The Sudan and the Crisis in Darfur

Stephen Eric Bronner

The Middle East is not merely a geographical designation, but a cauldron of ideological and material conflicts. Like all territories once subject to colonialism, its borders are arbitrary. Neither religious intolerance nor ancient tribal and ethnic hatreds respect them. Conflicts of this sort were rife in the Sudan. It is a huge country roughly the size of Western Europe, the largest in Africa, which borders nine other states. The Islamic-Arab world intersects with Africa in the Sudan. Its oil and resource rich provinces in the South, whose citizens mostly embrace Christianity or animism,[1] have for decades been resisting the authoritarian government of the North with its strong Muslim mass base. Overlapping traditional religious tensions are the roving groups of armed bandits, blood feuds, tribal hatreds, conflicts between cattle herders and farmers, availability of weapons, and an ongoing competition over shrinking natural resources, livestock, and water.  Such is the landscape for the civil conflict, taking place off and on since the early 1950s, which has decimated the Sudan as surely as the Hundred Years War once destroyed Europe.

As for Darfur, which constitutes the western part of the Sudan, it is administratively divided into three parts running from North to South. Darfur is nearly the size of France, and marked by 153 squalid camps for what amounts to millions of “internally displaced persons.” These refugees fled their villages to escape the Sudanese military and the armed bandits on horseback known as the Janjaweed. Such roving marauders were – organized by the government of President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir in Khartoum to quell the ongoing rebellion in the region. Hunger, thirst, disease, filth, threats of rape and violence, and a stultifying idleness abound in these IDP camps with their sea of thatched huts, flimsy tents, and mud streets. The refugees wish only to return to their villages. But repatriating them, rebuilding their homes, and compensating the victims for what they have undergone is an expensive undertaking. Issues of this sort, coupled with the unwillingness of the government to disarm the Janjaweed, are at the root of the controversy concerning implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of January 2006 and, brokered by the African Union, the Darfur Peace Agreement of May 2006 (

A new bombing campaign by Khartoum against Darfur in August and September of 2006 drove tens of thousands more villagers into the camps and the 10,000 troops amassed by the regime in Khartoum might attempt to drive the IDPs over the border or disband the camps entirely thereby leading to death on a mass scale. About 7000 troops from the African Union had been stationed in Darfur to protect them. But they have been harshly criticized for their incompetence and inexperience. Even before the 30th of September 2006, when the mandate for the African Union troops was set to expire, the requisite funds for maintaining them had almost run out. On 31 August, the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for “re-hatting” some of them, adding a few thousand civilian police, and mixing them with roughly 17,000 troops sent by the UN. Under the auspices of the United Nations, this force would be used to protect the refugees from the Janjaweed and the Sudanese military in the future. Nevertheless, President Al-Bashir was adamant in his refusal either to extend the mandate of troops from the African Union or allow the UN the right to intervene in Sudanese affairs. 

Many refugees living in IDP camps would undoubtedly welcome the UN. That is also true of certain rebel groups like the Justice and Equality Movement led by Khalil Ibrahim, and the Sudanese Liberation Movement/ Army faction led by Abdelwahid Mohamed al-Nur, which have refused to sign the Darfur Peace Agreement of May 2006 thereby initiating conflicts with other oppositional groups that have signed and further heightening instability in the region ( 5 September 2006). Some have even insisted that it would be best for all concerned if the Southern region of the Sudan and Darfur were to secede. Given the wealth of oil and resources in the South and its natural concern with national sovereignty, however, the Khartoum government will do everything possible to prevent the secession of various provinces that might be sparked by the entry of foreign troops by the United Nations. In Khartoum no less than in Iran, Libya, and elsewhere anti-western radicals argued that the UN was nothing more than a front for “imperialist powers” intent upon “re-colonizing” the Sudan. Anti-western rhetoric increased and the bad press suffered by the Sudan was ever more routinely attributed to Jewish control over the media. Such charges were mostly self-serving propaganda. But the toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the American occupation of Iraq, and the generally bellicose policy of the Bush Administration lent credence to such charges in some quarters.[2]

Censorship and the assault on civil liberties had become less stringent in the six months that followed the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. With what was presented as the rising threat from abroad, however, domestic repression by the regime of President Al-Bashir intensified. Governmental surveillance tightened, newspapers were shut down, and street demonstrations disbanded by the police. As far as “regime change” is concerned, however, its beneficiaries would most likely not be the “democratic parties,” which are run by families and grounded in tribal loyalties, but Islamic fundamentalists who—in spite of the splits between moderate and extremist elements[3] --constitute the only genuinely mass movement in the Sudan.

What impact the entry of UN troops might have on a singularly multi-cultural nation the size of the Sudan is impossible to predict. But it is possible to imagine that a national resistance will take shape and that IDPs living in the camps might well find themselves caught in the middle of a maelstrom far worse than what has gripped Iraq. Eighty tribes in the Sudan have their own militias, previous peace agreements are in doubt, Islamic fundamentalists are training in the Jebel Marra Mountains, and the country seems set to implode.   

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Such were the thoughts that went through my mind as I and thirteen other mostly American academics, representing Conscience International, deplaned in Khartoum on 3 September 2006. We were there to participate in a two-day conference that would be attended by a host of leading Sudanese politicians and academics. The humanitarian activist and leader of our delegation, Dr. Jim Jennings, had performed a Herculean task in securing our visas and, in cooperation with our hosts, organizing what would become a remarkably candid exchange of views. Aside from an excursion to the pyramids of the long vanished Kush civilization, the pharmaceutical factory mistakenly bombed under the orders of President Bill Clinton, and then an extraordinary Sufi religious ritual, a visit to the Darfurian IDP camp of Abu Shouck near El Fasher was also organized at the last minute. Our group was treated with great respect and hospitality by the Council for International People’s Friendship and its influential Secretary General, Ahmed Abd Al-Rahman Mohammed, and Hasim El-Tinay of the Institute for Internal Peace & Dialogue.

An atmosphere of crisis hung over Khartoum. We learned quickly about the Sudanese dislike for the condescension and provincialism exhibited by American diplomats -- something I had heard everywhere in my travels through the Middle East – and we noted how chilly the interaction was that took place between these politicians and diplomats from two very different worlds. It was clearly because we were not professional politicians or diplomatic representatives of the United States, but cosmopolitan academics engaged in citizen diplomacy that we were able to engage the Sudanese in so frank a manner. As for the conference, which was videotaped, various panels dealt with possible ways for restructuring the Sudanese educational system and the opportunities for investment. My panel, however, dealt explicitly with the crisis in Darfur. The chairperson was the former Sudanese Ambassador to the United States, Charles Manyang. On my left in a smart business suit was the governmental minister, Dr. El-Tijani Mustafa, who defended official policies and denied the organized employment of the Janjaweed in Darfur while on my right, dressed in beautiful white robes and a white turban was Dr. Abdelrahman Dosa who subjected official policy to a sober critique. He explained how the Janjaweed were being used by Khartoum both for murderous purposes and to pursue a civil war on the cheap against citizens and rebels in Darfur as well as in Southern Sudan. 

My presentation of 6 September 2006 sought to explore some ways of defusing the international crisis and overcoming the apparent hardening of positions in the Sudan no less than in the West.  I was struck by how seriously the audience took what I said and I soon learned the reason why. For all the public rhetoric, I was later told again and again, Khartoum was looking for an exit – “with honor” -- from the crisis its leaders had so unconscionably created. I made a number of suggestions in my talk. The most important concerned the need to rethink the question of military deployment and Dr. Nasir Elseed of the Islamic Socialist Party as well as Aldondoni Deng, of the National Congress Party, greeted it with enthusiasm. Sheik Ahmed Abd AL-Rahman told me on the 7th of September that he would deliver my working paper along with his own comments to the two Sudanese Vice-Presidents and that it would then be “discussed further.”

Indications that Khartoum was becoming more flexible on extending the mandate of African troops were first made in public on 11 September 2006 and adding 4,000 more troops was deemed acceptable. The mandate of these troops was then extended to December 30th 2006 with the possibility for a further extension to 1 April 2007. On the 14th of September, the Sudanese State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Al-Samani Al-Wasila, in Addis Ababa called for a “partnership” among the African Union, the Sudan, and the International community rather than enforced resolutions ( The New York Times subsequently reported on the 21th September 2006 that the Sudanese government would allow for “logistical” support from the United Nations to help the African Union. As funding was acquired from the Arab League, and the European Union, willingness to accept  “logistical support” turned into the willingness to accept “military advisors” from the United Nations.[4] On 6th October 2006, finally, a spokesman for UN Secretary General Kofi Annan stated that he had received a letter from President al-Bashir in which he formally accepted the proposal to provide UN military support to the African Union Mission in the Sudan. Finally, as reported on the 25th October by the South Africa News, President Bashir stated that “We have no objection to the African Union increasing its troops, strengthening its mandate, or even receiving logistical support from the European Union, the United Nations, or the Arab League for that matter, but this must, of course, be done in consultation with the government of national unity.”

With revisions, and naturally without attribution, this position taken by the president reflected the most important recommendation made in my presentation. Maybe it was a coincidence since there are often many voices urging the same policy. As the proverb says: “Success has many fathers; failure is an orphan.” Conscience International was, however, clearly in the right place at the right time and it seems that citizen diplomacy driven by good will always offers the prospect of a better outcome than imperial hubris. The new position regarding a “partnership,” in any event was a prudent move by a Sudanese regime known for its stubbornness. But the new course is not set in stone. Making further progress will depend upon whether the United Nations, the United States, and western opinion-makers make the commitment to engage not to act hastily and cooperate with the Sudan – peacefully – in an attempt to resolve one of the most terrible crises of our time.

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Positions had seemingly grown intractable when our conference began. It was as if – on a number of crucial issues -- international organizations intent upon preventing mass murder were facing off against an intractable authoritarian government concerned with preserving the sovereignty of the Sudan. If supporters of UN intervention seemed blind to constraints, the political issue with respect to dealing with the Sudanese was not whether their suspicions regarding the imperialist ambitions of the UN were legitimate, but whether they believed them to be legitimate. Because it has often been a tool of western “great power” interests, and also because vetoes on so many resolutions have been made by the United States on behalf of Israel, the political intentions of the United Nations are still generally greeted with suspicion in much of the previously colonized world.

Suspicions of this sort made it important to emphasize that the United Nations is not identifiable merely with its Security Council, which is undemocratically constituted and weighted in favor of the more powerful western states, or its General Assembly that is powerless other than with respect to articulating world opinion on any given matter. The United Nations also oversees the World Health Organization and UNESCO along with various disaster relief agencies that have provided enormous help to the most unfortunate peoples including the Palestinians. The United Nations Charter, I noted, also recognizes the sovereignty of its member states and it explicitly endorses the notion of national self-determination. Especially over the last few years, given its opposition to the American invasion of Iraq and the Israeli war on Lebanon, it is difficult to argue that the UN is simply a stand-in for the United States or that it is driven principally by imperialist designs on the Sudan.    

But, for all that, more sensitivity is necessary in dealing with the lingering memories of imperialism with regard to Africa in general and the Sudan in particular. That the Sudanese political leaders should have preoccupied themselves with defending the sovereignty of their country is only natural. Having said that, however, something else follows. Insofar as national self-determination is a universal right, I noted those who lay claim to it must recognize that they are part of the international community. Thus, I insisted that it would prove both impractical for the Sudan simply to turn inward.

An alternative was required to the choice between deploying either UN or Sudanese troops in Dafur. This called for, using philosophical terminology, mediating between abstract universal and provincial national concerns. Or, to put it another way, not two, but three interests needed to be acknowledged. There was the interest in the human rights of Southern dissidents and especially the IDPs in Darfur, which was the express concern of the UN and various disaster relief agencies, the interest of the Sudanese government in Khartoum, and – just as importantly – the regional interest represented by the African Union. Each of these interests, in my view, needed to be taken into account in sketching new ways of dealing with four issues pertinent to preventing further bloodshed in the Sudan and increasing bloodshed in Darfur. My aim, therefore, was not to “resolve the conflict,” or provide definitive solutions to the problems facing the Sudan, Darfur, and the region. It was instead to offer a set of talking points that might provoke the formulation of more flexible policies beyond mere troop deployment that might bring the opposing parties closer together. My arguments and proposals concerning the controversy over the deployment of troops, the discovery of information, the activities of relief agencies, and stopping the sale of military hardware can be summarized as follows:   

1) The United Nations was seeking to integrate, or better “re-hat” 7,700 African Union forces into a UN force of 22,000 that would guarantee the safety of those living in the 153 IDP camps that dot the landscape of Dafur. The Sudanese government adamantly rejected that idea and, instead, wished to employ 10,000 of its own troops to provide security. My suggestions for moving beyond the impasse called for extending the mandate and increasing the authority of the African Union. It proposed a change of focus that would rest upon integrating Sudanese police or militia with military personnel from the United Nations, and “re-hatting” them, under the command structure of the African Union. A check would thereby be provided on any “imperialist” designs by the United Nations, no less than the more ominous ambitions of the regime in Khartoum, while privileging the potentially wide-ranging regional impact of the crisis.  Such a plan would balance the concerns of the Sudanese with national sovereignty, the needs of “internally displaced persons,” and the broader interests of the region. It was never meant to offer any guarantee of “success” or the certainty that the ongoing humanitarian disaster would be brought to an end. It merely provided what, in my opinion, amounted to the best bet – and, what should not be underestimated, an African solution to an African problem.

2). Not only the United Nations, but also various relief agencies fear that mass murder is taking place in Darfur – though only the United States has officially used the term in the present context. These organizations believe that 400-500, 000 people have perished in the recent conflicts while official Sudanese studies estimate somewhere between 60,000-160,000. There is something profoundly disgusting about using numbers in this manner. But whose are correct is a matter of some importance. There is only one way of arriving at an answer. Continue to allow independent investigators, who are guaranteed security by the Sudanese government, into Darfur. In fact, I suggested expanding the number of researchers – and perhaps creating a set of international teams -- independent of any organization or state with a direct stake in the crisis. The more studies that emerge the more the likelihood of finding some consensual answers to pressing questions concerning the magnitude of events in Darfur as well as their impact on nations like Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and the Central African Republic that harbor more than 350,000 Sudanese refugees Information on the terrible problems plaguing Darfur will – quite obviously -- have a profound impact in determining the solutions to them and rendering a judgment on the question of “genocide.”[5] 

3) Khartoum is being blamed for the mass murder looming over Darfur not merely due to the murderous activities of the Janjaweed, but also because humanitarian relief agencies insist that their efforts are being obstructed. They point to the use of red tape in delaying visas, the lack of security cooperation provided by law enforcement agencies, and general forms of bureaucratic harassment. The Sudanese have pleaded concerns over “security” to justify the obstacles placed in the path of representatives from international organizations, humanitarian relief agencies, and even foreign politicians seeking to enter the country. My proposal was that the African Union in cooperation with Sudanese representatives should be empowered to determine which humanitarian agencies should be allowed entry.

4) But that suggestion elided an issue that could not be raised publicly, namely, fear by Sudanese military leaders and politicians that they would be arrested on charges of having committed war crimes. That fear was only strengthened by a joint statement of European Union foreign ministers that officials of the Sudanese government and military would be “held accountable” for war crimes ( Various possibilities for dealing with them can be discussed after peace is achieved. But for the time being, in my view, improving conditions for the IDPS in Darfur is more important than capturing and trying war criminals.  Thus, my proposal  – and I recognize its distasteful character – was that neither UN personnel nor humanitarian relief workers associated with any international agency should pursue arrest warrants on Sudanese nationals even should the appropriate indictments have been provided by the International Criminal Court. [6]

5) More nations and peoples than the Sudanese and the IDPS have a stake in the crisis that has been generated in Darfur. It also has implications for the stability of nine governments whose innumerable tribes cut across national boundaries. Fighting is already taking place between different tribes, cattle growers and farmers, and private militias along the various borders separating the Sudan from other countries. The United Nations has placed an arms embargo of unspecified length on the Sudan. The Sudanese leadership has, meanwhile, stated its objection to such a ban. As things now stand the supply of arms continues to grow and, along with it, arms demand. It is imperative to highlight this situation and throw the glare of public opinion upon it. 

Here, again, the African Union should take the lead. It might start by sponsoring regional conferences between political representatives as well as civic leaders and respected intellectuals from different nations in the region. Other conferences and public events, organized by international peace organizations, could publicize the problems caused by the largest sellers of military goods like China, France, Russia, and the United States. Even officially the United States could actually play a positive role – and improve its moral standing in the international community – by implementing its own law against arms brokering rather than waiting until other nations do likewise. Articulating policies whereby the states of the region might, following Max Weber, gain a monopoly over the legitimate means of coercion would be a first step toward disarming the various tribal militias and creating the forms of basic “security” that serve as the precondition for economic development. The more immediate possibility, however, is to build the climate against violence through the use of mass media, demonstrations, concerts, conferences, and the like.

This suggestion, admittedly, has a certain utopian ring to it. Participation by the most culpable states would be difficult to secure if only because taking part would be tantamount to admitting their culpability in supplying or demanding arms. There is also the vexing question regarding whom to invite and whether to include representatives from rebel groups. Then, too, conferences, concerts, and even the use of mass media mostly have only an indirect effect on policy. Nevertheless, there is something profoundly shortsighted about refusing to think at all about the possibilities for a lasting peace in the region because horrible forms of conflict have continued for so long. 

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“Global Darfur Day” took place on 17 September 2006. Tens of thousands worldwide marched against the prospect of further loss of life in the Sudan. It is easy to be cynical. Little concern had previously been expended by the West over the roughly 4 million who had died over the last few years in the Congo, the 1.6 million dead and displaced in Uganda, or the 1 in 3 Malawians living below subsistence. These events overshadow what has transpired in Darfur. Having allowed the perpetration of certain humanitarian injustices in prior instances, of course, does not invalidate the attempt to prevent yet another disaster. World opinion did ultimately help pressure Khartoum into seeking a compromise. But this does not justify what so many of the protesters proposed as a policy. There is, indeed, something disheartening about the way in which Darfur was turned into a designer crisis, a media event, sentimentally over-simplified by celebrities and decent people trying to do the right thing like George Clooney, Mia Farrow and Elie Wiesel.   

Mr. Clooney warned that Darfur is the new millennium’s first genocide; Ms. Farrow claimed that she saw  “the need for help in the refugees’ eyes;” and Elie Wiesel made the Sudan yet another object of his insufferably self-righteous and selective moralizing. None of them had anything concrete to suggest other than that sanctions should be introduced or, alternatively, that UN troops should be deployed against the Sudan. Nothing much was said about finding a compromise or forging a new approach to the crisis. Already the influential neo-conservative foreign policy analyst, Robert Kagan, has demanded an invasion of Sudan by the United States while American State Department officials have suggested the need for an oil embargo and that France might be prevailed upon to attack Sudanese military air transports. Our celebrities and mainstream liberal activists could thus be left in a terribly difficult situation. Should the UN have proved unable to impose sanctions or intervene, because of a veto introduced by China or Russia in the Security Council, the choice for Mr. Clooney and his friends would be between  “doing nothing” – and perhaps watching the existing peace agreements collapse ( or supporting the United States in undertaking yet another high-handed gesture if not, more ominously, another ill-advised military adventure with imperialist overtones.[7] 

The United States has already placed economic sanctions on nearly fifty nations – roughly a third of the states in the world community – and other powerful nations, especially China, have stepped into the breech. China is now creating a news media devoted solely to economic issues, which will broadcast in Arabic 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, and I was told in Khartoum that a meeting is being planned between twenty-two Arab and African nations and China to discuss new venues for trade. Little thought has been given to the humanitarian impact sanctions would have on the Sudan, which ranks among the top 20 least trade dependent states and 139th on the United Nations’ Human Misery Index, let alone the logistics and the realizable aims of 22,000 UN troops – alien to the terrain and the culture of Darfur – patrolling an area of 290,00 square kilometers. It is also a western conceit to believe that UN troops will somehow prove more competent than those of the African Union.

Because the United Nations has been brought into play does not give intervention some kind of holy imprimatur. Such a substitution would surely insult African sensibilities. National resistance might well take place and, it is worth noting that, upon visiting Darfur various representatives from previously warring tribes – including those from the politically powerful Zagawa and Rizgat tribes – candidly told our group that their people would engage in guerilla actions against any “invading” force. Tens of thousands of new refugees might flee their villages bloating further the old and creating scores of new camps. Even were that not to occur, however, the fighting in Sudan could touch off a regional crisis of potentially horrifying proportions.  

A very different course of action remains possible. In concert with highlighting the role of the African Union, and pressuring remaining recalcitrant rebel groups to sign the Darfur Peace Agreement, an intelligent diplomatic policy – that might counter the regional advances of China-- would reject the use of economic sanctions and immediately lift those that exist. Such a policy would emphasize the need for micro-investment to increase the number of those with a stake in Sudanese society and would link macro-investment to the building of an infrastructure in the country.[8] It would call for new funding for the nearly broke increasing the funding of the nearly broke United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which has repatriated over 12,000 IDPs, expand educational and cultural exchanges with the Sudan, and foster greater cooperation with the African Union.

Such a policy is, of course, not quite as dramatic as what yet another coalition of neo-conservative and liberal hawks has proposed for the Sudan. No less than in Afghanistan and Iraq, though this time in a nation 30 times the size of Sierra Leone and 100 times the size of Rwanda, they have called for foreign intervention in order to produce “regime change” under conditions that remain unexamined and in the face of constraints that are not taken into account. It doesn’t matter whether their intentions are good. Should their more intemperate proposals be embraced by the United Nations, or the United States, the wretched of the earth will wind up – again -- bearing the consequences of military action by powerful “allies” who will surely forget about them once the costs rise or, perhaps even worse, the next crisis comes along.



[1] See the “Sudan: International Religious Freedom Report” that was released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor on 15 September 2006.

[2] More credence was given to anti-western voices when it became public that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had been pressing over many months for the creation of an American military command focused solely on Africa (Reuters 23 September 2006).

[3] Note the interesting discussion by George Packer, “Letter from Sudan” in The New Yorker (11 September 2006).

[4] Khartoum’s most important representative on Darfur, Majzou  al-Khalifa, is quoted as saying: There is a third way. . . Why not let the UN place its men, command expertise and material at the service of the African Union mission?” (Associated Press 26 September 2006).

[5] “Genocide” is not merely a general term, but an official designation that – according to the UN Charter – requires actionto halt it.  Controversy therefore surrounds the definition of what is occurring in Darfur. Jonathan Steele addressed the matter in a particularly blunt fashion in The South Africa Press (19 September 2006):  “In spite of efforts to describe the killing in Darfur as genocide, neither the UN nor the EU went along with this description [due to] the difference between a brutal civil war and a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing.  Darfur is not Rwanda. Only the U.S. accepted the genocide description, though this seemed a concession to domestic lobbies rather than a matter of conviction. Washington never followed through with the forcible intervention in Darfur that international law requires once a finding of genocide is made.”

[6] In 2005, “ the UN Security Council passed a historic resolution calling for the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate war crimes in Darfur. The II will help establish a public record, deter future crimes, promote victim reparation, help catalyze reform in Sudan’s courts, and assign individual --not group—responsibility for the crimes. These are critical components to reconciliation.” Amnesty International (Fall 2006), pg. 15.

[7] In speaking about UN Resolution 1706, which concerned itself with the deployment of troops to the Sudan, Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Kristen Silverbeg said on 15 September 2006 that “its absolutely the case” that a military force could be dispatched without the consent of the Sudanese government and that the United States had insisted  “there be no language in the resolution that required explicit endorsement of the Sudanese government” (  

[8] Note some of the interesting suggestions made by Jeffrey D. Sachs, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time (New York: Penguin, 2005), pgs. 5-74, 226-266.


Stephen Eric Bronner is the Senior Editor of Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture and Professor (II) of Political Science at Rutgers University.  His most recent work is Blood in the Sand: Imperial Fantasies, Right-Wing Ambitions, and the Erosion of American Democracy (University Press of Kentucky: 2005).