Darfur's deep grievances defy all hopes for an easy solutionThe world is waking to the human disaster in Sudan. But, argues writer and world authority on the country, Alex de Waal, the crisis is far more complex than some claim - and cannot be resolved by a quick fix
Darfur, the war-torn province in western Sudan where a terrible humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding, has yet more awful secrets to divulge.
In addition to 1.2 million displaced people living and dying in refugee camps in the region and across the border in neighbouring Chad, there are hundreds of thousands more struggling to survive in their homes in the vast areas held by the rebel movements fighting against the Khartoum government.
They are far from any TV cameras, and far from the comfort of aid agencies. They are surviving as their parents and grandparents did, through hardiness and skill.
They, not us, are the proven experts in surviving famine. Where a foreigner sees a wasteland of sand and mountain, a rural woman sees landscape replete with wild grasses, berries and roots.
The most ubiquitous of these is a berry known as mukheit, which grows on a small bush. It looks like a big pale pea, it's toxic and needs to be soaked in water for three days before it's edible, and even then it tastes sour. But it's nutritious, and it's in season now.
During the drought-famine of 1984-85, perhaps two million people survived on mukheit, often for months. It was a far bigger factor in survival than food aid, and it was common to see women foraging on the remotest hills, children strapped to their backs, gathering this unappetising but life-preserving crop. Then there's difra, a wild grass that grows across the desert-edge plateaux, which can be harvested in August, and up to 80 more species known to every grandmother.
Mukheit keeps adults alive, but it isn't enough for children. During the 1980s famine, infectious diseases and lack of weaning foods killed an estimated 75,000 children. As the world becomes aware of this as-yet-invisible disaster, aid agencies will demand access across the front lines. And those aid convoys will need an international protection force.
The Darfur war erupted early last year, when two armed movements - Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement - began a rebellion against a government in Khartoum that had neglected their region.
In response, the government mobilised, armed and directed a militia, known as Janjaweed ('rabble' or 'outlaws' in local dialect), using scorched earth, massacre and starvation as cheap counter-insurgency weapons. The UN has described Darfur as 'the world's worst humanitarian crisis'. On Friday, the US Congress described it as 'genocide'. The British government is considering sending in 5,000 troops.
Characterising the Darfur war as 'Arabs' versus 'Africans' obscures the reality. Darfur's Arabs are black, indigenous, African and Muslim - just like Darfur's non-Arabs, who hail from the Fur, Masalit, Zaghawa and a dozen smaller tribes.
Until recently, Darfurians used the term 'Arab' in its ancient sense of 'bedouin'. These Arabic-speaking nomads are distinct from the inheritors of the Arab culture of the Nile and the Fertile Crescent.
'Arabism' in Darfur is a political ideology, recently imported, after Colonel Gadaffi nurtured dreams of an 'Arab belt' across Africa, and recruited Chadian Arabs, Darfurians and west African Tuaregs to spearhead his invasion of Chad in the 1980s. He failed, but the legacy of arms, militia organisation and Arab supremacist ideology lives on.
Many Janjaweed hail from the Chadian Arab groups mobilised during those days. Most of Darfur's Arabs remain uninvolved in the conflict, but racist ideology appeals to many poor and frustrated young men.
Since 1987 there have been recurrent clashes between the Arab militias and village self-defence groups. Their roots were local conflicts over land and water, especially in the wake of droughts, made worse by the absence of an effective police force in the region for 20 years.
The last intertribal conference met in 1989, but its recommendations were never implemented. Year by year, law and order has broken down, and the government has done nothing but play a game of divide-and-rule, usually favouring the better-armed Arabs.
In response, the non-Arab groups (some of them bedouins too - there's a clan related to the Zaghawa that even has the name Bedeyaat) have mobilised, adopting the label 'African', which helps to gain solidarity with the southern-based Sudan People's Liberation Army, and is a ticket to sympathy in the West.
The Darfur conflict erupted just as protracted peace negotiations between Khartoum and the SPLA on an end to the 20-year-old war in southern Sudan entered their final stage. Some observers have speculated that the rebellion was launched because the SPLA won its concessions by dint of armed struggle, thereby encouraging other discontented Sudanese regions to try the same.
There's an element of truth in that, and a danger that the Beja of eastern Sudan will also re-ignite their dormant insurrection. But Darfur has long-standing grievances. Even more than southern Sudan, the province has been neglected. It has the fewest schools and hospitals in the country. Promises of development came to nothing.
Darfurian radicals have long tried to start a liberation war. In 1991, the SPLA sent an armed force to Darfur to foment resistance: it failed, and an entire cadre of leftist leadership was arrested or neutralised as a result. The young SLA leaders have emerged from the shadow of this debacle.
Meanwhile, the Islamic government tried to neutralise complaints of neglect by playing the religion card. Darfur's Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa tribes are well-known for their Muslim piety, and were attracted by the idea of being enfranchised through their Muslim faith. But this proved another hollow promise, and when the Sudanese Islamist movement split four years ago, most Darfurian Islamists went into opposition, some of them forming the JEM.
There is no quick fix in Darfur. But after the first round of mediation by the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a week ago, the elements of a settlement are coming into focus. The first of these is removing obstacles to relief operations. The second is enforcing the ceasefire, agreed by the parties in the Chadian capital of Ndjamena in April, but flouted - far more egregiously by the government and Janjaweed. For hungry villagers, the ceasefire is a survival issue, as their skill at harvesting wild foods has no value if they are confined to camps by fear of rape, mutilation or murder.
The African Union - headed by its energetic leader, the, former Malian President Alpha Konare - has put 24 ceasefire monitors on the ground so far to oversee the Ndjamena agreement. Three hundred African troops are also on their way, to ensure that the monitors can move in safety.
Providing security to civilians will need a far larger and more robust force. Even before the insurrection, Darfur was a province in arms. Every village or nomadic clan possessed automatic weapons - a necessity given that there has been no effective police force there for the past 20 years.
Last month, President Omer al-Bashir promised to disarm the Janjaweed. In doing so, he has put himself in a corner. There's overwhelming evidence, circumstantial and documentary, that Khartoum supplied the militia with arms, logistics and air support. But it doesn't follow that it can so easily rein them in. Darfur cannot be disarmed by force.
The principal Janjaweed camps can be identified and the militiamen cantonised there. This demands a tough surveillance regime, overseen by international forces. But the armed Bedouin cannot be encamped: they rely on their herds for livelihood and hence need to move, and they are too numerous and scattered to disarm. In fact, 'disarmament' is a misnomer. What will work is community-based regulation of armaments, gradually squeezing out bandits and criminals.
What to do with the Chadian Arabs will be one tricky issue. Another will be the fact that all Darfurians - Arab and non-Arab alike - profoundly distrust a government in Khartoum that has brought them nothing but trouble. Arms control can be made to work only when the scaffolding of a provincial administration and political settlement is in place.
Another issue is human rights: investigating claims of genocide and who's responsible. This issue is best parked with an international commission - perhaps a special investigator from the International Criminal Court.
A political solution can be framed as these immediate issues are tackled. At the moment the sides are far apart, their public language one of mutual recrimination.
In theory, a settlement of Darfur's provincial issues should not be too difficult. The rebels - who drop their simplistic 'African' versus 'Arab' terminology as soon as they get into details - have no desire to purge Darfur of its indigenous black Arabs.
They do not seek self-determination or separation. Their demands, for equitable development, land rights, schools and clinics, and local democracy are perfectly reasonable. Formulae for provincial autonomy are also negotiable.
The national issues are more difficult. Settling Darfur's grievances will mean revisiting many of the Naivasha formulae, which were drafted on a simplified north-south dichotomy. For example, senior government jobs have been divided between the ruling Congress Party and the SPLA: who is going to make concessions to allow Darfur its fair share?
Nonetheless, the Darfur process can be speeded up by implementing the Naivasha agreement and bringing SPLA leader John Garang to Khartoum as vice president. Garang aspires to represent a coalition of all Sudan's non-Arab peoples, including Darfurians, and it will be politically impossible for him to endorse a war in Darfur.
The African Union, with UN support, is applying lessons learned from the Naivasha negotiation. If this is to work, the US, Britain and the EU will need to use their leverage in support of the AU formula. The next meeting is scheduled for a month's time.
The immediate life and death needs of Darfur's people cannot wait for these negotiations to mature. A British brigade could make a formidable difference to the situation. It could escort aid supplies into rebel-held areas, and provide aerial surveillance, logistics and back-up to ceasefire monitoring, helping to give Darfurian villagers the confidence to return to their homes and pick up their lives.
· Alex de Waal is director of Justice Africa (London). An updated version of his book, Famine that Kills: Darfur, Sudan, 1984-5, is published by Oxford University Press this autumn.