Sunday, May 18, 2014

Guest Blogger: Michael Niemann--What is Darfur?

This week we welcome Michael Niemann as our guest author.  Michael is a newcomer to crime fiction. His story featuring UN auditor Vermeulen, AFRICA ALWAYS NEEDS GUNS, made it into the 2012 MWA Anthology. In his previous life as a university professor, he wrote a book on regionalism and numerous articles on global and African issues. He has traveled widely through Europe and southern Africa. A native German, he now lives in southern Oregon with his wife, who keeps him grounded, and his dog, who gets him up early (presumably to write).

 His debut novel, LEGITIMATE BUSINESS, continues the exploits of Vermuelen.  It’s a tight thriller set against the sandy hopelessness of Zam Zam camp in Darfur, once again proving that murder really is everywhere.  With Vermeulen following the UN missions to the world’s hot spots - of which there are unfortunately plenty - we can look forward to more of his adventures in exotic places in the future.

What is Darfur? A shorthand for genocide? Just another one of those conflicts that seem to pop up regularly in Africa? A metaphor for ill-informed outside intervention?

Let me start with the easy part, the name. Darfur simply means homeland of the Fur. But that's already misleading. The independent state of Darfur that existed in the western part of what is today Sudan for centuries was home to many others as well. Somewhere between forty and ninety ethnic groups or tribes lived in Darfur. Only a minority of those were or “became” Fur. Some were granted land rights, others were not. Some were farmers, sedentary and place-bound, others were pastoralists, taking their camels along a vast circuit from the arid north toward the fertile south during the summer and back north in the winter.

Mahammid tribe
In January 1917 Darfur was absorbed into the British empire as part of Sudan. British colonialism had always been domination on the cheap. Its “native administration system,” pioneered in India and fine-tuned in Africa, utilized existing rulers as much as possible while also empowering such rulers well beyond their customary roles. That cemented in place the unequal land distribution in Darfur. In the early 1950s, only a few years before Sudan gained its independence, the British conducted a census as a result of which certain populations were designated as Arab “settlers" while others became African “natives.” Never mind that peoples considering themselves Arab had been living in Darfur since the 1500s. That designation created the myth of the Arabs as latecomers and occupiers.

A quick word about the farmers and the pastoralists. The former tend their fields and do so because they have some sort of claim to the land they farm. The latter are wanderers, not tied to a place of their own. Their movement is determined by the seasons and the needs of their animals. It’s not hard to imagine why the two groups might come into conflict. Nobody likes their fields trampled by a herd of camels or cattle. But in reality the two groups exist in a symbiotic relationship. The camels of the pastoralists provide transport for the products of the farmers. The dung of the cattle provides fertilizer for the farmers. Sure, there have always been flash points, but rarely anything that couldn’t be settled by a council.

Millet harvest
Enter two late-modern developments: the Cold War and climate change. The Cold War turned Africa into the battleground of the Superpowers. One facet of that was the conflict between the US and Col. Gaddafi of Libya, who looked to the Soviet Union for support. Gaddafi also meddled in the affairs of his southern neighbor Chad, which borders on Darfur. That set in motion a two-decade conflict between pro- and anti-Gaddafi politicians in Chad. Whoever was on the losing side, took refuge in Darfur. By the late 1980s, the area was awash in guns. Climate change, in turn, led to an acceleration of the desertification in northern Darfur. In the last four decades, the Sahara desert has advanced by more than 100km. That pushed the pastoralists further south and left them to linger longer on the southern leg of their circuit.

Combine that with the amount of guns available and the civil war of 1987-89 seems almost predestined. By 2002, a cease fire was in place. By 2003, Darfurian rebel groups claimed that the government was neglecting their concerns and attacked. The Sudanese governments fought back. The Darfur conflict exploded on the global scene with all the misery that is modern war. At issue are still the quest for land rights, regional autonomy, and redeployment of Sudanese military and police. Since the Sudanese government is dominated by “Arabs” and led by a dictator, the shorthand for the conflict became “bad Arabs” versus “innocent Africans.”

The primary reason the war continues to date is the ready supply of guns. Without them all sides would negotiate more seriously and the Doha Agreement would have seen a better implementation. With that in mind, I wanted to write a thriller that highlighted the destructive influence of gun smuggling on the conflict. But having an agenda in fiction is always tricky. Nobody wants to read a manifesto. There’s got to be a compelling story.

The story opens with the death of a police woman at the Zam Zam camp for displaced persons, just south of El Fasher. With about 50,000 refugees, it's more than twice as large as the city in which I live. The people living in Zam Zam were at the receiving end of violence in all its terrible forms. They've lost family members, cattle, their house or their belongings. They make do under unimaginable conditions. But, just like any random sample of 50,000 people in the world, Zam Zam has its share of leaders and followers, doers and layabouts, law abiding residents and crooks. Probably more of the latter category since life has been reduced to the barest level, necessitating all kinds of acts people would not do under ordinary circumstances. Which makes Zam Zam a dangerous place. That’s one of the reasons the United Nations peacekeepers are in Darfur.

Zam Zam camp
The United Nations/Africa Union Hybrid Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) began in 2007, taking over from the woefully underfunded African Union mission. Its mandate, determined by the UN Security Council, authorizes UNAMID to protect itself and humanitarian aid personnel, to support the implementation of the Darfur peace agreements, to prevent armed attacks and to protect civilians. The mission consists of some 20,000 personnel and costs about $1.3 billion (that's US billion) a year. The personnel come from forty countries as big as Nigeria and as small as Palau. Even an operation that size can't keep the peace, since those soldiers and police officers are spread over an area the size of France.

UNAMID has a thankless job. Many of its units are deployed in isolated areas and are up against powerful armed groups, both rebels and government forces. In some cases, they can’t patrol unless they inform local commanders first. Otherwise they risk being ambushed. They do a better job policing refugee camps, but even there, situations can easily spiral out of control. As Vicki Delaney's post about South Sudan explained, UN police are strangers policing people whom they don't know and who don't necessarily want to be policed by foreigners who don't even speak their language. The death of a police woman is therefore not uncommon.

Rwandan policewomen arrive
Some of the successes have been the disarmament and demobilization activities near larger cities. And in the past several years, refugees have been resettled in home areas as a result of UNAMID actions. Finally, gender-based work by female officers has made a difference for women in the camps. Overall, though, UNAMID hasn’t kept the peace. That’s due in large part to limited mandate given to it by the Security Council.

UNAMID is a logistical nightmare. Everything from ammunition to spare parts to food to toilet paper must be brought in from the outside. Contributing countries must be reimbursed for their troops and equipment. The going rate for a deployed soldier or police officer is around $1,200 per month. Since all units have to bring their own equipment, the UN also reimburses for the depreciation of equipment. Remember the $1.3 billion per year. That's a lot of money, and, like any large sum of money, it attracts enterprising individuals who want to steer some of it their own way.

To keep that from happening auditors are sent to check the books. That’s how my protagonist Vermeulen comes to Darfur. He is an investigator for the Office of Internal Oversight Services, the UN fraud watchdog agency. Unlike regular cops, he doesn't have a gun or a badge. All he's got is an authorization from the Under-Secretary General. Ordinarily, that and $3.00 would get him a cup of coffee at Starbucks. So he uses bluster instead of authority. It gets him into trouble, but that's what protagonists are for. But he can only investigate UN related issues. Gun running is not part of his brief. The tricky part was to twist the plot so that gun running becomes his task. For that purpose I used several armored vehicles in bad repair that were being passed off as new. The vehicles were delivered by a British company that sells weapons around the world. Now Vermeulen has the reason he needs to look into that company's doings. The strange thing is that there really was such a case. All I had to do was adapt it to my story.  

Armored personnel carriers
You can learn more about Michael and his writing at his website


  1. Thanks, Michael! Both sad and fascinating. Definitely a double-damned situation.

  2. I can't believe you have me agreeing with Everett, Michael. A miracle. Thank you, too, for presenting a piece explaining so simply what modern decisions have made so complex.

  3. I am rushing out right now to get this book! It sounds great.