Sudan's Osama

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Aug. 5 2004 6:27 PM

Sudan's Osama

The Islamist roots of the Darfur genocide.

Last week the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution demanding that the Sudanese government "disarm and prosecute" the Janjaweed. Together with government troops, the armed Arab militia is responsible for the deaths of up to 50,000 African villagers and the displacement of another million from their homes in the country's western province of Darfur. The ruling National Islamic Front has 30 days to comply with the resolution or Sudan will face diplomatic and economic measures. But why would sanctions matter to a government that's been politically and economically isolated for most of the last 15 years? Are they really going to stop the Janjaweed from killing, raping, and looting?

Both Australia and England say they're ready to send troops to Darfur, but what about their Iraq coalition partner, the West's leading proponent of Middle East regime change? While the U.S. Congress declared the mass killing of civilians in Darfur to be genocide, the White House has studiously avoided the word, since using it, according to the 1948 U.N. Convention on Genocide, would require the United States to intervene. Evangelical Christian leaders have urged Washington to act forcefully, but with the U.S. military already overtaxed in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is unlikely President Bush can accommodate a group whose wishes he usually takes to heart, even in an election year. For the time being, at least, the United States is left with diplomatic initiatives, vague threats from U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Danforth, and rhetorical questions from Secretary of State Colin Powell. "What is it that they [the Sudanese government] need a month to do that they can't do right now?" Powell recently asked.

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Khartoum argues that it's not a genocide, just a land dispute, and the real culprits aren't the Janjaweed but the Darfur rebels, African Muslims who are trying to settle scores with the government by killing its Arab Muslim sympathizers. It's true that the rebels have contributed to the death toll, and the fact that the press has largely overlooked their culpability only feeds the NIF's paranoid fears that an ascendant West is looking for a pretext to further expand its reach into the Muslim world. If any Western nations do try to intervene in the country's internal affairs, Khartoum promises to confront "the enemies of the Sudan on land, sea and air."

So, the simple answer to Powell's question is that even if the Sudanese government wanted to solve the Darfur crisis, it couldn't do so within a month. Some of the issues date back at least as far as Jan. 1, 1956, when Sudan declared its independence from Great Britain. While oil has been discovered in parts of the country, including Darfur, Sudan's limited natural resources, water among them, have perennially exacerbated serious structural flaws in the political system. Just as the British favored the Arabs when they assembled Iraq, together with Egypt, they did the same in Sudan: Virtually all political power, decision-making, and wealth resides in the Arab-dominated north. Consequently, the largely Christian and animist south has been at war with Khartoum since the country's birth, save for a cease-fire from 1972 to 1983.

President Jafaar an-Nimeiri's decision to impose sharia, or Islamic law, throughout the country in 1983 renewed tensions between the two parties, and war broke out again. Nimeiri's Islamicization project was urged on by Sudan's Muslim Brotherhood, including its leading ideologue and the country's attorney general, Hassan al-Turabi. The man who would later become known for inviting Osama Bin Laden to make his home in Khartoum in 1991 has long been a central figure in Sudanese politics. Turabi's brother-in-law Sadeq al-Mahdi ran the country from 1985 until 1989, when the NIF and current ruler Lt.-Gen. Omar al-Bashir came to power in a military coup that Turabi supported. Indeed, as the one-time spiritual guide of the NIF, Turabi was said to be the power behind the throne and thus most likely supplied the government with its additional rationale for continuing the war—jihad. After all, Khartoum was fighting to protect Islam and sharia against non-Muslims. Many of the Christians and animists who resisted sharia and refused to convert to Islam were killed, with the death toll from two decades of fighting recently estimated at around 2 million.

While most Western press accounts have avoided the word jihad, they've sketched out the ways in which the government's current western campaign differs from its earlier southern war, now ended under a fragile peace accord. That was a religious conflict pitting Muslims against Christians and animists; this time around, when Arab Muslims are fighting black Africans who are also Muslims, it's ethnic cleansing. However, given the fairly fluid sense of ethnicity and the complex relationships between nomadic and agricultural tribes in Sudan, that scheme doesn't entirely hold up. As the United Nations' emergency relief coordinator told Al Jazeera, "The same tribes are represented both among those who are cleansed and those who are cleansing." Indeed, the ethnic cleansing explanation has obscured what appears to be at the root of the conflict. As the NIF exploited sectarian lines in its siege against the south, Hassan al-Turabi has manipulated ethnic divides in order to wage war against his former protégé, Omar al-Bashir.

"There is a power struggle within the NIF, and Turabi is using Darfur to undermine the Khartoum government," Sudanese law scholar Abdullahi Ahmed an-Na'im told me. "This is part of a palace coup."

Turabi was arrested in March for allegedly plotting against Bashir and, for reasons that remain unclear, he is expected to be released soon. Four years ago, Turabi was put under house arrest and formed the Popular Congress. When the PC was looking for allies to bring down the central government, writes Danish aid worker Anders Hastrup, "The marginalized region of Western Darfur, with its Islamic tribes and its ambivalent and, occasionally, rebellious attitude towards Khartoum was an obvious place to look." The PC made common cause with the Darfur rebels and also circulated The Black Book, a pamphlet that, Hastrup writes, documented "Khartoum's neglect and ostracism of the western tribes in the decision-making process, and showed that the great majority of important positions in the country were filled by figures from a northern Arab background."

Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian writer and rights activist whose Tharwa Project Web site documents the status of minorities throughout the Middle East and North Africa. He explained to me that "there is a very serious issue of racial discrimination, of Arabs against non-Arabs, in Sudan," which Turabi turned to his advantage. "He was reaching out to non-Arab elements in his struggle against Bashir," says Abdulhamid. "And he's become the rebels' spiritual guide."

It's worth remembering that, as the NIF's chief ideologue, Turabi played on the other side, against Africans, when he boasted of wanting to "Arabize Africa." Over the last several decades, this spiritual guide for hire has not only determined most of Sudan's political and military battlegrounds, he also helped turn the country into a well-known international jihadist resort: Bin Laden, who reportedly married one of Turabi's nieces, and Ayman al-Zawahiri both spent part of the '90s in Sudan.