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Lyman: Political Solution Needs to Be Found in Darfur

Interviewee: Princeton N. Lyman
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
October 26, 2006

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Princeton N. Lyman, CFR’s Africa expert, says despite calls for military intervention in Darfur, he does not believe that such an approach would be practical. “This is not a situation that lends itself to a kind of military solution because of the vast territory involved, the ability of rebels to fight in a variety of ways. So the political process remains important.”

He says he hopes that the new U.S. special envoy to Darfur, Andrew Natsios, will be able to get the parties back to the negotiating table to repair the peace agreement that failed to get complete rebel support when it was signed in May. Lyman says that even though Khartoum has been charged by the United States with “genocide,” he finds that the rebel forces are “no great shakes” either, having also committed many crimes against humanity.

Let’s talk about the situation in Darfur. Everyone has said that the first shot was fired by rebel groups against the Sudanese government and then the government responded in disproportionate measure which has resulted in what the U.S. government has called “genocide.” And now, the UN Security Council has been called on to act. How did this start in 2003? What caused the rebellion?

The setting in 2003 was as follows: The Sudan government was in the process of negotiating an end to a twenty-one-year civil war in the south, a war that had been very devastating and in which the African Union states and others had played a major role in bringing it just about to a conclusion. The Sudanese were in the process of negotiating a deal that included substantial agreements on power sharing and resources sharing, particularly of oil, between the northern government and the south.

People living in Darfur, in western Sudan, felt they were being marginalized by the central government and the agreements being worked out in this peace settlement would leave them further out of either power sharing or resource sharing and that their needs were not being met. Now, this is a geographic area that is quite poor, that has been suffering years of periodic drought and some conflicts between nomadic and farming communities over land and water. Within this setting, two rebel groups did indeed begin to attack government installations, police stations, and the like. And initially they were quite successful, which alarmed the Khartoum government.

This is the SLA [Sudan Liberation Army]? Is that the name of the group?

And the JEM, the Justice and Equality Movement.

Okay.

The Khartoum government saw this as the country beginning to break apart. The north-south agreement that they were working out wasn’t very popular in Khartoum anyway because it gave the south the right after six years to have a referendum on independence. And Khartoum saw the uprising in Darfur a little bit the way Indonesia saw the uprisings in Aceh after East Timor [received its independence in 2002] as “Oh my gosh, we’ve opened the door to the country just coming apart and we can’t let that happen.” But with their military largely tied up in confrontations with the south, they turned to arming—and backing up with airpower—a group of militia, largely nomadic tribe militias, in Darfur to take on the rebels.

Janjaweed is the name given to these militias. And with air support, bombing, etc. from the Sudanese government they launched a devastating attack, not just on the rebels, but on all the people from whom the rebels drew their support. This was mainly the farming communities of Darfur. They burned out villages, drove the people out, leading to hundreds of thousands fleeing the country, maybe 100,000 to 400,000 dying and two million people overall being displaced. And because it was largely an attack of Arab nomads on largely African agricultural people, it took on the contours of genocide and that’s the conclusion the U.S. government made. Other governments and institutions haven’t gone quite that far, but everybody agrees that the response of the government with the Janjaweed has been devastating and has certainly included crimes against humanity and war crimes, if not genocide itself.

I take it you personally have no problem calling it genocide?

No, I don’t. But I also get uneasy that the debate over genocide becomes a debate without action. We always thought that if something was finally designated as genocide it would trigger the (United Nations) Genocide Convention and the international community would have to act. What we’re finding is that in itself doesn’t define what has to be done or what can be done. Whether it’s genocide, or crimes against humanity, or war crimes, it’s a horrible humanitarian situation that needs to be addressed.

Let’s jump, if we can, to May of this year when there was a “peace agreement,” worked out. Can you describe what happened there?

There was indeed an effort in Abuja, Nigeria in which the African Union hosted and President (Olusegun) Obasanjo of Nigeria participated directly, and Robert Zoellick, the deputy secretary of state, personally went to Abuja and, in an intensive negotiating effort, hammered out an agreement between the government and, unfortunately, just one of the rebel groups, a breakaway from the SLA. And the other elements of the rebel group, the remainder of the SLA and the JEM, did not sign the agreement. It was a power-sharing agreement but the other groups did not think it was satisfactory. That agreement, called the Darfur Peace Agreement, was the basis on which the government said, “Well, we’ve solved the problem. It’s the rebels who are the problem.”

Let me stop you there. Is that not the case?

Well, yes and no. The fact that the other groups didn’t sign and only part of one group signed reflects the fact that the agreement wasn’t fully satisfactory. And if it’s not fully satisfactory to all the parties it’s hard to say that it is, in and of itself, the basis on which further military action should be taken. But that’s the position of the Khartoum government.

What were the arguments against taking part in the agreement? What did the rebels lose?

Well, I think it’s in part a breakdown among the rebel groups—both tribal jealousies and control conflicts—and so it was a question of the degree of sharing of power among all the parties. Let’s be honest. The rebel groups are no great shakes. They’ve committed humanitarian degradations. They’ve attacked food convoys. And sometimes their conflicts for power have interfered with the peace process. So there’s fault on both sides in terms of what the situation is today.

That’s interesting. When this peace agreement broke down, did fighting then resume soon thereafter?

Then the Khartoum government, in alliance with this one rebel group that had signed, said “Okay, we’re going take an offensive against the other rebel groups.”

That’s Minni Minawi, who signed?

Minawi, right. That’s the one who signed. So they launched a new offensive, mainly in northern Darfur against the other rebel groups. And that has created further humanitarian problems and made it much more difficult to continue the humanitarian program.

In other words, when you attack a rebel group you’re really attacking the villages from which the rebels draw their support?

Right. You attack the support base. Exactly.

So that’s what’s led to all the refugees and the killings and the rapes?

Even before this new offensive there was a kind of anarchy out in the area where the Janjaweed, or groups like them acting on their own, were attacking the displaced people in the camps. So when they went out to gather wood, women were raped, men were attacked, etc. And there just haven’t been enough peacekeepers from the African Union to provide adequate protection for the people who were displaced.

Now what, there are 7,000 African Union troops there?

That’s right, because Sudan said the only peacekeepers they would accept were African and the African Union said it would put in much more but they’ve really reached their limit.

So talk about the Security Council discussion.

The Security Council off and on since 2003 has called upon the government of Khartoum to cease air support for the Janjaweed and to disarm the Janjaweed and enter into political negotiation. The government did enter into political negotiations but it has not disarmed the Janjaweed. It hasn’t even tried. And from time to time it continues to give air support for military action in Darfur. Only in March of this year, with the Chinese abstaining and the Russians abstaining, did the Security Council open the door to some sanctions against the Sudanese. And then the United Nations, in response to a request from the African Union, agreed that there should be a UN peacekeeping force in Darfur to take over and supplement the African Union one. But the Sudanese government said under no circumstances would they allow a UN peacekeeping force to come into Darfur. They would fight it. And the UN, of course, is unwilling to send in—or unable to send in—a peacekeeping force against the active opposition of the host government.

So that’s where we stand now. There are calls for a 20,000-man peacekeeping force. That’s mostly made up of NATO countries?

It would be probably made up of a combination of Asian, some European, and, of course, continuing the African participation.

And the U.S. policy has been what recently?

U.S. policy has been very strongly to support the provision of a UN peacekeeping force and from time to time to take a very active role in trying to bring about a political settlement and third, of course, providing a very large share of the humanitarian aid. The United States is also helping with the Europeans to pay for and supply the African peacekeeping force. The United States Congress also passed recently a special piece of legislation on Darfur which allowed the president to impose further sanctions on some of the leaders of Sudan, mainly travel and financial sanctions. The United States is not prepared at this point to take military action against Sudan itself, nor to try to impose something as severe as a blockade of Sudan’s oil exports, because that would be considered an act of war. And China and Russia play important roles here. China owns 40 percent of the major oil company in Sudan, gets 7 percent of its oil from Sudan, and both China and Russia sell arms to the government of Sudan. And they have slowed down the UN Security Council’s actions on putting any real pressure on the Khartoum government.

So we’re in a kind of stalemate right now? The last report I saw in the New York Times was that the rebel army had been on an offensive and killed a good number of government troops.

Yes, the fighting goes back and forth. The rebels have attacked recently. Khartoum doesn’t have a lot of military in the area, although they’re putting more into it. This is not a situation that lends itself to a kind of military solution because of the vast territory involved, the ability of rebels to fight in a variety of ways. So the political process remains important. The United States just recently appointed a new envoy for Sudan, Andrew Natsios, the former administrator of the Agency for International Development who left the administration a few months ago. I believe that Andrew Natsios’s probable top priority is going to be to try and bring the rebels back to the table to see if a political solution is possible. That would, of course, be the most desirable. People have called, in various op-eds that you may have seen, for military action by the United States or by NATO. I’m very doubtful that that’s possible. I do think we can make this a larger issue with China. And I do think we ought to make it a larger issue with the Arab League, which is supporting the positions of the government.

In other words, the Arab League is supporting the Sudanese government because it’s an Arab government?

It’s because it’s an Arab government and because the Sudanese have been very successful in portraying throughout Arab media the proposition that America’s interest in Darfur has nothing to do with genocide or humanitarianism, but is due to its interest in [gaining leverage in] another Arab oil-producing state, just like Iraq.

So many non-profit organizations in this country have been publicizing Darfur in very emotional terms.

There is a very, very strong and well-developed coalition called the Save Darfur movement which combines student activism across the campuses and a very large number of religious organizations. It’s a very admirable and effective group. The only criticism I have of the Save Darfur coalition, and you can see their ads on television, is it says to the president, “do something,” but it doesn’t tell him what he can do. And I think there’s no simple solution to this. Naming a special envoy was important. But I think we have to have further pressures on the Khartoum government, perhaps in cooperation with the Europeans, and backing up Andrew Natsios to see if political solutions are possible. I also think we ought to use our television station in the Middle East, al-Hurra, to broadcast pictures of what’s happening in Darfur, so the Arab world knows this is a humanitarian crisis for Muslims, and that the Arab League should be playing a more constructive role in trying to bring about a solution.

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