Are “Arabs” killing “Black Africans” in Darfur?


Carina Ray, New African

African newspapers have followed the war in Darfur closely over the last several years. Yet, much of the reportage casts the violence as a race war perpetrated by “Arabs” against “Black Africans”. This racialised language clouds, rather than clarifies, the complicated nature of this deadly conflict, in which a brutal government counterinsurgency strategy has mobilised Arabised African nomads in its fight against a just armed uprising by Darfur’s settled population. Just as it is widely acknowledged that the media in America and Europe have forcefully kept Darfur on the international agenda, so too has the African media kept the issue of Darfur alive. Since the escalation of the war in 2003, African newspapers have increasingly featured news and commentary on Darfur. Indeed, Africans all over the continent have been writing and reading about Darfur on a regular and increasingly frequent basis. A recent search of the allAfrica database, for instance, turned up over 1,500 articles on Darfur published between 2004 and 2007 in English-language African newspapers alone.

Given that French, Arabic, and African-language newspapers were not searched, these articles represent only a fraction of actual reportage. Nonetheless, they unequivocally demonstrate that vigorous discussions about the conflict have taken place throughout the continent, and by all indications will continue to do so until a just and lasting resolution has been put into place. As I surveyed the articles, I was struck by the fact that most African newspapers posited race as the primary causal factor of the obscene violence in Darfur. The war was regularly described in oversimplified racialised terms that reveal an anti-Arab bias and construct Darfur’s so-called Arabs as foreigners. Indeed the complex identity politics involved in the conflict have been largely reduced to a narrative of “good versus evil” or “African versus Arab”. Strikingly, the racial labels that have been used to demarcate the fault lines in this conflict are often the same as those used by the Western media. Typical of much of the reportage on the violence in Darfur is the following description found in a 6 July 2004 New Vision (government-owned daily newspaper in Uganda) article: “ . . . thousands have been killed and more than a million black Africans have fled attacks by Arab militiamen [emphasis added].” While the article focused on various African Union, United Nations, and United States’ pronouncements on Darfur, the only causal factor given to explain the violence was racial difference. This point is reiterated later when we are informed that “UN officials and human rights groups have accused Sudan of backing the Arab militias, engaged in a campaign to expel African farmers [emphasis added].” Given the absence of any other explanatory tools for understanding the multiple sources of the violence, and most especially the central government’s longstanding practices of marginalisation, underdevelopment, repression and neglect of its “peripheries”, the reader is left to conclude that what is occurring in Darfur is a race war perpetrated by “Arabs” against “black Africans”. Racial antipathy is therefore posited as the reason why groups that historically lived, traded, intermarried, and interacted with one another, for the most part, in a synergistic fashion, are now in the midst of a deadly war in which the obscene imbalance of power between a well-armed brutal government and its ruthless militias on the one hand, and the Darfurian rebels on the other, has led to the unconscionable deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Darfurian civilians and the displacement of millions more.

Opinion pieces also expressed the view that the root of the violence was to be found, as one headline put it, in the fact that “bigotry still assaults black Africans”. The most extreme example of this trend appeared in 2004 in the popular Nigerian daily newspaper, ThisDay, under the title “Genocide in Sudan”. In the course of criticising “Black African nations” for re-electing a Sudanese government delegate to represent Africa on the UN Commission on Human Rights, the author B. A. Akwiwu described the perpetrators of violence in Darfur as “rabid Arab militias” and “murderous Arabs”, and the victims as “Black Africans”. Akwiwu concluded his lament with the following assertion: “It is bad enough that the black nations have not done anything to defend their people in Sudan but that we should be locked in a cosy embrace with these Arabs who have turned our people into hunting game is soul destroying.” Even if other opinion pieces were less extreme in their characterisations, like much of the news reportage on Darfur, there still emerged the sense that many perceive the conflict in Darfur as being primarily motivated by anti-African racism, on the part of “Arabs”. But who are these so-called Arabs? Are they not also Africans? Ironically, this false dichotomy, which implicitly relies on the old trope of a geographically-cum-racially divided North and Sub-Saharan Africa, is being used to describe a conflict in the African country that perhaps best defies, indeed obliterates, the idea of two distinct Africas. The way in which Sudan’s heterogeneous population often gets characterised as if it is bifurcated into two distinct groups (Arab and African) is exemplified in the following excerpt from a 26 July 2004 editorial in The East African Standard: “Sudan, the bridge between black and Arab Africa, should lead in rewriting the historical script between the two peoples.” What this fails to miss is that the historical script was rewritten long ago when Africans and Arabs in the Sudan first came into contact with one another and began intermixing. The idea that Sudan’s “Arabs” are not “Africans” and that its “Africans” are not also, in many cases, “Arab” is what is in need of being rewritten. This should not be taken as a denial of Sudan’s heterogeneity. After all it is one of Africa’s most linguistically, religiously, ethnically, and racially diverse countries; rather, it is precisely this intense heterogeneity that flies in the face of the idea that Sudan is inhabited by two distinct geographically bounded racial groups: Arabs in the North and Black Africans in the South. The demographics of Darfur, alone, make nonsense out of this notion.What is all the more striking about the application of this formulation to Darfur is that it absolves the government of its leading role in the conflict.

Khartoum is regarded as a supporting actor: “backing” Arab militias, but not directing them. For instance, a 10 August 2004 article in Nigeria’s Daily Champion argued that Darfur would not be in such a “grim situation” had the Sudanese government “not given full support to the Arab militias called the Janjawid, who have taken free rein to rape, rob and kill the black Africans.” This places the cart before the horse. Accordingly, instead of being held responsible for empowering and financing the Janjawid to do its bidding in Darfur, the government is simply accused of not doing enough to reign in the renegade Janjawid. Indicative of this is the fact that the government’s use of its own officially recognised troops and military equipment in perpetrating the violence is rarely mentioned. In short, the de facto reliance on “Arab versus Black African” as the basis for understanding the fault lines of the conflict is reflective of the profoundly reductive nature of much of the reportage on Darfur and what amounts to an almost willful denial of the historical relationships and overlaps between Darfur’s so-called Arabs and Africans. Indeed, “Arab” and “African” are falsely constructed as mutually exclusive categories – once someone is labelled “Arab” he/she ceases to be African and vice versa. Based on this formulation there is, moreover, almost no recognition of “Arab” indigenity; rather those who are defined as “Arab” are conceptually relegated to being permanent outsiders and usurpers of the land, while those labelled “African” are conceptually defined by a static and timeless rendering of history in which their ties to the land are primordial rather than shaped by patterns of migration, state-building, and ecological change. One need only look at photos of the so-called Arab Janjawid and the so-called Black African rebels to see how these categories cloud rather than clarify our understanding of how identity factors into the war in Darfur. The deceptive power of these labels is simultaneously made possible by the fallacy of race and the steadfastness with which people invest in racial categories as explanatory tools. Yet, we must also acknowledge the very real role that local actors have played in the internal racialisation of this conflict. The Al Bashir government in Khartoum has both invoked and evoked Arab supremacy in its efforts to garner regional support and to mobilise the Janjawid to carry out its dirty war. Members of the Janjawid, despite their African ancestry, have willingly bought into this ideology as a means of securing their own interests in a time of increased competition over diminishing resources. So too has the Africanisation of Darfurian identities among the rebel movements and their citizenry emerged as a powerful means of coalition building within Sudan, especially among the SPLM/A and its broad base of supporters. It has also been an effective strategy for eliciting support within Africa and from the international community in the context of the current conflict. Beyond this, however, we must ask about the wider political agendas that are being promoted through the constant deployment of such problematic and obfuscating categories as the primary lens through which the violence is explained. In his essay “The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, and Insurgency” (London Review of Books, March 2007), the respected Ugandan scholar, Mahmood Mamdani, underscores how the twinned processes of depoliticising and racialising the war in Darfur have enabled various international actors to paint it as a genocide perpetrated by “Arabs”. One needs little education in the politics of fear and anti-Arabism in the post-9/11 world to understand that demonising Arabs has been a critical component of legitimising America’s “war on terror”. We must be equally critical in asking ourselves what is behind the apparent anti-Arab sentiment that characterises so much of the reportage and commentary on the war in Darfur in African newspapers.