The Zaghawa


The Zaghawa is one of the major divisions of the Beri peoples who live in western Sudan and eastern Chad, and their language, also called Zaghawa, belongs to the Saharan branch of the Nilo-Saharan language group. The Zaghawa make up more than 90 percent of the Beri number-ingover 300,000andare related to the Tubu. H. T. Norris notes that it is believed that the Zaghawa once included the Tubu (the Teda and Daza) and the Bediyat, the Zaghawa element keeping their original name. The Zaghawa are predominantly nomadic pastoralists, highly decentralized, with clans and sub-clans as effective units of identity and organization.

According to a number of the classical Arabic sources, the Zaghawa were associated with Berber-speaking Sadrata and were semi-sedentary under a monarch with divine powers living in a capital city located in the Burku region of northern Chad (located just south of the Tibesti Mountains). Most of the classical Arabic sources refer to the Kingdom of Kanem (located near Lake Chad) as the Kingdom of Zaghawa (rather than as Kanem) until the geographer al-Ya‘qubi (d. 897) joined them and provided detail on the Zaghawa people in the Kingdom of Kanem.

The Zaghawa were involved in the trans-Saharan trade both toward the Nile Valley and Egypt and west to the Algerian city of Wargla. Islam spread from the Nile westward, and it is noted that the Zaghawa kings in the 11th century were at least nominally Muslims. Only gradually and partially Islamized until the mid-20th century, the Zaghawa are Sunni Muslim, but still practice a number of traditional rites. For example, they sacrifice animals, a practice they call karama “to ward off evil or bring rain and a good harvest” (Olson, 608).

Zaghawa society was tribal, and in the past, political power was exercised by ‘umdahs, a term borrowed from the Nile region where it refers to a village headman or a tribal elder. During the colonial period, after the collapse of Dar Fur as an independent Sultanate, the region was more or less left to itself with minor inter-ference from the few British officers stationed in al-Fasher or other towns. The Zaghawa were mainly camel nomads and moved between the far west of Dar Fur and the eastern areas of northern Chad. Those who did settle, lived in small villages of 100 or fewer people and farmed millet, sorghum, peanuts, okra, sesame, and pumpkins as well as kept livestock, sheep, goats, and cattle.

Once the borders between French-controlled Chad, Italian-controlled Libya, and British-controlled Sudan (and Egypt) were demarcated in the 1930s, Zaghawa found them-selves split between French and British areas. The British divided Dar Fur into 30 regions governed by a local headman. Since independence, Sudanese state officials have generally replaced more tra-ditional political positions, though day-to-day affairs remained in the hands of the local headmen until the droughts of the 1980s and nomadic herdsmen, including the Zaghawa, lost their grazing lands to desert.

The Zaghawa became embroiled in the 1980s in a series of wars in Chad that also involved the Libyan leader Mu‘ammar al-Qadhafi. Qadhafi wanted to expand Libyan control over the northern Aozou Strip (and even briefly tried to annex it), and came into conflict with the Tubu. Libya became less interested in Aozou and concentrated its efforts on lim-iting the influence of Arab mujahidin recently returning from fighting the Russians in Afghanistan on their own people.

The Zaghawa leader, Idriss Deby, was willing to take money and arms from Libya and, in 1990, successfully launched an invasion of Chad from Dar Fur, which resulted in the fall of the Tubu president of the country, Hisse`ne Habre. Deby and Qadhafi came to an agreement over the Aozou Strip in 1994 leaving it in Chadian hands. Although the Zaghawa make up only small minorities in either Chad or Sudan, their involvement in key conflicts and military prowess have lent them con-siderable political importance.In Dar Fur, the Zaghawa had been experiencing increasing competition with Arab pastoralists for land and water; by 2001, many Zaghawa joined the Fur in the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), engag-ing in a broader war against both Arab militias and the government of Sudan.

Khalil Ibrahim, with a base in the eastern Zaghawa subgroup, the Kobe, created a separate Islamist rebel group in 2003, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). Lack of cooperation between the different organizations in Dar Fur have led some to make agreements with the national government in Khartoum while others continue to try to fight.Since 1994, Chad and Libya have been able to keep fairly good relations. In 2007, four Chadian rebel groups signed deals with the Chadian government overseen by Libya. Libya and Chad have worked together on issues related to trying to halt shrinkage of Lake Chad and how the African Union can be more effective in negotiating peace between African states.

K. P. Moseley

Further Reading

Collins, Robert O. A History of Modern Sudan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Flint, Julie, and Alex de Waal. Darfur: A New History of a Long War. London: Zed Books, 2008.

Insoll, Timothy. The Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa. Cambridge: Cam-bridge University Press, 2003.

Jok, Jok Madut. Sudan: Race, Religion, and Violence. Oxford: Oneworld Press, 2007.

Lesch, Ann Mosely. The Sudan: Contested National Identities. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Norris, H. T. “Zaghawa.” In Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd ed., CD-ROM.

Olson, James S. “Zaghawa.” In The Peoples of Africa: An Ethnohistorical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.