The revolution in Darfur

Lasting peace in Sudan's Darfur region - 300,000 people dead and millions displaced by regime violence - should be a priority for #SudanUprising.

Zam Zam camp for Internally Displaced People (IDP), North Darfur. Image credit Albert Gonzalez Farran for UNAMID via Flickr (CC).

Writing about the public’s potential to form uncontrollable, non-heirarchal resistance methods, the post-Marxist philosophers Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, compared the victorious multitude to an omnipotent demon. In the ongoing mass protests in Sudan, which has already resulted in the fall of General Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year regime, digital democracy, as deployed through the medium of social media, was key to the people’s victory. These new methods and mediums, mostly youth-centered, proved unique in their ability to attack and expose the core of the rotten political system in ways that traditional civil society and oppositional parties couldn’t, revealing the system’s weaknesses and stripping it of its proclaimed legitimacy.

Nevertheless, in-between fears of the old regime’s survival and aspirations to build a new political system, the challenges of achieving lasting peace in Darfur, a region in western Sudan, are key. For almost two decades Darfur bore the brunt of the regime’s imbalanced policies culminating in 300,000 deaths and the displacement of millions facilitated still by chaotic tribalism and civil strife. Given this history, the prioritization of the region when constructing a new political system, is a must.

While the region’s civil war heritage looms large, a genuine transition is confronted with the constraints of dealing with the past. The regime’s divide and rule policy had demarcated society into Arab and African in a racially charged political discourse. This, in turn facilitated the replacement of a national identity with an ethnic one, which wouldn’t have been possible without employing the violent machinery of the state.

To make matters worse, historically, political transitions in the center have always reflected negatively on Darfur. The political elite, competing to win constituencies, do so through the polarization of tribes for political gain. Far from being an invention of Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP), military and civil governments alike exploited the ethnicity factor for mass mobilization, one where political interests are expressed through socio-political conglomerates.

The fact that changes in central state authority affects stability in the peripheries is evident when one examines the political developments after the 1985 revolution. Darfur entered a four-year civil war where geo-strategic and ecological factors fueled further competition between political rivalries. These ended up being fought within and outside its borders. This trend continued when in 1989, after Bashir’s coup d’état toppled an elected civilian government, Darfur once again was invoked as one of the regime’s “salvation” objectives: ending the region’s tribal conflict. The mobilization of local leadership for reconciliation was nothing short of a ruse orchestrated to court wide sectors of society into political buy-in.

The aftermath of the NCP’s internal rift—the single most important development in the political theatre of post 1990s Sudan—further affected the region’s dynamics. The Darfuri Islamists, the region’s latest political elite and its front-liners who were expelled from party and governance, waged a rebellion against the central state they helped secure a decade earlier by acting as the first line of defense in the South Sudan war. A sense of lost confidence in access to authority and equal representation prompted them to adopt a marginalization line, its principles have since formulated the political vision upon which the resistance discourse against a dominant riverine elite holds sway. Thus, the roots of disunity between the North and West, mobilized through elite squabbles over state authority, were depicted as a war of racial supremacy where the state coaxed the Arab element against its African counterpart. The ensuing atrocities, nothing short of ethnic cleansing, placed Darfur on the international crisis map.

The realities of Darfur provide for an ideal situation to test the application of development theories but only if genuine political will is present. It can be assumed that the country is being reconstituted from scratch following the dissolvent of its utilitarian mainstays: the state and civil institutions, as well as the military whose loss of monopoly over violence enabled a popular push for change. The three pillars that constitute the functional modern state and the elements of its previous dominance; the military, the bureaucracy and the political parties in their traditional sense, have all been dismantled.

In response to the challenges faced in resolving the root causes of conflicts and in an effort to reconstruct the region’s social fabric, a new political theory modeled around similar African experiences that draw inspiration from truth and reconciliation commissions (the most prominent example being South Africa after Apartheid) should be explored. At this juncture, there is a present risk that the State will continue to be used as a tool to fuel social conflict unless the political discourse is redefined in the minds of the elite from a value of “stake in power and wealth” to a science of development that builds on local experiences of the relationship between identity and resource conflict. Political transition in Sudan requires nothing short of a paradigm shift that places civil society in a central peacebuilding and developmental role.

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