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Perpetrators or victims? Conflict and the vulnerability of Arab nomads in Sudan

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:30

Helen Young
- Research Director, Livelihoods and Nutrition, Feinstein International Centre, Tufts University
Sara Pantuliano - Programme Leader, Humanitarian Policy Group, ODI
Jane Haycock
- Senior Advisor, Sudan Unit, FCO/DFID
Wendy Fenton
- Coordinator, Humanitarian Practice Network

Helen Young, Tufts University

Introduction and key findings

Helen Young opened the meeting by explaining the importance of livelihoods in the Darfur conflict, in that livelihoods are integral to the underlying causes of the conflict and the impact conflict has had as a result of the systematic and systemic destruction of livelihoods.  Therefore moves to find a peaceful solution must take account of livelihoods. The Feinstein International Center at Tufts University first started researching the impact of conflict on livelihoods in Darfur in 2004. The need for this study was identified locally in Darfur at a series of four livelihood workshops in 2007.  Through a participatory process workshop participants were able to reach consensus in a shared understanding of the impact of conflict on livelihoods, and based on this developed a more strategic approach for support of livelihoods through humanitarian assistance. The workshops recommended that the humanitarian community should aim to include marginalized livelihood groups, particularly pastoralists, including the camel herding Arab groups known as the Northern Rizaygat, who are widely associated with the Jinjaweed militia. Their relative exclusion from various forms of international action on Darfur is partly a result of their politicized image and pariah status, and also because they are hard to reach, and widely perceived by the international community as less vulnerable than other groups.

The purpose of the research was to analyze the evolving vulnerability of pastoralist livelihoods in Darfur, in order to promote understanding and raise awareness and to promote their inclusion in relevant national and international efforts to meet humanitarian needs and promote peace and recovery.

The pastoralist domain and importance of mobility and migration routes 

Traditionally, the Northern Rizaygat are the most mobile of all pastoralist groups, following a seasonal migratory movement from the fringes of the Sahara to the rich savannah in the south.    Blocking of migration routes started long before 2003 as a result of a series of tribal conflicts (with the Zaghawa in the north in 1997, and the Fur in the central areas), revolving around access to pasture and water. Since 2003 livestock and nomads have become concentrated in safe areas as a result of their displacement and exclusion from northern pastures.

Our analysis has shown that historical policy and institutional processes have contributed to unequal power relations, to the disadvantage of the Northern Rizaygat, and have exacerbated tensions between pastoralist and sedentary groups and between the Northern Rizaygat and regional and national authorities. Longstanding (and inequitable) systems of land tenure and natural resource management were entrenched under colonial rule and after Sudan became independent in 1956.  This created a hierarchy of rights to natural resources, which were to the disadvantage of the Northern Rizaygat.  The interests of pastoralist groups were marginalized by the authorities, with the splitting of ministries and pastoralism policy failures. Recurrent drought and multiple conflicts exacerbated their situation. Lacking good governance and in a regional context of political tensions and militarized tribalism, their marginalization, impoverishment, and militarization left the Northern Rizaygat, as abbala, in a state of deepening frustration, and desperation, fearing for their survival.  It was the particular vulnerability of the Northern Rizaygat’s livelihoods and their belief that part of the rebel insurgency was directed at them, that drove them to actively join the government’s counterinsurgency strategy in 2003.

Livelihood in transition-from marginalisation to ‘Mal-adaptations’

Since conflict escalated dramatically in 2003 the livelihoods of the Northern Rizaygat have gone through rapid transition, accompanied by sweeping changes in pastoralist lifestyles including encouraged processes of sedentarization linked with promises of better access to education and health.  Restricted access to the northern area of Darfur has also blocked former Arab livestock trade with Libya and Egypt. The Northern Rizaygat have adapted and diversified into new livelihood strategies, but these are often maladaptive in the sense that they are short-term, war-related strategies that provide quick returns but have no future as they are not based on any legal entitlement or right. Maladaptive strategies such as firewood collection depend on a grossly distorted economy and a semi-captive market of internally displaced persons (IDPs). Joining the militia has contributed to rapid militarization, and access to natural resources may be controlled through intimidation and violence. Thus, maladaptive strategies are often linked to human rights abuses and negative livelihoods impacts on others, which further polarises different livelihood groups.

Even though maladaptive strategies have broadened livelihood options and strengthened livelihood assets such as cash income and access to natural resources, at the same time their social, human and political capital has seriously diminished. 

Ongoing process shaping vulnerability and influencing goals

Over the past five years livelihoods have been negatively influenced by a number of ongoing processes, including; rapid sedentarization; militarization of youth; social polarization; loss of local and transnational markets, failing governance and leadership; and international processes of exclusion and misrepresentation. These factors continue to drive and shape the livelihood goals of the Northern Rizaygat and the choices available to them.  These goals are closely linked with seeking power, rights, and influence. Seeking power includes both the traditional power invested in the camel and abbala culture, and the modern power of education and militarization. 


This review shows how vulnerability is embedded within the historical and prevailing institutional, environmental, and policy processes. Western models of humanitarian assistance often conceive vulnerability in terms of food insecurity and displacement. Humanitarian actors need to recognise that the needs of pastoralists are qualitatively different from those of IDPs. Exclusion, neglect, and marginalization are the unfortunate legacies of colonial and post-colonial policies, which the international community, including humanitarian actors, must not continue to legitimize and reinforce. Current short timeframes for analysis and response need to be extended thereby generating a greater understanding of pastoralism as an adaptation to climate variability and the importance of mobility for its success.  The research outlines eight broad areas of recommendations which can be found at http:/fic-tufts/darfur.

Sara Pantuliano ODI,


Sara Pantuliano began her presentation by emphasising the commonality in findings between the two studies and underscoring the implications for aid agencies working on the ground. Her study examined the ongoing concerns of the Misseriyya Humr, a cattle herding pastoralist group belonging to the Baggara Arabs and living in the western area of Southern Kordofan state. The study was commissioned by DFID upon the request of UNMIS and the UN Resident Coordinator’s Office in Sudan, following direct complaints by the Misseriyya about the lack of international support. A specific request was that the study examine the ability of the Misseriyya to sedentarise quickly, a wish expressed by Misseriyya ‘leaders’ in response to fears that after the 2011 referendum in Abyei and in Southern Sudan the Misseriyya would no longer be allowed to cross into southern pastures.

Misseriyya livelihood adaptation

The Misseriyya have suffered many experiences similar to the Northern Rizaygat. A number of external shocks have shaped changes in their livelihoods systems over the last few decades. These include:

  • Land policies of the 70s which changed land use patterns and access;

  • Increased fragmentation of local government following the abolition of the Native Administration in the 1970s and its reorganisation in the mid 1990s, with an exponential increase in the number of community representatives (amirs, omdas and sheikhs);

  • The impact of oil exploration and extraction on their eco-system;

  • The North–South conflict, in which Misseriyya militia worked alongside the government against the SPLA;

  • The impact of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which the Misseriyya perceive as having dramatically limited access to land and resources south of the Bahr al Arab/Kiir river.

These multiple pressures have spurred a rapid process of transformation in the Misseriyya livelihood system, with an apparent tendency towards sedentarisation. Key indicators include decreased mobility of families, as women and children tend to stay behind in villages; increased engagement in agricultural activities; permanent residence around urban centres, which have dramatically grown in the last few decades; the partial sale of herds for investment in housing and other permanent assets (e.g. shops) in towns; a gradual shift from cattle to sheep rearing; and the increased use of crop residues and oilseed cakes as animal feed.

Despite sustained attempts to adapt the livelihood system to new conditions, pastoralist families with low livestock holdings have become progressively more impoverished over the last 10–15 years, and many have abandoned pastoralism altogether in favour of farming, charcoal-making and casual labour in towns. While these overall processes of livelihood adaptation have been underway since the early 1980s, the pace of change has accelerated dramatically since the signing of the CPA because of anticipated changes resulting from the planned referendum in 2011.

Ongoing challenges

A number of ongoing challenges impact on the vulnerability of the Misseriyya today. These include:

  • A lack of access to markets: Difficulties accessing markets partially resulted from the recently lifted export ban for suspected Rift Valley fever in Sudan, which had limited the ability of the Misseriyya to sell livestock for export. More importantly though, marketing has been constrained as traders would no longer go to western parts of Southern Kordofan due to fear of insecurity and attacks on main roads by armed groups. 

  • Constraints to mobility: Livestock are unable to access grazing pasture at the right times of the year and therefore are unable to reap nutritional value. There is notable increased settling along the main roads built by oil companies, and the lack of education facilities for nomadic children means that women and children are left in towns.

  • Oil extraction: Oil extraction has caused a massive detrimental impact both on the environment and on Misseriyya livelihoods. It has generated competition over land and has contributed to large-scale deforestation. Pastoralists also believe that the oil industry has contaminated water supplies and pastures, with cattle suffering as a result, especially as regards fertility. No compensation has been given to the communities for the damage, other than a few boreholes built by the oil companies, invariably below standard.

Current dynamics

The crisis of the Misseriyya livelihood system is driving new political developments that are increasing tensions in the area. There is an overwhelming feeling of helplessness across most sectors of society, and a widespread perception that only a return to armed confrontation will improve their situation. The region is incredibility volatile. In some areas on the border with Darfur there is little government presence, with villages and surrounding areas being controlled by paramilitary groups.  A number of opposition groups operate in the area (Shahama, JEM, Shamam, Youth), some of which are militarised. One of the most militant group is composed of former Popular Defence Force (PDF) fighters, who feel ‘dumped’ by the government after the CPA. Ex PDF fighters see access to employment in the oil sector as a right, and are angered by the lack of labour opportunities in the sector. There has however been a rapprochement between the National Congress Party and some of these groups in recent months.

There is a strong negative perception amongst the Misseriyya of the CPA, the Abyei Road Map and the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the boundaries in Abyei. With regard to international support, there is resentment among Misseriyya about a perceived heavy presence of international organisations in Abyei compared to the almost total absence of international presence in Dar Misseriyya.


Sara concluded by emphasising the similarities in findings between the two studies, both of which call for a serious long term engagement by government and international organisations with these groups to help restore confidence in the peace process, both in Dar Misseriyya and in Darfur. In Dar Misseriyya interventions should address immediate concerns through targeted initiatives – notably for youth – while at the same time investing in a medium- to long-term process of diversification for pastoralist livelihoods.

Jane Haycock, Sudan Unit, FCO/DFID

Jane drew attention to the common issues raised by the two studies. DFID is keen to use the results of the studies to engage local communities, governments, humanitarian agencies and other international actors to examine responses to these issues. The studies highlight that the issues affecting the livelihoods of pastoralists are long-term and complicated, whilst current political dynamics mean the people continue to adapt the way they live, often making non-sustainable livelihood choices.  This suggests that the pastoralists will continue to be challenged, marginalised and discriminated against unless new livelihood strategies are supported which are more suited to their needs and the environment.

Three general themes in the studies have resonance with themes in the new HMG White Paper ‘Eliminating World Poverty: Building our Common Future’:

  • The ongoing interplay between conflict, development and security.

  • ‘Sustaining Our Common Future’, which focuses on sustainable livelihoods and sustained humanitarian interventions which will only come about if we are more responsive to these issues .

  • Transforming our impact by the way we work through integrated conflict sensitive approaches in DFID programming.

DFID has already committed to invest in a large programme focused on livelihoods adaptability and environmental management with UNEP, the concept for which was informed by the Northern Rizaygat study.  As for the Misseriyya, the research was funded to create an understanding of the concerns of this group which feels excluded from discussions around their future. The study led to the creation of a steering committee which has facilitated discussion between government, aid agencies and donors over what can be done to engage those communities that feel misrepresented or underrepresented.

The common three themes that have emerged in specific relation to this research are:

  • A long term time frame is needed that factors in the historical perspectives but works towards long-term sustainability with a commitment to taking into account the communities’ needs .

  • Recovery programming needs a built in process of consultation and to bring communities together in a process of reconciliation.  Recovery can only begin when civil society and the communities themselves take ownership.

  • The process of turning this research into mandates that deliver quality programming will be long. There are no ‘quick fixes’ when engaging with governments and civil societies to turn these outcomes into political processes. The ‘Darfur Dialogue and Consultation’ process is highlighting many of the issues in these studies which will help towards a coherent peace process that sticks.

Finally Jane raised the issues of the implications this research has had for the people who were researched. Do they understand it and are they able to use it for advocacy or engagement to improve the governance of their own lives?


The discussion that followed focused on the reasons behind the neglect of pastoralists in Sudan and elsewhere in Africa; the implications of humanitarian principles, particularly the principle of impartiality in extending assistance to these groups (and the striking lack of assessments for these groups, which makes assistance according to need virtually impossible); access constraints which limit the ability of international organisations to reach pastoralist communities in Northern Sudan; ways to strengthen representative governance in these areas; future scenarios ahead of and after the 2011 referendum in Southern Sudan and in Abyei and possible solutions and mechanisms for a peaceful transition post 2011.


Livelihoods in Darfur and in Southern Kordofan are intimately linked to the conflict, especially for nomadic pastoralists such as the Northern Rizaygat or the Misseriyya Humr. The former have become notorious as part of the pro-government militia in the Darfur conflict; the latter for their action along government troops in the Abyei area and in Northern Bahr al Ghazal during the North-South conflict. The involvement in the conflict of these groups has obscured from view how their lives and livelihoods have been affected by conflict and in the case of the Misseriyya, by the oil explorations.

As for many other pastoralist groups in Sudan and in the region, the vulnerability of both groups has worsened as a result of a number of external pressures ranging from adverse government policies, climatic changes, the impact of oil exploration, conflict and the effects of the Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Yet these groups have been largely excluded from international support and engagement because of their vilified image, because they are widely perceived by international organizations as less vulnerable, and also because they are hard-to-reach.

At this joint ODI-Christian Aid event, Helen Young and Sara Pantuliano, two seasoned Sudan analysts, built on their extensive recent fieldwork in Darfur and Kordofan to outline the changes undergone by pastoralist groups over the past two decades and discussed the challenges they face today in the context of key political events such as the Darfur peace process and the implementation of the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the Abyei border and post 2011 border issues.