Understanding the Conflict In Darfur

In the past, disputes in Darfur were settled through traditional law, but during his period of rule President Nimeiri introduced new structures of government. The State was no longer a neutral mediator but now had executive and judicial power. Leaders were chosen based on their political loyalty instead of their standing in the community as in the past. This new government involvement meant that the State intervened in traditional tribal conflict; this was the beginning of greater strain among tribes in the region.

Tension increased among the tribes when weapons became easier to obtain, mainly through channels with Libya and Chad. With easier access to weapons, major tribes and villages began to organize militias and defense groups. The tribal clashes that continued through the 1980s were essentially between sedentary and nomadic tribes, in particular between the Fur and Arab nomadic tribes. The government intervened in this conflict in 1990, but tensions remained, and tribal clashes continued. This led to some resentment on the part of the Fur towards the Sudanese government, because they are not willing or able to do anything about the current situation in the Darfur region.

The distinction between "African" and "Arab" tribes has become more important in light of the recent conflict, and tribal identity has increased in significance to individuals. The distinction seems to come from the marginalization and competing economic interests which have overcome the southern region.

The conflict that continues in the Sudan today, between Sudanese government forces and ethnic Arab militia, on the one hand, and non-Arab African rebel groups. The rebel groups, called the Sudanese Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) began in 2003 when they attacked government targets, claiming that the government was oppressing black Africans in favor of Arabs. For many years in the past, there has been tension between the black Africans (including the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa) and nomadic Arab herdsmen over land and grazing rights. Arab nomads, who take their livestock from the north to a better environment in the south during the dry season, have been moving into southern Darfur earlier and earlier. This has caused a problem between the nomads and the black African farmers, because Darfur is almost entirely dedicated to agriculture and livestock, and their crops are trampled on and destroyed by the herds of cattle. In retaliation, some communities resorted to self-defense groups in the 1990s to protect their homes, crops, and families from attacks by the nomadic Arabs, who were often armed.