The African Union took note of the crisis only last week, and refrained from describing the massacres that took place as "genocide" or as "racist", according to press reports.
"Though the crisis in Darfur is grave, with unacceptable levels of deaths, human suffering, and destruction of homes and infrastructure, the situation cannot be defined as genocide," reads the communiqué of the Heads of State summit in Addis Ababa issued late last week.
This is probably technically correct, given that genocide means "the deliberate extermination of a people or nation", but was it necessary to make this qualification, which, to some extent, modifies and limits the gravity and unacceptability of the Darfur killings? It's almost like saying "It's bad, but not so bad". Was it meant to downplay the earlier intervention of the UN and US, or to spare the Sudanese regime?
It would not be surprising if many Black Americans found the Darfur killings more grave and more unacceptable than AU leaders apparently have. Colin Powell is attentive to Black American feeling, despite being conservative. He is reportedly angered by the Sudanese delay in meeting their undertaking to provide protection to the vast numbers of Darfur people displaced by the Janjaweed militia, and now herded into huge camps. He wants UN action, and so does Kofi Annan.
The Sudan has hardly been a shining model of democracy and peace; nor has President (former General) el-Bashir, been an icon of progressive democratic governance and ethnic equality.
Apart from an interim period of peace between 1972 and 1983, the Sudan has been enmeshed in civil war between the government in the north and anti-government forces in the south, since 1955, the year before Sudanese independence from joint Anglo-Egyptian rule.
Essentially, this conflict has been between mainly Black Christians in the south, on one hand, and mainly Arab Muslims of various hues in the north, on the other. In 1972, the Addis Ababa Accord (between north and south) provided for limited autonomy to the South, with regional self-government through a Regional Assembly and a High Executive Council. The Northern Government scrapped the Accord in 1980, however.
Since 1963, the struggle of the Southerners was led by the Sudan African National Union, which experienced several splits. However, not long after the scrapping of the accord, in 1983, the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army was founded under the leadership of John Garang, a Southern Dinka. Both sides viciously pursued the civil war.
Quite recently, the government in the north and the SPLA reached an agreement on a measure of regional autonomy and possible separation by the south at a given future date.
While there were elections after independence, these mainly involved feudal religious forces and a degree of manipulation by the former ruling powers, Britain and Egypt. The general election in 1986 was won by Sadiq el Mahdi, whose followers recognised the religious authority of Mahdiya, who had ruled in the mid-19th Century
Democratic rule never lasted long, however. In 1958, General Abboud seized power from independent Sudan's first elected government. He gave up power in 1964 after failing to solve economic problems and end the war in the south that had actually begun three years before. In 1965, a civilian coalition government was formed. It lasted only until 1969 when Colonel Nimeiri took power and introduced a range of promising development programmes. Nimeiri survived a coup attempt and moved to the political right, away from Soviet support to US aid.
In 1985, the army overthrew Nimeiri, but was deposed in a popular uprising in 1986. A general election led to another coalition government. In 1989, an army coup, backed by the National Islamic Front, brought Brigadier el-Bashir to power.
In 1983, Nimeiri had introduced shar'ia (Islamic law), which el-Bashir subsequently supported.
The Sudanese government had sought to make light of the Janjaweed invasion as part of a process of finding grazing land, which was short in the country. Some commentators claim that the Janjaweed militia is supported by the Sudanese government. Darfur people in one of the 137 camps claim that low-flying airplanes were bombing them in their villages, implying government involvement.
A more recent development in the complicated Sudanese political scene has been the emergence of a Darfur rebellion like that of the south, but not as substantial. It is not unthinkable that the government might have supported the Janjaweed as a means of confronting the rebellion. One of the US demands on the government was for a negotiated settlement to the 16-mouth uprising in Darfur.
The Sudan is Africa's largest country of 2.5 million square miles, with one of the continent's greatest rivers and a population of 35 million people.
The people of Darfur are Black Africans like those of the south of neighbouring Chad across the border from them. The Darfur people are Muslims, like the Janjaweed, but differ ethnically.
The Sudanese population is 60% Muslim, 15% Christian, and 25% belonging to older and traditional religions. There are 19 major ethnic groups and 597 ethnic sub-groupings.
The Arab Muslims are politically and economically dominant. The north is seen as prosperous and mainly Muslim. The south is seen as neglected, exploited and mainly Christian.
Chris Peters, writing in an OXFAM Country Profile, Sudan: A Nation in the Balance, says: "During the Condominium, the British employed sectarian policies, including virtual partition of the country, for divisive political ends. In preparing for independence, the colonial power promoted conservative political parties.
"All governments since independence, elected or not, have professed their intentions of "Arabising" Sudan. In 1983, Nimeiri imposed shar'ia, and in 1989, el-Bashir declared the civil war against the south a jihad.
" The war in the south is centrally to define the identity of the Sudanese state and to gain control over its minerals, oil reserves, hardwoods and vast tracts of unexploited land".
Hence the Janjaweed invasion. Hence too, the SPLA's latest worries about the integrity of el-Bashir's government regarding the recent settlement. He himself is hardly a democrat, having seized power, and has been there for 15 years. Might he be another example of what Kofi Annan calls "endless one-man rule"?
Whose side is the AU on, the SPLA must be asking.