February 06, 2024 | Dawalbit Mohamed

Narratives that drive conflict – unpacking the term ‘settler’ and what it means in Darfur

Introduction 

The term ‘settler’ is highly contested and constantly evolving in Sudan. It interacts with the broader concept of identity and can drive conflict, particularly in the Darfur region where terminology and labels have historically been used to perpetuate violence.  

The meaning and significance of the term ‘settler’ differ from one place to another. In Arabic, a ‘settler’ is someone who has immigrated to a new area and permanently lives there at present.1 In Sudan, ‘settler’ can have various meanings depending on the context: for example, a settler could be Sudanese or foreign, or could describe someone who settled on the land of others who fled during conflict. The main defining feature is that the ‘settler’ is someone living in the homeland of another group.  However, despite being ambiguous, the term acts as a label and shapes narratives around historical grievances, rights and particularly issues related to land disputes and access to resources. This is highlighted by the political scientist Mahmood Mamdani who writes that, “Settler-colonialism requires no actual settler, just a group defined as a settler and another defined as native.”2 

In light of the impact that the use of the word ‘settler’ can have on conflict in Sudan and its implications for conflict sensitivity, this paper aims to help aid actors better understand the different ways the term is used, its political, social and ethnic implications, and what this means for how aid actors should engage with Sudanese communities.    

Why is the term ‘settler’ sensitive in Sudan? 

‘This is no longer Dar Massalit, this is Dar Arab’ was written on the market walls of Al-Geniena city by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militiamen after violence began in April 2023.  

In Arabic, Dar means home, as in Darfur, the home of the Fur tribe. The above statement was written just a few days after a wave of killings took place in Al Geniena, predominantly targeting Massalit populations.  This is a  recent example of how notions of ‘home’ have affected forced displacement and narratives along ethnic lines in Darfur for decades.  

The sensitivity of the term ‘settler’ in Sudan is deeply rooted in its historical, cultural and political context, as well as its connection to issues like land, identity, political representation, conflict and forced displacement. While the implications in Darfur are striking in the current conflict, it has implications across Sudan.   

For example, in Eastern Sudan, the Hadendowa often claim that the Beni Amir are Eritreans, not Sudanese, which has resulted in the Beja Nazirs Council opposing the Beni Amirs’ rights to political representation and participation. Consequently, in 2020, the Beja and Beni Amir clashed over the appointments of Saleh Ammar and Dr Suliman Ali as governors of the states of Kassala and Gedaref, respectively, claiming that, as Beni Amir, they were ‘settlers’. The tribe protested the appointments and threatened to block the main road connecting Khartoum to Port Sudan, the nation’s largest port, which also had implications on the stability of the government in Khartoum. When the protests became violent, many people were killed from both sides, and Saleh Ammar had to resign to defuse the situation. Over the years, political actors have been able to inflame and manipulate these tensions in Eastern Sudan, mobilising groups around identity issues for political reasons at both the local and national levels.  

Similarly, in Blue Nile, the Hausa people have been denied an emirate in the native administration as well as land ownership because some have perceived them as ‘settlers’. This has led to a deadly conflict that killed more than 400 people in the past two years, accompanied by a rise in hate speech, blocked roads and bridges, and ethnic polarisation. A Hausa tribal conference took place in 2021 with the intention to claim political representation, status which would give them access to land. In response, the Funj, a group of tribes that have lived in the Blue Nile for centuries and had their own sultanate, were angered, claiming that the Hausa are settlers, and should not have land rights in the area. Despite having migrated to Sudan centuries ago, the Hausa are still being called ‘not indigenous’ by some, including the former president who made such comments publicly in 2008.   

Conflict, land ownership and displacement in Darfur  

The complex nature of the region, its ethnic and cultural diversity, political and social dynamics, as well as the history of conflict and displacement make the term ‘settler’ particularly sensitive in Darfur. Darfur has a long history of ethnic competition and cooperation over resources – particularly land. The term ‘settler’ consequently carries historical connotations associated with migrations and land disputes. Local understanding suggests that some ‘settlers’ were given land voluntarily by local communities with whom they had good relationships; other ‘settlers’ took land violently by force.  

Land use, including settlement, has been traditionally managed in Darfur under the hawakeer system. Hakura is a method of land allocation in Darfur for agriculture, grazing, and housing according to social customs. The term dates back to the era of the Fur sultans, as they were the ones who divided the region into hakura to facilitate its administration, allocate land to specific groups, and ward off conflicts over land.3 Describing a group as ‘settlers’ implies that they are not indigenous to the region and therefore not entitled to access to land under the hawakeer system. Because of the importance of land for identity, livelihoods and politics, the ‘settler’ label is very sensitive, and can potentially fuel tensions between communities. Groups that are advocating for land redistribution or the political exclusion of specific groups may also invoke this notion of ‘settlers’ as part of the justification for these policies. 

In addition to those groups not recognised at all in the hawakeer system, there are certain pastoralist groups that were recognised as indigenous, but that had fewer land rights than others.  This disparity contributed to grievances that were exploited for political and conflict purposes and led to many instances of armed violence and land dispossession. These long-running tensions fed into, and were further exacerbated by, the eruption of violent conflict in Darfur in 2003.  The wave of displacement of different groups and the subsequent resettling of the area by others has further complicated the narrative of who the ‘settlers’ are, and what that means for their identity and rights. Not all of the new settlements were established violently, but many were.  In many cases, those who were displaced are still not able to return, and the violence since April 2023 has led to new, traumatic waves of violence and displacement.  The term ‘settler’ in this context is thus often emotionally charged, as it relates to the experiences of those who have been displaced and lost their land and livelihoods. 

Conflict sensitivity implications for aid actors responding to the current conflict  

Since April 2023, Sudan has seen the highest displacement rates in the world, and much of the country’s population is having to, or choosing to, settle in new areas. While responding to this displacement crisis, the aid community could unintentionally contribute to tensions by promoting divisive language that encourages violence; alternatively, it has an opportunity to promote conflict-sensitive language that contributes to peace. 

The use of conflict-insensitive terminology can have significant consequences in conflict zones. When groups are labelled as ‘settlers’ it can reinforce stereotypes and prejudices, deepen divisions and hinder the possibility of coming together to work towards peace. In contrast, embracing inclusive and respectful language is essential for facilitating successful peace processes and preventing the spread of intercommunal violence. This does not mean ignoring or normalising the forceful taking of land, but it does mean being aware of the various implications of the ‘settler’ label, including around national and local identities, and rights to land.   

The perception or reality that aid workers are endorsing and repeating narratives that certain groups are ‘settlers’ may affect their ability to deliver aid impartially. It can affect access to conflict-affected areas and aid workers may face security risks if perceived as aligned with a particular group or taking a political stance on who is indigenous (and therefore deserving of land rights), and who is not.  The use of conflict-insensitive terminology could also result in the loss of trust and undermine long-term development efforts.   

Conclusion 

The term ‘settler’ in Sudan carries significant political, economic, and social implications within the broader context of the Sudanese identity and conflict, particularly in regions like Darfur. Understanding the contextual meanings and the implications of the term ‘settler’ is essential for aid actors and the donor community to avoid unintentionally driving tensions in the communities where they are working.  While it does not mean turning a blind eye to land dispossession, it does mean understanding conflict drivers in the region to avoid unintentionally contributing to them.  Being aware of the historical and political meanings of land and ‘settlement’ can help aid actors to navigate the complexities of Sudan’s conflicts and contribute to more conflict-sensitive and effective humanitarian efforts and conflict resolution and peacebuilding initiatives. 

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