By Jonathan Steele (THE GUARDIAN, 10/08/07):
Peace and some respite for Darfur’s displaced millions seem closer this week than they have for a long time. If forecasting politics were like the weather, one would call the prospects middling to fair. The breakthrough is due not so much to the latest UN resolution to create a larger foreign peacekeeping force as to the success of talks between the rival rebel groups. They seem to have agreed on a common platform to put to the Khartoum government in full-scale negotiations within the next few weeks.
The Darfur crisis has suffered from two problems. One is the exaggerated and sometimes almost hysterical tone in which it tends to be discussed. It is not “the greatest humanitarian disaster the world faces today”, as was claimed even by Britain’s usually cautious new prime minister last week. Iraq, where 8 million people need emergency aid, more than 3 million have fled from their homes in the last two years and about a thousand are dying of violence every month, is more grim. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, in spite of a fragile peace deal, as many as 1,200 people are estimated by humanitarian agencies to be dying every day. In Darfur, 2 million people have been displaced and up to 200,000 may have died.
This does not mean Darfur is not a huge tragedy, but that the situation there has changed. The problems of 2003 and 2004, when the Sudanese airforce was regularly bombing villages, are not the same now. Far more civilians are dying from Nato airstrikes in Afghanistan. Critics who demand that French or US planes shoot down Sudanese military aircraft should consider calling for a no-fly zone in Helmand province.
On the ground, most of the killing in Darfur today is between tribal groups rather than the government and rebels, as Jan Eliasson, the UN’s special envoy for Sudan, pointed out recently. Many of the obstacles facing relief agencies, who have vehicles stolen and convoys looted, come from rebels and bandits. None of this is surprising. In a region awash with weaponry, where war has destroyed the social fabric and the always precarious rural economy has been shattered, violence and lawlessness usually spread. The only surprise is that this fact is ignored in favour of a simplistic picture of a uniquely vicious government and totally innocent freedom fighters.
The other problem in Darfur’s coverage is the minimal attention given to the region’s politics. Blood seems to make better copy than blah. The weekend talks Eliasson held with the rebels were yet another case in point. They were barely reported in the world’s media, even though they are a potentially huge development. He and the African Union mediator, Salim Salim, managed to persuade the rebels to agree some common positions, though not yet a common delegation leader to represent them in talks with the government.
There are big issues left. One was the boycott by the volatile but influential non-Arab Fur leader, Abdul Wahid al Nur, who has been based in Paris since 2004 and refused to join the other rebels. Suleiman Jamous, another key leader, is in a UN hospital and fearful of arrest by the Sudanese authorities if he is discharged. The government ought to lift that threat immediately. If it is willing to reopen talks with the rebels, as it says and seems to mean, it cannot also intimidate or detain them. There has to be safe passage.
The last peace agreement of May 2006 broke down when Nur and another top leader refused at the last minute to sign. Since then, the rebel movements have split and are increasing their demands, which may make it harder for the government to concede. On the plus side, Eliasson and Salim are doing more to consult community leaders in the camps. They want compensation and better guarantees of security for the hundreds of thousands of displaced, complaining that the last peace deal was negotiated over their heads. They say the elite spent too much time on regional wealth and power sharing and not enough on the immediate human needs of the conflict’s victims.
There are massive problems ahead, even if new peace talks begin this autumn. The tripling of the African Union peace force with the addition of UN contingents, which the security council agreed last month, will not be completed for at least another year. In spite of the fanfare over the resolution’s passage, little will change until then.
In the meantime the relief agencies and the African Union’s existing troops should work with the government on pilot schemes to rebuild a few destroyed villages and protect displaced people as they return. Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, said in Darfur last month that he wanted to see the displaced going back voluntarily to their villages. He claimed large parts of the region were now safe.
Those claims should be tested. The African Union does not have enough manpower to patrol all of Darfur, nor will the beefed-up hybrid AU-UN force. But the African Union does have enough to protect some pilot projects. The displaced want to go back to start farming again. If the UN and the non-governmental agencies were to negotiate with the government and local rebel commanders for a small number of supervised returns under 24-hour armed protection, it could have a powerful effect. Confidence has collapsed in large parts of Darfur and will only return when people see results.
Beyond Darfur, other large issues are looming. The focus on the country’s western region has taken international attention away from the problems of the south, as the International Crisis Group recently pointed out. The two-year-old peace agreement in the longer and bloodier north-south civil war has started to totter. A major part of the deal was Khartoum’s promise of free national elections in 2009. It is not being implemented properly, with plans for a census and an electoral law falling behind schedule. The police continue to arrest journalists and opposition figures.
Here too, Sudan does not deserve the demonisation it is subject to from the Darfur lobby. It is no more authoritarian than Egypt, the west’s darling, or Libya, the emerging new favourite. Looking east, Ethiopia and Eritrea are equally undemocratic or worse. But, unlike those countries, the Sudanese regime has signed an internationally supervised agreement to permit multiparty politics and free elections for the first time since it came to power in a 1989 coup. It must be held to that.