On Monday a group of activists from 48 states pitched 350 tents on the National Mall, hoping to encourage President-elect Barack Obama to take a tougher stance on the Sudanese government’s handling of Darfur. At an associated gathering, State Department representative Roger Winter spoke in support of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (he used the word “Movement,” instead of “Army”) that incidentally stands accused of human rights violations.

This just highlights the stupidity of the “Save Darfur” slogan and accompanying movement. What does “Save Darfur” even mean? Apparently for the activists who saw it fit to set up 350 tents in Washington, it meant taking the side of an armed rebel group.

While many are quick to condemn the Sudanese government and its allies the Janjaweed as violators of human rights, it should be pointed out that Darfur’s resistance movements are not unified and partake in depredations of civilians as well. In fact, a 2006 U.N. report included the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army among the groups that showed “the least regard for the welfare of civilians.”

In an increasingly complex web of alliances, acronyms like JEM, SPLA/SLA and UFLD represent the various armed Darfuri militias that fall in and out of alliances with each other, and at times collude with foreign nations. In 1996, for example, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency spent $20 million to support the SPLA’s armed effort to overthrow the central Sudanese government. That was in the days when Osama bin Laden lived in Sudan, and although not yet a household name, he was considered sufficiently threatening for the CIA to arm an abusive Darfuri militia and finance an attempted revolution in the African country that harbored him.

And it gets more complex. Westerners are accustomed to seeing political entities solely in terms of geographical or ideological divisions. In much of Africa and the Middle East, though, divisions can transcend geography and involve ethnic and tribal structures. For instance, the Justice and Equality Movement is a Darfuri group dominated by the non-Arab Zaghawa tribe, as is the government of neighboring Chad. This makes it easy for the Chadian government to interfere on Sudanese soil. That is exactly what happened in May, when the JEM launched an attack on the central Sudanese government, presumably with Chadian backing. Together with the SPLA’s acceptance of CIA aid, such foreign interference justifies government action in Darfur, if for nothing else than to protect Sudan’s borders.

Now consider that the Justice and Equality Movement is a Darfuri militia allied with other Darfuri groups, in addition to its alleged relationship with Chad. The JEM is just one of many groups representing various tribes and militias, each with its own complex set of ever-changing alliances and goals ranging from control of oilfields to secession.

Viewed through the lens of tribalism and ethnicity however, what is happening makes more sense. Though the various tribes traditionally engaged in small-scale turf wars over land and water rights, these conflicts intensified in the 1980’s as the region’s 3.5 million people competed for resources diminished by a worsening drought. As the nomadic Arab tribes and Zaghawa from the hard hit north encroached upon the lands of the black Fur, the Fur formed groups like the SPLA to combat the new arrivals, murdering tribal elders and destroying the nomads’ settlements. The Sudanese government then tried to counter the black uprising by arming Arabs, who also formed their own tribal alliances and began to fight black Darfuris.

What can the United Nations possibly do in a situation like this? “Peacekeep?” We’ve seen how well that worked in Rwanda (800,000 civilians died while peacekeepers were there), and how it is currently failing in Congo (a couple million have died since peacekeepers’ deployment). It is unrealistic to expect a force of a few thousand soldiers, who aren’t allowed to shoot unless shot at, to secure an area the size of Darfur.

Which brings me to another point: why should China be blamed for doing business with the Sudanese government? The current ethnic conflict existed in the area long before China’s arrival, and it would have continued with or without the Chinese presence. Heck, we’re the ones who sent $20 million to an armed rebel group, not the Chinese.

So what does “Save Darfur” mean?

I honestly have no idea. But blaming the Sudanese government is not the solution. Surely it is not innocent — but it should be understood that the war is not simply Arabs against blacks or the government against civilians. There are no clear “good guys” or “bad guys” in this fight, and there is no “Darfuri” side. There are many separate Darfuri groups fighting each other, the government and on behalf of other governments — with civilians caught in the middle.

Ibrahim Kakwan can be reached at ijameel@umich.edu.

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