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Darfur: Primary Accumulation and Genocide

Genocide in Darfur is the reason that has been invoked by the International Criminal Court to issue a warrant against the president of Sudan. The conflict situation in Darfur, which had deteriorated into ethnic cleansing and numerous other crimes, owes itself to the nature of the primary accumulation process that disrupted the earlier forms of reconciliation and redistribution between the ethnic communities in the region.




The “not-genocide” conclusion of the

Darfur: Primary Accumulation

and Genocide
UN Commission of Enquiry was criticised in many quarters, including by international civil rights organisations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as being motivated by the Dev Nathan desire of the Security Council not to be

Genocide in Darfur is the reason that has been invoked by the International Criminal Court to issue a warrant against the president of Sudan. The conflict situation in Darfur, which had deteriorated into ethnic cleansing and numerous other crimes, owes itself to the nature of the primary accumulation process that disrupted the earlier forms of reconciliation and redistribution between the ethnic communities in the region.

Dev Nathan ( is at the Institute of Human Development, New Delhi.

he decision of Luis Moreno-Ocampo, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court at the Hague, to seek a warrant against the president of Sudan, Omar Hassan Al Bashir, on the charge of genocide in Darfur is quite unprecedented. Three years ago the S ecurity Council of the United Nations requested Moreno-Ocampo to investigate Darfur. This followed widespread reports that the government of Sudan and the Janjaweed militia supported by it, had escalated the civil war in Darfur so that it was no longer just a counter-insurgency facing an insurgency, but had become, at least, a programme of ethnic cleansing. In March 2004, the then UN Human Co ordinator for Sudan, Mukesh Kapil, had said that attacks on civilians were “close to e thnic cleansing”, with the only dif ference with Rwanda being the numbers involved.

The UN Commission of Enquiry in its report of January 25, 2005 on Darfur, concluded that the government of Sudan “has not pursued a policy of genocide”, but implicated it in a number of war crimes and crimes against humanity. It also said that “in some instances individuals, including government officials, may commit acts with genocidal intent”. But the government of Sudan was not judged to have followed a policy of genocide. The UN Commission of Enquiry held that, besides the government of Sudan and its officials, some insurgents too had c ommitted war crimes.

forced to act, which it would have been required to if the Commission of Enquiry had judged the situation to be one of genocide. The US government, in the person of Colin Powell, secretary of state, in September 2004, however, described the situation in Darfur as genocide. Similarly, the EU parliament also considered the situation in Darfur as “tantamount to genocide”.

The report of the 1994 UN Commission of Experts, appointed after the Rwanda genocide, had defined ethnic cleansing, as

a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain areas….The purpose appears to be the occupation of the territory to the exclusion of the purged group or groups.

Genocide was earlier defined by the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such…” What is interesting to note is that besides killing, the transfer of children, etc, the actions that could amount to genocide also included “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part…” (emphasis added). This last is particularly important when assessing the s ituation in Darfur.

Economic & Political Weekly

august 30, 2008


Conflict over Resources

Darfur has been the site of a “low-intensity conflict” for quite a long time, from the 1980s onwards. Darfur, as the name implies, is the land, dar, of the fur [de Waal 2004]. Settled communities, such as the dar, zaghewa and masalit, interacted with the nomadic camel pastoralists, such as the jalul. The jalul and other nomadic groups did not have a dar of their own but had customary rights to migrate and pasture their animals in farmers’ areas. As usual, there were the exchanges between agriculturists and pastoralists – the former provided wells and pastures and the latter, in turn, fertilised the fields of the former.

This system of inter-dependence between settled agriculturists and migratory pastoralists, seems to have worked well till about the mid-1980s, with the to-beexpected instances of raiding followed by conciliation settlements. The expansion of farms and the growth of herds, however, together strained relations as competition increased over available land. This happened in other parts of Africa too. In Darfur in 1985 the agriculturists who had always played host to camel nomads now barred their migrations and stopped them from using pastures and wells [de Waal 2004]. The conflict was between “prospering peasant tribes” and “poorer nomads” [Mamdani 2007].

In an earlier comment [Nathan 2005], I tried to understand change in the nature of the conflict as being related to a shift in the objective of production – from production to meet a relatively fixed basket of needs, a full belly model as it has been called, to an income maximising mode of production, leading to “prosperous peasants” and some “prosperous nomads” too. As de Waal (2004) points out, a herd of a 1,000 camels represents more than a m illion dollars on the hoof.

With the shift to income maximisation, as against subsistence, the old forms of reconciliation also broke down. The growth in the size of herds and scale of agriculture, together created resource scarcity. With this, competing claims could be reconciled in the old way, which was based on a fairly stable scale of production. In Darfur there was an attempt at a reconciliation conference in 1989, but its recommendations were never implemented [de Waal 2004], which should come as no surprise.

Raiding villages and stealing animals then turned into deadly warfare, a transition made easier by cheap weapons, in particular the Kalashnikov automatic rifle. The sequence of who first armed themselves (the settled villagers or the nomadic pastoralists) in this case does not really matter. What is important is that it was a struggle for sole control over production resources, resources and assets that were formerly shared.

As the struggle escalated, the armed militia (janjaweed) of the nomadic tribes were supported and joined by the Sudanese state to launch a counter-insurgency. If the armed insurgents from the a griculturists initially sought to deny herders access to land, the armed nomads now stole livestock from the agriculturists, and also destroyed grain storage bins and irrigation systems. Not only the government, the janjaweed too accumulated wealth in the form of money.

Primary Accumulation

This primary accumulation of capital (i e, the pre-capitalist formation of wealth as capital, on the one side, and the separation of producers from the means of p roduction, on the other side) has occurred in a number of variations across history – to mention the most infamous, the enclosure movement in England, the herding of indigenous Americans into reservations in North America, the forced collectivisation of Stalin’s Soviet Union and the k illing fields of Cambodia. In Darfur, and in many other parts of Africa, there are d ifferent communities across the two sides of the transformations taking place. The post-colonial states in general represented one (or a few) of the many communities within national boundaries. In Sudan, the elite of the riverine centre monopolised political power, marginalising the elites of the rest of the country. With the janjaweed in Darfur, armed and supported by the state, the attempted monopolisation of resources by the nomadic communities turned into regional ethnic cleansing. Ethnic cleansing is the socio-political counterpart of what has also been called an “asset-transfer economy” [Duffield quoted in Devereux 2003].

The distinction often made in Darfur between Arabised Muslims and African Muslims is not a very clear one. In the south of Sudan there is a clearer distinction between Muslims from the north and Christians/animists from the south. In Darfur the clearer and critical distinction is between “settled” and “nomadic” communities. As the UN C ommission argued,

The various tribes that have been the object of attacks and killings (chiefly the fur, m assalit and zeghawa tribes) do not appear to make up ethnic groups distinct from the ethnic groups to which persons or militias that attack them belong. They speak the same language (Arabic) and embrace the same religion (Muslim). In addition, also due to the high measure of intermarriage, they can hardly be distinguished in their outward physical appearance from the members of tribes that allegedly attacked them. Apparently, the sedentary and nomadic character of the groups constitutes one of the main distinctions between them

[quoted from Mamdani, 2007, emphasis Mamdani’s].

But there is clearly a political and c ultural distinction growing between the two groups of sedentary and nomadic communities. The latter are being “Arabised”, while the former are “Africanised”.

State-making, Claude Ake argued, is the political equivalent of primary accumulation, “except that it is more violent still” [Ake 1996: 2]. It “… entails revoking the autonomy of communities and subjecting them to alien rulership within a bigger political order, laying claim to the resources of the subordinated territory…” [Ake 1996: 2].

Thus, there are numerous aspects to the ethnic conflict. It is, at one level, about cultures and which of them should be the basis for national identification. It is also about political power and competition


EPW Index 2006

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The index for 2005 is also available on the same page.

august 30, 2008


between the ethnically varied fractions of the ruling classes, or would be ruling classes. It is also about monopolising access to resources in a community’s “own” area, while attempting to expand into others’ areas. It is also about access to women and the identification of ethnicity.

Predatory Sexuality

Ethnic identity in much of Africa is based on men and “their” children. Thus incorporating women from other communities does not dilute one’s own. But there is also a predatory sexuality (not confined to Africa, as widespread sexual assaults during the break-up of Yugoslavia or in communal conflicts in India show), where women of the other communities are, l iterally, “fair game”.

Reports, e g, by Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, all point to the very large incidence of rapes in the Darfur conflict. The UN Commission of Inquiry reported (January 2005) that rape and sexual violence was used by government forces and janjaweed militias as a “deliberate strategy with the aim of terrorising the population, ensuring control of the movement of the IDP [internally displaced] p opulation and perpetuating its d isplacement”.

Staying in camps and being forced to go out of camps, have both become hazardous for women. The African Union forces had carried out “firewood patrols” in an attempt to protect women who were forced to go out of the relatively secure camps in search of firewood.

But, in the matter of rape, members of the rebel groups have not been exempt. A woman is reported to have said, “Those who rape you wear uniforms, and those who protect you wear uniforms. We don’t know any more who to run from and who to run to” [Human Rights Watch 2008].

In the main, however, sexual violence has been part of efforts to gain control over territories. Rape is a way of trying to make sure that members of the excluded ethnic communities do not go to those areas. A masalit woman was told, “We stopped all the masalit from coming to this area. How come you dared to venture this way?” [Human Rights Watch 2008, p 16].

Economic & Political Weekly

august 30, 2008

Is It Genocide?

The 2005 UN Commission had held that the government of Sudan “has not pursued a policy of genocide, but [is] implicated in numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity”. The commission’s argument against genocide was that if “the populations surviving attacks on villages … live together in areas selected by the government…where they are assisted”, then it is not genocide. The commission concluded that the crimes against humanity and the war crimes did not amount to acts of genocide: “The crucial element of genocidal intent appears to be would seem that those who planned and organised attacks on villages pursued the intent to drive the victims from their homes, primarily for purposes of counterinsurgency warfare.” At that time, the UN Commission concluded that some one million people were internally displaced and about 2,00,000 had crossed over to camps in Chad. The commission also held that it was irrefutable that several hundred villages and settlements had been destroyed. Now some 2.5 million people survive in camps, having been driven out of their areas of existence.

The prosecutor of the ICC put forward a new thesis to argue that what is being c arried on is “genocide by attrition”. Not just “disproportionate use of force” or “attacks on civilians” which qualify as “crimes against humanity”, but for additionally also attempting to eliminate at least part of the fur, masalit and zaghawa groups by “deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about their physical destruction in part” (emphasis added). The imposed conditions of life include the destruction of wells and other access to water, usurpation of land; amounting in brief, to what the ICC prosecutor called “genocide by attrition”. This refers back to the 1948 convention that included such actions in its identification of what constitutes genocide – “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part…” (emphasis added).

In reply to the ICC prosecutor’s case, Sudan’s former prime minister and leader of the Umma National Party (UNP), which is an important party but not the ruling party in Sudan, said, “… we maintain that war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed in Darfur” and held that mistakes had been made, identifying “The anti-insurrection policies in Darfur, which created the infamous tragedy, which led to UNSC resolution 1593” [al Sadiq al Mahdi 2008]. The UNP leader, however, argues that the ICC prosecutor’s demand would tear Sudan apart and sought European Union (EU) intervention to find a way to a peace accord that would preserve Sudan. Al Sadiq al Mahdi sees a conflict between justice and stability and thinks that stability should get priority over justice.

Whether or not it is genocide would seem to depend very much on intention. Was the intention one of destroying, in whole or part, the fur, masalit and zaghawa communities? If there were such an intention, genocide, as the ICC prosecutor argues, could have been carried out by “attrition”. If, however, such an intention were not shown to exist, then it could be argued that what occurred were the lesser crimes against humanity in the form of attacks on civilians.

But the numbers of villages destroyed, the expulsion of the fur, masalit and zaghawa from lands and the takeover of the lands so vacated – point in the d irection of describing the whole process as one of ethnic cleansing. Large areas of land occupied and cultivated by the settled peasant tribes have been cleansed of their pre-conflict settlers and taken over by the former nomadic tribes. When this ethnic cleansing of areas is combined with the fact of precarious existence in the camps, non-provision of security of existence for the displaced in these camps, then we have a combination of ethnic cleansing with large-scale killings of the affected communities. The numbers of those killed are, as one would expect, subject to substantial variation – all the way from 70,000 up to 4,00,000. But even the lower bound of these estimates, 70,000 is large enough to cause alarm. Add to this, the widespread and systematic rape of women staying in the camps – and it is difficult to argue that all this together is just the result of the incorrect targeting of civilians in the conflict, and not aimed at something larger. The ICC prosecutor quoted one of the regional leaders,


Ahmad Hassan as saying that Al Bashir, the president, had given him the power to kill three quarters of Darfur in order to allow one quarter to live [Moreno-Ocampo 2008].

In the course of primary accumulation, there is a destruction of livelihoods, for instance of tenant farmers during the English enclosure movement. But in that instance, the tenants whose farming livelihoods were destroyed were turned into landless labourers. In the Darfur case there is no evidence that the elite of the communities taking over the lands want the displaced communities as labourers. The situation is much closer to that of e thnic cleansing through the American r eservations – the European settlers


wanted the lands of the indigenous A mericans, but did not want their labour, which is why they were eliminated or pushed into reservations. How different is the Darfur situation from this? In D arfur tooit is land and not labour that is required – this is why primary accumulation could well turn into ethnic cleansing and genocide.


Ake, Claude (1996): Development and Democracy in Africa, The Brookings Institution, Washing ton DC.

al Sadiq al Mahdi (2008): ‘Saving Sudan from Disaster: Memorandum from al Sadiq al Mahdi to EU Ambassadors on the ICC and Sudan’, http://www.

de Waal, Alex (2004): ‘Counter-Insurgency on the Cheap’, London Review of Books, August 5.







Devereux, Stephen (2003): ‘Famine in Africa’ in Stephen Devereux and Simon Maxwell (eds), Food Security in Sub-Saharan Africa, ITDG and Pietermaritzburg, University of Natal Press, L ondon.

Human Rights Watch (2004): Darfur Destroyed: Ethnic Cleansing by Government and Militia Forces in Western Sudan, Vol 16, No 6(A), May.

– (2008): Five Years On: No Justice for Sexual Violence in Darfur, darfur0408.

Mamdani, Mahmood (2007): ‘The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency’, London Review of Books, March 8.

Moreno-Ocampo, Luis [ICC Prosecutor] (2008):

Nathan, Dev (DN) (2005): ‘Darfur: Ethnic Cleansing as Primary Accumulation’ in Economic & Political Weekly, July 9-15.

Ryle, John (2004): ‘Disaster in Darfur’ in The New York Review of Books, Vol 51, No 13, August 12.

UN Commission of Experts (1994): Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 180 (1992), 27 May 1994, section III.B at




august 30, 2008

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