Geopolitical implications of the Darfur conflict

Geopolitical implications of the Darfur conflict


The conflict in Darfur has broken out just as the wounds of the even greater tragedy in the south of Sudan are beginning to heal. It is argued here that many key elements of the current tragedy (both in terms of its causes and the reactions to it) can be found in the war between the North and the South of Sudan. Added to the complications inherent to the latter conflict are those derived from the interests in play along the main lines of present-day international tension.


The South Ends the Entrenched Dominance of the North and the West Awakens

Although the people of Darfur have long been discontented with Khartoum, the most recent conflict began in February 2003. Around this time, the very long and bloody conflict between the Arab-Muslim north and the black-Christian-animist south of Sudan was being resolved, thanks to growing US involvement in favour of the South. Anglo-American support of the SPLA (the guerrilla force in the South) led to a peace process that began in Machakos (near Nairobi) in July 2002 and took shape in the Naivasha agreement of July 2004. The agreements between the Arab-Muslim north and the black-Christian-animist south restructured the foundations of Sudan’s political structure by questioning the until-then indisputable dominance of the northern Arabs over the rest of the country. In effect, the agreements signed between the North and the South restructured politics (new structure for political representation), economics (new criteria for distributing wealth), the military (reorganization of the armed forces) and religious-social concerns (delimitation of the spaces under the Sharia –Islamic law– and of Arabization policies: in fact, the spokesman for the Sudanese army, General Mohamed Beshir Suleiman, had used the term Jihad to describe the war against the South).

The agreement between the North and the South had an impact far beyond Sudan because this is a line of friction between the Arab world and black Africa. The confirmation that it was possible to restructure the Sudanese socio-economic-political system and re-establish the balance between these two large spaces (until then biased in favour of the Arab-Muslim north), unleashed long-dormant energies in one of the regions of black Africa that had suffered the socio-economic-political hegemony of the north: Darfur (the ‘House of the Fur’), a region in the east of Sudan bordering on Chad. Darfur, a sultanate officially founded in 1650, was made up of non-Arab farmers and was independent until 1916, when it was brought into the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. The region is populated by various indigenous black tribes (principally the Fur, but also the Zaghawa, the Masalite and about ten other smaller groups) who worked the land. However, there are also nomadic, pastoral Arab minorities that arrived later. The struggle for space, which was not so virulent in the past, has now increased, due to the discord brought on by the war in the south between Arabs and blacks, the shift in power towards the black regions, to the detriment of the Arab regions, and the shrinking green areas brought on by the advance of desertification. It is important to keep in mind that the Arab population in this region is Muslim and that the black population is too, apart from some Christian and animist minorities, unlike the situation of the blacks in the south (who are mainly Christian or animist). Two armed black (and mainly Muslim) groups emerged: the ‘Sudanese Liberation Army’ (SLA) and the ‘Justice and Equality Movement’ (JEM). The goal of these groups was to make the agreements reached with the black guerrilla movement in the south applicable to Darfur (rebalancing political representation, participation in wealth, limits on Arabization policies). The black Muslims in Darfur feared that compensation for any loss of wealth in the Arab-Muslim north, in favour of the black-Christian-animist south would be at their cost.

Khartoum’s reaction was not long in coming. Fearing that a global restructuring of power in Sudan (Darfur in the west, plus the South) could put an end to Arab domination over the blacks (both Christians and Muslims), the Arab government in Khartoum decided to crush the Darfur rebellion. But there was a problem. Though the regular Sudanese army was made up overwhelmingly of Muslims (who fought the non-Muslims in the south), approximately half the soldiers were blacks from Darfur and half Arabs from the north and the east. Although the mostly Muslim army could serve Khartoum loyally against the non-Muslim black rebellion in the south, it was difficult to demand that black soldiers from Darfur massacre their brethren. To prevent eventual problems of poor discipline or lack of ‘motivation’ in the troops, an all-Arab militia was created and armed by the government: the sinister Janjawid –Arab paramilitary groups, mainly nomads and herdsmen–.

Khartoum Takes Advantage of the Concentration of Western Powers in Iraq

In February 2003, when the war broke out in Darfur, the world’s attention was focused on Iraq. The US and the international coalition supporting it were concentrating more and more troops in Iraq, first to achieve rapid success in the war to bring down Saddam Hussein and then to face the insurgent and terrorist groups bent on preventing the stabilization of the country. This situation was ably used by Khartoum to foment the criminal actions of the Janjawid. To make matters worse, the Darfur crisis repeated the international alignments of the war in Iraq and the earlier war between the Arab-Muslim north and the black-Christian-animist south. In short, here too Khartoum had the support of the Arab nations and Paris against the ‘hard line’ maintained by Washington and its allies (mainly the UK and Italy). In the context of its ‘Arabophile’ policy, Paris not only supported the north in its war against the South, but also softened any action taken against Khartoum.

Although the intensity of the Iraqi conflict was used by Khartoum to carry out its criminal work with total impunity, the progressive stabilization of Iraq naturally meant that the US and the other powers involved began refocusing their attention on Darfur.

Positions and Interests of the International Players in the Darfur Tragedy

Now that the Darfur conflict is in the news headlines, the main international players have been forced to align themselves to pursue their interests. The main players are, on the one hand, the government of Sudan and its allies, France, China, the Arab League and Arab-Islamic countries; and, on the other, the US and its allies. Finally, there are international organizations involved: the EU, the AU (African Union) and the UN. The essential line of argument of the government of Sudan is, of course, that there is no ‘genocide’ underlying the conflict and that this has been ‘exaggerated’ and even ‘manipulated’ by foreign powers to justify an intervention –an ‘American plot to destabilize the region’–. The official Sudanese line, backed by its allies, is that the conflict is not an ethnic one, but rather ‘economic’, and is no more than a struggle between herdsmen and farmers[1]. The problem with this interpretation is that if the conflict were only of this kind, it is inexplicable why the government of Khartoum (theoretically not involved) would arm one side (the herdsmen) to annihilate the other (the farmers). The government’s second line of argument is to accept, at most, the presence of international ‘observers’ and foreign troops to protect these observers, but not the presence of ‘peace forces’. The government has insisted that ‘peace’ must be the ‘responsibility’ of the Sudanese army. The adoption of resolution 1556 by the Security Council was received as a ‘declaration of war’ by the spokesman of the Sudanese army, general Mohamed Bachir Suleiman, who also left the door open to the repulse of foreign intervention in Darfur being considered a Jihad (a term the same spokesman attributed to the fight against the black Christian-animists in the south). Third, in the face of the increased international pressure brought about by this resolution, the Sudanese government has revealed itself ready to share political power (federalism) and wealth, in line with the agreement with the guerrillas in the south. However, this is merely a generic proposal which, to date, lacks any kind of specifics.

The position of France has been well expressed by its minister of Foreign Affairs, Michel Barnier. In his article, ‘The doctor, the soldier and the diplomat…’[2], he rejects the imposition of sanctions (which he says ‘should not be an objective in themselves’ –an arguable point, since after all the crimes committed it is difficult to imagine that sanctions could be ‘an objective in themselves’–), in favour of dialogue between weak victims and aggressors in a position of strength. He also excludes European intervention in the conflict and supports an ‘African solution’ (without saying what would happen if, as is the case, the ‘African solution’ is insufficient to stop the catastrophe). Furthermore, this ‘African solution’ must consist only of an ‘observation force’; in other words, it must not be a force that intervenes to keep the peace. France is ready to pay large amounts of money to help the victims of the massacre, but it defends a policy that leaves the door open to an increase in the number of victims. In addition to its ‘political’ interest in maintaining an area of influence in the Arab world and in Africa, France has direct ‘economic’ interests, since the oil company Total has concessions in the south that have not yet been put in production. To defend these interests, Paris has sent military forces to the border between Chad and Darfur.

China is a player frequently forgotten in analyses of Sudan. However, it plays a very important role, and not only because of its veto power on the Security Council, which it has used to counter eventual sanctions against Khartoum. It is clear that China’s great handicap these days is its lack of energy reserves and ‘safe’ suppliers of oil. In search of these supplies, China has developed intense relations with Sudan. The two Chinese state-owned oil companies (China National Petroleum Corporation –CNPC– and Petrodar) are now operating in Sudan. And in contrast to the project to export Sudanese crude via sub-Saharan Africa (the Chad-Cameroon route), China is investing in pipelines to Port Sudan, on the Indian Ocean, where it has easier access. In order to guarantee supplies, China has deployed four thousand soldiers and 34 helicopters, according to the Washington Post.

The Arab League, in a communiqué on August 8, 2004, clearly aligned itself with the Sudanese government. First of all, it expressed its disagreement with the ‘30 days’ granted by resolution 1556, asking instead for ‘an appropriate time frame’ that would allow the Sudanese government to fulfil its obligations. Second, the Arab League asked the international community to oppose any threat of military intervention in the region. Arab support is practically unanimous, both at the economic and diplomatic levels. Sudan has signed free trade agreements with the United Arab Emirates (February 2002), and with Jordan. According to a report by Sudan’s Ministry of the Economy, the UAE has become the largest investor in the country, followed by Saudi Arabia. Politically, almost all Arab-Muslim and actively Islamic countries have shown their support for the Khartoum regime, including the two largest Muslim countries close to Spain: Morocco and Algeria. The truly significant silence of the Arab world in the face of these massacres has been denounced by a few independent and, unfortunately, quite isolated voices[3].

The United States is undoubtedly the most important player involved and there has been speculation regarding what interests motivate it in this conflict. Its interests are mainly political, but also economic and even social. Politically, Darfur affects the US in several ways.

From the perspective of domestic politics, the US cannot ignore that the victims of the genocide are the blacks of the region. Since there are a large number of black voters in the US, president Bush wants to attract the Afro-American vote –about 11% of the electorate– with decided action in favour of the persecuted black population. Added to this is the extraordinary work evangelical groups have done in the US to raise awareness of the oppression of religious minorities, not only in the south of Sudan, but also in the rest of the country. The US Congress unanimously passed a resolution calling what was happening in Darfur ‘genocide’, a term repeated later by the US executive (statement by Colin Powell to the Senate on September 9, 2004). This was of enormous importance because it legitimized armed intervention to end the situation, in accordance with the provisions of international law. It is also significant that senator John Darforth, an activist in favour of the blacks in the south of Sudan, and who was the US special envoy to Sudan in 2001, has recently been named US ambassador to the UN.

These important factors are accompanied by others that are central to US foreign policy. It seems clear that the US is sympathetic to the creation of a black, non-Muslim state in the south of Sudan. And it is equally clear that the government in Khartoum has heavy Islamist leanings, despite its relative moderation compared to the days when it sheltered al-Qaeda and Bin Laden himself. Whether or not the blacks in the south achieve independence one day, the North-South peace process in Sudan is part of the general US strategy to democratize the Arab world (the ‘Greater Middle East’) as a way of neutralizing the roots of religious fundamentalism. Darfur’s demands fit perfectly with the democratization policy that Washington considers essential in the Arab world and that explains most of its actions (including the latest war in Iraq). It is equally true, however, that the Arab countries back the Khartoum regime and to deal with the crisis in Iraq the US also needs the support of these countries. This forces the US executive to moderate the interventionist impulses of Congress. Along with these political interests, attention has been drawn to economic interests in the war. Although no operations have yet begun, it seems that reserves of oil, copper and uranium do exist in the region. There is also speculation that the oil will be exported south, instead of along the dangerous Red Sea route. Oil pipelines through Chad and Cameroon would present far fewer problems.

The EU, to date, has largely aligned itself with the French position in terms that have become clearly unacceptable. The report by Pieter Feith, personal representative of Javier Solana for Sudan, has been criticized for denying that ‘genocide’ is occurring in Darfur, affirming that it is just a ‘silent massacre of large proportions’. This is more than a question of terminology. The report by EU experts rules out the possibility of sending EU troops to protect the civilian population and considers it more ‘realistic’ for the Sudanese army itself to protect civilians –the same army that Human Rights Watch has reported is now recruiting the Janjawid themselves and which previously carried out massacres in the Christian south–.

The AU (African Union), the ambitious successor to the OAU, faces the greatest challenge to its credibility in the Darfur conflict. It is now presided by Nigeria (a black Christian/Muslim country), which has mediated between Khartoum and the Darfur rebels, sponsoring the peace talks begun in Abuja (Nigeria) on August 23. The Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, has made serious attempts to put an end to the crisis and has suggested sending a multinational African force with the power to disarm bands of Janjawid, given Khartoum’s inefficiency with this task.

The UN has been slow to react to the crisis in Darfur and has done so at the behest of the US and the UK. Bowing to this pressure, the Khartoum government signed a joint communiqué on July 3, 2004, with the secretary-general of the UN, promising improvements in four areas to: (1) facilitate access by humanitarian organizations to the affected zone; (2) respect human rights; (3) provide security to the persecuted black population; and (4) reach a political solution to the conflict. However, since signing this agreement, the Sudanese government did almost nothing, leading to increased pressure until resolution 1556 was passed by the Security Council on July 30, 2004[4]. This resolution, passed in accordance with chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter (which authorizes the use of sanctions) imposed several obligations on the Sudanese government (paragraphs 1 and 6 of the Order): (1) to more effectively facilitate humanitarian aid; (2) to investigate violations of human rights and of humanitarian international law, and to bring to justice the Janjawid and others who committed atrocities (which has not yet done); (3) to disarm the militias (also pending); (4) to establish credible security conditions for the civilian population (something dramatically lacking); and (5) to continue negotiating with the rebels. The resolution asks the secretary-general to report within 30 days on Khartoum’s fulfilment of its obligation to disarm the Janjawid and bring those responsible for the atrocities to justice. If this is not done, the resolution expresses its intention to adopt the sanctions provided for in article 41 of the United Nations Charter. Resolution 1556 also backs the peace process in the south, thereby highlighting the connection between the Darfur conflict and the war in the south.

In order to facilitate adherence to resolution 1556, the representative of the UN secretary-general, Jan Pronk, and the Sudanese minister of foreign affairs, Mustafa Osman Ishmael, signed an action plan (the Sudanese ‘road map’). To evaluate how well the Sudanese government is meeting the obligations imposed by resolution 1556, the secretary-general had Jan Pronk prepare a report[5], which was published two days after the one prepared by the secretary-general himself[6]. Pronk reported that, although ‘some progress’ had been made, Khartoum had not done everything possible to disarm the Janjawid or to bring to justice those responsible for the massacres. The report also says that Sudan ‘has largely failed’ to protect civilians, which sparked a harsh reply from the new US ambassador to the UN, John Darforth. Based on his very detailed knowledge of the situation, he made reference to an AU report linking the Sudanese army to massacres after resolution 1556 had been passed. Also, according to a report by Human Rights Watch[7], the government in Khartoum has not only failed to disarm the Janjawid, but has brought them into the police and other security forces in the country. Now that the 30-day period granted by resolution 1556 has expired and the Sudanese government’s lack of will to meet its commitments is clear, the UN faces the dilemma of whether or not to impose sanctions. Although the US has presented a draft resolution for sanctions against the Khartoum regime, there is a group of countries that have taken the side of the genocidal regime for economic reasons (China), ethnic-religious reasons (Pakistan, Algeria) or political reasons (France).

Spain and the Genocide in Darfur

Spain has an interest in the conflict in Darfur, both because of its multilateral commitments and its bilateral interests.

First of all, the conflict in Darfur interests Spain not only as a non-permanent member of the Security Council, which it will preside in September 2004, when there will be debate on what steps the UN will take after resolution 1556. Beyond the political implications of the conflict, in which Spain has no direct interests, and the economic ones (if Spanish multinationals such as Telefónica or Repsol eventually become involved in Sudan, which is not now the case), the only imaginable involvement is of the legal-humanitarian kind. If Spain wants to carry out ‘humanitarian diplomacy’ along the lines of countries like Norway, it cannot remain on the margins of a massive crime that can legitimately be called genocide and must press for those responsible to be brought to justice. The Spanish ‘humanitarian diplomacy’ project would lose all credibility if Spain did not support sanctions against the criminals from its position on the Security Council.

Second, as a member of the EU, Spain must decide what kind of action it supports, as it becomes clear there will be a great debate between two opposing currents. On the one hand, the main current will align with Washington and will adopt a policy that goes beyond mere declarations of sanctions. This is the line taken not only by the UK (a traditional ally of the US) and Italy (which in addition to being a US ally, is also the birthplace of most of the missionaries now in Sudan –the great majority of them ‘white fathers’ of the congregation founded by the Italian saint Comboni–), but also by Germany, where the pressure of the two main churches, the Roman Catholic and the Protestant, has been a determining factor. The minority line includes France, which is in favour of taking a ‘soft’ approach to the Sudanese government. The European Union Treaty establishes that EU foreign policy must pursue respect for human rights and international law. From this perspective, given the systematic violations of these rights and laws, European foreign policy will be credible only if it moves from rhetoric to action.

A Darfur policy that follows the lines of ‘humanitarian diplomacy’ would have significant collateral effects for Spain. Such a policy would mean that Spain would have to clearly distance itself from the two countries with which it has built its closest relations: France and Morocco, both of which have clearly aligned themselves with Khartoum. This ‘humanitarian diplomacy’ could also serve to bring us closer to the US, from which Spain has dangerously distanced itself. If Spain failed to adopt this type of ‘diplomacy’ for fear of making our closest neighbours uncomfortable, our foreign policy would be mortgaged at a high price. Such an option, chosen in the name of apparent realpolitik, would be totally unadvisable and counter-productive.


The conflict in Darfur is a humanitarian challenge of huge proportions, but is also a decisive test of the project for a new Sudan with greater political, economic and cultural balance. Darfur is also a key part of the geo-strategic balance of several lines of conflict in Africa (Arab vs. black world) and the world (competition between the West, the Arab-Muslim world and China for areas of influence and energy supply).

Carlos Ruiz Miguel

Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Santiago de Compostela

[1] Declarations by the Sudanese minister of Parliamentary Relations, Abdel Basset Sbderat, in Algiers (El Watan, 8/IX/2004).

[2] El País, 12/VIII/2004.

[3] Practically the only Arab voice raised against the massacres has been that of the Tunisian journalist working in Cairo, Kamel Labidi. See his articles: ‘Silence on the Arab Street’ (Sudan Tribune, 2/VII/2004) [], ‘Arab Voices Stay Silent as Ethnic Slaughter Carries on in Sudan’ (The Scotsman, 6/VII/2004) [] y ‘This Curious Silence in the Arab World’ [].

[4] S/RES/1556 (2004).


[6] S/2004/703,

[7] ‘Empty Promises? Continuing Abuses in Darfur, Sudan’, 11/VIII/2004,