The crisis in Darfur, Sudan that erupted into full-scale violence in February 2003 had its genesis in complex ethnic tensions that have recently come to the fore after centuries of peaceful co-existence between racial and tribal groups. In the mainstream Western media, the conflict is portrayed as a brutal campaign waged by Arab militia against defenceless black Africans in an organised pogrom of genocide. However, it can be seen that Western media outlets are simplifying the nature of the Darfur conflict and ignoring the economic and historical factors that have culminated in the racial strife. The representations found in the media detail a conflict founded in racial tension waged along clearly defined lines; however, in reality, a variety of environmental and economic factors combined with imported ideologies and government mismanagement have formed a bitter mix over the last two decades. These factors have ultimately been expressed in today’s ethnic tension.
Despite media reports depicting long-running tensions, ethnic groups in Darfur have co-existed peacefully for centuries. In its report Empty Promises, Human Rights Watch observed that “key distinctions between ethnicities [were] based more on language … or profession,” and in an online Q&A added that “as late as two years ago, Darfurians did not identify themselves as ‘Africans’ or ‘Arabs.’” Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban of the American Anthropological Association notes “the precise meaning of ‘Arab’ in Arabic is ‘nomad,’” and yearly, the ethnically Arabic tribes would herd their livestock to the more fertile south and the animals would fertilise the fields of the ethnically African farmers in a form of interdependence that had been present for hundreds of years. However, during the 1970s and 1980s, drought and desertification resulted in increased numbers of nomads and their herds arriving earlier in regions populated by African tribes. An extreme strain was placed upon resources, and when government intervention proved ineffective, skirmishes broke out along hazy ethnic lines, most notably between the Fur and certain Arab tribes. Native administrative positions and bodies, abolished by the central government before the tension arose, were reintroduced in 1994, but a lack of funds and a disappearance of law and order resulted in a state of anarchy that has culminated in the rampant violence of the present. Samantha Power noted in the New Yorker that instead of “defus[ing] … tensions, Khartoum’s leaders essentially ignored them,” and in the words of Alex de Waal in the London Review of Books, the conflict “has [many of] its origins in land rights and the shortcomings of local administration.”
Western media outlets have reported on the precious value of resources in Darfur, emphasising the point made in Human Rights Watch’s Empty Promises report that “land and livestock … represent key economic and political assets,” but the major role of introduced ideologies in the establishment of racial tension has been essentially ignored. In the 1980s, Libyan dictator Muammar Ghaddafi envisaged an ‘Arab belt’ stretching across the African continent, and when he launched an incursion into Chad as a part of his grand plan, the conflict spilled over into neighbouring Darfur. The violence was temporary, but the ideologies that appealed to divisions of Darfurian society were more permanent and left a legacy that de Waal described as one of “virulent Arab supremacism.” For the first time, previously insignificant or unfelt ethnic differences were clearly established and emphasised. The American Anthropological Association records that the Khartoum regime that seized power in 1989 is “neither Arab in self-description nor Arab nationalist,” but it is dominated by members of northern Arab tribes and Darfurian Africans allege that they have been largely prohibited from important political positions. It engaged in practices of selectively arming some Darfurian tribes in resource disputes and invariably, these tribes were ethnically Arab. For this reason, a perception of discrimination and marginalisation was presented to other tribes, both African and Arab.
This brief overview detailing the complex realities of the crisis in Darfur stands in stark contrast to the image presented by the Western media. A myriad of varying reports have appeared in the print media, ranging from simplified accounts and ad populum personal testimonies through to misleading and fallacious reports. The most dramatic error that has helped to foster an impression of clearly defined racial conflict is the depiction of a campaign of slaughter waged by the Arabic population against black Africans. Ellen Knickmeyer in the Seattle Times presented a perspective of Arabs treating Africans as inferior slaves, and in the Christian Science Monitor, Makau Mutua alleged that the crisis is “part of a historic continuum in which successive Arab governments have sought to entirely destroy Africans,” and that “race – not religion – is the fundamental fault line in Sudan.” It may be factual to state religion is not a contributing factor in the violence, but as academic sources such as the American Anthropological Association and Human Rights Watch have shown, race was an insignificant matter in Darfur until the last two decades, and divisions continue to be blurred. Miranda Devine’s labelling of the crisis in the Sun-Herald as an “orgy of violence” committed by Arabs against Africans and similar generalisations present in the media can be clearly seen as inaccurate.
The Western media has wholly failed to depict ethnic politics present in the conflict. Its version of events places the entire Arab population against African tribes, whereas the actual dimensions are startlingly different. Although the media often mentions that the conflict began in early 2003 as a result of a rebel uprising, there is a widespread silence in reporting the United Nations High Commisioner for Human Rights’ finding that “the rebel forces also appear to violate human rights and humanitarian laws.” There is also vast oversimplification of the ethnic dimensions of both the rebel groups and the Janjaweed militia; the fact that many Arab tribes have not partaken in the violence is overlooked and a falsehood of African unity in persecution is presented. The two prominent African rebel organisations, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), fought each other at the beginning of the crisis before reaching a shaky compromise, and Samantha Power notes “the SLA attempted to demonstrate its inclusiveness by appointing an Arab … to be its commander in South Darfur.” Instead of factually detailing the complex tensions, mass media outlets have published emotionally appealing individual accounts and celebrity opinions of the crisis, such as the Herald Sun’s article on the 28th of October regarding Angelina Jolie. In this campaign of violence, resource seizure, and ethnic turmoil, the simple ‘realities’ of Western media outlets are non-existent.
The violence that has exploded in Darfur, Sudan is the culmination of tension that has been brewing for a number of decades. A combination of the introduction of foreign ideologies and environmental degradation resulting in fierce competition for resources has exposed racial differences that were previously unimportant. These differences are difficult to define and much of the fighting is opportunisitic and anarchistic in nature, lacking ethnic motivation. However, it is apparent that Western media outlets are simplifying the nature of the Darfur conflict and ignoring the economic and historical factors that have culminated in the racial strife. Academic and investigative sources starkly contradict the definite picture of Arab persecution of Africans by showing a conflict riddled by racial variances and uncertainties where the victims are not one ethnic group but the general civilian population of Darfur. The impression created in the Western media is simplified, misleading, and ultimately fallacious.
Condensed version for those who can't be bothered reading the whole lot
Academic sources show that until recently, ethnicity was not a major issue in the Darfur region, but a combination of environmental factors (i.e. desertification and drought) placed a severe strain upon economic resources, and when this resource conflict along loose racial lines was combined with ideologies introduced from elsewhere, a fatal mix was created that resulted in what we see today. The realities on the ground are complex - many committing crimes are opportunists capitalising upon the reign of anarchy. There are no unified fronts, although black Africans are definitely suffering the worst. This stands in contrast to the media's picture of a unified band of Arab tribes slaughtering black Africans on the basis of ethnic hatred. This conflict is not rooted in ethnicity but in the environment and economy, and much of what has been presented to the general public is simplified and misleading.
You know, I'm now not sure if I even want to pursue my work experience at the Gold Coast Bulletin. If any news outlet has simplified issues and mislead readers, it's the Bulletin. I think I'll go just for the experience, though. Guess I better get used to working 9-5.