The crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan is once more in the news. George Clooney and US ambassador to the United Nations (UN) John Bolton formed a bizarre alliance to call for Western intervention into the crisis recently.
Reebok has sponsored a video game about it. US liberal intellectuals are certain that this would be the occasion for a truly "good" war, but despite the acreage of coverage you would be doing well to understand what is happening in Darfur.
For instance, if you only read columnists such as Nick Cohen or Christopher Hitchens, who support George Bush's "war on terror", you would gather the impression that the catastrophe in Darfur is about "Islamists" or "Arabs" genocidally attacking "Africans". It is true that President Omar al-Bashir's government espouses political Islam, but so do their opponents in the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the main Darfurian rebel group not to sign up to the May 2006 peace accords. Similarly, it is true that in suppressing the Darfur rebellion the Khartoum regime has used "Arab" militias. But the distinction between "Arabs" and "Africans" in Darfur is meaningless - there is no discernible difference between them except that the former are nomads and the latter are farmers. Both groups are African, both are black, both are Muslims and both are Darfurians.
The rebellion in Darfur is animated by the same issues that caused the Sudan People's Liberation Army to rise up in the south. The elite that has dominated Sudan since it was under British colonial tutelage has persistently centralised power and economic resources in the hands of a narrow Nile Valley ruling class. Darfur, when it was added to Sudan in 1916, was especially singled out for marginalisation - only the sons of chiefs were allowed to be educated, so as to prevent challenges to colonial authority.
By 1935 the region had only one elementary school as a result. Colonialism underdeveloped Darfur and made the south of the country a zone of exploitation for the northern elite, and the ensuing political struggles were unable to undo this. There was rebellion in the south almost immediately after independence in 1956. By the 1970s, under the pro-US dictator Ja'far Nimeiry, the wealth of the north came to depend increasingly on redirecting oil resources from the south, especially to finance the army and repay enormous debts.
To build up a support base, the regime began to make calls for sharia law, but the US didn't care provided Chevron was allowed to drill for oil. The US did not support struggles in the south or Darfur until Hasan al-Turabi and the National Islamic Front took control of the government in 1989. Then Western attitudes changed, in large part because the new government refused to support the war on Iraq.
The central government now employed Darfurians to fight the southern rebels. When the fighters returned they were either given tracts of land which should have gone to others, or were simply allowed to keep their weapons. This greatly increased tensions, particularly because poverty had grown. In 1984-5 drought brought about a famine that was worsened by price liberalisation for agricultural commodities enforced by the International Monetary Fund.
Repeated crop failures aggravated tensions between farmers and nomadic animal grazers, and the presence of an "Arab" supremacist movement among the nomads caught the attention of the government. It perceived that this movement could provide an alternative army.
The Sudanese government forces are now assisted by the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) - the main Darfurian resistance group, which made peace with the government in May. The Darfurian opposition JEM argues that the peace deal makes no significant concessions to its region, and has vowed to continue its fight. But its chances of gaining the upper hand are limited, and it is unlikely that the presence of a UN force would be to their advantage.
Harvard Univerity's Alex de Waal has written that if Western states do not wish to make the present peace deal work, they can either undermine it and prolong civil war, or send an invasion force of at least 200,000 troops - as they will need ten fighters for every one "militia" fighter in Darfur. It would certainly result in resistance and bloody battles. This option, the one favoured by humanitarian interventionists, happens to be the least humanitarian option available.