One of the gravest threats to Darfur is Sudan’s other war

By Jonathan Steele (THE GUARDIAN, 26/10/07):

Forget Darfur for a moment. Think of Sudan’s other civil war, the conflict between north and south, which seemed, until recently, to be under control. If the highest credible death toll in the Darfur war is about 200,000, the north-south war is estimated to have taken seven times as many lives.A peace deal under international mediation was signed two years ago. A government of national unity was set up in which former rebel leaders from Christian and animist backgrounds joined ranks with Arab Muslim generals and politicians in Khartoum, pending national elections in 2009.

If peace could be made after so much bloodshed and between people from such different traditions, how much less difficult ought it to be to get peace in Darfur? Here almost everyone is Muslim and traditional interaction between Arabs and Africans in these semi-desert flatlands has always been closer than in the equatorial jungles of the south.

Yet, earlier this month – almost unreported outside Sudan – the north-south peace deal suffered a massive blow. The southerners suspended their cooperation in the government of national unity and their ministers walked out. Arguments over boundary commissions and the final withdrawal of each side’s forces from the other’s territory had been rumbling on for months, but no one expected them to break the government. Adding to the injury, the southerners made their explosive move at the height of Eid al-Fitr, which follows the month of fasting in Ramadan – rather as if Muslims had chosen Christmas Day.

With peace talks on Darfur due to start in Libya tomorrow, the crisis in the government of national unity sends a terrible signal. Are the southerners trying to warn the Darfur rebels – who also want greater autonomy for their region as well as a fairer share in Sudan’s growing oil wealth – that Khartoum’s Arab elite can never be trusted? That will certainly be the message that the Darfur rejectionists will convey, although – and this is the only gleam of hope in the crisis – the southerners still seem to be in favour of a deal in Libya. Last week, they hosted a meeting of Darfurian rebels, urging them to go to Libya.

Presidential advisers and ministers in Khartoum are surprised by the southerners’ walkout, though they say they will not be intimidated. The government will go on, with Arab junior ministers taking the place of absent southerners. “They will not know how much oil is being pumped and how much revenue is obtained,” as one put it. They also suggest the southerners’ move was a temporary spat, dictated by internal rivalries rather than matters of substance. Some southerners felt that Lam Akol, their man who became foreign minister, was too sympathetic to the Khartoum elite. Although he and other ministers were shifted at the southerners’ request, the leadership still pulled out.

They claim that the northerners were dragging their feet on accepting a new north-south boundary and preparing for the elections. The National Congress party, the Arab partner in the suspended coalition, says that the south is violating the peace deal by not putting the southern borders with Uganda and Kenya under federal immigration and customs control. The subtext is oil – mostly in the disputed border regions – but the main text is confidence. Can the two sides overcome decades of suspicion and live peacefully in a unified Sudan at last, or will the south choose to secede?

In Darfur, although there is also some oil, the main issue is land and the declining share that is still arable and can provide water for herders in the face of global warming. Tribal conflicts have become increasingly political and personal ambitions play a major role.

A first peace agreement on Darfur last year failed because one key rebel from the Fur tribe, Abdul Wahid al-Nur, refused at the final moment to sign. He is not even willing to attend the new talks. Among his Fur compatriots in the camps for displaced people, his support is well mobilised, achieved through the secret transfer of promotional videos and tape-recordings, which his lieutenants play. So the prospect for the new talks’ success cannot be rated as high.

Khalil Ibrahim, another rejectionist, has wider national ambitions. His Justice and Equality Movement has pretensions to “liberate” the whole country, and his people have mounted attacks in Sudan beyond Darfur. The two men have lived abroad for years, one in Paris, the other for part of his time in London.

Meanwhile, frustrations mount in the camps, as a generation of teenage boys see fathers who no longer farm and mothers reduced to reliance on international aid agencies’ handouts. The temptation to take up the gun grows stronger, even though – for all its horror – Darfur is a long way from being as militarised as the eastern Congo still is or parts of west Africa such as Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast once were.

Western governments that have sought to get a beefed-up security force in place in Darfur, should show their commitment to making the Libya talks a success. Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy have a special duty. They started time in office almost on the same day, and one of their first acts was a joint statement of concern about Darfur. They even offered to fly to Khartoum to press the government to accept a strong mandate for the new UN/AU peacekeeping force.

If this display of concern was not just grandstanding, they should focus now on the Libya talks. They cannot force the rebel rejectionists to go to Libya, let alone force them to sign a peace deal, if they attend. The fate of last year’s Darfur agreement stands as a warning that high-pressure tactics by outsiders do not work. Even when agreements are made, they can totter later.

But failure is certain if the key people boycott the Libyan meetings. Brown and Sarkozy should tell their two Darfurian rebel guests that staying away is not an act of heroism or vision, but is selfish, short-sighted and mean. The Sudanese government still has a lot to answer for. The record of the Janjaweed militias is dripping with blood. But as a new wave of displacements rolls through south Darfur, caused largely by the resurgence of inter-African tensions as people grow desperate for the little help and shelter there still is, the Sudanese who deserve to stand in the dock are not in Khartoum. They flit between Paris, London and other pleasant foreign capitals, undermining the best chance for peace that wretched Darfur has.