Darfur is the westernmost state in Sudan. Despite its long and complex history, it has gained international attention only since 2003 when an insurgency emerged in the region, triggering a humanitarian emergency that has involved African states, the African Union, major Western states, the United Nations, and various non‐governmental organizations.
Darfur's etymology derives from the Arabic ‘land of the Fur’. This refers to the establishing of an Islamic sultanate in that area during the sixteenth century. Up until the advent of European colonialism, the Darfur sultanate consolidated a complex system of trade, political authority, and social interaction. In contrast to its marginal status today within the modern Sudanese state, Darfur was a central and relatively ‘modern’ social system in north Africa's Islamicizing and fluid Afro–Arab region.
The annexation of Sudan in 1821 created an imperial administrative centre in Khartoum, which from 1875 served as the base for the colonization of Sudan by the British and Egyptians. The period from 1875 to 1916 was unstable and contingent for Darfur and indeed the rest of Sudan—subject as it was to Egyptian rule which was established through the authority of Britain. The British–Egyptian ‘condominium’ was subjected to various forms of resistance, mainly from Mahdist attempts to create a purified Islamic state in Sudan. During this period Darfur's political system was modified and disrupted but it was only in 1916 that Darfur was fully annexed to the colonized Sudanese state.
From 1916 to independence in 1956, the British colonial administration, with its focus on Khartoum and the Blue Nile river basin, established Darfur's modern marginality. Darfur's population was disempowered and located at the border of a state consolidated through European colonization.
If British colonialism achieved the subordinate incorporation of Darfur into Sudan, the bulk of the post‐colonial period affirmed Darfur's subordination fairly consistently through regime changes between military, civilian, secular, and Islamic. A powerful aspect of the ruling ideology of the elites within Khartoum has been a perception that peoples to the west and south are inferior. This political schism has expressed itself largely through a protracted war between north and south, until 2004. Throughout this period, Darfur remained fluid, unstable, and marginal: part of a complex frontier of migration, insurgency, and militarism which involved Chadian and Libyan as well as Sudanese politics.
In 2001 Darfur's structures of authority broke down, and two years later an insurgency against the state emerged when the Sudanese Liberation Army and later the Justice and Equality Movement attacked government buildings, personnel, and property. The Sudanese government response caused the humanitarian crisis which has made Darfur synonymous with displaced and desperate people and the predations of counter‐insurgent militias. Suffering from the same historic weakness of all Sudanese governments in Darfur, the government mobilized diffuse mobile armed groups into what is known collectively as the janjaweed. These militias have raided and attacked civilian populations throughout Darfur, resulting in the displacement of millions and the deaths of hundreds of thousands from raids, starvation, and disease. The Sudanese government has supported the janjaweed raids with air strikes. The severity of the humanitarian crisis and the direct involvement of the government have led to various calls within Africa and more widely for intervention, a humanitarian response, peacekeeping, and a ceasefire. The United States government has called the humanitarian disaster in Darfur genocide, and although this categorization is contested very few would deny the severity of the crisis or the purposeful ethnic cleansing that has taken place.