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July 2004
The AU Government is the Best Hope for Darfur
In Sudan, "Arab" is a Codeword for Social Status

Darfur (Arabic, meaning "home of the Fur") is a region of the far western Sudan, bordering the Central African Republic and Chad. It is divided into three federal states within Sudan, Gharb Darfur, Janub Darfur, and Shamal Darfur. All of Darfur's communities are Africans regardless of their historic, economic, and ethnic relations. Many so called Arabs are not ethnic-Arab as the term might be understood outside Africa. The so-called Arabs in most of Africa are not ethnic Arabs, and although they speak Arabic, their "mother-tongue" or native language is one of thousands of languages indigenous to Africa.

Tunisia, with 9.1 million people, is the only African state with a true (geneological) ethnic African-Arab majority (as opposed to Arabic-speaking, or Arabized African). But only 10% of Tunisians qualify as, or describe themselves as "pure" Arab, the rest being of Amazigh-Arab origin, or Jewish, French, Greeks, Italians, and Amazigh without Arab ancestry. And the Tunisian Arabs didn't get there by invading (the initial invasions were defeated by Al Kahena, queen of the Amazhig), they were invited and resettled there later by Africans. Moreover, the term Arab itself has a disputed meaning. Ibn Khaldun, perhaps the greatest Tunisian scholar in history, uses the name Arab to mean "people of bedouin origin", and bedouin in a sense meaning "nomad" of Yemeni and Saudi origin. But other scholars think that Arab is in fact a social classification rather than a geneological classification.

All other states in Africa have ethnic Africans, who are descended from indigenous Africans in their ancient origins. The members of the Amazhig (Berber) communities are the ones most easily confused with Arabs, because many, not all, have light-skin tones. Calling a member of the Amazhig community Arab is incorrect. No doubt many Amazhig are light-skinned on account of intermarriage with Romans, Greeks and Arabs, but they identify as Africans, and they are Africans.

As for Egyptians, supposedly the largest Arab state in the world, they are mostly Islamized Copts who speak Arabic. And the relationship between ancient Arabs and Copts should not be a source of anger. The invasion of Egypt in 640 AD by Muslims (some of whom were black Africans - including the commanders) and Arabs was welcomed by the Copts. In fact the Copts made the invasion possible because they were suffering oppression under the Byzantine empire. Later on and from time to time, Coptic monks who didn't get along well in Efgypt went to live in Sudan.

In 652 AD, the Islamic armies clashed with the Nubian Alliance. Eye witness accounts of the Battle of Dongola (central Sudan) describe it as the most horrifying carnage, involving armoured knights and massive siege machines and catapaults, fire bombs and mass slaughter. The grand cathedrals and castles were pounded and destroyed. The Nubian archers stopped the massive offensives of the Islamic/Arab/Egyptian troops several times, and after exhausting years of carnage, the Christian King of Nubia, Kalidurut, asked for peace treaty without defeat. This is the Baqt of 652 AD. It included among its conditions, the supply of slaves from the African interior, in exchange for grain from Egypt. This was the decisive beginning of the shift of Africa's economy into a slave economy.

The Sudanese were eventually to capture Egypt in 745 AD, on several occassions after, spawning a unification movement that still has a lot of support in both states, but the damage to our history had been done. Darfur and other Sudanese states, become dependent on the slave trade economy, waging wars and diplomacy in central, east and west Africa, in order to supply slaves to Instanbul, and to Iraq and Russia. Dongola city became the biggest slave processing center in human history, notorious for castration of African captives headed for Asian and East European markets. The middlemen were Arabs, the real kind, and the Sudanese kind. [It's a tradition that continues today in Sudan, helped by Christian organizations with a lot of money to buy back captives. Recently poor families are faking capture in order to be "liberated" by rich westerners. Money can't fix everything].

As to why a lot of Africans are called Arabs...that is the legacy of the Umayyad caliphate (whose Islam was so unlike anything today, and their attitude towards non-Muslims was so much more liberal). The Umayyad Caliph, Al Walid (705-715), decreed that Arabic had to be the language of Islam. Before Walid's time you didn't have to pray in Arabic. Ironically, Walid was concerned that Coptic was becoming the language of Islam, due to their overwhelming numbers and influence. Had he not instituted Arabic, half the Arab world might be speaking Coptic today. The other half, Persian. There might not be an Arab speaker in the world. The Arabs were so few, and Walid saw a way out for his people. A hundred years after Walid, the real Arab invasions began, and their toll was brutal.

"Arab" Sudanese leader Turabi (raised hand) with "Arab" friends
The vast majority of "Arabs" in the Sudan are in fact indigenous Africans, who are also Blacks (with actual black or dark-brown skin), and have no Arab heritage whatsoever, besides having been Islamized. Such groups make up the majority of Sudanese, and include such communities as the Beja (also known as Beja-Nubians), Nuban, Ingessana, and even the Fur. Hassan Turabi, the leading Arab and spiritual leader of Moslems around the world is not an ethnic Arab by any stretch of imagination, and he is certainly black and African in appearance.

In everyday usage, people just accept the word Arab, the same way that an American might ignore the remark that Americans are Christians. Or in the same way that a Mapuche Native of South America might accept the term Spanish or Latin (even if he is neither). There are parts of central Africa where black skinned Africans refer to each other as English or French or Persian depending on their religion, history and politics. It doesn't actually mean they are English. In Sudan you might be Arab one day and African the next, depending on who you speak to or where you get off the bus.

Another term that qualifies one as an Arab" in Sudan is membership in the Baggara communities (Baggara is a term that denotes "herders and nomads"). And yet real Arab settlers in other parts of Africa refer to black African herders in East and Central Africa as Baggara. So Baggara are Arabs in some cases, and not in other cases.

Conflict between herding communities and cultivators is common in Africa. This herder-cultivator conflict has well documented history in Africa, and is rather recent, contrary to the prevalent modern propaganda about Africa. This conflict was caused by the breakdown of social order precipiated by colonial occupation all across Africa. In fact it didn't exist during slavery. The herder-cultivator discourse in Africa is key to the class warfare that feeds into every other conflict, religious or ethnic. In fact the herder-cultivator discourse is so potent and explosive that is the most important element in Africa's worst violence, the Rwandan genocide and the Biafran war included. It is a phenomenon that is lost on western commentators, except as a water and resources competition issue, not a identity issue.

To understand the emotional load the herder-cultivator discourse carries, and why it was linked by colonial officers to the tribal and racial categories that they used to implement their policies, (and which has done such damage to African self-identity), imagine what the term hunter-gatherer or savage might have evoked in past decades. Consider that a lot of personal and communal pride is tied up in either disputing or affirming the web of insults and exultations tied into whether one descends from "nomads" or "diggers", from supposed warriors and kings, or from passive sellouts. And all these perceptions are operational at a cultural level that informs everything else in Africa. It may be no more insidious than other forms of cultural conflict elsewhere in the world, but there are other factors operating that makes things a little different in Africa.

Although being a herder is not the monopoly of Sudanese "Arabs", the violence in Sudan is between herders and cultivators at the local level (for colonial reasons). But that is not all that is happening. This conflict has been intensified by the imposition of State concerns over oil revenues. Oil caused the conflict between former government troops from Darfur and the Bashir dictatorship (or perhaps dictatorship caused the conflict by monopolizing oil). Add on to that an American public that is feeling angry over the Somalia and Rwanda debacles, and angry about Bush's extremist politics, and the strange anti-terror alliance between the Sudan governemnt and the US government, and you have a disorderly and messy media battlefield that has the Africans and the international public confused about priories.

The usual method that western media has used is to "blame Islamic extremism" if non-Muslims are involved, or when that fails as in Darfur, "blame the Arabs". The fact that most of the Sudanese who have borne the brunt of abuse by the Bashir government are "Arabs" is not of any interest to mainstream media. The fact that a lot of Sudanese troops used both against the south and the north were from Darfur, and that many are now rebels is also an aspect of the conflict that is not lost all sides.

They (media, do-gooders, UN, etc) have ignored massacres and military repressions in Northern Sudan for thirty years, and concentrated on the violence against the "christians". The treatment of Nubians in North Sudan is a clear cut case of something intolerable. Yet because an "Arab", namely Sudanese leader Bashir, is killing "fellow Arabs" in the north, that is not a news story. The Sharia courts were jammed down the throats of northern Sudanese, their communities were brutalised and many were killed and imprisoned when they resisted, but because they were Muslim, the world said absolutely nothing.

And what they got wasn't even Sharia, it was a nightmare masquarading as Islamic law. The Bashir regime introduced Iranian radicalism which even radical Islamists Sudanese think is a foreign imposition. The Bashir regime went as far as forcing Sudanese women to wear the Iranian Chador, which is different from the Tobe covering normally worn by Islamic women in Sudan. Under Bashir, northern Sudanese women can be stopped by any man and questioned about wearing the appropriate government sanctioned dress.

The very embodiment of Sharia, Al Turabi, is in prison for speaking up against the dictatorship in Sudan. The Janjaweit have also been burning mosques, and some reports claim they are ripping apart copies of the Koran, and desecrating the books by going to the toilet on them. So where does that leave 'Arabs", Muslims or any other Sudanese for that matter? What we have in Darfur is quite simply the fruits of dictatorship, not Arabs, not Muslims, and a lot of really impoverished, angry and terrified people going at each other, and the government going after them for oil money and bad politics.

As for the Sudanese government, their remaining troops don't want to fight anymore. The are tired, demoralized and abused. President Bashir is under seige...and his only escape is the sense of legitimacy that is accorded him by Colin Powell and Kofi Annan when they pretend he can actually disarm anyone. In otherwords, they are helping him maintain power by giving him international legitimacy...the same thing they have done with every dictator on his last legs, in the name of international diplomacy.

In the resulting public indignation, groups of people are asking for military intervention by the US. Sending the US army into Africa is only going to make matters worse. People have to stop believing the lie that the US army is somehow more capable that Africans themselves. No foreign troops should be allowed in Africa, least of all troops from states that have shown minimum regard for Africans.

The only way, in the short-term, to solve Darfur's problems is to increase the size and funding for the AU troops. In the long run the solution is democracy for Sudan, and for all its neighboring states, which also means strengthening the AU's institutions. Since there is not much expectation of the international community actually treating the African Union government and its institutions with the respect it deserves...the Africans will be the only ones to resolve the problems of Darfur and Sudan, long after the relief tourists and moralizing diplomats and media has found a new project in some other despairing community.

END




    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    

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