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Darfur: The history behind the bloodshed

South Sudan, currently in the news because of its secession referendum, is not the only area of Sudan with a troubled history, as David Keys investigates.

Published: January 31, 2011 at 8:30 am
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Between 2003 and 2008, in a terrible conflict and humanitarian catastrophe, the Darfur region (in the western part of the country), up to 400,000 civilians were killed, another two to three million driven from their homes and 1,000–2,000 villages razed to the ground. Last year the international criminal court in the Hague made it clear they believe that the slaughter may have amounted to genocide. The roots of the catastrophe lie in three major historical developments – one in the early 20th century, one in the 1950s and 1960s and another in the latter part of the century.


Darfur was one of a string of powerful Black African states – including the Kanem-Borno, Songhai and Mali empires – which emerged along the Sahara’s southern fringe in the medieval and early modern periods. At its peak in the late 18th and early 19th century, Darfur was a well organised and successful empire – a Sultanate around seven times the size of England. It was Egypt’s largest single trading partner – and controlled the region’s salt, textile, iron, copper, and slave trades. Its capital was a thriving town called Al Fasher where the Sultan ran his far-flung empire from the comfort of his sumptuous palace.

However in 1821 Egypt seized the eastern half of the empire (Kordofan) and between 1874 and 1898, the western half (Darfur itself) came temporarily under Egyptian (and for a time Mahdist Sudanese) rule, following a military adventure by a powerful slave trader acting on Egypt‘s behalf.

But in 1916 the British (who were by then co-rulers of Sudan with the Egyptians) thought the French might expand into Darfur from the west. So, looking for an excuse to seize the Sultanate, the British in Khartoum accused the Darfurians of having had contact with the Turkish enemy, speciously claimed that the territory had once been part of the Ottoman Empire (and thus belonged to its successor in the region, the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan) - and then invaded Darfur. The sultan was killed – and his territory was absorbed into the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. The British put virtually no investment or development into Darfur – in contrast to the efforts they expended to develop Khartoum and the Nile Valley.

When Sudan became independent in 1956, it inherited Britain’s imperial role as far as governing Darfur was concerned. But, whereas the British had ruled the province from afar with a light touch (almost always through local Darfurians), the government of Sudan ultimately decided to rule it more directly. From 1972 onwards, the Khartoum government usually ran Darfur, not through local appointees, but through officials brought in from other parts of Sudan, mainly from Khartoum. Thus Britain’s 1916 conquest sentenced mainly non-Arab Darfur to a future as an underdeveloped colony of Sudan’s Arab-speaking Nile Valley heartland.

The second historical factor behind the problems of the past decade is pan-Arab nationalism. Since the 1950s, the Egyptians, the Syrians and then the Libyans have sought to unite and sometimes to expand the Arab world. Indeed, in the 1980s, Libya’s leader, Colonel Gaddafi, tried to establish an Arab belt in the Sahel (the area to the south of the Sahara) by trying to conquer Chad (also mainly non-Arab) and by helping Khartoum to dominate Darfur.

The underdeveloped economy of Darfur (a legacy of British rule) and the Khartoum government’s arabisation policy in Darfur combined to marginalise the province’s mainly non-Arab population. Indeed in 1994 Khartoum tried to abolish the only surviving traditional polity in Darfur – the Masalit sultanate (which had emerged in the 19th century). This 1994 attempt at abolition and arabisation was followed by years of oppression (1996–99) and Masalit resistance.

Growing resentment on both sides throughout Darfur (not only in the Masalit area) led for the first time to the clash between Arab and non-Arab cultures being perceived by the opposing parties in racial terms. Indeed racist attitudes began to shape actions on both sides. The increased marginalisation of the non-Arab majority in Darfur (especially the abolition of the relatively effective native administration there in 1972) and the severe transport problems (particularly from the oil crisis of 1974 onwards) combined to cause a virtual collapse of government in the province. Normal administrative, judicial and political functions collapsed – and created a governmental vacuum. With few customary courts functioning, physical force rather than legal recourse was used to settle land, water access and grazing rights disputes.

The third factor that helped generate violence was prolonged drought. In 1984/85 a particularly bad drought episode cost 100,000 Darfurians their lives. The drought reduced the amount of habitable land, but also perversely increased the population significantly. Immigration into Darfur from Chad (which was also hit by the drought) and increased birth/survival rates (due to greater concentrations of population in a decreased number of places) has pushed Darfur’s population up from 2.8 million in 1983 to 6.5 million today. More people competing for less land led to conflict – especially when combined with racial, economic, linguistic, religious, political and cultural divisions.

As well as these three major causes, there were other less fundamental, though nevertheless important, factors which helped facilitate problems in Darfur in the middle part of the past decade. Key among them was the ending of the 23 year long civil war in southern Sudan. Although the war, which cost at least one million lives, officially ended in 2005, serious peace negotiations had started back in 2002 – and hostilities began to scale down almost immediately. As a result, the Sudanese government (especially its air force) felt able to devote more effort to dealing with rebels in Darfur. If the war in the south had still been in full swing, Khartoum may have been more conciliatory in Darfur.

Regional geo-political history has also been a factor in facilitating conflict. Two of Sudan’s neighbours – Chad and Eritrea – have often backed the Darfur rebels. Chad is mainly non-Arab – and it was at the receiving end of Arab (Libyan) expansionist activity (the ultimately unsuccessful Libyan invasion of Chad in 1980 and 1983–7). More to the point, Libya’s local Arab allies received their arms via pro-Khartoum Arab tribes in northern Darfur and indeed based themselves there after 1987. Later, Sudan turned a blind eye to those Chadian Arab exiles using Sudanese territory as a launch pad for invading Chad (early 2006). It is these same northern Darfur Arab tribes (mainly camel herders) who formed the much feared militias (the Janjaweed) in the 1990s and which just a few years ago – in tandem with the Sudanese Airforce –was responsible for the slaughter of so many non-arabs in Darfur.

Eritrea also had a long-standing distrust of Sudan – mainly because it believed that Sudan’s Islamist government was sponsoring Eritrean fundamentalist rebels – the Eritrean Islamic Jihad which in the 1990s kept launching attacks against Eritrean border troops. Eritrea’s reservations about the Sudanese government led it to break off diplomatic relations with Khartoum for ten years (until December 2005) and to host a conference of Sudanese rebel groups in June 2005 which it hoped might coalesce to form a credible alternative government in the Sudan.

Subsequently both Chad and Eritrea established a fragile peace with Sudan – but the war in Darfur continued for some time. The Sudanese refused permission for UN peace keepers to enter Darfur – and the 7,000 African Union troops, who had been serving there, found it virtually impossible to prevent continuing slaughter in a region the size of France (with just one properly surfaced major road). What’s more, the Khartoum government continued to allow its Arab paramilitary proxies in the area – the Janjaweed – to burn non-Arab villages and ethnically cleanse vast areas of Darfur.

Since 2009 large scale killings have stopped – but the situation remains potentially unstable.

Key figures in the story of Darfur

Colonel James Vandeleur Kelly 1877–1947
The Irishman whose Anglo-Egyptian force conquered Darfur in 1916. It was the last substantial military conquest in the history of the British Empire.

Ahmed Ibrahim Diraige born c 1933
Founder of Darfur’s first modern political movement, the Darfur Development Front in 1966. He was governor of Darfur in the early 1980s, before the great famine 1984/85 hit the region.

Omar al-Bashir born 1944
Sudanese leader since seizing power in a military coup in 1989 and the country’s president since 1993. His government has fought rebels in both southern Sudan and in Darfur. In the latter region the Sudanese authorities supported Arab militias who killed large numbers of non-Arab Darfurians.

Further reading:


A Short History of a Long War by J Flint and A de Waal (Zed Books, 2005);
The Famine that Kills by A de Waal (OUP, 2005);
State and Society in Darfur by S O’Fahey (Christopher Hurst 1980);
Kingdoms of the Sudan by S O’Fahey and J Spaulding (Methuen, 1974);
Darfur: A History by S O’Fahey (Christopher Hurst, 2007);
Darfur’s Sorrow: A History of Destruction and Genocide by M Daly (CUP, 2007)

Map: Martin Sanders

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