Dealing With the Devil in Darfur

Julie Flint is the co-author of Darfur: A Short History of a Long War (NEW YORK TIMES, 17/06/06):

AS the peace talks for the Darfur region of Sudan drew to a close last month, the United States took over the task of defining the solution. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick flew into Abuja, Nigeria, where the talks were being held, on May 2 and three days later the Darfur Peace Agreement was signed. The only trouble is, the United States is backing the most abusive rebel leader in Darfur.

The response to the peace agreement was tepid in Abuja. But it was far cooler in Darfur, where the agreement is widely viewed as a peace between two criminal elements: the Sudanese government and Minni Arcua Minnawi, the leader of the faction of the Sudan Liberation Army that is drawn mainly from the Zaghawa tribe.

Mr. Minnawi’s group is one of three rebel groups in Darfur — the two others rejected the agreement — where the Zaghawas make up less than 8 percent of the population. The wealth and influence they have gained because of their energy, drive and capacity for strategic action have caused tensions with other tribes for years.

But since the rebellion began, the abusive behavior of Mr. Minnawi’s forces — often hundreds of miles outside their home area — has awakened old fears that the tribe has a hidden agenda: the creation of a new Zaghawa homeland carved out of the more fertile lands of others. Mr. Minnawi’s acceptance of the peace agreement is reason enough for most Darfurians to reject it.

The tragedy of the people’s rejection is that the agreement has some virtue. There is, for the first time, a timetable for the disarmament of the janjaweed, the Arab militias that with government backing are destroying everything that makes life possible in Darfur. In three years’ time, Darfurians will have elections to choose their own representatives. Until then, a nominee of the rebel movements will occupy the fourth-highest position in the presidency and will control a new regional authority with a first-year budget for security, resettlement, reconstruction and development of more than a half-billion dollars.

But the agreement also has a number of critical weaknesses. Most important, it is excessively reliant on the cooperation of a government that has not honored a single commitment made since it unleashed its forces against the rebels, and the marginalized tribes from which they are drawn, early in 2003.

In addition, Mr. Minnawi’s behavior in the month since he signed the agreement has not been promising. In peace as in war, Mr. Minnawi is wedded to force. On May 20, his men seized one of his most visible critics, Suliman Gamous. Mr. Gamous has been held in solitary, without charge, ever since. As humanitarian coordinator of the Sudan Liberation Army, Mr. Gamous made it possible for the United Nations and many nongovernmental groups to work in rebel areas. He helped hundreds of foreign journalists move safely around Darfur and document the plight of its people.

But Mr. Minnawi denied senior United Nations officials access to Mr. Gamous for nearly a month. When concerned Zaghawas sought a meeting to ask why Mr. Gamous had been arrested, Mr. Minnawi’s chief of staff told them, “I can shoot Gamous and sodomize you.” They were stripped, bound, pistol-whipped and burned with cigarettes.

African Union officials have verified the events and have rebutted Mr. Minnawi’s claim that Chadian mercenaries were the perpetrators. But nobody involved in the peace plan has criticized him publicly. Once again, his abuses have been passed over in silence.

If the Darfur Peace Agreement is to have any hope of succeeding, the United States must stop empowering criminals and antagonizing those who are unconvinced. Rather, the peace brokers should assist rebel commanders critical of Mr. Minnawi to convene a conference and elect a leadership that would cross tribal lines and have popular support. Darfurians must be convinced that this peace is their peace and not, as many call it, the “Ila Digen peace,” the peace of Mr. Minnawi’s small clan.

The United States must increase confidence in the peace agreement by fiercely rebuking the Khartoum government — and Mr. Minnawi — for every violation of the agreement and every deadline they fail to meet. All Darfur’s tribes must be brought into the peace process — most important, the Arab tribes that had no place at the Abuja table, even though the vast majority of them did not join the janjaweed. And no regional dialogue would be complete without the involvement of the janjaweed themselves, who despite their atrocities are one of the keys to a lasting settlement.

Last, the United States must make clear that there is no peace without justice. It must provide the International Criminal Court with intelligence on the conflict to ensure that nobody, government official or rebel, gets away with murder in Darfur. A first step would be to distance itself from its new favorite son. Minni Minnawi is not the guarantor of peace; he is one of the obstacles to it.