Racism at root of Sudan's Darfur crisis

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The visits by US Secretary of State Colin Powell and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to Sudan last week gave hope that the genocide in Darfur can be arrested before an entire people is obliterated.

But anyone - including Mr. Powell and Mr. Annan - interested in averting more tragedy there must understand that Darfur is not an accidental apocalypse of mass slaughters, enslavement, pillage, and ethnic cleansing. The Darfur pogrom is part of a historic continuum in which successive Arab governments have sought to entirely destroy black Africans in this biracial nation.

Darfur is not a mere humanitarian disaster that access by international relief agencies can reverse. The raison d'être of the atrocities committed by government-supported Arab militias is the racist, fundamentalist, and undemocratic Sudanese state. What is required for peace in Sudan is either regime change, in which a democratic, inclusive state is born, or a partition, in which the black African south and west become an independent sovereign state free of Khartoum and the Arab north.

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Sudan, like most African postcolonial states, is partially a victim of imperial cartography. Thoughtlessly carved out by the British during the 19th-century scramble to claim Africa, Sudan is a forced crucible of Muslim Arabs and black Africans. The blacks in the south either hew to their ancestral traditional African religions or have converted to Christianity. The fact that black Africans in Darfur are exclusively Muslim has not stopped the Arab Janjaweed militias and the government from exterminating them.

Race - not religion - is the fundamental fault line in Sudan, though religion has certainly added fuel to the fire in the south. Indeed, since independence from the British in 1956, the demon of Sudan has been race. The Arab north, except for brief periods when token Africans were included in government, has exclusively held political and military power. To protest political exclusion, military repression, enslavement, and economic exploitation, Africans in the south rose against the state several years after independence.

Since 1983, the armed insurrection in the south has drawn a scorched earth response from Khartoum. President Omar Bashir and his fundamentalist Islamic government declared a holy war against African groups in the south - the Dinka, Nuba, and Neur peoples. More than 2 million people have been decimated, millions more have been internally displaced, and hordes have been exiled.

Khartoum's genocidal policy in Darfur and the south is also a grab for resources. The Arab north is arid and barren, but the south is arable with vast oil deposits Khartoum covets and badly needs. In the west, in Darfur, Arabs seeking to escape the spreading desert kill and displace Africans for more productive land.

But there is a reality check. Khartoum has been unable to vanquish Africans militarily in the south. That's why Khartoum now appears ready to conclude its peace agreement with the south. But just as the guns are about to fall silent in the south, Arabs in Darfur have killed at least 30,000 Africans and displaced more than a million from their homes and villages.

Both the US and UN through Powell and Annan - whose mediators and proxies, particularly Kenya, are helping broker the peace deal - must make it clear to President Bashir that the accord between Khartoum and the south won't stop the diplomatic isolation and international condemnation of Sudan unless it ends its genocidal policies in Darfur and allows aid workers to care for victims and assist their return home. Both Powell and Annan must speed up work on a UN resolution to condemn the atrocities in Darfur and the south, and to impose sanctions on the Sudanese government and its leaders.

The African Union (AU), the continental body of Arab and black African states, must end the hypocrisy in Afro-Arab relations. Sudan, the bridge between black and Arab Africa, should lead in rewriting the historical script between the two peoples. Since the slave trade era, Arabs have violated and dominated Africans. Yet the Organization of African Unity, the AU predecessor, ducked these inequities under the doctrine of noninterference in the internal affairs of sister states.

The AU has stayed that odious course. It's telling that the AU has not denounced Sudan for the Darfur atrocities. And, at its annual summit in Addis Ababa last week, the AU declared that the Darfur killings did not amount to genocide. Although the killings clearly meet that definition according to the Genocide Convention, unfortunately Powell also failed last week to declare that the Darfur killings meet the definition of genocide. The AU offer to send just 300 soldiers to Darfur to protect aid workers, monitors, and civilians from Arab militiamen - in an area the size of France - demonstrates lack of political will to confront Sudan.

Important, too, is that Arab states should condemn Sudan; otherwise their anger over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rings hollow. How can they protest the killing of Palestinians when their kin exterminate Africans in Sudan?

The tragedy of Darfur wouldn't be permitted if it were taking place in Europe. But African states must take advantage of the interest by the UN and the US to bring about maximum diplomatic and economic pressure, including sanctions, to hasten regime change in Sudan. Khartoum must be put on notice that only an open and inclusive democracy will save it from partition into two states, one black African, the other Arab.

Makau Mutua is professor of law and director of the Human Rights Center at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

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