Identity Politics in Darfur: What role does the ethnic factor play in the course of the conflict?

The research question is based on the premise that the role of the ethnic factor has changed in the course of the conflict. In order to give considerations to the dynamics, the study will focus on the questions: when, why, how and by whom ethnicity was introduced into the conflict. Three periods can be differentiated for analytical purposes. The first period is the development of the conflict before its peak of violence in 2003; the second is the period of the escalation of violence, a period during which the question of whether or not the conflict would become a genocide emerged, and this implied that there would be clearly defined ethnic groups. The Darfur Peace Agreement in May 2006 was a point from which the situation concerning conflict resolution worsened. The time since then can be taken as a third period to look at and to ask if the process of self-description and the ascription by others led to a consolidation of the view that Arabs fight against Africans.

The origins of the current complex emergency in the region of Darfur in Western Sudan have local, national, and international dimensions and are embedded in the country’s history over the past few decades. The local actors are linked to the social, political and economic contexts on a national and international level. There are various explanations for the roots of the conflict. It is generally accepted among researchers that the history of the conflict is complex and is linked to the region’s marginalization and under-development, pressure on natural resources (pastures, farming land and water), ethnicity, as well as the government’s involvement – at least by abdicating its role as peacekeeper. But the components are attached with varying significance.

The most controversially discussed point – yet not the only one - is ethnicity. Some argue that the destruction to date constitutes a form of genocide along the lines of “Arab” contra “African”. Despite the fact that ethnicity in Darfur is a fluid and flexible concept and the identification “Darfurian” originally embraced Africans as well as Arabs so much so that they saw themselves as one against Central Sudan, and despite the long history of social, economic and political cooperation between sedentary non-Arab and Arab nomadic communities (Harir 1991:14), during the last 35 years, ethnic identity has been marked more distinctively by the allocation of power and the redrawing of administrative boundaries along tribal lines in the three regional States. So the “tribal and even ethnic polarization has started to over-shadow political polarization”, as V. Tanner notes (2005:5). “The dichotomy (…) is more rooted in political discourse than in social or racial reality” (ibid: 9).

One cannot ignore the fact of the high level of violence with signs of physical and psychological cruelty and humiliation such as the destruction of whole villages, mass rape, branding of victims when they are still alive, and mutilations, which feed the standpoint that the aim is the deliberate destruction of communities. But one should see that these patterns are not outstanding and unique but follow incidents that previously occurred in Darfur’s history, though on a lower scale (Tanner 2005:14). In addition to this historic contextualization of violence, one has to consider that reducing the terms of the conflict to Arabs versus Africans, and ethnic cleansing may not be only grossly misleading, but may even lead to “erroneous prescriptions of how to resolve the current crisis” (Salih 2005:1). Therefore, this study hopes to contribute to the view that conflict analysis is a precondition for sustainable conflict resolution activities.


Harir, Sharif
1992 ‘Arab Belt’ versus ‘African Belt’: Regionalization of Ethnic Conflict and Restoration of Peace in Dar Fur, Western Sudan, A Paper Presented to Conference on ‘Short Cut to Decay: The Case of Sudan”, Bergen: Centre for Development Studies.

Salih, Mohamed M.A.
2005 Understanding the Conflict in Darfur, Occasional Paper, University of Copenhagen: Centre of African Studies.

Tanner, Victor
2005 Rule of Lawlessness. Roots and Repercussions of the Darfur Crisis, unpublished consultancy report.

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