Darfur: Time for Diplomacy Not Confrontation
September 22, 2006
The war and killing in Darfur have created an unusually horrible and complicated crisis. But the conflict is similar to other African civil wars in at least one major respect. Peace and a return to stability are possible only with a political agreement that commands the support of the key players in Darfur: the armed movements and the government. The search for a political agreement is complicated by the persistent perfidy of the government as well as the fragmentation and incapacity of the armed movements, but must be pursued nonetheless.
Khartoum’s preferred option for Darfur – a military solution – is not going to work. The holdout rebel movements are in poor shape, and Khartoum’s armed forces, with their proxies – the Janjaweed and now also the irregulars of rebel commander Minni Minawi – might be able temporarily to suppress the remaining resistance movements. But this would not create enough popular confidence to enable displaced people to return home, and the depth of resentment in Darfur today is such that the war would surely resume.
Over the last six months, the African Union, the United Nations, and the United States have painfully relearned an old peacemaking lesson: threats, ultimatums and deadlines don’t work. Throughout the Darfur peace negotiations in Abuja, advisers warned that the process of working through the issues and building confidence, especially on security issues, was highly complex and should not be rushed. The consistent rejoinder from Washington and the UN Security Council was “your timetable is too slow – we don’t have that amount of time.”
Deadlines came and went, but when Deputy Secretary Robert Zoellick received an assurance that Khartoum would allow in UN peacekeepers following an agreement, an inflexible deadline was finally imposed: April 30. The AU mediation team scrambled to have a text ready, and a week beforehand put a deal on the table. For the most part it was fair – as good a deal as Darfurians are likely to get. But it was a deal crafted by the mediators, not one owned by the Sudanese. Under protest, Minawi, leader of a well-armed and military proficient faction of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), signed the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) on May 5. The combined pressure of the assembled international community, however, was not enough to persuade Abdel Wahid al Nur, chairman of the largest SLA faction, to agree. The political distance to be bridged was small and most of Abdel Wahid’s lieutenants were in favor of signing. But international disinterest in continuing negotiations, the hostile response of displaced Darfurians to a deal which they mistakenly saw as a sellout, and Abdel Wahid’s own erratic leadership, meant that no deal could be concluded. Abdel Wahid’s “no” doomed prospects for an inclusive and workable agreement.
Khartoum knew from the outset that a deal with just Minawi would exacerbate and not end the conflict. Even as it discreetly maintained contacts with Abdel Wahid, and enticed breakaway SLA elements into the fold, the government managed to have the non-signatories expelled from the AU-chaired Ceasefire Commission and branded as outlaws—a measure that only polarized Darfur and escalated the fighting. And President Bashir went back on his commitment to allow in the UN.
As the violence worsened, the pressure was piled on Khartoum to accept a UN peacekeeping force in Darfur. The AU mission is under-funded, disorganized and poorly-led. Reliant on hand-to-mouth funding, it groped from crisis to crisis, responding to events and never establishing any confidence that it could contribute to a solution. The UN could fix some of these problems, but peacekeepers alone are never a panacea. The mission needs a strategic vision, and that vision must be political.
From a continent away, it might seem feasible for an international force to fight its way into Darfur without Khartoum’s agreement, provide physical protection to all Darfur’s civilians, disarm the Janjaweed, and impose a political settlement. Let’s be clear: this is fantasy. It wouldn’t be possible with 200,000 NATO troops, let alone 20,000 blue helmets.
Khartoum sees a UN force as a surrender of sovereignty, and believes it would have the mandate to apprehend individuals indicted by the International Criminal Court and fly them to the Hague. President Bashir worries about a Chapter VII peacekeeping operation with authority to use force being present in northern Sudan should conflict break out in the run up to the 2011 referendum on self determination in southern Sudan. He resents the way in which the push for UN troops has been conducted through bluster and threat, and he knows the threats are hollow. Bashir’s position is stronger now than in the past because he has friendly neighbors. It was the presence of thousands of Eritrean, Ethiopian and Ugandan troops and armor in Sudan, supporting the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, that forced Khartoum into making major concessions in the south. Washington’s tough stand just provided diplomatic cover for this regional military pressure.
An international force, whether the African Mission in Sudan (AMIS) or a UN operation, can only protect Darfurians as part of a long-term political strategy for stabilizing Darfur. This means working as a partner with Darfurian leaders, including the commanders of the numerous local militia, and proceeding with disarmament by consent. It means obtaining the consent and cooperation of the Sudan government. Workable peacekeeping in Darfur is nine parts civilian relations and civilian policing to one part force. And it will take five to ten years. If consent and confidence are obtained, then the job could be done by a smaller force than the 7,000 AMIS troops present today. All of the 24,000 UN troops and international police officers currently envisioned would certainly not be required. The Nuba Mountains Joint Military Commission sustained a precarious ceasefire in neighboring Kordofan for three years with a dozen or two unarmed monitors. The Nuba Mountains situation was on a smaller scale than the Darfur crisis, but it had the same combustible mix of a scattered rebel army, displaced camps, numerous militia, and a government with an uncertain commitment to the ceasefire.
There’s an immediate rationale for bolstering and rethinking AMIS. If the UN is to come in, it needs to inherit a going concern, not a remnant. The way in which the AU mission has been allowed to wither on the vine is nothing short of scandalous; and if AMIS is forced to leave Sudan, either by pressure from Bashir or by lack of funds, the result could be horrendous.
President Bashir has called the bluff of the United States and the United Nations. He has rejected the UN force, demanded that the AU withdraw unless it is prepared to retract its own demand that its mission be handed over to the UN, and deployed the regular army in Darfur. Is this brinkmanship or a real red line? The signals indicate the latter – but also that Khartoum recognizes that while it can manage Darfur by force, it needs a political settlement if the country is to achieve stability.
The tragedy of the last five months is that the Sudan government and the non-signatory SLA groups have been very close to agreement, and that an inclusive peace deal would transform the prospects for Darfur. Khartoum’s perfidy and the SLA’s divided and vacillating leadership are the main culprits, but diplomacy conducted by threat and ultimatum have contributed to making the political space too narrow for a real peace agreement to be hammered out. As the fighting escalates and what little confidence was won drains away, that political agreement recedes into the indefinite future. We stand at a precipice: the prospects are for a prolonged and intractable conflict that will take many lives over many years, and which the UN won’t solve even if its peacekeepers arrive. That crisis will drag down all of Sudan and unravel the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the war in the South.
The demonstrators and activists have made their point: the world cares about Darfur and the Sudan government cannot proceed in defiance of the world’s conscience. But UN troops are at best a stopgap and at worst a spark for even sharper conflict. What’s needed now is dialogue, focused on the long-term aim of a political settlement for Darfur. That political process must be patient, inclusive, and framed by the promise of democracy held out in the North-South Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Many will condemn such a proposal as supping with the devil with a short spoon. But there is no alternative, now or in the future.
Alex de Waal is a program director at the Social Science Research Council and served as advisor to the African Union mediation on Darfur. He is co-author, with Julie Flint, of Darfur: A Short History of a Long War (Zed Books, 2006).
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