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Conflict in the Darfur region in western Sudan has raged since early 2003, with massive loss of life, displacement and suffering.

The protagonists are Sudanese armed forces and their Janjaweed Arab militia allies on the one hand, and various African-Darfurian-Sudanese resistance groups on the other. Also included are some Arab tribes siding with anti-government forces and various rebel factions engaging in sporadic mutual conflict. Estimates of deaths from the conflict range from 9,000 – 450,000.

Multiple causes

The conflict in Darfur has multiple causes. While rooted in the structural inequity between the center of the country around the Nile and the peripheral areas such as Darfur, tensions were exacerbated in the last two decades of the 20th century by a combination of environmental calamity, political opportunism and regional geopolitics.

After Sudanese independence in 1956, the inhabitants of the Nile Valley, which had received the bulk of UK colonial investment, continued the pattern of economic and political marginalization after independence. After suffering an extended famine in the 1980s, and on-off land and resource conflicts between nomadic Arabs and settled/semi-nomadic African Darfurians – mainly Fur and Zaghawa, early 2003 saw two rebel groups — the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) take up arms against the government. The rebels followed the example set by the Southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) which fought the government to a standstill between 1983-2005, but to the cost of 2 million lives and the displacement of 4-6 million more.

Conflict spirals

Early rebel successes, coupled with the governments’ military commitments in Southern Sudan, led to the deployment of a Darfurian Arab militia known as the Janjaweed in the counterinsurgency. Better-armed, they quickly gained the upper hand. By the spring of 2004, several thousand people –  mostly from the non-Arab population – had been killed and as many as a million more had been driven from their homes, causing a major humanitarian crisis in the region. By late 2004, over 2 million people had been displaced into camps where they remained vulnerable to Janjaweed assaults. Sexual violence was endemic, with the Janjaweed accused of rape on a mass scale.

In late 2005 and early 2006, the Darfur conflict took on an international dimension, with the Sudanese government accusing Chad of supporting Darfur’s rebels. In turn, the Sudanese armed and supplied Chadian rebels who attacked the capital N’djamena in spring 2006.

Since the peace agreement

On 5 May 2006, the government of Sudan signed the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) with the Minawi SLA. However, the Agreement was rejected by the JEM and the SLA faction led by Abdul Wahid, despite heavy international pressure from the US, UK and African Union (AU). The accord calls for the disarmament of the Janjaweed militia, and for the rebel forces to disband and be incorporated into the army.

Violence increased after the DPA, as rival rebel groups attacked each other and new rebel factions and alliances formed, disbanded and realigned. Increased Chadian support has seen the ethnic Zaghawa JEM rebel group assume the military leadership in the field, launching attacks on Chinese-run oil installations in central Sudan during late 2007. In response to JEM’s successes, and the imminent deployment of EU peacekeepers to eastern Chad, Khartoum launched a fresh air and ground offensive in early 2008, with government helicopters and airplanes supporting Janjaweed assaults on the civilian population on the ground, displacing another 60,000 people.

International response

Media coverage of Darfur was scant prior to spring 2004, after which visits by then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and US Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared to pressure the Sudanese government into action. However, despite US insistence that genocide was taking place in Darfur, European countries have not committed to this label, and the UN failed to follow suit, with Sudan protected by its Russian and Chinese allies on the UN Security Council. An AU peacekeeping force of 7,000 troops entered Darfur with a restrictive mandate and lack of funding. It has failed to protect Darfur’s people and has become regarded as a protagonist in the conflict by anti-DPA civilians and rebels alike. August 2006 saw a UN Security Council Agreement on a 31,000-strong blue helmet force to take over from the AU, but this was again stalled by Sudan and China. Agreement on a weaker and smaller hybrid UN/AU force was reached. However by March 2008, only 9,000 of the projected 26,000 contingent had deployed, with at least one incident of Sudanese troops attacking the new peace force reported.

By early 2006, 14,000 aid-workers, including 1,000 foreigners, were operating in Darfur. However funding for humanitarian operations in Darfur has been inconsistent, and access to locations and displaced people is often hindered by insecurity.

A French-dominated EU refugee protection force entered Chad in early 2008, ostensibly to ensure safe havens for 250,000 Darfurian refugees in the east. The force is viewed by Khartoum-backed Chadian rebels as another French-led intervention to protect Chad’s president. Rebels attempted to pre-empt the deployment by storming D’djamena in early February, only to be repulsed by French-backed government forces in a narrow escape.

China is seen as the key international factor influencing Sudan – as it buys most of Sudanese oil, which in turn is the government’s main source of revenue and foreign exchange and funds the state security regime. In early 2008, in response to suggestions that the upcoming Beijing Olympics could be undermined, China took on a rhetorically-tougher stance against its Khartoum ally with regard to Darfur.

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