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Tension Over Land in Darfur Ignites Fresh Conflict

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Tension Over Land in Darfur Ignites Fresh Conflict

Posted by Laura Jones on June 22, 2010

Tribal chiefs in West Darfur this week reported that new clashes between the Misseriya and Nuwayba tribes (the latter of which is a sub-tribe of the Rizeigat) have killed 50 people in the Zalengei area of West Darfur. It’s the third time this month that these groups have clashed, leading to the deaths of over 100 people, according to local sources. 

The conflict apparently began back in February when a Sudanese army officer from the Misseriya tribe died in an ambush that was subsequently blamed on the Nuwayba, both of whom consider themselves to be of ‘Arab’ descent. The Misseriya demanded restitution from the Nuwayba, which set off a cycle of violence that has yet to be resolved. 

While on the surface this conflict seems to be a feud stemming from the officer’s death, albeit a fatal one, reports from the field suggest that there may be a deeper, underlying cause which could make this particular disagreement more intractable. As one U.N. staffer said to Reuters on condition of anonymity, these clashes seem to be part of an ongoing “struggle for control of fertile grazing land.” Other news outlets have also mentioned the predominance of conflict in the area over grazing rights and water resources, though none have ventured to guess at the historical and potential future significance.

It is widely acknowledged that the limited availability of resources, particularly in light of more recent environmental changes such as desertification, has played a crucial role in the Darfur conflict. Generally speaking, nomadic tribes (most of whom identify themselves as ‘Arab’) seeking land in the more fertile parts of the region for the purposes of finding more grazing land, diversifying livelihoods, and/or accessing services, began to have more frequent contact with sedentary tribes over the years. The tensions that resulted from these interactions made some of the nomadic tribes more susceptible to the manipulations of the Sudanese government, and more willing to participate in the mass displacement of sedentary Darfuris from 2003 onwards.

The competition over resources remains extremely problematic for Darfur, as evidenced by the recent fighting. While much of the violence in the early years of the conflict was aimed at the displacement of sedentary tribes such as the Fur and Masalit, many of the original Darfur land owners from those tribes are now living in camps for internally displaced persons around the urban areas. This suggests that even if the displaced people of Darfur were to choose local integration in the urban areas as the permanent solution to their displacement (which, in this author’s opinion is fairly unsustainable, particularly if done en masse), this would not necessarily stop the violence that continues to plague the region.

Until the land issues in Darfur are addressed in a meaningful way – through agreements both at the political and grassroots levels, and measures to address the continuing environmental degradation in the region – the tensions that led initially to the conflict in Darfur will surely persist.