50,000 Africans have been killed in Sudan this year — by Arabs who look just like them - how did it come to this?
By William Jelani Cobb
The numbers, beyond a certain threshold, begin to blur into abstraction. The question is one that a four-year-old would ask: how many is 50,000? And how is it different from fifteen thousand - or a hundred? Ponder that question for more than a second and this much becomes clear: mass murder defies our moral grasp. The only apparent and solemn reality is that a mere decade after 500,000 people were slaughtered in the surreal horrifics of Rwanda, the term "genocide" is once again being used to describe an ongoing conflict in Africa.
History is not supposed to repeat itself that fast.
The region of present concern is Western Darfur, the area in Sudan where black Arabs have killed an estimated 50,000 black Africans in the past several months. The adjectives in the preceding sentence are not incorrect: Sudan is witness to the latest in the evolving episodes of murderous ethnic conflict among peoples who are visually indistinguishable from each other.
In the popular perception, the continent appears to be an unbroken chronology of mutilated bodies, starvation-bloated bellies and overfed monarchs draped in the title of "President." The state of Africa in 2004 is a complicated brew of the still-bitter legacies of colonialism, internal political failings and the damning economic policies of the World Bank. Add to this mix the national media's tendency to relegate African coverage to "crisis reporting" - flying reporters in to cover the deaths, famines and diseases, while ignoring other political and economic affairs - and you begin to understand the tendency to view Africa as a single failed country rather than a complex continent.
Underlying the present hostilities is not only the contemporary political conflict and competition for scarce land and water resources among rival ethnic groups, but also the long, complex history of enslavement and racism in East Africa. Beginning in the tenth century, a.d., the Trans-Saharan slave trade exported East Africans to be sold as slaves in the Arab peninsula. The trade stretched for a full millennium - six hundred years longer than the Trans-Atlantic trade that brought West Africans to the Americas. It was this Saharan trade that dispersed black populations as far as present-day Iran and Iraq, where their descendants remain. (The name "Sudan" is, in fact, derived from the Arabic "Bilad al Sudan" or "Land of the Blacks" - a term that was often used as a general reference to Africa, not solely the current Sudanese nation.) To be accurate, the Arab enslavement did not focus solely upon Africans - Eastern Europeans were also traded as slaves in the Arab peninsula (which is where we derive the term "Slavic" peoples.) Nor was Arab slavery identical to its Western counterpart, as there were a number of circumstances under which one could attain emancipation and slaves often rose to socially significant positions - particularly in the military.
Nevertheless, a series of myths arose to justify the status of the enslaved. Thus began a body of racist mythology and antagonism that paralleled the later European rationales for enslavement of Africans. As the historian Bernard Lewis points out in Race and Slavery in the Middle East, the evolving perception of Africans had, as early as the 13th century, begun to focus on the alleged animalistic qualities of the Zanj or black Africans. "The Negro nations," one observer remarked, "are submissive to slavery because they have little that is essentially human and have attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals."
Unlike the Western slave trade, which was driven by early capitalism and the development of mass agriculture, the Eastern trade supplied Africans to work as domestics or in the brutal pearl-diving trade in present-day Iraq. Darfur, the region that is currently embroiled in conflict, initially served as a hub in the Saharan slave trade and a site for the castration of African boys who would then be sold as eunuchs to protect the harems of the wealthy. By some reports, Africans were culled by the hundreds and held on farms in Darfur awaiting sale to Arab traders.
The Trans-Saharan trade ended in the 19th century as the British began to extend their control over the region (the Sudanese Muslims became the most intractable foes of British colonialism during the era, and Darfur was not conquered by the British until 1916.) Given ten centuries of intermarriage and mixture, the descendants of Arabs and descendants of indigenous Africans in the region eventually came to be virtually indistinguishable from each other, even as their ethnic identities remained distinct. In the past decade, however, reports of continuing enslavement of blacks from Southern Darfur put Sudan's human rights practices on the radar screen of African American leadership and human rights activists. (And the Bush administration has found new concern for Sudanese "human rights" given the fact that Sudan's government provided asylum to Osama Bin Laden in the 1990s.) The hostilities in Western Darfur emerged, ironically enough, just as international pressure had brought a cease-fire between the predominantly Muslim north and the largely Christian South of Sudan, where blacks were being enslaved.
Importantly, a number of African Americans have attempted to put pressure on the Sudanese government to disarm the vigilante bands responsible for the indiscriminate killing in Western Darfur, (bands that the government provided with arms in the first place.) In recent months, the actor Danny Glover and Bill Fletcher of the TransAfrica Forum were arrested for protesting outside the Sudanese embassy. (This despite claims from Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam's Final Call newspaper that there was no slavery in Sudan and that the mass murder against unarmed villagers was not genocide, but rather a civil war.) Jesse Jackson held meetings with Moamar Ghadafi in an attempt to have him intervene in Sudan and the Congressional Black Caucus urged Colin Powell to declare that ongoing attacks on the ethnic Fur, Maaseleit in Darfur qualify as genocide. To his credit, Powell did so - despite the administration's hesitancy to use this term.
The long-term effects of these efforts remain to be seen, but they are important steps nonetheless. There is no easy imagining of the sum of brutalities visited in Sudan or the precise number of torn bodies that appear in as digits in the headlines. And the only valid answer is to the four-year-old's question is: 50,000 too many.
First published: October 11, 2004 http://www.africana.com/columns/cobb/ht20041011dafur.asp
About the AuthorWilliam Jelani Cobb is an assistant professor of history at Spelman College and editor of The Essential Harold Cruse. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his website at www.jelanicobb.com.