Question & Answer Session on Darfur

Francis M. Deng
Francis M. Deng Former Brookings Expert

August 14, 2004

An increasingly dire situation in Darfur in western Sudan has devolved into the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, according to international observers. More than one million people have been forced to leave their homes due to policies of the Arab government in Khartoum and militias known as Janjaweed operating with government support. Almost 200,000 Sudanese live in refugee camps in neighboring Chad.

Francis M. Deng: I regret that these are all the questions we can respond to within the available time. All the questions have been very interesting and constructive if provocative.

Thank you for the opportunity to engage in this discussion.

Question (Q): Paris, France: Hello,I believe the humanitarian crisis in Darfur in not specific of Sudan only but I believe a lot of people in other African countries live like this situation, as the war in the Ruwanda and Burundi. I believe this is ethnic conflicts and not only Arab-Black African. I believe the problem is how we can resolve the ethnic conflict in African countries? Thanks.

Answer (A): You raise a very important question about the humanitarian crises throughout Africa. There is a tendency, as I said in an earlier response, to focus on the immediate humanitarian needs without addressing the underlying causes. With respect to Africa in general, the world tends to become preoccupied with the crises without trying to get a deeper understanding of what is causing these crises. Although we do not need to dwell on the history of colonial intervention and its impact on Africa, it’s important to have a sense of history to understand what is going on in order to chart a better future. I believe the gist of the African crisis is grounded in the mismanagement of diversity and not making use of the indigenous values and institutions as building blocks in the process of nation-building. The indigenous system of autonomy or political structures and processes was replaced by a centralized authority of the colonial state that raised the stakes in that the central authority became the key to acquiring power, services and opportunities for development. At independence, the central authority was captured by certain ethnic groups which then monopolized power and marginalized others. This struggle for central power became the key to the ongoing tensions and conflicts resulting in coups and counter coups and causing instability. What I believe is needed is a recognition that ethnic compositions are realities that have sustained the Africans for centuries if not thousands of years and while they have been abused and manipulated by both the colonial authorities and independent Governments, they are a potential resource for a genuinely de-centralized system of Government and development as a process of self-enhancement from within. In other words, ethnicity can be used as a means for divisiveness but it can also be used constructively as a means for grounding the system of governance and development in the African reality.

Q: Washington, DC: Does, in your mind, this ongoing conflict meet the definition of genocide?

A: In my view, the debate on whether this is genocide or ethnic cleansing or merely crimes against humanity, is wasteful of the need to act immediately. What is important is that what is going on is unacceptable, whatever we call it. And if we engage in the legalistic argument of whether all the criteria of the genocide convention have been met, we are not only spending valuable time, but waiting for conclusive evidence which would only be available after the crime is proven to have occurred. After all, the same debate raged over Rwanda while carnage was going on and by the time the evidence was conclusive, the genocide had occurred.

Q: Alexandria, VA: Most of the focus on Sudan has been on immediate relief for the millions of displaced, but what are the more long-term plans to reduce or eliminate the underlying source of the problems in Sudan (i.e. government corruption, internal tensions)?

A: You are absolutely correct in that in the present situation in Darfur, as indeed in most humanitarian crises, attention tends to be focused on the immediate needs for protection and assistance. It is very important that the root causes of these problems are addressed if those countries in crisis are to enjoy durable peace, security and stability. In the case of the Sudan, I have tended to focus on the underlying identity crisis as the root cause of the conflicts throughout the country. These conflicting identities, in my view, are largely matters of perceptions that are not based on the realities of the country. The ruling Arab-Islamic minority has projected the Sudan as an Arab Muslim country, which is a clear distortion of the realities not only of the country as a whole but even of the racial composition of those who view themselves as Arab. Nearly every Sudanese who can justifiably claim to be racially or ethnically Arab is in fact, a hybrid of African and Arab elements. Recognizing the common factor in the indigenous Sudanese identity and refashioning or reconceptualizing the national identity framework along those lines would provide a common basis for national unity.

Q: How does oil play into this situation? What can be done to pressue countries such as China, Malaysia, Canada, and Quatar who have serious oil interests in the Sudan to take a tougher stance?

A: With respect to the impact of oil, although Chad has discovered significant oil reserves and Darfur is suspected to have oil, so far oil has not figured into the Darfur conflict since none has been discovered. It is in the South that oil has added fuel to the conflict as the Government in cooperation with some foreign oil companies has displaced large numbers of people within the Southern borders where most reserves have been found. Oil has also been a major issue in the negotiations between the Government and the SPLM/A and the percentages of the Southern oil between the parties have been agreed upon.

Q: You’ve mentioned that while many people have fled to Chad, many more people who’ve been forced to flee are still in Darfur. Are there differences in the conditions of these groups and of the ability of the international community to help them? I can only imagine that those still in Darfur remain at particularly grave risk.

A: Since I have not been to the refugee camps in Chad, I cannot answer this question from personal experience. What we hear of the conditions of the refugees is that they are in dire need of humanitarian assistance. Having said that, refugees, by virtue of having crossed international borders, have well-established international legal and institutional frameworks for providing them with protection and assistance under the mandate of the High Commissioner for Refugees. The internally displaced, on the other hand, do not have such a regime and the international community is still struggling to establish an effective system of protection and assistance for them.

Q: Toronto, Canada: What relationship does the conflict in Darfur have to the 40-year long civil war between the north and the south? How could a peace deal be signed in the midst of the atrocities that were taking place in Darfur?

A: Several of you have asked me about the relationship between the conflict in Darfur and the war in the South. There are several links between the situations. First of all, the grievances of these regions have much in common even though they differ in that the Darfurians are largely Muslim, though mostly non-Arab. Second, for the same reason, the Southern liberation movement is sympathetic to the movements in Darfur. In fact, the first attempt at a rebellion in Darfur took place in 1991 by Darfurians supported by the Southern based Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and Army (SPLM/A). That rebellion was suppressed without the grievances being addressed. It is clear that the SPLM/A will not join the Sudan Government after the peace accord and together continue the war in Darfur. On the other hand, the peace agreement between the Government and the SPLM/A is likely to have a positive impact on the situation in Darfur. In fact, some of the provisions in the anticipated agreement relate to other marginalized regions of the North, including Darfur. Conversely, unless the sitaution in Darfur is constructively addressed, it could have a negative impact on the peace process in the South with disastrous consequences for the country as a whole.

Q: Washington, DC: Mr. Deng, What exactly do they (the Government and Janjaweed) want? Clearly they’ve beaten back the revolt so why do they seem so intent on continuing to kill innocent people and driving them from their land?

A: The Government and the rebel movements have signed a ceasefire that is only being precariously observed. Therefore, one cannot say that the need of the Government for the alliance of the Janjaweed against the rebels has totally diminished. This is why it is important to not only to disarm or neutralize the Janjaweed but also to observe the ceasefire and make progress in the negotiations between the Government and the rebels.

Q: Newton, Mass.: I’ve read where it would take as many as 20,000 troops to protect the citizens of Darfur meaningfully. Can the African Union muster that large of a troop presence? (Or, if you disagree with the estimate, the level of troops necessary)?

If not, isn’t it a huge risk for the AU to try to do something that may be doomed to be ineffectual. And if that is the case, what other steps can be taken?

A: I cannot tell you exactly what level of troop presence would be required. What is clear is that any number of troops with a mandate not only to monitor the ceasefire as is now the case with the AU monitoring force, but with a stronger mandate to protect the civilian population is better than none. But of course, the international community must do more than have a symbolic presence in the country. The troops must be given the support in equipment and logistics to be effective.

Q: Washington, DC: As I am accustomed to living in a major U.S. city, it is hard for me to imagine life in an African village, much less having to leave my village and travel hundreds of miles without food in constant danger of attack. Can you describe the conditions in the refugee camps and discuss health risks there?

A: You make a very good point about how difficult it is for someone in this part of the world to imagine what life is like in a refugee or displacement camp. I think you can imagine that even for an African, who is used to being in an ordinary village with nicely built huts, a farm and a herd of animals, to be suddenly uprooted by force and made to flee for safety and end up in a crowded camp of make-shift shelters that are barely more than a plastic sheet over some sticks is absolutely devastating. Usually these people must depend entirely on the international community, not only for those plastic sheets, but for food, medicine, clean water, and in most cases, as they remain within the countries and therefore in the conflict zone, they continue to be threatened both physically and in terms of gross violations of human rights.

I should say though that this is not unique to Darfur, nor to Africa. As someone who has gone on over 30 missions to countries suffering from internal displacement, mostly clustering in camps, the crisis is truly universal, affecting some 25-30 million people in over 50 countries, literally on all continents of the world. It is one of the major crises confronting the international community today.

Q: Washington,DC: What is the history of co-existence between the Janjaweed and the rest of the population?

Have they always fought,if not then why now?

A: As I have indicated elsewhere, the word “Janjaweed” is descriptive of a fluid configuration of armed groups, probably united only by their Arab identity and their more recent organization by the Government to confront the rebels. Some assert that the Janjaweed include other criminal elements and armed robbers who have not been mobilized by the Government. This argument also tends to diffuse the fact that many of them have been recruited and deployed by the Government. One should also remember that the label of “Arabs” and “Africans” or “Black” is rather new to Darfur since they have previously been labeled as “Arab-Islamic,” which we now know to have been a misrepresentation of more complex situation.

Q: Columbia, Maryland: How long has the U.N known about the crisis in Sudan and what have they done about it for the last 10 years? This conflict has been building up for at least 10 years why should anyone believe that the U.N. can solve this problem or even cares to?

A: Thanks for your question on when the UN became aware of the crisis in Darfur. Of course, the crisis has deeper roots than the outbreak of the rebellion. In fact, the Government usually tends to refer to the on-going inter-tribal conflicts between the nomadic herders and the sedentary farmers. It is outbreak of the rebellion which, however, raised the intensity of the conflict and gave it a racial overtone. It was when the crisis peaked, and in particular, as the world commemorated the Rwandan genocide that the attention of the international community and the UN, in particular, began to focus on the crisis in Darfur. It should be noted that although similar crises have been going on in other parts of the country, in particular the South, the attention Darfur has drawn from the international community has been quite exceptional and probably has a great deal to do with the lesson of Rwanda.

Q: Vienna, VA: Ambassador Deng, thank you for this opportunity. Fourteen years ago your friend Ambassador Crocker asked you to speak to his class on Conflict Resolution (of which I was a fortunate member) regarding the situation in the Sudan at that time. How do you feel has the “landscape” of the conflict changed since then?

Thank you for your particular insights, then and now.

A: First of all, thank you for your recollection of my addressing Chet Crocker’s class. You raise a very important question about the impact of the recent developments on the situation in the country as a whole. It is important to remember that what is happening in Darfur has literally been happening in the South for nearly half a century. And since the 1980s, when the war extended into the Nuba Mountains and the Southern Blue Nile, similar atrocities have been taking place in those parts of the country too. It has always been my view that Sudan suffered from an identity crisis, which needs to be addressed. In the past, the country was seen in the simplistic division between an Arab-Muslim North and an African-Christian-Animist South. This dichotomy misrepresented not only the complexities of the country’s racial composition, but the fact that the majority of the North are non-Arab. The assertion of the African identity with pride by the Southern liberation struggle has had the effect of raising the consciousness of the non-Arab Northern groups about their African identity. With the Nuba and the Southern Blue Nile having joined the South in their liberation struggle, the people of Darfur now rising up in protest against their marginalization and discrimination and the people of the east, the Beja, also demanding their rights as a non-Arab group, the country, is being fundamentally challenged to redefine itself in order to reconstruct the national identity framework to be accommodating to all the diversities.

Q: Alexandria, Va.: What can the average American do to make things better in Darfur? I always wondered what average people did when they heard what was happening in Nazi Germany. We must do better. I used to know Sudanese politics well and have concluded that only outside pressure will prevail. The Sudanese government will say (and have) that they cannot control the Janjaweed (as they used to do with the nomadic Arabs who terrorized southern Sudanese villages, armed by the government). How can the outside world force them to stop the violence in Darfur? I believe many people across America would do something if only they knew what to do.

A: The average American can obviously bring pressure to bear on the US Government to in turn bring pressure to bear on the UN to continue its pressure on the Sudan Government. The Government of Sudan has been given a deadline of up to the end of the month to show tangible progress or expect punitive action. In all probability, what will be required is evidence of progress and the UN might then consider a more lenient response. There are, of course, varying degrees of response in Washington, ranging from those who see the situation as genocide and call for immediate intervention and those who are prepared to engage the Government of the Sudan constructively. I believe international pressure that aims at promoting constructive engagement and cooperation with the Government is a more prudent way to proceed.

Q: Dallas, TX: Should the U.S. become more involved in the situation, and how, exactly?

A: The crisis is, of course, monumental and will involve international action. The US is critical to whatever international action is required or possible. But the nature of US involvement has to be carefully considered within the broader international collaborative approach. The Government of the Sudan is clearly not fully willing or able to control the armed groups and in particular, the Janjaweed. After all, if we accept that the Government did, indeed, make use of the Janjaweed, and that the Janjaweed may even have helped save the situation from the rebel attacks, it is difficult to see how the Government will turn around and call their allies criminals to be disarmed and punished. What is more likely to be effective is the Government being made to cooperate with the international community to deal with the security situation in the region. Such cooperation would provide the Government with a convenient cover in dealing with their so-called allies. They could then conveniently turn to them and explain that the international pressure demands their putting down their arms and stopping to victimize civilian populations.

This international cooperation can best be carried out under the umbrella of the African Union, which is prepared to send in a protection force. These troops will come from Nigeria and Rwanda, among others. The President of Rwanda has already declared that his forces are not going to stand by and watch the civilians being killed. After all, the lesson Rwanda teaches the world is that it is absolutely unacceptable for international forces to be in a country, whatever their mandate, and watch people being massacred without intervening. Clearly, Khartoum will not be comfortable with the presence of an international protection force as that will be perceived as infringing on their national sovereignty. But the fact that the AU has declared that this is an African problem to be solved by the Africans provides the Sudan with a face-saving device as it also prevents the necessity of international intervention. The international community is also called upon to reinforce the AU with equipment, logistics and funding.

Q: Thank you for joining us online Francis Deng. You’ve recently visited Africa. Please tell us, how dire is the humanitarian situation in Darfur? Who is responsible?

A: Thank you for the invitation. As you say, I have just returned from the Sudan, Darfur region, and although it has now been some three weeks, I believe I still have a fresh idea of what’s going on. As the world knows, the crisis erupted in February 2003 when 2 rebel movements, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), staged a surprise, devastating and almost overwhelming attack on the Government forces in the region. The Government then called on the local Arab militias, known as the Janjaweed, to help confront the rebels. They were armed, trained and unleashed in a way that went beyond confronting the rebels and they began to attack, loot, rape and burn the villages of the largely African populations. I must add though, that these labels of “Arab” and “African” are largely matters of perception, as even those who could justifiably consider themselves Arabs are actually a mixed African/Arab race. What counts though, is how these people perceive themselves, and even though the differences may not be so obvious to an outsider, to the local people, they are quite clear and critically important to one’s position in society.

The conflict is said to have led to the death of some 30,000-50,000 people, either killed or died of war-related causes. 1.2 million people have been displaced internally, while about 200,000 have been forced to flee across the borders into Chad. Overall, some 2.2 million people have been affected in one way or another.

Initially, the rampant violence and the lack of access to civilian population in dire need of shelter, food, drinking water and medicine drew the attention of the international community into taking action. The high level visits by the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, and Colin Powell resulted in the Government undertaking to improve the situation by disarming the Janjaweed, facilitating access and entering into political negotiations with the rebels. And yet, as large numbers of people cluster in displacement camps, the needs of the population remain acute. Within the camps, there is relative security but those who venture outside the camps, for instance to collect firewood or take care of their cattle, are still subject to attacks, killings and rape. The humanitarian situation appears to have improved considerably as the Government has facilitated access, but aid workers complain that access is still constrained by the violence outside the camps and the response of the donor community to the UN funding appeal remains under 50%.

Who is responsible? Clearly the Janjaweed are the immediate culprits, but they were recruited and deployed by the Government, who in turn was forced to do so in response to the rebellion. So what is needed now, is to disarm or otherwise neutralize the armed groups, in particular the Janjaweed, to increase the level of humanitarian response and strictly observe the ceasefire between the Government and the rebel groups.