Matters of Education

Learning Happens Everywhere

Ethnic Identity in Darfur

Original Publication Date: January 2007


Genocide, or the systematic destruction of a group of people, or ethnic cleansing, is based on the concept of group identification. An ethnic group is people who share common aspects of their lives, such as language, culture, customs, faith, diet, values, and history. All of these components are not necessary, nor the constituent elements of ethnic groups only. They are merely bases of cohesion around which members can identify. In terms of understanding how ethnic group affiliation shapes the current political landscape in Darfur, it is necessary to appreciate two salient aspects of ethnic identity: it is constructed and situational. Both of these components reflect an appreciation for the process by which the group is formed, as well as an awareness that its existence is continually shaped by forces both inside and outside of it. All of these factors foster group identification, affiliation, and action.

No one is born with traits that are distinctly part of one group or another. Many groups share traits but our sense of being part of group is an ongoing process with those both inside and outside of the group participating in its construction. Central to this notion is the idea that ethnic identity is also situational. Depending on the realities of the individual’s life, he or she chooses to be ethnic in some settings and not in others. For example, a person may choose to marry within his group but work within the wider society. History is rife with examples when ethnic affiliation is not a choice but thrust upon the individual. Both paradigms imply a conscious awareness of being part of something larger, an entity that is recognized and identifiable by the outside world. Migration, regardless of the size of the arena of movement, causes people to see themselves as part of a larger group. People are naturally aware of their immediate environment, so one must observe those conditions that connect them to broader and perhaps distant groups.

When charges of genocide are made, we need to ascertain the boundaries of the group, and observe who is setting the parameters and determining the membership. For example, after the Nazis came to power in Germany, they passed the Nuremberg Laws in 1935 to delineate the criteria for Jewish identity. The question also arises about the nature of ethnic affiliation. Can an individual be a member of more than one group based on ethnicity? While singular participation is easiest to understand, it is often unrealistic given the many identities an individual may hold. Identity may seem linear but for most people, the reality is often much more complex.


In a place like Sudan, with its long history of internal migration, foreign conquest, connection to external markets and tribal interchange, the notion that any portion of the population is indigenous or pure is faulty. Indeed claims by the elite in Khartoum that they represent a pure Arabic stream are inaccurate. Even the relative isolation of Western and Southern Sudan until recent decades did not prevent considerable mixing by race, tribe, and religion. (Figure 17) For much of their history, the people of Sudan existed in harmony with their multiple identities. The question becomes how did simple group identity become the popular understanding and mask the complex reality of multiple ancestries.

The data that is cited for Sudan is informative yet inconclusive. Perhaps 70% of the population is Muslim, but what of ethnic differences within Islam? How did the inclusion of indigenous beliefs affect the formal religion? To what extent do cultural variations matter? How does the establishment of distinct sects within Islam affect the religious practice of daily life? How does religion mix with tribal and racial identity?

Likewise, to note that approximately 50% of the people are African and 40 % are Arab obscures more than it clarifies. What do the terms African and Arab mean to those who use them? Local language allows users to play tricks here. The term awlad al-beled, an Arabic expression that literally means children of the country, is how the Riverine Arab elite in the North refer to themselves. They use the term awlad al-gharb, children of the west, as a racial slur to describe both Arabs and Africans who live in the Western portion of the country. There has always been an elite in Sudan, whether it was the Egyptians, the Arab traders, the Ottomans, or the British.

For most of its history and for most people within Sudan, it was local connections that shaped group identification. Tribal affiliation allowed for a mix of race and religion, with a strong economic component. Land was parceled out in DAR, hence Darfur is the land of Fur tribe, itself a conglomeration of farming groups that settled in the region as far back as the 14th Century. (Figure 1) The local economy was organized around Hakura, a land grant system formalized in the 18th century during Ottoman control of the area. Rather than convey ownership, Hakura granted dominion over an area which entitled the Hakura holder to collect taxes from the people who resided within the area. The court of the Sultan granted these Hakura which provided the foundation for local authority with loyalty to the central ruler in Khartoum or Cairo or Constantinople. The Hakura holder would bring his kinsmen to the area and as a result, it became an hereditary position, solidifying tribal leadership within an extended family network. Over time, tribes grew around the Hakura and indeed it was a dialectic process between tribal formation and the establishment of Hakura. Again the mixing of groups was pervasive over the next several centuries as boundaries between tribes and the hierarchy of authority was fluid.


Historically, competition among tribes in Darfur has always had an economic rather than an ethnic, religious or racial component. And the tribal authority structure was recognized and regarded for its ability to resolve the conflicts that arose among these highly mutable groups. Both African and Arab tribes lived by a moral code that included loyalty, hospitality, self-discipline and communal responsibility. In the event of a homicide, for example, the perpetrator’s tribe would pay diya, blood money, to the kin of the murdered. This time honored system ensured that violence was a collective responsibility. Over the centuries, where swords and eventually pistols were used, accountability was direct and simple.

This system was made irrelevant with the introduction of automatic weapons into Darfur in the 1970s. Now whole villages could be decimated in a matter of seconds by a group of marauding horsemen. Responsibility no longer had a communal base and more frighteningly, it could be avoided completely. Young men with guns acted with impunity. As tribal militias went on rampages, first in the South and then in Darfur, tribal elders lacked the ability to discipline these murderers. The Janjaweed was acting at the behest of the government in Khartoum, so neither the police nor the army would discipline them.

President Bashir made additional administrative changes in the 1990s that lessened the authority of all tribal leaders throughout Sudan. (Figure 18) His government created new positions to assume these administrative tasks and filled them with Arabs supportive of the regime in Khartoum. The result was a divided and confused system of local administration with recognized authority now absent in many situations. Lawlessness ran rampant and anyone with a gun became an authority figure. As members of the Janajweed now turn on those from their own tribes, charges of ethnic cleansing ring hollow.


This question has dominated much of the global discussion about events in Darfur over the last few years. Certainly hundreds of thousands have been killed, millions displaced. Participants include people of African and Arabic descent, with the Janjaweed acting on the authority of and with the assistance of the national government in Khartoum. Group identity has been imposed much more by those outside of the groups in Darfur than those within them. Those who constituted the original rebellion, members of the Fur and Zaghawa tribes, were objecting to economic and political marginalization. The elite needed to maintain its power.

The history of Sudan is the way in which the few managed to control the many. If claims of ethnic conflict worked in this context, then it is the context that offers the answer. And Sudan is a country with a complex racial mix. Everyone is black yet a cultural racism persists that is an artificial means by which the powerful retain power. Legitimate economic differences, such as those between herders and farmers in a drought plagued area, are subsumed into an artificial Arab/African dichotomy. The government did not construct these differences. History and nature did that. But the government is the one who promotes them, and uses them to mask its own incompetence and indifference. They were trained well by their predecessors in the Egyptian, Arab, Ottoman, and British world.

The people of Darfur had been excluded from this elite control. Annexation by the British in 1916 brought them into the realm of political manipulation by group affiliation. Over the next three generations, leaders in Khartoum and Tripoli and Cairo and London and Washington would ignore who these people really were and impart traits to them that served their own ends. That the world is outraged in our generation speaks to faith in a common morality, in which all human life is sacred. That these beliefs do not translate into action far too often is a shame we bear collectively.


  1. What is an ethnic group? What are the groups in Darfur?
  2. People are capable of holding many identities as once. How does this reality manifest itself in Darfur?
  3. In Darfur, what does it mean to be an Arab? An African?
  4. Do those outside of Darfur understand these group labels the same way those inside of Darfur do?


Country Reports:


Flint, Julie and de Waal, Alex. Darfur: A Short History of a Long War. London: Zed Books Ltd,, 2005.

Power, Samantha. “Dying in Darfur.” The New Yorker. August 30, 2004.

Prunier, Gerard. Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005.