Is it Too Late for Darfur?

Alex de Waal

Darfur is a typical north-east African civil war. Local disputes were exacerbated by the breakdown of local governance and combined with the ambitions of a frustrated provincial elite to fuel an insurgency, which escalated more quickly and bloodily than its proponents ever imagined. The government response was characteristically ham-fisted and ruthless. The result was massacre, displacement, and famine, and the deepening of distrust between Darfurians and the political leaders in Khartoum to the point of bitter hatred.

Darfur is a complex Sudanic society that straddles the desert and savanna. Its peoples were Islamized in the later middle ages and about 1600 the last and most powerful of the states in the region arose, based on the Fur of the region’s central mountain range. The Fur sultanate was, in its early days, a tribal kingdom whose ruler had adopted Islam as a state cult. In the late 18th and 19th centuries Darfur—the word means “land of the Fur”—expanded to become a multiethnic empire, whose rulers presided over a feudal administration with local potentates from the Fur, Zaghawa, Arab and a host of other ethnic groups. Darfur was militarily defeated by Egyptian mercenary armies in 1874, and then overrun by Sudan’s Mahdist revolution, before the sultanate was briefly restored from 1898-1916. The last big piece of territory to be absorbed into the British empire, Darfur became a neglected appendage to Sudan for a brief 40-year colonial interlude. The next 40 years of independent rule saw few developments in Darfurians’ way of life—the region was desperately poor and under-serviced. Worse, the civil war in neighboring Chad spilled over into Darfur in the 1980s, and the government in Khartoum turned a blind eye as militias drawn from Darfur’s Arab tribes armed themselves with the support of their Chadian brethren and tried to seize land from their Fur and Masalit neighbors. Throughout the 1990s, large parts of Darfur intermittently burst into flames due to a combination of the depredations of land-hungry Chadian Arab groups and Khartoum’s penchant for addressing local conflicts by distributing arms to one side to suppress the other—a policy that almost always came down in favor of the Arabs.

While Darfur’s wars flickered and smoldered, Sudan was engaged in a full-scale civil war between the central government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Commonly characterized as a war between North and South, this is better described as a connected set of wars between a dominant central elite claiming Islamic and Arab identity, and the peoples most marginalized by that elite, including Southerners, the Nuba people of southern Kordofan, and a number of groups in eastern Sudan, all of them non-Arab, many of them non-Muslim. The basic pattern of grievances is shared by all the marginalized peoples: they were denied their share in political power and national wealth, and the government used divide-and-rule tactics to allow local militia to run amok and destroy their meager livelihoods. In retrospect, the mystery is not why the war in Darfur broke out, but why it took so long to do so.

Three reasons stand out for Darfur’s political quiescence. One was that the boldest attempt at insurrection, led by the SPLA in 1991, failed badly and left the region’s militant elite divided and demoralized. A second reason was that the Chadian president, Idriss Deby, refused to let rebels use its territory as a rear base. Chad had a security pact with Sudan, in return for which Khartoum also stopped supporting Chadian rebels. Last and most importantly, many Darfurians were beguiled by the ruling Islamist regime’s promise that Islam would be a route to emancipation for Darfur’s Muslim population. It was a hollow promise, but it helped keep Darfur quiet for a decade. Only in 1999 when the Islamic movement split, did Darfurian Islamists begin to organize active opposition. That in turn helps explain the savagery of the government response: when the insurgency escalated in 2003, Khartoum was facing more than just a provincial rebellion but also a challenge from within its own ranks. The Darfur rebels included the Sudan Liberation Movement, with a broad base of support across Sudan’s major ethnic groups (principally non-Arab but also some Arabs) and the Justice and Equality Movement (whose leaders have links with Sudan’s Islamist movement). The main government proxies were the Janjaweed, from a segment of Darfur’s Arab tribes (most Darfurian Arabs stayed out of the war).

Resolving Darfur’s war was never going to be easy. It was complicated by the fact that the war coincided with the final stages of peace talks between government and SPLA. Despite the fact that the SPLA’s leader, John Garang, had insisted that his aim was to create a “New Sudan” in which all the country’s myriad peoples enjoyed an equal claim on power in the central government, the organizing principle of the peace talks was North versus South. In the Kenyan resort town of Naivasha, the Islamist government and the SPLA hammered out a peace deal based on “one country, two systems” that gave the South the right of self-determination. The so-called Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in January 2005. Its provisions include a transition to national democracy and a junior role for northern opposition parties, but nothing specific for Darfur. Over the next sixteen months, African Union mediators in the Nigerian capital Abuja tried to bring the Sudan government and Darfur rebels to an agreement that would resolve Darfurians’ grievances while also buttressing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. This was a tough assignment, made more difficult by the imposition of a tight deadline for concluding the talks. Driven by its priority of bringing UN troops to Darfur to replace the African Union peacekeeping mission, the U.S. insisted that government and rebels conclude a peace deal as quickly as they could. The April 30, 2006, deadline was too fast to keep the suspicious and fissiparous rebels onboard and the peace process came apart. The Darfur Peace Agreement was signed by just one of the two factions of the SLM and not by JEM, and that wasn’t enough to bring peace to Darfur.

One of the tragedies of the near-miss at making peace for Darfur in Abuja is that the favorable alignment of political conditions may not easily be replicated. A year ago, the SLM comprised two major factions with a third dissenting group emerging to challenge the leadership of both. A year on, the SLM is divided into at least a dozen fragments. They need to be united before there is a realistic chance of peace. The Khartoum government has also been locked in its own internal power struggle, with the leading advocate for making political compromises in pursuit of peace, Vice President Ali Osman Taha, sidelined within the ruling group. With hardliners in the ascendant, a peace deal is more remote. Relations between Sudan and Chad have also deteriorated to the point of a proxy war between the two countries. Chadian rebels backed by Sudan have mounted a sequence of military attacks deep into Chad, once reaching the national capital. Chadian president Deby is an active backer of the most militant Darfurian rebel groups and will not end this support unless his own political future is secure. Given that Deby’s problems emerge as much from his own misrule as from Khartoum’s destabilization, and there is no peace process in Chad, a resolution to the Chadian crisis is not in sight.

Meanwhile, Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement is in trouble. Two years after it was signed, many of the key provisions are falling far behind schedule and the prospects of democratization are looking bleak. The main incentive for the SLM and JEM to sign up to the Darfur Peace Agreement was that they would then become part of the national transformation under the deal with the SPLA—with that agreement now in jeopardy, there is little reason for them to settle.

The failure of the Darfur Peace Agreement has also compromised the potential mediators. The African Union made a series of mistakes after the conclusion of the Abuja deal, most notably that it concurred with the Sudan government’s exclusion of the still-fighting groups from any further negotiations and any representation on Darfur’s ceasefire commission. The AU’s neutrality was thereby lost and the Darfur rebels no longer trust it. But the international community is still tasking the AU with bringing the rebels into the peace deal.

And lastly, peace in Darfur requires that the international community—especially the U.S.—make a peace agreement the priority. During the period of the Abuja negotiations, Washington’s number one goal was to get UN troops to Darfur. This seemed like a sensible policy given that the AU force was too small and too poorly equipped. For many advocates of more assertive action to protect Darfur’s civilians from the depredations of government and Janjaweed, a UN mission looked like a military intervention. In fact it wasn’t: it was just an expanded AU force with blue helmets rather than green. The UN would not have fought the Sudanese army or militia, it would not have disarmed the Janjaweed by force, and it would not have been able to police the region. But both advocates and critics of UN troops in Darfur conducted their argument on the basis of something more—a force that would protect all Darfurian civilians, drive out the killers and arrest war criminals. This inflated expectation encouraged the rebels to hold out for a military intervention and fueled the fears of the leaders in Khartoum.

A war-fighting intervention was never going to happen. Like the upgraded AU force envisioned in the Darfur Peace Agreement, UN troops would have policed a robust ceasefire. The troop levels and operations envisioned by UN Security Council Resolution 1706, passed on August 31, 2006, were derived directly from the implementation plan for the Darfur Peace Agreement. Khartoum had agreed to much-expanded AU force to implement that agreement. But, determined that this plan should only be implemented by the UN, the U.S. and other western nations did not give the AU the means to do even minimum activities, let alone increase its forces to the called-for levels. For more than a year, the AU troops have been neglected, often left without pay or without the fuel and equipment needed to conduct their mission. Putting the mission under the UN would bring certain benefits—the UN brings more experience and capacity to the task—but that is an increment only. For that modest benefit, massive diplomatic energy was expended and the Darfur peace process was rushed to a premature conclusion. U.S. efforts are still focused on going head-to-head with Khartoum on the question of UN troops.

Soon, America will realize the reality that the UN troops issue has been a distraction from the central question of peace in Darfur and begin to refocus on negotiations. Sadly, this change in tack is probably too late: the favorable political alignment that existed in the year after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement has gone, and may not come around again for some time.