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Sudan: Darfur Peace Talks Analysis

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Dec 29, 2006 (061229)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"Military intervention won't stop the killing. Those who are clamouring for troops to fight their way into Darfur are suffering from a salvation delusion. It's a simple reality that UN troops can't stop an ongoing war ... Moreover, the idea of Bush and Blair acting as global moral arbiters doesn't travel well. The crisis in Darfur is political ... is a civil war, and like all wars it needs a political settlement." - Alex de Waal

One may or may not agree with the details of Alex de Waal's diagnosis of the conflict in Darfur. But his review of the Darfur peace talks, in which he served as an adviser to the Organization of African Unity, is essential reading for anyone interested in ending the violence in Darfur and opening the way to peace and democracy in Sudan.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin provides excerpts from this analysis, and links to the full text. Another AfricaFocus Bulletin sent out today includes other recent commentary on Darfur.

For earlier AfricaFocus Bulletin's on Sudan, and links to additional information, visit

[Note that these two year-end analyses are slightly longer than normal for AfricaFocus Bulletin. This is because, in my view, they are very useful in analyzing the outlook for Darfur in the coming year.]

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++

'I will not sign'

Alex de Waal

London Review of Books

[Excerpts only. Full text available on websites of London Review of Books ( or AfricaFiles

*Alex de Waal is programme director at the Social Science Research Council and the author, with Julie Flint, of Darfur: A Short History of a Long War.

December 3, 2006

Military intervention won't stop the killing. Those who are clamouring for troops to fight their way into Darfur are suffering from a salvation delusion. It's a simple reality that UN troops can't stop an ongoing war, and their record at protecting civilians is far from perfect. Moreover, the idea of Bush and Blair acting as global moral arbiters doesn't travel well. The crisis in Darfur is political. It's a civil war, and like all wars it needs a political settlement.

Late in the night of 16 November Kofi Annan chaired a meeting at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa at which he, the AU and the UN Security Council reaffirmed this basic fact. When he promised to bring the government of Sudan and the rebels who are still fighting around the table within weeks, the outgoing UN secretary general was adopting a simple and correct rationale: fix the politics first and the peacekeeping will follow. It's not a distant hope: the political differences are small.

Long neglected conflicts first exploded in February 2003, when the newly formed Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) launched guerrilla raids on government garrisons, and the government responded with its well-tested counter-insurgency tool of unleashing militia - in this case the Janjawiid, drawn from Darfur's indigenous Arabs. It was three years before a workable peace agreement was tabled. And it very nearly succeeded. Everything hinged on a few weeks this May, when the Darfur Peace Agreement was finalised and signed by the Sudan government and one of the rebel factions. Had the leader of the main part of the Sudan Liberation Movement also signed, the current crisis would not have happened.

To understand why Darfur is in such straits today, and how the recent efforts of the UN and the AU can help it escape, it's necessary to focus on the politics of the negotiations.

The Inter-Sudanese Talks on the Conflict in Darfur began inauspiciously in the Chadian capital, N'djamena, in April 2004, with an unworkable ceasefire agreement. [One fatal shortcut was that] the agreement had no maps attached, and so there were no details about which territory was controlled by each side. ... From the start, the African Union Mission in Sudan was mission impossible.

... there were five more rounds of peace talks in Ethiopia and in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, which served mostly as a forum in which each side could rehearse its condemnations of the other. (I was on the margins of these talks, the African Union having called me in as an adviser. The Sudan government vetoed my attendance until the chief AU mediator, Salim Ahmed Salim, overrode their objections and attached me to his personal staff.) The seventh round of talks, which began in Abuja in November 2005, was heralded as the last.

The delegations would remain ensconced in a dreary hotel on the outskirts of the city until they came to a deal. Five months later, progress had been painfully slow, and the AU and its international partners - particularly the US - had lost patience. [Then there arrived] an array of international political stars, headed by the Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, the US deputy secretary of state, Robert Zoellick, the British international development secretary, Hilary Benn, and others. In less than a week, government and rebels were compelled to come to a comprehensive agreement.

In the late afternoon of 5 May, after a final 20-hour negotiating session, the Sudan government and the SLM faction led by Minni Arkoy Minawi signed the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA). ...

The DPA is a weighty document, with 87 pages of text and 19 additional pages of implementation annexes. ... The last chapter sets up a Darfur-Darfur Dialogue and Consultation, whereby the full array of Darfurian community leaders - excluded from the Abuja talks - can meet to resolve the myriad local disputes. The full text was tabled only on 25 April and the Arabic translation three days later. The Darfur rebels' delegates in Abuja were still struggling to master the 515 paragraphs when they were called on to make a final and binding decision; none of their people in Darfur had even seen a copy.

Minawi agreed to sign with conspicuous reluctance ... The next day I asked him why he had signed a deal fiercely criticised by most of his faction. Minawi replied: 'I calculated the balance of forces and I knew I had to sign.' ...

There could be no peace without them and the US had made Minawi's signature its priority. Routinely describing his faction as the 'largest' and 'most powerful' of the SLM groups, the State Department flattered and misjudged Minawi. Only by signing the deal, Minawi calculated, could he realise that large and powerful role.

Khartoum's delegation was led by Dr Majzoub al-Khalifa, President Omar al-Bashir's adviser on Darfur. ... In Khartoum, Majzoub's main job was to position the Congress Party to win the elections slated for 2009 under the peace agreement signed with the southern rebel group, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), in 2005. His role in the Darfur talks was a logical extension of that. Darfurians comprise perhaps a quarter of northern Sudan's electorate, and their support - or more likely, an electoral pact with the main Darfurian parties - is vital for the Congress Party if it is to secure power. Abdel Wahid, whose SLM had solid support not only among the Fur (about a quarter of Darfur's population) but among most other groups too, was the key. Majzoub's task was to win round that constituency.

With a little more grace, he could have succeeded. But, too busy counting the small change, he missed the bargain. His own colleagues grew exasperated with his obtuseness. Although frustrated that international pressure had prevented them finishing off the rebels' military resistance, most army generals were keen to end the war. They were embarrassed by the way their reputations had been besmirched and fearful of the monster they had unleashed, the Janjawiid. And, as one of them confided to an AU adviser, 'we killed enough.'


Finally, on the morning of 5 May, Majzoub enumerated his many reservations about the DPA text, especially the security arrangements, but said he would sign. At five minutes to six that afternoon, he shook hands with Minawi and [signed].

Abdel Wahid refused to sign. Although he agreed with all the security arrangements and with everything in the wealth-sharing section, save the meagre $30 million, he insisted that there must be parity of representation in the state assemblies. In the early days of May, Hilary Benn worked on the text to improve the rebels' representation, retyping the text himself into the night in the hotel's cramped office. The major headache was the independents - both government and rebels considered them as belonging to their adversary's camp. With more time, the AU team and Benn could probably have found a formula to satisfy the SLM,and pushed Majzoub to yield. ...

Would those concessions have been enough? It's not clear. In the early hours of 5 May Abdel Wahid told Zoellick and Obasanjo: 'I need a guarantee for implementation like in Bosnia.' The personal letter he had just received from President Bush wasn't enough: what he wanted was international military intervention to deliver Darfur from the Khartoum government. ...

Abdel Wahid faced defections; his own chief negotiator turned up at the signing ceremony to declare support for the DPA. But he didn't submit to the pressure.

The next day, he was in a reflective mood. 'If I had known what was going to happen to my people, I would not have started this revolution,' he said. 'I came to Abuja to make peace and I will stay until peace is made.' As the hotel quickly emptied, the SLM founder cut a somewhat pathetic figure, sitting tight in his room. Abdel Wahid's use of the first person singular was grandiose, but the reality was that he held Darfur's future in his hands. Across Darfur, thousands of people living in camps demonstrated against the DPA. They weren't demonstrating because they disagreed with the text - which even now has not been seen by most Darfurians - but because they knew it didn't have their man's signature on the last page. ...

At this point, the African Union's deadline for the remaining rebels to sign the DPA was just a day away, and Abdel Wahid told me: 'If they give me 24 hours or 24 days or 24 years I will not sign... the AU will not determine the future of my people.,,,' Two weeks later, facing a new, extended deadline, Abdel Wahid again baulked. 'Remember these words: all of you, the international community, will create big chaos in Darfur, endless fighting, endless suffering, endless chaos.'

Robert Zoellick had served as a US trade representative for good reason. He had mastered every detail in the DPA. He promised and threatened: at long last Majzoub had met his match. But negotiating a Sudanese peace agreement is different from sealing a trade deal. Deadlines, pressure and inflexible insistence on the letter of agreement simply don't work in Sudan. The US line was that there could be no renegotiation of the DPA: not one word could be changed. For Majzoub, the text was only as good as the political pressure to stick to it and he was ready to reinterpret any provision he liked whenever he liked.

Overwhelmingly, the Darfurians wanted it changed. Minawi had the most riding on the agreement: if Abdel Wahid got some extra concessions, his earlier signature would look foolish. But he too was unhappy and increasingly isolated, and publicly announced on 15 May that he was working with his 'brothers in the SLM' to improve the text. As I went back and forth with last-gasp proposals - at this point I was the only mediator left - I asked myself whose war this was. And whose peace?

More than Abdel Wahid, whose character he openly despised, Minawi was afraid of the threat of the Justice and Equality Movement and its leader, Khalil Ibrahim. The JEM team in Abuja had been the most professional, and when they decided to engage in substantive talk, they were constructive and willing to compromise. Unlike the SLM, in which every commander was a law unto himself, they were disciplined. Khalil himself rarely put in an appearance at the talks, and when he did his minions donned identical black suits and scurried along the corridors to clear him a path. Khalil had been a mid-ranking government official and still had channels of communication to the Islamists in Khartoum.

In March he met with the Sudanese vice-president, Ali Osman Taha, on a trip to Libya, and had evidently decided that May in Abuja was not the right time to sign up. Thereafter, JEM members were physically present but largely detached from the negotiations. Almost all the mediators and internationals dismissed them as an irrelevance. Only the Eritrean envoy, Abdalla Jaber, had a different view. 'The AU is making a mistake by underestimating JEM. They are rearming. They will be a force to be reckoned with.'

Jaber was right. In June, in Asmara, the Eritrean capital, Khalil brought together some veteran Darfurian opposition leaders and SLM commanders who hadn't signed the DPA, and created the National Redemption Front (NRF). Abdel Wahid, fresh from his final refusal to make a deal with the government, attended; but at the last moment he decided not to sign the NRF founding document. The NRF's biggest coup was to win a military alliance with SLM-Unity. Leaders of this faction, such as Jar el Nabi Abdel Karim and Suleiman Marajan, insist that they want to reunite the SLM and make a peace deal with the government, but complain that they were given no political openings or recognition and were forced into military alliance with the NRF.

The NRF has relaunched an offensive war, including one attack into neighbouring North Kordofan, and has inflicted a series of battlefield defeats on the Sudanese army. When the UN Special Representative Jan Pronk reported on those reverses and their effect on the Sudanese army's morale in his weblog, it served as Khartoum's pretext for expelling him.

Bit by bit, the DPA became the cover for President Bashir's search for a military solution to the Darfur crisis. As the Abuja negotiations drew to a close, the Congress Party launched an internal discussion on Sudanese-US relations. The central question they asked was: 'Given that we have made peace with the South and given them everything they asked for; given that we are co-operating in the war on terror; why are the Americans still determined to punish us?' Senior Congress Party figures - they seized power in 1989, when the Berlin Wall was still standing, and have watched the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Israelis in Lebanon - simply couldn't believe that the US had a genuine interest in the human rights of the people of Darfur.

The worst fears of Khartoum's conspiracy theorists had seemed to be justified when Zoellick arrived in Abuja and revised the security arrangements agenda of the DPA text, increasing the number of rebel combatants to be integrated into the army and security forces to 8000 (80 per cent of these positions, he indicated, would go to Minawi's men). As Zoellick argued and arm-twisted late into the night on 2 May, agitated Sudanese generals paced up and down in the hotel car park, calling their superiors in Khartoum on satellite phones. They buttonholed mediation team members - by now excluded from the action - to ask: 'What is America's real agenda?'

General Ismat al Zain, the commander of the Sudanese army in Darfur, laughed scornfully at the figures: 'Minawi won't be able to fill a quarter of the positions the Americans are giving him.' Reflecting Khartoum's line that most of Minawi's fighters are Chadian, another general asked me: 'Why do the Americans want to give Darfur to Chad?' There is no evidence that the State Department has ever entertained such an idea. On the contrary, its senior staff have rather straightforward ideas about the necessity of making Sudan a functional and democratic state. But after the DPA was signed, and especially after Zoellick left the administration for Wall Street, the US lacked both strategy and vision.

In principle the African Union is the custodian of the DPA. But there is only one full-time professional staff member working on Sudan at its Addis Ababa headquarters, and the DPA Implementation Team in Khartoum has only three senior professionals. Until September, the AU Special Representative was Baba Gana Kingibe, a Nigerian politician with his eye on a presidential bid, who relied on political instinct to navigate his way in Sudan. Kingibe has an astonishing capacity to size up the dynamics of a meeting in moments. But he didn't establish a functioning secretariat, a political affairs unit or a strategy team.

Leaving aside the challenges faced by its troops (unpaid for two months over the summer), the peacekeeping force in Darfur is hobbled by having just two political officers in the field. ...

The single biggest blunder was made in August. The Darfur Ceasefire Commission had been set up after the April 2004 N'djamena ceasefire. It had functioned poorly, and the DPA spelled out ways in which it could be strengthened. But what to do with the groups that hadn't signed the DPA? The AU team discussed the problem in the days after 5 May and decided that the non-signatories must stay on ...

There would therefore have to be a two-tier ceasefire commission. The government and Minawi both assert that Kingibe never explained this to them, let alone got their consent, and as soon as the JEM representatives walked into the ceasefire commission meeting on 23 June, Minawi's delegates walked out.The commission was paralysed. Majzoub, with Minawi's agreement, insisted that the JEM and Abdel Wahid's SLM had become 'outlaws to the process', the very words used by Zoellick on 5 May. At a moment when strong guidance was needed from Washington to keep the most representative and the most militant Darfurian groups at the table, there was only silence. Kingibe concurred: to overcome the paralysis in the ceasefire commission, the representatives of Abdel Wahid and Khalil would be expelled.

The AU forces were already compromised in Darfur. Part of their role had been to provide logistical support to the rebels after the DPA was signed, and they duly transported Minawi and his commanders around the region, enabling them to reach areas they could not have reached overland, given their steady loss of territory. This was seen by the groups that were holding out as a partisan move. On 28 July, the Sudanese air force used a plane painted in AU colours to resupply the front line and evacuate their wounded. This was an act of perfidy - a war crime under the Geneva Conventions, with so many dismal precedents in Darfur that paragraph 376 had been specially written into the DPA to prevent it. The AU remained silent and many Darfurians began to see it as a party to the conflict. In an attack the AU attributed to NRF troops, five Rwandan peacekeepers were killed.

We can only guess why President Bashir decided to gamble his country's international reputation on defying UN Security Council Resolution 1706, which authorises a robust UN force for Darfur. But circumstantial evidence suggests that Bashir's paramount preoccupation is with preventing the secession of southern Sudan. ...

The critical first step for Bashir is to win at least a plurality in the 2009 elections, so that he can stay president. Without Darfur's votes, and worse, with Darfur still in flames, that strategy is unravelling. Many in southern Sudan don't believe that Bashir will allow elections to proceed and are steeling themselves for a new north-south war.

Allowing in UN troops to police a ceasefire and implement a peace agreement that will help the Congress Party consolidate its place in Sudan is one thing. Allowing in 'international forces' - the Arabic term, quwat al dauliya, is the same as the one used for coalition troops in Iraq and Afghanistan - midway through a conflict, with an open-ended mandate, is quite another. The combination of a huge international force - it would take many more than the 20,000 estimated to be needed to enforce a ceasefire - and 8000 Minawi troops with, Khartoum suspects, direct US backing, would in effect bring about a separation of Darfur from the rest of the country.

Bashir rarely enters the political fray, preferring to serve as umpire to the different factions that comprise his government. On 3 September, however, he overruled the consensus of his party and his generals and walked into a cabinet meeting to inform his government that Resolution 1706 was to be rejected, the peacekeeping force terminated at the end of the month, and the army deployed to resolve the situation in Darfur. Bashir did not consult his first vice-president (the SPLM leader, Salva Kiir) or Minawi or, it seems, most of the other cabinet members. Visibly furious, he simply announced his decision and allowed no discussion. Bashir's other main fear is that a UN force would be mandated to execute International Criminal Court arrest warrants. With indictments expected soon, Bashir is fearful that his close military colleagues are likely to be on the list. ...

At the beginning of the last round of talks in Abuja at the end of last year, Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem of Justice Africa and the Pan-African Movement, wrote in a column for a Nigerian newspaper: 'Unlike many liberation movements in Africa, which had to depend on the people to build and plan with them, these rebels have too many willing regional and international actors indulging their delusions of grandeur.' The last straw for Abdel Wahid's lieutenants, including Ahmed Abdel Shafi, who had been with him from the very beginning, came in Nairobi on 3 June.

Having changed his mind twice in as many days, Abdel Wahid finally agreed to the latest attempt to get his mainstream SLM into the peace accord, and said he would fly to southern Sudan the next day to meet with Salva Kiir, who had taken up the mantle of mediation.

[But Abdel Wahid of SLM did not show.] On 25 July, [SLM leader] Abdel Shafi announced that 30 SLM commanders had 'ousted' Abdel Wahid and that he would serve as interim chairman until a conference could be held. In reality, it was another split: the SLM has fragmented into as many as a dozen different groups. Securing peace now needed an extra,preliminary step: a mechanism for getting the rebel fragments together to agree on a joint platform. ...

Majzoub has been in his element, buying off the splinters one by one. ...President Bashir has won his confrontation with the US, which is now signalling that it will accept a continued AU peacekeeping force, bolstered by UN logistics and expertise. ...

In these fraught political currents the AU is trying to salvage the DPA through new talks. On 9 November it announced the launch of the long-awaited Darfur-Darfur Dialogue and Consultation, which aims to bring together all Darfurians in a patient discussion of their common future. On 13 November the AU invited the non-signatory SLM and JEM back to the ceasefire commission and two days later Kofi Annan flew to Addis Ababa on his farewell trip to Africa to orchestrate a push for a proper ceasefire that confines both army and rebels to clearly defined areas, and grounds the Sudanese air force, to be followed by a new round of negotiations.

If these are patient and inclusive, there's a chance to end the war, and begin the long processes of demilitarising Darfur and remedying the poverty and marginalisation that led the SLM and JEM to rebel in the first place. Darfur has one last chance, and the formula is the best so far. If there's a workable peace agreement, the odds are that Khartoum will accept a joint AU-UN force to keep the peace. But is it too late? Many Darfurians believe that their homeland has become locked into a cycle of violence that cannot be reversed by an injection of goodwill and diplomatic acumen.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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