The Janjaweed Spin Out of Control

by Rene Wadlow

The on-going conflicts in the provinces of Darfur in western Sudan are a textbook example of how programmed escalation of violence can go out of control. It is increasingly difficult for both the insurgency and the government-backed forces to de-escalate the conflict which has been called with reason “genocide.” It will be even more difficult after the war to get the pastoralists and the settled agriculturalists to live together again in a relatively cooperative way.

Darfur (the home of the Fur) was always marginal to the politics of modern Sudan and to the two phases of the North-South civil war, which took place from 1954-1972 and 1982-2005. In the 19th century, Darfur, about the size of France, was an independent Sultanate loosely bound to the Ottoman Empire. It was on a major trade route from West Africa to Egypt, so populations from what is now northern Nigeria, Niger, Mali and Chad joined the older ethnic groups of the area, the Fur, the Masalit, the Zaghawa and the Birgit. Nomads from Libya also moved south into Darfur. As the population density was low, a style of life with mutual interaction between pastoral herdsmen and settled agriculturalists with some livestock developed. Increasingly, however, there was ever-greater competition for water and forage made scarce by environmental degradation and the spread of the desert.

France and England left Darfur as a buffer zone between the French colonial holdings –what is now Chad–and the Anglo-Egyptian-controlled Sudan. French-English rivalry in West Africa had nearly led earlier to a war, and a desert buffer was of more use than its low agricultural and livestock production would provide to either European colonial power. It was only in 1916 during the First World War when French-English colonial rivalry in Africa wilted before the common German enemy that the English annexed Darfur to the Sudan without asking anyone in either Darfur or the Sudan if such a “marriage” was desirable.

Darfur continued its existence as a peripheral and environmentally fragile area of Sudan. It was marginal in economics but largely self-sufficient. Once Sudan won its independence in 1956, Darfur was deemed politically as well as economically marginal. Darfur’s people have received less education, less healthcare, less development assistance, and fewer government posts than any other region. Southerners were given governmental and administrative posts in the hope of diminishing the violent North-South divide. There was no such incentive to “share the wealth” with Darfur. Its political weight was lessened still further in a 1995 “administrative reform,” when Darfur was divided into three provinces: Northern Darfur, Western Darfur, and Southern Darfur. Some areas that were historically Darfur were added to Northern and Western Bahr El-Ghazal. The division of Darfur did not lead to better local government, nor to additional services from the central government. It must be added that Darfur’s local political leadership showed a special skill in supporting national political leaders just as they were about to lose power–first Al Sadig Al Mahdi (1989) and then Hassan al-Turabi (2001).

During the North-South civil war, Darfur, as a largely Muslim area, supported the North, and some militias from Darfur formed raiding parties to attack villages in Northern Bahr El-Ghazal. However, Darfur’s leaders counted for little in the long North-South negotiations which finally led to a power-sharing accord in January 2005. Wealth from the oil fields, largely situated on the edge of the North-South dividing line, had been a prime issue in both the war and peace negotiations. Under the accord, oil wealth is to fund development programs for the South, while preserving a unified Sudanese state.

Ironically, it was the North-South peace negotiations which set the stage for the Darfur revolt. In 2000, Darfur’s political leadership met to draw up a “Black Book” which detailed the region’s systematic under-representation in national government since independence. The “Black Book” marked the start of a rapprochement between the Islamists and the secular radicals of Darfur who both wanted a better deal for the region. Three years later, these two tendencies took up arms as loosely allied guerilla groups, the more secularist Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Islamist-leaning Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).

However, at the level of the central government, the “Black Book” led to no steps to address the political and economic position of Darfur. This lack of reaction convinced some in Darfur that only armed action would bring recognition and compromise, as the war in the South had done.

In July 2002, the government of Sudan and the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement signed a framework protocol for peace in Machakos, Kenya. It seemed that peace was at hand. Therefore, if Darfur was to share in the potential new prosperity, armed violence to gain attention for the cause had to be undertaken soon. The two Darfur groups, SLA and JEM, started to structure themselves, gather weapons and men. The idea was to strike in a spectacular way that would lead the government to take notice and to start wealth-sharing negotiations. They did not envisage a long drawn out conflict of the countryside against the towns of Darfur.

By February 2003, the two groups were prepared to act, and in one night attacked and destroyed many of Sudan’s military planes based at El Fasher. The Sudan military lost in one night more planes than it had in 20 years of war against the South.

However, the central government’s “security elite”–battle hardened from its fight against the South but knowing that the regular army was over-extended and tired of fighting–decided to use against Darfur techniques that it had used with some success against the South: arming, and giving free reign to militias and other irregular forces.

Thus the government armed and directed existing popular defense forces and tribal militias in Darfur. The government also started pulling together a fluid and shadowy group, now called the Janjaweed (“the evildoers on horseback”). To the extent that the make-up of the Janjaweed is known, it seems to be a collection of bandits, of Chadians who had used Darfur as a safe haven for the long-lasting insurgencies in Chad, remains of Libya’s Islamic Forces which had once been under the control of the Libyan government but left wandering when Libyan policy changed, probably some daytime police and military (the Janjaweed acting nearly always at night), and some traditional nomad leaders from Darfur.

The central government gave these groups guns, uniforms, equipment, and indications where to attack by first bombing villages. But they gave no regular pay. Thus the militias had to pay themselves by looting homes, crops and livestock, by taking slaves and raping women and girls. Village after village was destroyed on the pretext that some residents supported the SLA or the JEM; crops were burned; water wells filled with sand. As many people as possible fled to Chad or to areas thought safer in Darfur. The campaign has now lasted over a year and a half. As the acting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Dr Bertrand Ramcharan, stressed: “First, there is a reign of terror in this area; second, there is a scorched-earth policy; third, there is repeated war crimes and crimes against humanity; and fourth, this is taking place before our very eyes.”

The United Nations set up an International Commission of Inquiry which confirmed the worst fears of the deliberately destructive nature of the conflict, the intended consequences of which are to destroy a way of life. The Commission of Inquiry as well as the UN Commission on Human Rights has recommended that those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity be tried by the International Criminal Court. This will be the first major test of the new court, and thus will be important to watch and analyze.

It is not clear to what extent the central government can now control–or disarm, as the UN has requested–the Janjaweed even if they wanted to. Darfur now represents a classic case of how violence spins out of control and goes beyond the aims for which it was first used by the powerful. For the moment, it is hard to see how the violence can be reduced. The African Union has sent in military observers to oversee a non-functioning ceasefire. Talks between the government of Sudan and the JEM and SLA leadership in the Nigerian capital Abuja have broken down. The Sudanese government has honed its survival instincts for a long time, ably playing its “Arab” character for support within the Arab League and its “African” role within the African Union. There is little external support for the JEM and SLA. However, they have been able to get arms on the international “gray market.”

The situation in Sudan will be discussed by the UN General Assembly in New York just after a September summit devoted to reform of the UN–in part to cope better with intra-state conflicts such as that of Sudan. The UN and especially its Commission on Human Rights has played an increasingly active role. The Commission’s 2005 resolution on Sudan stressed three path-making elements which merit wide attention:

a) the key role that is to be played by the International Criminal Court in the Hague; b) the increased cooperation and mutual support between the UN system and the African Union; c) the emphasis on preparing now for post-conflict reconstruction and ecologically-sound development based on “promoting the peaceful social coexistence between different tribes in Darfur.”

As with all UN resolutions, much will depend on the follow-up which will be taken by governments and non-governmental organizations. We can all help build awareness of the innovative thinking expressed in the Sudan resolution and the need for concerted action.


Rene Wadlow is editor of the online journal of world politics Transnational Perspectives and an NGO representative to the UN at Geneva. Formerly, he was professor and director of research of the Graduate Institute of Development Studies, University of Geneva.

This story originally appeared in the Aug. 24 edition of Toward Freedom.


“Sudan: The Shadow of a Death” by Rene Wadlow, on the death of Sudanese leader John Garang http://towardfreedom.com/home/content/view/537/1/

“Dying in Darfur” by Samantha Power, including interview with Janjaweed leader Musa Hilal,
The New Yorker, Aug. 30, 2004

“Sudan Research, Analysis and Advocacy” by Smith College professor Eric Reeves

See also:

“Darfur: NATO Prepares Intervention” by Wynde Priddy, WW4 REPORT #109

WW4 REPORT’s last news update on Sudan


Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Sept. 1, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution