On this day, May 16, 1983, Sudan People’s Liberation Army (also known as the Sudan People’s Army Movement, or SLAM) began their rebellion against the Sudanese government. This Sudan People’s Army Movement began a civil war that culminated in both the Darfur Genocide as well as ultimately the independence of South Sudan.
Within Sudan are the northern Sudanese Arab Muslims, southern Sudanese African Christians, and western Sudanese African Muslims.
Sudan President Omar al-Bashir has based his rule on war. As noted earlier, the Second Sudanese Civil War had been a conflict between the Northern Muslims and the Southern Christians. The Darfur Conflict came as a result of many factors. To an extent, Fighting a war can centralize authority, unify the population (to an extent), can eliminate political rivals and reduces the net population of military age men. Just as when the Spanish conquest of the Iberian peninsula ended in 1492 and military age men looked for new lands to conquer (i.e., the Americas), after the Second Sudanese Civil War, al-Bashir needed a new enemy to deflect attention from his autocratic rule.
The Darfur genocide occurred in western Sudan and is/was a conflict was between the Abbala (camel-herding) and Baggara/Baqqarah (cattle-herding) Shuwa Arabs on the one side and the Masalit, Zaghawa, and Fur ethnic peoples on the other side. The Fur people are the most numerous in the region; in fact “Dar-fur” means “Abode of the Fur.” The crisis is a combination of racial, agricultural, and political conflict. The Abbala and Baggara people are nomadic Arabs who follow herds of camels and cattle. For their part, Masalit and Fur people are Sub-Saharan African (Black Africans) and are sedentary farmers. The other Sub-Saharan tribe, the Zaghawa, is comprised mainly of sheep pastoralists. Similar to the land wars in the nineteenth century American West, these farmers and herders are in conflict over access to water as well as the issue of fences. As both sides of combatants are Muslim, the issue is more a conflict of “Arabization” than the Muslim-Christian tension that has served as a basis for the Second Sudan Civil War.
The government soon began to attack the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit people, particularly in the Marrah Mountains. Both sides employed light cavalry tactics (horse, camel or Toyota Land Cruisers) for quick strikes. The tactics also included ‘scorched earth policy’ “with livestock seized, grain stores attacked and looted, wells and watering places poisoned … [as well as] … forced population movements engineered to perpetuate dependency and control.
Adding fuel to the fire of nearly all African conflicts is the ‘low congruence’ between ethnic boundaries and state borders. The Masalit and Zaghawa people live in both eastern Chad and western Sudan. In fact, the dictator of Chad, Idriss Déby Itno, is Zaghawa. For their part, the Abbala and Baggara share a common Arab background with the political leaders of Sudan, particularly dictator Omar al-Bashir. These Arab tribesmen have formed the Janjaweed militia and received support from al-Bashir’s government.
To counter the threat from the Sudanese government, On this day, May 16, 1983, the Fur, Masalit, and the Wagi clan of the Zaghawa peoples formed The Sudan Liberation Movement/Army or Haraka Tahrir Sudan (abbreviated as either SLM or SLA). Although the roots of the Darfur conflict go back decades to 1983, eventually the Conflict grew into what we now recognize as the (2002 or 2003) Darfur Genocide and eventually to the independence of South Sudan.