The victory of Darfurian rebel forces over the Sudanese army in a couple of engagements last week has led to the expulsion of UN representative Jan Pronk from Khartoum for writing about it on his blog. These battles should remind us that if the conflict in Darfur is genocide, it is also quite different from German treatment of the Jews or the Hutu slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda. Unlike those cases, it emerged out of the struggle of a territorially-defined ethnic group for autonomy or independence from a bigger political entity.
In the vast majority of discussions about the situation in Darfur, there is virtually no discussion of the larger political context of the conflict, and of the final end state that we should wish to see emerge there. The United States and other Western nations want to insert a “serious” peacekeeping force into the area to replace the ineffective one fielded currently by the African Union, to protect the civilian population there from the genocidal destruction being visited on them by the Arab Janjaweed militia. The government in Khartoum naturally does not want this intrusion on its sovereignty, and the UN Security Council is blocked from acting against Sudan by China, whose energy interests in Sudan put it in the latter’s camp. If we get our way, we will send a large NATO force into Darfur that will protect the local population, administer humanitarian aid, and remain stuck there indefinitely with no clear exit strategy because we have not established a political goal beyond the end of the Janjaweed attacks.
The basic problem in Darfur is Sudan itself. Sudan is a typical African colonial creation, a tribal area conquered first by Egypt in the 1820s and then reconquered and put under joint British-Egyptian administration when Lord Kitchener retook Khartoum in 1898. It makes no sense whatsoever as a state: it is an enormous country, the areas to the south and west being ethnically related to the black African groups on their borders and not to the Arabs in the center. The southerners under the leadership of the John Gareng and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) fought a long civil war with the government in Khartoum that went on with only a brief 11 year pause from the 1950s up until the peace agreement of January 2005 that effectively gave southern Sudan autonomy and the prospect of full independence down the road.
The current Darfur conflict was not started by the government in Khartoum; it was started by Darfur rebel groups that were inspired by the SPLA’s achievements in 2005. They represent the same ethnic group—indeed, the same tribe—as the one in power in neighboring Chad, and if African borders were drawn rationally to represent underlying ethnic and tribal realities, Darfur should be part of Chad and not Sudan.
The root of so many of Africa’s contemporary problems is that it has inherited a state structure from European colonialism that makes no sense, leaving states that are either too large and diverse, like Sudan, or ones that are too small to be viable, like those in the Sahel. The norm since independence has been to respect the sanctity of existing borders, supported both by the African elites that inherited those political entities, and by the international community.
Americans and Europeans conveniently forget that their own state-building process was accompanied by a huge amount of violence, involving massive changes of borders: the thirteen colonies didn’t belong in the British empire; Texas and California didn’t belong in Mexico; Europe went from over 300 separate sovereign entities at the end of the Middle Ages to less than 30 by the beginning of the 20th century, accompanied by a huge amount of ethnic cleansing as Germans, Poles, Czechs, Ukrainians, and others were pushed or pulled into more ethnically homogenous states. Europe and America are at the end of a long, painful state-building and state-consolidation process, while Africa is just at the beginning, and yet the West pretends that African states have the same sanctity as their own.
We of course want Africa to avoid the bloodshed that other parts of the world suffered in the state-building process, but we offer them only the freezing of the existing status quo and no route to the creation of more viable states with more rational borders. The ceasefire that Bob Zoellick negotiated last May was yet another example of this: it did not address the larger question of Sudanese sovereignty over Darfur, and was rejected not by the Sudanese government, but by two of the three Darfurian rebel groups. It has broken down not simply because of recalcitrance in Khartoum, but because it did not meet the political demands of the Darfurian rebels. In the long run, I don’t see any reasons why Darfur should not have the same options as southern Sudan: it should either be granted full autonomy under its own political leadership, or it should become part of Chad if that is what the local population wants.
At the time of the ceasefire last spring, I co-authored an op-ed piece with Anthony Lake in the New York Times supporting it, and stronger international efforts to stop the ongoing violence. I still think it is still critical for the international community to do something to protect the Darfurians from being killed in the short run. But well-intentioned outsiders need to think about the long-term political outcome they favor as well. We should not want Darfur to become a permanent ward of the international community, an enclave within an Arab state protected by white Europeans. It should, like southern Sudan, become self-governing. It took 50 years of violence for the SPLA to achieve autonomy for the South; we need a shorter and less violent path to a similar outcome in the West as well. Many will argue that setting this objective openly will end the possibility of the Sudanese government permitting relief of Darfur in the short run. But given the fact that they are not permitting outsiders to help Darfur as it is, we have to ask what there is to lose. You can figure out for yourself what it would mean to reorient Western policy to one that allowed the Darfurians to protect themselves, rather than simply freezing the current status quo until the next round of violence flares up.