The Desert versus the Oasis Syndrome

By Dr Mohamed Suliman, 1993

(this is a historical background paper on the war in Darfur published by the author in 1994 and can be found in full in the book ‘Environmental Degradation as a Cause War’ Ruegger Verlag, 1996)

1. The Environment: A new dimension in the Sudan's political and social landscape

The armed conflicts, which have afflicted the Sudan over the last three decades, have usually been interpreted as typical ethnic-tribal and/or religious-cultural conflicts. While these categorisations may have served as plausible descriptions of earlier conflicts, and may still have some bearing on how the conflicts are conducted and perceived today, the reality is that conflicts are historical processes, not static events, and so their causes do change and diversify over time.

During the last three decades serious ecological transformations have taken place in the Sudan. Prolonged and severe climatic desiccation coupled with intensive exploitation of soil, forest and other natural resources, as well the huge increases in human and livestock populations, have so degraded the fragile environment of northern Sudan that conflicts caused or catalysed by these compounding ecological factors were bound to take place.

In fact, ecological degradation has been so severe that the traditional means for the prevention and management of inter-ethnic disputes have been rendered virtually unworkable. Many of the current disputes are not being fought along traditional political borders, but along ecological borders that divide richer and poorer ecozones. This transformation has highlighted the need for qualitative development of the traditional methods of conflict management enables the parties concerned to deal effectively with this new and unprecedented predicament.

To continue to treat conflicts in the Sudan and many other parts of Africa as purely ethnic, tribal, political or religious, and to ignore the growing impact of ecological degradation and depletion of the resource base, could ultimately lead to a distorted understanding of the real situation, and consequently limit the possibility for genuine conflict resolution.

1.2. Fragile ecology, fragile social peace

In the Sudan, as in most other parts of the continent, human and animal life depends on the delicate balance of soil, climate, water and flora. During the last three decades this equilibrium has been upset, particularly in the vast arid and semi-arid areas of the northern half of the country. In addition to the persistent drought, unsustainable methods of land-use, such as large-scale mechanised rain-fed farming and overgrazing in marginal lands, are destroying the Sudano-Sahelian ecozone in which 70 per cent of Sudanese live. Millions of people have been forced to abandon their homelands and have become displaced (in Arabic Naziheen); so many in fact that the Sudan has the highest proportion of internally displaced people in the world -one in every six.

1.3. The resource miners

The slow processes of natural wear and tear on the environment have been accelerated enormously by the unprecedented extraction of natural resources. This is being carried out by members of the northern Sudanese traditional merchant class, known as the Jellaba, prompted by their assimilation into the world market in the restricted role of extractors of primary resources. In addition, loan conditionality imposed by the World Bank and the IMF has considerably boosted the restructuring of Sudan's resource utilisation away from local needs and the local market towards the demands of the international market.

2.1 Warfare in Darfur or the incessant struggle between the oasis farmers and the desert nomads

It is not only plausible, but also certainly desirable to investigate how environmental change is influencing the different social and political events in the adversely affected areas. In this respect, Darfur is a case in point, being one of the worst distressed regions in the country, as well as the one most affected by the compound problems of environmental degradation and prolonged armed conflict (de Waal 1989; Maxwell 1991; Tober 1985).

2.2. The drought in North Darfur and Kordofan

Drought is an inherent feature of the arid regions of western Sudan, north Darfur and Kordofan. There have been five drought disasters over the last hundred years. Two of these, however, have occurred in the last twenty years alone. In these regions - lying between the isohyets 100mm and 600mm - a mere 100mm decline in the mean annual precipitation could bring people and livestock to the brink of disaster.

Rainfall data covering the period 1950-1990 reveal three major spans of drought, a relatively mild one in the mid 1960s, and two sever droughts in 1972-1974 and 1982-1984. In all three cases the draught was accompanied by flaring of skirmishes, the worst of which took place in mid-1980s and assumed the form of regular war.

The diagram below correlates rainfall data to conflict intensity over a 30 year period (1957-1987). The diagram reveals two interesting patterns: an increase in incidents of conflict with the corresponding decrease in rainfall and a lag between minimum rainfall and maximum conflict intensity of roughly one year, a relaxation period for the impact of the draught to take full effect (see figure1 below).


Figure 1: Rainfall and Conflict Correlation in Northern

Darfur 1950 - 1990

The diagram also exposes an anomaly between the impact of the draught of the mid-1970s and that of the mid-1980s, which were almost equal in intensity, but the latter caused far greater social turbulence (see figures 2 and 3 below).

Fiqure 2 : Rainfall and Conflict Correlation in Northern

Darfur 1970-1976


Figure 3 : Rainfall and Conflict Correlation in Northern

Darfur 1980-1986

The drought of the 1980s brought famine, displacement and war on a much larger scale than that of the 1970s. Possible explanations of this apparent discrepancy could be:

i) In the 1970s the agricultural food production of the Sudan was geared towards the internal market, in the 1980s food production was geared towards export.

ii) During the 1970s the regional food and other reserves of Darfur mitigated the impact of the drought, the 1980s found these reserves depleted.

iii) In the 1970s the local traditional administration was still functioning and supportive, in the 1980s it was abolished by Numerei.

iv) In the 1970s there was no large-scale warfare in the Sudan or neighbouring countries, in the 1980s the civil war in the Sudan and the Chadian-Libyan war were large-scale and wide spread.


Table 1: Darfur rainfall data 1950-1988 in millimetres

Year 1950 1963 1964 1965 1966 1967 1968 1969
Average 535 565 502 424 410 408 484 496
Year 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77
Average 495 424 445 330 468 382 408 449
Year 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85
Average 445 392 451 377 275 270 143 381
Year 86 87 88
Average 241 232 418

Source: Annual Rainfall Reports 1955-1989, Meteorological Dept, Sudan.

Along with the general decline in rainfall, stripping of vegetation in large areas has allowed the movements of sand dunes, which in turn have killed almost all-remaining plant life, save for a small number of dune-adapted shrubs like acacia tortilis.

With the onset of drought, rural economies begin to fall apart. Livestock die in large numbers and livestock owners are forced to dispose of their remaining herd for very little. City merchants turn away from the collapsing rural economy, leaving it to its own fate. Abandoned by both nature and the market, famine and poverty take hold. Life becomes a real struggle. At this point rural society is ripe for dislocation, turbulence, and, ultimately, wars.

It is hoped that in the case of Darfur an integrated strategy for environmental rehabilitation could go hand in hand with attempts at conflict management and resolution. This would constitute a pioneering example to follow when addressing similar conflicts in comparable regions.

Such a strategy is deemed necessary because a causal correlation between ecological degradation and the upsurge in social turbulence is strongly suggested by the available prima facia element of the time concurrence in 1985 between the height of the drought and the up swing in the armed conflict in Darfur.

3. Darfur: History, land and people

3.1 The political history

From 1650 to 1917 Darfur was an independent state. Known as the Fur Sultanate, this state endured several attempts to bring it under foreign control until 1917, when the British annexed it to the Sudan. Since then, and even after the political independence of the Sudan from Britain in 1956, only minor efforts have been made to develop the region economically. This negligence by the central government has certainly contributed to the exclusion of Darfur from the rest of the country, not only economically, but also in political and cultural terms.

The regional government system, which was set in place since 1982, had been designed in part to alleviate the economic underdevelopment and the relative political and cultural isolation of a number of provinces in a notoriously vast country. The regional government's administrative structure - the Wilaya - is made up of several provinces each subdivided into districts, which, in turn, are further divided into Councils, and Local Councils.

Despite this complex administrative hierarchy, Darfur has continued to be one of the least integrated and governable parts of the Sudan. This is due to its remoteness and the lack of physical links to the centre via a good transportation and communication network. The rough route linking Darfur to the rest of the country, together with the single railway-line - reaching only its southern part - have emphasised the remoteness and isolation of Darfur rather than transcended it. However, the region's remoteness is also due to a number of other geographical, cultural and historical factors.

3.2 The land

The boundaries of Darfur region lie between longitudes 220E-270E and latitudes 100N-160N and it covers a total area of 160,000 square miles (an area as large as France). The region is located in the remote western part of the Sudan, which borders Egypt, Libya and Chad. The total population of the region is estimated at 3.88 million.

The people of the region are divided into two main ethnic groups: those who are of Arab origin, and the local non-Arab population. This division is consistent with, and further emphasised and sharpened by, the occupational and territorial structure of the region.

The occupational composition in Darfur follows perfectly the ethnic lines of the subdivision. The Arabs, who are mainly nomadic, are either cattle or camel herdsmen, where as the non-Arab indigenous people - with the exception of the Zaghawa - are settled traditional small-scale farmers.

Although the region's name - Darfur - in Arabic means 'the homeland of the Fur', (the main indigenous tribe), the region is actually divided into sub-territorial tribal areas locally known as the Dar ('homeland', in Arabic). Each Dar makes up the social, political and cultural identity of the group, which perceives it as the embodiment of its prestige and its collective living and cultural space. Hence, and despite the official division of the region into provinces, councils etc - the traditional Dar divisions remain most significant within the different ethnic-livelihood communities. The region is traditionally divided into three main Dars. In the North there is Dar Zaghawa, in the centre the Dar of the Fur people, and to the south Dar Rezeigat. Other small ethnic groups also have their Dars (see Map 1)

Map No 1: The Ethnic Structure of Darfur

3.3 The ecology

The climatic, vegetational conditions of northern Darfur are typical of the Sahelian ecozone within which area relief is the major differentiating factor. The volcanic Jebel Marra massif and its northern prolongation, which peaks at 3071 metres and covers about 100,000 square kilometres (about two and a half times the area of Switzerland), divide the western highlands from the lowlands in the east. While the former is dominated by shallow sekeletic soils (immature soils constantly exposed to erosion) and fluvial erosion, the latter is covered by thick sandy soil of old dunes. In contrast, the soils of Jebel Marra "show an altitude-controlled zonation. According to the FAO Report of 1968, the piedmont is covered with deep sediments of volcanic ashes, which are very well suited for cultivation, but they are also highly inclined to erosion and the formation of deep gorges. The Fur tribes have therefore practised terraced farming here for a very long time (Ibrahim, 1984).

The northern half of the area has a hot, dry desert climate, while the southern half has a hot dry steppe climate. The dry season spans 10-12 arid months in the north, and 7-9 months in the south and west, including the highlands of the Jebel Marra. The annuals mean temperature is relatively constant at around 26o C. This very high annual mean has considerable influence on the water balance of the region. The substantial deficit in the water balance constitutes the major ecological problem of northern Darfur.


Table 2: Vegetation zones and precipitation in northern Darfur

Vegetation Zone Precipitation (mm) Area
Desert less than 80 North of Wadi Howar
Semi-desert patch-like thorn scrub and grassland 80 - 200

Dar Meidob and Northern Dar Zaghwa


Low-rainfall woodland savannah



Acacia-senegal savann



Acacia-mellifera savannah


Combretum-Delbergia savannah woodland


Combretum-Anogeissus savanna woodland



200 - 450










Northern Goz sands Berti and Zeyadiya land




Hilly lands of Dar Zaghawa



Goz-sands of eastern Dafur


Pediplanes of western Darfur



Montane and woodland savanna




Jabel Marra massif



Source: Fouad Ibrahim, Ecological Imbalance in the Republic of The Sudan, Bayreuth, 1984

Maps of water deficit in the Sudan show Jebel Marra as a 'wetter island' with annual precipitation of 600-1000mm compared to 200 - 500mm in the surrounding plains (see Map 2). The rains begin earlier in this wetter zone (April), but they end about the same time as in the drier zone (October). Both zones, however, show great variability of precipitation in time and place, with about half the annual average falling in August and again about half of this month's precipitation falling within a span of approximately five single days. In the past, land-use systems were adapted to these huge fluctuations in rainfall. Rapid increases in human and livestock populations over the last few decades, coupled with the encroachment of rain-fed mechanised agriculture beyond its ecologically adapted limit of 500mm isohyets in the sandy soils of Darfur, has made the whole region vulnerable to wide-scale ecological degradation.

The fragile environment of this region eventually began to suffer under the impact of climate change and unsustainable human intervention; the result: bloody disputes over dwindling resources.

Map No 2: Vegetation Zones in Northern Darfur

3.4 The Dars

As stated earlier, Darfur can be broadly divided into three main ethnic territories: Dar Zaghawa of the camel nomads in the north, Dar Fur of the peasant Fur community in the centre, and Dar Rezeigat of the cattle herders in the south and eastern parts. Ecological degradation has affected these zones in noticeably different ways, because each zone occupies not only a distinct ethnic and occupational band, but also a distinct ecological zone. Because of this peculiar and rather unfortunate enclosure of the three diverse ethnic groups within three distinct ecological zones (see Map 3), the possibility of 'ethnic' conflicts among the inhabitants of the three horizontally stacked eco-systems is especially great. This highly sensitive ethnic-environmental dichotomy can in times of scarcity and need easily ignite the flames of conflict.

3.4.1 The Northern Arid Zone

The first of these three zones is the upper northern band, which is a desert spread of the Libyan Sahara inhabited predominantly by Arab camel nomads. The tribal-ethnic structure of this zone is as follows: The Bideyat and Zaghawa non-Arab 'tribes', and the Maharaja (Rezeigat), Irayqat, Mahamid and Beni Hussein Arab 'tribes'.

This zone is the most disaster-prone and ecologically fragile of the three Dars, a fact that partly explains why its vulnerable ethnic groups have always been active participants in the armed conflicts of the region; if not against settled farmers, then amongst themselves.

3.4.2 The Central Rich Zone

The middle eco-ethnic zone of the Jebel Marra massif is the richest area in the region in terms of soil fertility, rainfall, abundance of surface and underground water, and other natural resources. The occupants of this area are settled traditional farmers. They are mainly from the non-Arab indigenous people of the region. The major ethnic group in this zone is the Fur after whom the whole region is known.

The people all non-Arab who live within and around this central zone are: The Fur, Masaleet, Berti, Bargu, Bergid, Tama, and the Tunjur. Unlike the nomads in the upper and the lower zones, the pattern of life in the agricultural communities of the Fur central heartland is characterised by peaceful co- existence and harmony within its ethnic groups. Not a single major incident of open ethnic warfare has occurred within this group.

The recorded conflicts that took place in the most susceptible upper and lower zones were mainly due to intrusions by the cattle nomads coming from the south, or camel nomads moving from the north into the farmlands of the Fur peasants. Unlike most other parts of Darfur, this region is ecologically stable, unscathed by severe droughts or other environmental malaise.

3.4.3 The Eastern and Southern Semi-Arid Zone

Mainly cattle pastoralist nomads inhabit the southern zone of Darfur, which includes the eastern boundaries of the region with the neighbouring region of Kordofan. It is less stable ecologically than the central zone, but has only been partially affected by the drought.

The mainly cattle-herding Arab 'tribes' in this lower zone are the Rezeigat, Habbaniya, Beni Helba, Taaisha, and the Maaliyya. Although ecologically more stable than the northern zone, it is still highly sensitive to fluctuations in rainfall. This zone has suffered from drought during the last two decades to the extent that some of its nomad inhabitants were forced to migrate to urban centres or move into the wetter central Fur-land zone.

Map No 3: Population Distribution by Mode of Living in Darfur



3.5 The people

Ethnic distinctions in Darfur, as is the case for Sudan in general, are not that clear cut. Following the two main sub-divisions, the population in Darfur can be broadly divided into those of Arab descent, and the local, non-Arab indigenous inhabitants of the region. Although some of the Arab groups claim an unmixed Arabic stock, it is important to note that they are Arab only in a cultural rather than a racial sense. The name Arab, therefore, stands for those Arabic-speaking people, who, through a long historical process, have mixed with the indigenous non- Arab Sudanese.

The indigenous Darfurian tribes consist mainly of settled farmers and small-scale traditional cultivators generally referred to as the Fur. They are the largest ethnic group in Darfur and were the founders of the Fur Sultanate and the traditional rulers of the region. The other non-Arab ethnic groups are the Zaghawa nomads, Meidob, Masalit, Berti, Tama, Mararit, and Tunjur. These non-Arab groups established 'The Darfur Development Front' (DDF) in the mid- 1960s to the exclusion of all other ethnically non-Darfurian people. The main objective of the Front was to protect and lobby for the interests of the indigenous Darfurians in the political scramble for power at the centre.

The Arab tribes in Darfur, (mainly pastoralist nomads) consist of the Habania, Beni Hussein, Zeiyadiya, Beni Helba, Djawama, Rezeigat, the Maharia, in addition to the Arab urban merchants and government officials mainly of Jellaba origin. These communities formed what is known as 'The Arab Congregation' in the mid-1980s, an alliance designed to lobby for official and financial backing from both the central government, and the national political parties in support of the cause of the Arabs in the region.

As suggested by Ahmed and Harir (1982), the population in Darfur can also be divided using a different classification into four groups, the Baggara (cattle nomads), the Aballa (camel nomads), the Zurga (the local name for non-Arab peasants derived from the Arabic word for black), and the inhabitants of the urban centres (see Map 3).

Ibrahim (1984), who distinguishes between four groups, adopts a more culture-oriented classification: the Arabs, the fully Arabised, the partly Arabised, and the non-Arabised. The Arabs, according to him, are the native Arabic speakers: The Rezeigat, The Zeiydiya, Beni-Hussein, and the Djawama nomads, who, as a result of intermarriage with the indigenous Darfurians, look much darker than non-Sudanese Arabs. The fully Arabised group refers to those locals who lost their native languages to Arabic. The Berti and the Tungur belong to this group. The third group - the partly Arabised - consists of those who have retained their native languages, but also speak Arabic fluently. Among these the author lists the Fur, the Zaghawa, and the Meidob. The last group in this classification is the non-Arabised tribes who speak very little Arabic, for example, the Massalit, some sections of the Zaghawa, the Bergid, the Mima, the Tama, and the Kenana.

O'Fahey (1980) adopted a different classification. He pointed out that, ethnographically, Darfur is one of the least charted regions of the Sudan, a fact which makes the classifications in terms of Arab/non-Arab divide rather ambiguous, rendering the genealogical approach unworkable. The structure suggested by O'Fahey relates migration, linguistic and occupational factors in identifying the ethnic structure of Darfur. This paper, however, will adopt a broader approach, one that combines both the genealogical/ occupational and the culture-area approach to define ethnicity in Darfur. According to this hybrid approach, three main population groupings can be identified, each sharing a common pedigree, the same occupation as well as the same culture-area.

According to this alternative approach, the first group will be the nomadic camel and cattle herders, who identify themselves as Arabs. Following their common perception, this term is loaded with nomadic self-esteem, a feeling of superiority, and a tendency towards violence. For this group, sedentary farmers and other rural groups are inferior, not only ethnically but also culturally, by virtue of occupation. They are looked down upon as the dwellers of the Tukul, that is, the kitchen - a reference to their sedentary life-style. This group as an embodiment of the status and the prestige of its people reveres the Dar (the homeland). To defend the Dar against intruders each sub-ethnic division - Khashum Bait - has its own strict military organisation headed by an Ageed, that is, the leading warrior. This structure resembles that of a typical military democracy as was known, for example, among the 'barbarian' German tribes, who brought down the Roman Empire. Like their European counterparts, these herder/soldier groups neither refrained nor disdained for raiding and robbing the 'despised' farmers, especially in times of scarcity. Armed raids against other groups, mainly in rich agricultural areas, constitute an important anti-destitute strategy in times of major natural calamities. As rightly argued by de Waal (1992), it is not hunger that matters in times of scarcity or famine, but the social and emotional implications of displacement away from the Dar that most worries the members of this group. De Waal argues that for the rural people in western Sudan, who are normally prepared to put up with a considerable degree of hunger, the elements of famine that are most feared by these people are, in fact, destitution and the breakdown of the social fabric of the Dar.

The second group comprises the sedentary farmers and small-scale cultivators. These are rural-based people, mainly non-Arab and predominantly Fur. Traditionally, they did not have, or need a military organisation, unlike the aforementioned nomadic groups. For these people, Darfur is their own homeland and non-Darfurians are but intruders in their region. Although traditionally inclined to peaceful life, the Fur sedentary farmers are often engaged in skirmishes with cattle and camel nomads over animal intrusion in their farms. As a result of these frequent clashes both groups harbour a degree of animosity and mutual mistrust.

The third culture area/occupational group consists of traders, government officials, absentee-landlords and urban-based professionals. Unlike the other two groups, who have limited political influence, this third group plays an important role in the political life of the region.

The following table provides a summary of the unique correlation between the ecological zones and the ethnic/occupational structure of Darfur.


Table 3: Ethnicity and ecological zones in Darfur

Zone Ethnic group(s) Ecology and Conflict
Northern Desert Zaghawa and other nomads arid and semi-arid
Upper zone Camel herder precipitation 100-300 mm serious, frequent conflicts
Jebel Mara Mountains Fur, Massaliet Montane woodland
Central zone Berti and other settled farmers precipitation 600-1000 mm, peaceful coexistence Conflicts rare and minor
Southern Reziegat low rainfall woodland savannah
Eastern Beni Heiba precipitation 200-700 mm


Lower zone

Halbania and other

nomads cattle Herders

Conflicts frequent, serious



3.6 The economy

As already stated, Darfur is one of the regions adversely affected by the unequal pattern of regional development in the Sudan, a situation created by the biased attention of the elite ruling class towards the relatively rich central region, which over the years has received the lion's share of public and private investment resources at the expense of the rest the country. The local economy of Darfur has, therefore, all the features of a sub-exploited region, that is, of a region that is suffering the double predicament of underdevelopment within an underdeveloped country.

Such regional disparities are one of the most striking features of the Sudanese economy and they reflect, as argued by Gore (1987), an ever-widening gap between rich and poor, as well as between the rich urban centres and the deprived rural areas. Gore maintained that, while it is true that the gap between rich and poor countries of the world is widening, it is also evident that the gap between the rich and the poor areas within developing counties is widening at an even faster rate.

The production base of Darfur economy evolves mainly around traditional rain-fed agriculture and livestock, the latter having the greater market share. These activities are intermixed with more minor, traditional small-scale crafts and cottage industries. The other sectors of the region's economy are of negligible magnitude. The service sector in the region is also of limited economic impact and includes only the very basic services of government administration. The inadequacy of the transport sector and other infrastructures is particularly responsible for the current state of economic fragility of Darfur.

The agricultural sector can be divided into the small-scale subsistence, household-based farming activities, which dominate the rural communities and produce mainly for family consumption, and the medium- to large-scale mechanised farming schemes, which are market oriented. The latter produce food grains, tobacco, fruits, vegetables and groundnut. Across both sectors a shrinking gum-Arabic production also contributes small additional incomes, especially to subsistence farmers.

The main contribution of Darfur to the national economy is its livestock sector. It is in this sector that the Jellaba act as middlemen for the internal market and the international livestock trade. Between the years 1978-1984, this livestock trade accounted for 50 per cent of the Sudanese balance of payments (Table 4), and for 20 per cent of the entire GDP. The share of Darfur in the national livestock trade is 30 per cent, and the region hosts around 25 per cent of the country's livestock population.


Table 4: Sudan Livestock and cotton export value and share

1981/82 - 85/86 (in millions of US $)

Year Livestock Cotton Total exports Livestock share





























Source: World Bank Country Report: Sudan 1992, 1992

Table 5: Population division by mode of living in Darfur and the eastern region

  Total population Rural Nomads Urban Sedentary %

Nomads %

Darfur 3,111,406 2,307,111 469,555 334, 730 74 15
Eastern region 2,207,901 1011835 558 478 637 588 46 25

Source: Third Population Census, Sudan Department of Statistics, 1983

Consistent with this bias towards animal husbandry is the dismal record of public sector investment in the region. The few, and only agricultural development projects attempted are: the Jebel Marra Integrated Rural Development Project; the Western Savannah Agricultural Project; the Western Sudan agricultural Research Project; the Sag El-Nam Agricultural Project. With the exception of the Jebel Marra Project, the other three projects were complete economic failures and are textbook examples of how ill designed rural development projects can be.

4. A General Overview of the Armed Conflict in Darfur

The armed conflicts among the various ethnic groups in Darfur have experienced two major phases in their development: the low intensity, sporadic 'tribal' raids and skirmishes which characterised the disputes from the 1950s to the 1970s, and the high intensity, persistent and large-scale armed conflicts, that have been fought since the mid-1980s. Whereas the early confrontations were easily contained and resolved, current conflicts have proven too unwieldy to manage through the traditional, time-tested methods of conflict control.


4.1 The Escalation of Armed Conflict in Darfur

Since the mid-1980s the occasional minor skirmishes over water and grazing land have gradually expanded in intensity and frequency and have developed into fully-fledged warfare. Thousands of human lives have been lost in an unprecedented bloodshed; whole villages have been wiped out and burnt, property looted and plundered.

Different conflict management strategies were followed by the different governments of the day, but their efforts proved ineffectual, and, on several occasions, the central government has been accused of actively supporting one group against another.

4.2 Past Confrontations: Skirmishes

Conflicts prior to the mid-1980s were of low intensity in nature, highly localised in area, and infrequent. Rarely were more than two groups involved. Examples of such conflicts include the Zaghawa versus the Maharia in 1968; Maalaya versus Rezeigat in 1968; Rezeigat versus Misseria from 1972-74; Beni Helba versus Maharia from 1975-77; and the Taaisha versus Salamat from 1978-81.

Table 6: List of 'tribal' conflicts in Darfur:


Year* Parties to the conflict Main reasons for conflict
1957 Meidob vs. Kababish (Northern Darfur) Mutual rustling of camels
1968 Rezeigat vs. Maalia (Southern Darfur) Grazing lands, animal theft
1969 Zagawa vs. northern Rezeigat (Northern Darfur) Access to pasture and water, animal theft
1974 Zagawa vs. Birgid. (Southern Darfur) Access to pasture and water, and animal theft
1976 Beni Helba vs. northern Rezeigat. (Southern Darfur), Access to pasture and water and animal theft
1980 Northern Rezeigat, Umjalul Mahariya, Eriagat and Etiafat vs. Beni Helba, Birgid, Daju, and Fur (Southern Darfur) .Access to pasture and water and animal theft,
1980 Taisha vs. Salamt.(Southern Darfur) Access to pasture and water animal theft.
1982 Kababish and Kawahla vs. Meidob Berti ans Ziyadia.(Northern Darfur) Access to pasture and water, Animal theft land occupation
1984 Missairiya vs. Rezeigat (Southern Darfur)

Access to pasture and water



Gimir and Marareet vs FellataNorthern Darfur)

Access to pasture and water,animal theft.
1989 The Fur of Kabkabiya vs. Zagawa. (. (Central Darfur) Territorial conquest, racial and political prejudice. Subjugation.


Gimir vs Zagawa. Territorial access and animal


Source: Adapted from Harir, 1993. (* Year of reconciliation conference)

4.3 The present confrontation: High intensity conflict

The current full-scale civil conflict in Darfur started in 1985 at the height of the drought that ravaged the region. This conflict has been fought in two rounds. The first was between the Zaghawa and the Maharia camel pastoralists of the upper northern desert belt, against the settled Fur farmers; the second involved all the non-Arab farming communities of the Jebel Marra area against a broad coalition of virtually all Arab nomads. Since then, and despite the efforts of four different governments, the war has continued unabated.

Contrary to the earlier, localised skirmishes over water and grazing land, the post-1985 conflict has shown a systematic drive by the nomads to occupy land in the central Jebel Marra massif. Whereas the previous disputes were spontaneous, unmediated and lacked both intensity and persistence, this new conflict is one of continuous high intensity. The nomadic scramble from the impoverished Dars into the rich agricultural central heartland is the cause of the continuing conflict; it is the contest of the drought stricken for the green oasis. Whatever the perception of the conflict, it is one, which is being fought primarily over the control of a thriving resource base in the middle of a zone of scarcity. It is a classical ecological conflict.

4.3.1 The First Stage of the conflict (1983-87) The Zaghawa and Maharia versus the Fur

In the first stage the conflict was strongly related to the harsh drought, which afflicted the region, especially in the early 1980s. During this period many nomads from the drought stricken areas - both Zaghawa and Arabs - moved southwards into the Fur region. Realising that on this occasion the nomads intended to stay, the Fur reaction was far from welcoming. The Zaghawa were in search of water and pasture for their animals, but some of the Zaghawa had lost so much of their animal wealth that they actually became ex-nomads and were now looking for agricultural land for permanent settlement. The most appealing place was the oasis of the Fur people.

The Zaghawa exodus followed two distinct routes, downward into the south and into the Fur land, and eastwards to the urban centres, where they engaged - with some success - in petty trade. The fate of the Zaghawa who chose the route of rural migration was less fortunate. They suffered at the hands of government forces that accused them of camel rustling. Numerous incidents were reported of government forces (both police and army) burning down Zaghawa villages and ex-judicially executing Zaghawa local leaders. The Zaghawa were left with no choice other than to arm themselves against the onslaught of the government soldiers.

Events spiralled out of control and led to widespread use of modern weapons by all parties involved (Zaghawa, Maharia, Fur and the army). Machine guns such as Klachnikovs, AK47s, G3 assault rifles, together with Gronovs, RPGs, explosives, heavy machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades were all in common use. The price of an AK47 with its accessories was about US$ 40, far lower than its international price. Africa Watch (1990) estimated that at least 50,000 modern weapons were available in Darfur during this period, one for every man above 16 years of age.

The modern weaponry used in this conflict was supplied to each faction by its outside supporters, whether the Sudanese, Libyan or Chadian governments. Use of such modern arsenal increased the number of casualties and severely aggravated the situation. An additional complicating factor was that the Fur had, in the early 1980s, used their kin governor, Ahmed Dreigh, to ward off the intrusion of the nomads. The nomads - at that initial stage mainly Zaghawa - had in turn - sought help from Libya, from the central Sudanese government and from their kin Zaghawa in Chad.

Soon after the involvement of these external forces, the conflict acquired the reputation of being an ethnic plot concocted by a regional Arab conspiracy. Attempts at understanding the root causes were hampered by the shift of emphasis from the economic/ecological to that of the ethnic/political arena.

4.3.2 The Second Stage of the conflict (1987-1993) The Arab Alliance versus the Fur

The second stage of the conflict (1987-1993) climaxed in ethnic polarisation and proved to be more aggressive and destructive than the first. As a result, combatants and independent observers seem to have lost sight of the root causes of the conflict.

The excellent documentation of the conflict by Harir (Harir 1992,1993:1, 1993:2), which is a major source for this paper, rightly points out the significance of the so-called "curse of the strategic position" of the Fur homeland, straddling the Jebel Marra massif and its slopes, which, as already mentioned, are the richest areas in the entire drought stricken region.

Harir argues that because the Fur area was blessed with environmental resources, it became accursed by the influx of the nomads. He maintains that the second phase of the conflict, which started in 1987 and involved 27 Arab tribes in an alliance called the 'Arab Congregation' not only declared war against the settled Fur farmers, but against all the Zurga (blacks), and non-Arab groups of the region. The Janjawid (meaning jinni on horseback) were the vehicle of Arab aggression against the Fur and by extension against the blacks of Darfur. In response, the Fur organised their own 'Militiat' initially for self-defence and later to forge links with the SPLA.

The second phase of the conflict has been very valuable in revealing the ecological roots of the conflict. The main target of the nomads, as documented in many instances, was not the Fur farmers but their land. As reported by Africa Watch (1990), before a raid the Arab nomads would give a day's warning to the villagers - the Fur farmers - to vacate their villages and make way for the Arabs. Harir (1992) drew attention to the fact that the Arabs called the lands from which the Fur had been 'cleansed', the liberated lands.

The conflict has inflicted a high toll on population and resources. It is estimated, that by the time the peace conference was convened in 1989, more than 5,000 Fur and 400 Arabs had been killed in the second phase of the confrontation. Tens of thousands have been displaced, 40,000 homes and 700 tents burnt, and hundreds disabled. In addition to this, millions of pounds worth of livestock and other property have been lost.

Yet, in spite of its high cost in human and material loss, the conflict has continued unheeded nationally and unnoticed internationally. Two factors have contributed to this state of affairs: firstly, the prevalent perception that this is yet another traditional inter-tribal conflict in a very remote area; secondly, the conflict has been overshadowed by the civil war in the South with its intriguing ethnic, political and religious overtones.

The widespread misconception about the nature of the conflict, coupled with an almost total disregard for the impact of ecological degradation in the region, has led the government to take the absurd line that further troop deployments will eventually resolve the conflict. We have heard of the lashing of the sea to subdue the waves, so it is not surprising that troops should be deployed to overcome a drought-related social crisis.


5. Three approaches to the conflict:

5.1 The Humanitarian Approach

This approach deals mainly with the humanitarian needs created by ecological degradation in Darfur. It is understandably concerned with the social and economic repercussions of famine on the people of the region. Due emphasis is given to disaster recovery methods and relief targeting problems. This approach is best represented by the contributions of de Waal (1989) and Maxwell (1991).

Food security considerations feature high on the list of priorities of this approach, and, by the virtue of this concern, the armed conflict is tackled mainly as an active threat to relief efforts. Thus, wherever the conflict does not interfere with relief distribution or with the safety of its transportation routes, it usually receives little attention.

5.2 The Ethnic-Political Approach

This school of thought views the conflict as yet another ethnic - tribal conflict, albeit of much greater intensity and of longer duration than the traditional skirmishes over water and grazing land. It sees no qualitative change, only a quantitative one, and an enhancement on previous trends and attitudes with a new political dimension attached to it. Harir (1993) and Abu Elbashar (1993) as well as some leading figures within the major parties involved in the war adopt this approach.

Although this approach reflects fully the widely accepted perceptions about the apparent causes of the conflict and adequately explains the forms and tactics used in its execution, it fails to recommend appropriate ways and means to contain and resolve the conflict. This school uses the language of 'historical rights' and 'social justice'; almost oblivious of the dynamic ecological and economic processes that are transforming the region. Above all, it does not appreciate the prudence - that at times of ecological upheavals - sharing and rehabilitation of the available resources is the order of the day and not the winner-take-all mentality, which has brought so much misery to the region.

5.3 The Holistic Ecological Approach

This approach attempts to integrate the ecological aspect into the web of economic, political, ethnic-tribal and historical parameters responsible for warfare in the region. It makes clear distinctions between three basic categories inherently related to war: perception, manifestation and causation. Though related, these three categories are not necessarily congruent.

Perception of conflict does not necessarily explain its causes. The holistic environmental approach not only differentiates between perception, manifestation and causation, but also understands history as a dynamic process and therefore allows cause and effect to change places, so that today's effects and perceptions of the conflict can be transformed to become the causes of future conflicts. This transformation of effects into causes would explain the many incidents where, long after the initial causes of a conflict have diminished or ceased to exist, people have continued to kill one another; because the accumulated hatred has itself become a sufficient cause for a new conflict or simply because the contestants have always been killing each other.

This approach endeavours to transcend the limitations of the previous models by incorporating far-reaching ecological factors into the formula of war and peace in the region.


5.4 Why is this a typical ecological conflict?

The enemies confronting each other in this bloody war have a long history of guarded co-operation and relative peaceful coexistence. In the past, the Arab and the Fur fought skirmishes over land and animal intrusion, but never engaged in large-scale war. Their current conspicuously polarised and antagonistic ethnic stand is more a product of the war than a cause of it. Not only are all the participants in the conflict Sunni Muslims - albeit never militant in their belief - with Arabic as their lingua franca, but also their feeling of belonging to a particular ethnic group had no antagonistic implications. Here ethnicity has functioned as a matrix for co-operation, not confrontation. The different Darfurian groups were never strongly ethnic-tribal in their criteria of mutual identification and hence in dealing with each other. The low ethnic barriers that existed among them were friendly and easily surmountable by intermarriage or similar processes of assimilation in a fluid exchange of ethnic affiliation.

As Abdul-Galil (1984) notes, ethnic identification along the four criteria of territory, linguistics, occupation and genealogy is rather a situational phenomenon. The actual processes "involve the evaluation by the actors of the situations they find themselves in". In the market place, where appearance or clothes are not useful means of identification, "linguistic mapping" assumes special importance. If not content with the linguistic definition, the parties may resort to one or all the other three as additional identification criteria.

To his surprise, Abdul-Galil learnt that even the solid boundaries of the dominant tribal entities the Fur, the Arab and the Zaghawa were in actual fact porous and responsive to change. He cites the example of the Djawama of Turra, believed to be of Arab origin, which settled in Turra and became Fur as well as that of the Tekera of Tekerabe, the Arab Rezeigat, who became Zaghawa.

Interesting also are the cases of individual, poor Fur who descend the Jebel, take up the occupation and the language of the Zaghawa and become Zaghawa or those individual Zaghawa who ascend the Jebel, to become peasants and ultimately Fur.

Nothing save a catastrophe could have stifled the fluid relationships between these open ethnic groups. The huge intervention that so polarised the people in this region and had its climax during the 1980s was the Sahel drought.

5.5 Why the Government sided with the Pastoralists in the West and opposed them in the East?

The sectoral structure of the economy of Darfur reflects the important position held by the livestock economy in comparison with farming and other production and services sub-sectors. Livestock export earnings had registered a steady, impressive rise (as shown by the figures in Table 4) from as low as around 13 per cent during the mid 1970s to 23 per cent in 1981/82, and then to a record level of 50 per cent in 1985/86, the year in which it even surpassed cotton export earnings, the traditional pillar of Sudan's balance of payments.

The predominant part played by livestock in the economy of Darfur (as the source of surplus extracted by the Jellaba traders), both in terms of internal trade proceeds and exports earnings has its bearing on the ongoing conflict in the region. This surplus source factor greatly influenced the government's decision to side with the nomads against the farmers in Darfur, but had exactly the opposite effect in the East.

Compared with the surplus generated by agricultural farming activities, which are mainly subsistence in nature, the main economic contribution of Darfur to the centre and hence to the broader national surplus extraction cycle, is through livestock trade for the local markets and, most importantly, for export.

This is contrary to the situation in the East, where the main source of surplus originates in the large mechanised farming sector. That is why the government - and the Jellaba - supported the absentee landlords of mechanised agriculture against the nomads in eastern Sudan, despite their Arabic ethnicity, and left them with no alternative other than to "practically fight their way through the farms which block their seasonal routes to the traditional grazing areas" (Ahmed, 1992).

Whereas the triumphant nomads roam Darfur 'liberating' land and driving farmers from their homes, with the complacent approval of the government, their next of kin in the eastern region were reduced to the dismal position of having to chose between either to abandon their traditional way of life or fight a losing battle to retain it.

The interests of the surplus extractors determine the government's position in both conflicts, the Jellaba, who are the absentee landlords in the east and the livestock traders in the west.

It is interesting that the government opted to support the nomadic groups in Darfur although, in terms of relative weight of population, they account for only 15 per cent of the population - a small minority compared to the rural farmers who account for 74 per cent of the area's population. This electoral power of sedentary peasants had little impact on successive undemocratic regimes that chose to side with the livestock nomads, not only because of economic interests, but also in order to secure the military support of these sturdy people in implementing their aggressive policies.

Since the early 1980s, successive central governments have actually organised thousands of Arab nomads into armed militia (Murahaleen) and indeed used them as a second armed force.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Sharing of resources in times of scarcity the practical road to peace:

As previously argued, the warfare in Darfur is essentially an attempt by the drought-stricken livestock herders to drive the Fur out of their fertile 'wet' region. The Arabs are trying to capture the entire region and drive away the Fur, who, in turn, are fighting to retain their land for themselves.

This is the root cause of the bloodshed. It is astonishing that attempts to resolve the conflict have not given this crucial factor due consideration. Instead of advising some sort of resource sharing - ecological power sharing - reconciliation attempts have concentrated on political power sharing.

In a recent article in ' Der Uberblick' (September 1993), Lothar Bauerochse reports how the warring tribes in southern Ethiopia have managed to resolve a long-standing conflict over the area's dwindling resources. They agreed to an equitable sharing plan, which recognises the 'right' of the Borana over their rich homeland but also the 'right' of their suffering neighbours, for example, the Konso, the Tesmay and the Arbore, to survive. All parties concerned accepted a plan for peace that allows livestock to enter the land of the Borana immediately after the sorghum and maize harvest. This breakthrough was cemented by further agreements related to co-operation in resource rehabilitation and development as well as to mixed education of their children. Observers of the peace negotiations and ceremonies from aid and development organisations pledged to support the peace initiative by giving material aid to its implementation.

In the case of Darfur the persistent calls for political power sharing seem to come from the urban elite belonging to both sides of the conflict, rather than from the affected people themselves. We therefore propose a four-point plan for long-term peace in the region:

1. To stop all hostilities and agree to negotiate peace on the basis of the 'right' of the Fur over their land and the 'right' of the nomads and their animals to survival. This should entail temporary sharing of some grazing land and water resources.

2. To prepare, with government help, plans for sustainable land-use aimed at mitigating the impact of the drought, and for long-term rehabilitation of the affected areas. Important in this respect is the gradual substitution of large-scale rain- fed farms by regulated animal husbandry through the controlled use of pastures. Also important is the targeting of national and international development and aid programmes towards achieving lasting peace, namely environmental rehabilitation, sustainable use and equitable sharing of available resources.

3. To diversify the production base of the area by developing labour-intensive manufacturing and handicraft cottage industries with the purpose of absorbing both labour and produce surplus of the peasants and the livestock herders.

4. To develop the transportation and telecommunication systems in order to link the people of Darfur and their economy to the rest of the country and to the world at large.

The success of such a plan will largely depend on the will of the warring parties for peace as well as the need for the central government to be an active partner in the process. It also depends on the regional powers Libya and Chad to refrain from intervening in the internal affairs of Darfur. Certainly the explicit targeting of development programmes and aid to cool down social turbulence will constitute a welcome help.

Where the ecology is fragile, social peace is also fragile and armed conflict can only be avoided through some form of equitable sharing of available resources.




Abu Elbashar, M. A. (1993) The Tribal War in Darfur: A Resources Fight Developed into Ethnic and Political Conflict, Al-Hayat (Arabic), 10: 1993, London.

Abdul-Jalil, M. A. (1984), The Dynamics of Ethnic Identification in Northern Darfur, in The Sudan Ethnicity and National Cohesion, Bayreuth, Germany.

Ahmed, A. M. and Harir S. (1982), Sudanese Rural Society: Its Development and Dynamism, (Arabic) DSRC University Khartoum Press, Khartoum.

Ahmed, A. M. (1992), Rural Production Systems in the Sudan: A General Perspective, in Doornbos, C. (ed), Beyond Conflict in the Horn, ISS, The Hague, Holland.

Africa Watch (1990), The Forgotten War in Darfur Flares Again, Report 6 April, London.

Bachler, G. and Spillmann, K. How to Cope with Environmental Conflicts, ENCOP, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, Switzerland.

Beshir, M. O. (1975), The Southern Sudan from Conflict to Peace, The Khartoum Bookshop, Sudan.

Beshir, M. O. (1970), The Southern Sudan: Background to Conflict, Khartoum University Press, Sudan.

Beshir, M. O. (1984), Ethnicity, Regionalism and National Cohesion, in The Sudan Ethnicity and National Cohesion, Bayreuth, Germany.

Buchanan-Smith, M. and Mohammed, M. I. (1991) Regional Policy Food Insecurity: The Case of Darfur, Western Sudan Ministry of Finance, Report, Khartoum, Sudan.

De Wall, Alexander (1989), Famine that kills Darfur, Sudan 1984 - 1985, Oxford, U.K.

De Wall, Alexander (1990), Emergency Food Security in Western Sudan: What is it for? In Maxwell, Simon To Cure all Hunger, IT, Exceter, U.K.

Eldredge, E. (1988), Food Crisis, Crisis Response and Emergency Preparedness: The Sudan Case, Disaster: No 12, pp 1-4.

ElNur, I. (et al) (1992) Displaced and Refugee Studies in the Sudan An Annotated Bibliography, University of Juba.

Gore, P. W. (1987), Poverty Versus Affluence: The Fiasco of Rainfed Mechanized Agriculture in Renk District Southern Sudan, in Mohammed-Salih, M. A. (ed) (1987) Agrarian Change in the Central Rainlands: Sudan, SIAS, Uppsala, Sweden.

Harir, S. (1993), " Arab Belt" Versus "African Belt": Ethnic - Political Conflict in Darfur and the Regional Cultural Factors, in Harir, S. and Tvedt, T. (eds) (1993) Short-Cut to Decay: The Case of The Sudan, James Currey, London.

Harir, S. (1993), Racism in Islamic Disguise ? Retreating Nationalism and Upsurging Ethnicity in Darfur Sudan, Centre for Development Studies, University of Bergen, Norway.

Harir, S. (1992), Militarization of Conflict, Displacement and The Legitimacy of The State: A Case From Darfur Western Sudan, CDS, Bergen, Norway.

Ibrahim, F. N. (1984), Ecological Imbalance in the Republic of Republic of the Sudan: With Special Reference to Desertification in Darfur, Bayreuth, Germany

Keen, David (1991), Targeting Emergency Food Aid: The Case of Darfur 1985, in Maxwell, Simon To Cure all Hunger, IT, Exceter, U.K.

Koke, P. N. (1992), Adding Fuel to the Conflict: Oil, War and Peace in the Sudan, in Doornbos, C. (ed), Beyond Conflict in the Horn, ISS, The Hague.

Malwal, B (1981), People & Power in Sudan: The Struggle for National Stability, Itheca Press.


Mohammed-Salih, M. A. (1989), Ecological Stress, Political Coercion and Limits of State Intervention in the Sudan in Ecology and Politics (ed), Ornas and M. A. Salih, SIAS, Sweden.

O'Fahey, R. S. (1980), State and Society in Darfur, C. Hurst and Company, London.

Salter, S. and Rydjeski,D (1986), Towards an Early Warning System in Sudan, Disaster : No 10, pp 189-96.

Suliman, M. (1993), Civil War in the Sudan: From Ethnic to Ecological Conflict, The Ecologist, Vol. 23 No. 3 May/June 1993.

Tobin, I. N. (1985), The Effect of Drought Among the Zaghawa of Northern Darfur, Disaster: 9, 213-23.