Darfur and the dynamics of crisis management
by François Grünewald June 2005

Darfur has always been a region apart in Sudan. The region is part of a contact zone between Saharan nomadic people, Sahelian agro pastoral groups and more sedentary farming communities. The belt from Darfur to the Eritrean border comprises a mosaic of ethnic groups organised into tribes and clans with highly intricate and heterogeneous inter-community relationships. These relationships have now been brutally ruptured by the conflict there. Nearly two million people have been affected, hundreds of thousands are internally displaced or have become refugees, villages have been razed, women raped and men massacred. This article explores the complex roots of the war, the nature of the international political and humanitarian response to it, and its possible future evolution.

Background to the conflict

Disputes over land and grazing rights have been a regular feature of Darfur for centuries. Historically, these disputes were settled through traditional conflict-solving mechanisms such as the ‘blood price’, and inter-communal tensions were not allowed to undermine stability. Since the mid-1990s, however, communal relations in Darfur have progressively deteriorated. Darfur was effectively sidelined by the central government in Khartoum, which broke it down into three states, Southern, Northern and Western Darfur, and appointed non-Fur administrators to govern the region.

Guerrilla groups opposed to the Khartoum regime began to form in 2000. The Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), with its political wing the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), follows the organisational pattern of insurgent groups in the south of the country, and is marked by internal wrangling and the formation of splinter groups. The second rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), is well-established in the Jebel Moon heights; it is reportedly run by Hassan Turabi, the head of a radical Islamist movement, the National Islamic Front, and a former prime minister.

The SLA/M and JEM launched their insurgencies against the government early in 2003 The government responded with a large offensive based on aerial bombardment. Following a strategy first used in the conflict in the south, the regime also gave tacit encouragement to tribal militia, known as the Janjaweed. The Janjaweed has staged raids on villages and displaced populations throughout Darfur. A peace deal agreed in April 2004 has not held, and peace initiatives by Libya, Uganda and other African countries, as well as efforts by the UN, have all failed. The two main rebel groups, though increasingly divided internally, have remained resolute in their demands for more autonomy for Darfur, and for greater access to development resources. They believe that the climate is favourable, and that they may gain international recognition.

Although the situation appeared to stabilise in late 2004, a further dramatic escalation in the conflict in spring 2005 prompted the UN and some NGOs to withdraw their staff, and the UN has called on aid agencies to reassess their strategies. Meanwhile, a second front, on the other side of the country towards Kaballa and Port Sudan, threatens to become entangled in the Darfur conflict.

The international response

The international community was slow to respond to the unfolding conflict in Darfur. Highly sensitive negotiations towards a resolution of the conflict in Southern Sudan were under way, and international actors did not want to jeopardise them by raising concerns about Darfur. The escalation of fighting in Darfur also coincided with crises elsewhere, notably in Iraq; Darfur’s obscure conflict, played out in the depths of the desert, looked like ‘yet another African civil war’.

When the crisis first began, in the spring of 2003, only a handful of agencies, including UNICEF and some NGOs, were present in Darfur, and only a limited response was possible. Resources were meagre, and the scale of the developing crisis had yet to become clear. Efforts to develop an appropriate response were also hampered by the Khartoum regime’s refusal to ease administrative procedures for visas and travel permits, by logistical constraints and by insecurity. The town of El Geneina, the capital of Western Darfur and the furthermost point inland in Africa, had only a dirt airstrip, and roads were regularly inaccessible during the rainy season.

The crisis finally came to international prominence in spring 2004, when the UN Resident Coordinator in Sudan, Mukesh Kapila, launched an appeal for assistance. Kapila drew a parallel between the events in Darfur and the 1994 Rwanda genocide. This served as a highly effective trigger, and vast quantities of humanitarian assistance began to flood in. Senior managers from the main UN agencies, ministers from different countries, even the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, all flocked to Darfur’s bedside. Eventually, after months of international pressure, the Sudanese government accelerated the system for visas and travel permits to Darfur. Funds were disbursed, NGOs began to set up offices and projects got under way. Within months, energetic, if poorly coordinated, interventions had seen thousands of latrines dug, complex and costly water-distribution systems installed, a health system put in place and thousands of tonnes of food aid delivered by means of spectacular air drops. Contrary to all expectations, there was no cholera epidemic, but water-borne diseases (especially hepatitis E and diarrhoea), malaria and acute respiratory infections, remain silent killers. Malnutrition rates dropped significantly, and in many areas nutrition problems are now mainly linked to disease rather than food availability.

Issues facing the international response

A major issue is the protection of the civilian population (see Victoria Wheeler’s article on page 000). This is obviously inextricably linked to the nature of the crisis. The international community remains poorly organised and lacks a coherent and solid strategy. African Union (AU) troops have made courageous, but as yet ineffective, attempts to protect the Darfur population and aid workers, and to ensure that the ceasefire agreement between the Sudanese government and the rebel groups is respected. Despite the AU’s decision in late April 2005 to double its deployment to nearly 8,000 soldiers, the inadequate number of troops and their lack of equipment, complex rules of engagement and the fear of becoming caught up in inter-tribal conflict all hamper the AU’s peacekeeping efforts.

Security is another crucial issue. Extending relief along the thousands of kilometres of poor desert tracks makes aid agencies very vulnerable, and several parties have tried to use insecurity as a means to get their views taken into account. The UN security organ UNSECOOR has to manage the security of UN agencies in a ‘risk adverse’ manner, which ends up limiting access to the population. In many areas, only NGOs can reach people, and this is not without risk. Very strict security mechanisms are in place, and UN organisations must comply with compulsory Minimum Operational Security Standards (MOSS). While avoiding humanitarian casualties is clearly an important concern, these security provisions also constitute a paramount constraint on humanitarian work. They limit external contacts, and bring the management of aid workers under the full control of former members of the military, who might have a different understanding of humanitarian needs and the humanitarian agenda – widening the gap between NGOs and the overprotective UN.

A final issue concerns the process of identifying needs and planning responses. Many of the agency staff deployed to Darfur had little field experience, and projects were frequently designed at head office or country office level. Planning was based mainly on the application of the Sphere standards: the initial 90-day plan was prepared against Sphere in terms of needs assessments and community participation. To meet quantitative targets, private companies were subcontracted to dig latrines and drill boreholes. Quantity is not, however, the same as quality, and the use of sub-contractors has led to many (undisclosed) issues of quality. It is notable that agency visibility has been high on the agenda; in some camps, all the latrines and wells carry a flag with the name of the providing agency and of the donor.

Scenarios for the future

What does the future hold for Darfur, and for the aid agencies working there? The first hypothesis is that a status quo is reached, whereby the situation stops deteriorating, but hopes of finding a quick solution remain slim. If this happens, aid agencies should move towards a care and maintenance strategy, taking precautions to minimise the extent to which people become dependent on outside assistance, trying to stop aid exacerbating the rural-to-urban drift, and ensuring that host communities also benefit from humanitarian assistance.

Alternatively, the situation may continue to deteriorate, and increasingly hazardous security conditions may continue to prevent aid agencies from reaching people in need. Unfortunately, the events of the past few months seem to indicate that this remains the most likely outcome, whatever the result of semantic debates about the applicability of the terms ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’. There is also a risk that the fighting may spill over into neighbouring Chad. The Chadian regime has ethnic and military links with the Darfur rebels; Chad’s current president, Idriss Deby, launched the coup that secured him the presidency from Darfur, and many of the ethnic groups involved in the Darfur conflict are present on both sides of the border. Meanwhile, the presence of tens of thousands of refugees in eastern Chad is beginning to weigh heavily on the region’s environmental, water and financial resources. Should the Darfur conflict become internationalised, this raises the question whether Chapter VII of the UN Charter will have to be applied.

There are important lessons to be learnt from the Darfur experience in relation to the international community’s capacity to anticipate crises in the making. In other humanitarian crises, the dangers of linking political and humanitarian agendas have been all too evident as political objectives have often prevailed over humanitarian principles. The need for political vision and the difficulties involved in achieving enough perspective in this type of situation remain essential, not only for the ‘negotiators’, but also for those modifying the demographic balance by the simple act of multiplying wells. These issues are by no means new, but rather classic dilemmas that crop up again and again for NGOs, the UN and institutional donors alike. Is aid creating damaging ‘push and pull’ factors? Are we modifying situations drastically and for a long period by creating high levels of services for camps? Given previous cases (from the Thai–Khmer border in the 1980s to the Zaire/Rwanda situations in the mid-1990s), there is a real sense of déjà vu.

François Grünewald is Chairman of Groupe URD, Associated Professor of the University Paris XII and Director of the Professional Masters Degree ‘Humanitarian action, development and NGO management’. He has conducted several field studies in Sudan since the early 1990s for various organisations, including the ICRC, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Inter-Government Authority on Drought and Development (IGAAD). He was the team leader of the 2004 UNICEF/DFID evaluation of UNICEF’s programmes in Darfur. His email address is: fgrunewald@urd.org.

Recommended reading

James Morton, Conflict in Darfur: A Different Perspective, HTSPE Resource Paper, June 2004.

Eltigani E. El Tigani, War and Drought in Sudan: Essays in Population Displacement (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1995).

François Grünewald et al., Report of the Joint DFID/UNICEF Evaluation in Darfur, UNICEF, October–November 2004.

François Grünewald, ‘Displacement in Sudan’, working group for planning peace in Sudan, IGAAD, 2000.

F. Grünewald, C. Dufour, V. de Geoffroy and H. Maury, ‘Rights, Standards and Quality in a Complex Humanitarian Space: Is Sphere the Right Tool?’, Disasters, vol. 28, no. 2, June 2004.