decade and made Darfur their "project"? What about the role of the Obama campaign's foreign policy adviser, Susan Rice, now U.S ambassador to the United Nations, a long-time anti-khartoum hawk? She seems determined to push a policy of confrontation with Khartoum, as against General Gration's efforts to seek open dialogue and common gorund? Which side will the president choose?

Sudan and America have much in common, as will become clear if we are allowed to get to know each other as we really are and not as others, uninformed at that, would wish to paint us.


1 Charges of genocide were dismissed, but five crimes against humanity (murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture and rape) were upheld, as were two war crimes (pillaging and directing attacks on civilian populations).


2 Notable examples are Andrew Natsios, the former Special Sudan envoy, and Alex DeWaal, Harvard University and SSRC and a specialist on Western Sudan, who have been frequent critics of Khartoum but disagree with the ICC ruling as counterproductive. See Andrew Natsios, “Waltz with Bashir,” Foreign Affairs, March 23, 2009; also Alex DeWaal on his SSRC blog Making Sense of Darfur.

3 See also, Julie Flint and Alex DeWaal, “Case Closed: A Prosecutor Without Borders,” World Affairs Jour nal, Spring 2009.

4 Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2008.

5 One of Europe’s foremost experts on Darfur, R.S. O’Fahey, reported that while crisscrossing Darfur on camelback in 1978 for six weeks, he never once encountered a government official.

6 The juntas were led by, respectively, Ibrahim Abboud, November 1958-October 1964; Jafar Numayri, May 1969-April 1985; and Omar H.A. al-Bashir, June 1989 to present.

7 Robert O. Collins, A History of Modern Sudan (Cambridge, 2008), ch.10.

8 Collins, op.cit, p.286.

9 Mahmood Mamdani, “Beware Human Rights Fundamentalism,” Mail and Guardian Online, March 20, 2009.

10 See Tim Judah, “The Stakes in Darfur,” New York Review of Books, January 13, 2005.

11 General Gration’s conciliatory statements — as reported — during his first visit to Khartoum in early April seemed to have changed the atmospherics between official Washington and Sudan.