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Darfur, Part 2: Let’s Get to Know the Sudanese Actors

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[The second in a series of postings by James North, who has been exploring the issues surrounding the save Darfur campaign]

My guides to Darfur are the opposite of instant experts. Julie Flint
has been covering the Sudan since 1992, originally for the British Guardian.
Alex de Waal has been on the scene even longer, since the early 1980s
at least; he is an original and sometimes provocative thinker. Gerard
Prunier has also spent many years studying East Africa; his book The Rwanda Crisis is somewhat academic, but superb. Flint and de Waal have just updated their Darfur: A New History of a Long War, and Prunier’s Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide is also in its second edition.

Both books require dozens of pages simply to introduce all the actors.
After a few pages, your head will be swimming with the names of
political movements and their acronyms, armed bands, tribes and
individual leaders. But that grounding has been necessary for me, because there are
more than two sides to this conflict.

Let us start with the government of Sudan, based in Khartoum, the
capital. The president, Omar al-Bashir, has just been indicted for
genocide and war crimes by the International Criminal Court in the
Hague. General al-Bashir seized power in a coup back in 1989, and just
about everyone is astonished that he is still president. He was
regarded as a mediocrity, a front man for Hassan al-Turabi, who is one
of the most fascinating and sinister figures in the Islamic revivalist
movement in the entire Middle East.
al-Bashir and Turabi staged the coup because they had failed at the
ballot box. During its brief democratic interlude (1983-89), Turabi’s
National Islamic Front never got more than about a fifth of the
popular vote. The majority of the Sudanese people are Muslims, and most
of them are observant, but they rejected Turabi’s harsh extremism.

In fact, politics in the Sudan, and in the Middle East, is much more
complex and interesting, than in standard Orientalist discourse –
which likes to take the dominance of Islamic revivalism as axiomatic.
Sudan once had an influential Communist Party; the country’s greatest
singer, Mohammed Wardi, was close to it, and he left for exile after
the 1989 coup. I can still remember my friend and translator,
Kheirallah (who definitely would have
voted for Turabi’s party), happily humming along with Wardi’s songs as
our Land Rover traveled through the desert back in 1986.

Now here is where one big complication starts. General al-Bashir and
Turabi ruled, more or less together, until 1999 – when the puppet
somehow outmaneuvered the puppeter, ousted him, and even jailed him for
a time. But Turabi was far from finished. He may well be a devout
Islamist, but he is even more interested in power – and he was eager to
look for alliances anywhere.

So when a rebellion broke out in the neglected western province of
Darfur in 2003, Turabi almost certainly supported one of the (at first
only) two rebel movements. And just 2 months ago, when that same armed
group (the Justice and Equality Movement, or JEM) staged a daring
attack in Omdurman, in the heart of the country, al-Bashir
arrested Turabi again for suspicion that he was involved.

Let us step back for a minute from the unfamiliar names and try for an
analogy. In simplistic terms, the fighting in Darfur is described as a
racial progrom; “Arabs” are murdering “black Africans.” But here we
have Turabi, who is possibly the most prominent “Arab” in the country,
backing one group of “black” rebels – and getting arrested for it. It
would be as if one of the highest-ranking Nazis, say Joseph Goebbels,
had actually helped the heroic Jewish uprising in the Warsaw ghetto in
1943 – and been jailed by Hitler.

All my guides accept that the “Arab”/”black” reading of the conflict is not entirely wrong, and they by no
means exonerate the Sudanese government from war crimes. But we will
continue to use their work to see that applying a Holocaust template to
the Sudan is misleading, and can be dangerous.

James North

James North is a Mondoweiss Editor-at-Large, and has reported from Africa, Latin America, and Asia for four decades. He lives in New York City.

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