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Since the Sudanese government agreed in July 2007 to the deployment of a joint United Nations/African Union peacekeeping force for Darfur, international attention has shifted to facilitating a political process to bring about peace on the ground. Previous peace talks led to the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) in May 2006, which was only signed by one of Darfur’s rebel groups and lacked legitimacy to many Darfurians. Darfur’s rebel groups have multiplied in the peace agreement’s aftermath, and the original conflict between two rebel groups and the Sudanese government has metastasized into chaotic violence that includes sparring among Arab tribal groups, between rebel groups and AU peacekeepers, and between Arab militias and the Sudanese government. Under such conditions, a successful political settlement cannot be negotiated solely between Khartoum and Darfur’s rebel groups. As a result, experts say a more inclusive round of negotiations than currently envisioned may be necessary.
Herding Cats: Bringing the Rebels Together
The UN/AU mediation team, led by UN Special Envoy Jan Eliasson and AU Envoy Salim Ahmed Salim, has worked for months to unify Darfur’s rebel groups, the second phase of their road-map (PDF) for the political process. When the conflict in Darfur began, there were two rebel groups, but current estimates of the number of factions range from twelve to twenty-five. The political stance of many of these groups is unclear; some appear to be little more than bandits with weapons. In August 2007, eight factions met in Tanzania and agreed on a common negotiating position. Several important rebel leaders did not attend this meeting, however, and an upsurge in violence during subsequent months—including a rebel attack on AU peacekeepers in September 2007 that left at least ten dead—underscores the continued rebel fragmentation.
Eliasson recently compared the process of bringing these groups together to “herding cats” (LAT). Developing a compromise position among them will be even more difficult. “Each of the rebel leaders is strong enough to say ‘no’ to any proposed compromise with the government,” writes Alex de Waal, program director at the Social Science Research Council and editor of a book on Darfur, “but not one of them is strong enough to say ‘yes.’”
Abdel Wahid al-Nur, a founder of the Sudan Liberation Army, has attracted media attention for his vocal refusals to attend peace talks in Tripoli. The extent of his influence in Darfur remains controversial; some experts say he retains strong support among the internally displaced Darfurians in refugee camps, while others note he has not spent a significant amount of time in Darfur for over three years (he is based in Paris). Al-Nur plays a symbolic role in Darfur because he rejected the 2006 peace accord, says David Mozersky, Horn of Africa project director for the International Crisis Group. But “it is extremely difficult to know how to deal with him or to know how much support he has,” Mozersky says.
Another Sudanese political figure, Suleiman Jamous, has made headlines for his potential to unify rebel groups. A humanitarian coordinator for the Sudanese Liberation Army, Jamous was held by the Sudanese government until September 2007, when UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon negotiated his release so that he could seek medical treatment outside the country (he is said to be quite ill). As of yet, there are no signs that he is persuading rebel leaders to take part in the upcoming peace talks. Some experts say his influence has been overstated (PINR) by international governments and nongovernmental groups.
Regional Actors: Helpers or Spoilers?
Unifying Darfur’s rebel groups also entails curtailing the influence of outside actors that assist those rebel groups. Eritrea and Chad have funded different rebel factions, and Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi has meddled in Darfur since the early 1980s, when he armed the Arab militias that later become the janjaweed. The first stage of the AU/UN road-map involved enlisting the cooperation of these countries toward a unified political process, and it seems to have been somewhat successful.
Yet there is disagreement among experts over whether each of these countries might facilitate or hinder the process once talks begin. Eritrea has shifted its focus to Somalia as of late, and Chad (which had been engaged in a proxy war with Sudan) remains dogged by internal political problems. Qaddafi appears to be using his role in the Darfur conflict to increase his international leverage, and—like Khartoum—remains suspicious of U.S. motives in the region. “These governments are quite prepared to sabotage the peace process at any moment if they see it to be in their interests,” writes de Waal.
The Sudanese government has also contributed to rebel fragmentation. Since 2005, Khartoum has sought to negotiate bilateral deals with lower-level commanders of rebel factions, thus complicating the political process and sowing divisions within rebel groups. This strategy of divide and rule has ensured that there is no consolidated opposition—among rebels or other groups in the region. As a result, Mozersky notes, there are “significant obstacles” that need to be overcome before a peace process can address political issues such Darfur’s administration or wealth sharing. Further complicating the political landscape is the emergence of Arab armed groups that oppose the government as well as violence between Arab tribes over land vacated by Darfurians fleeing the turmoil.
Those without Guns: Broadening Representation
The extent to which Darfur’s armed groups actually represent the region’s citizens remains unclear. “No effort has been made to make a real assessment of how effective these groups are or what kind of acceptance they have from their own population,” says Mudawi Ibrahim Adam, the founder of the Sudan Social Development Organization, a nongovernmental group working on peace-building and reconciliation in Darfur. He suggests that the AU/UN mediation team needs to allow time for research on the rebel groups and the extent of their influence.
There are some signs that political support for the rebels is waning. Andrew Natsios, U.S. special envoy to Sudan, said in a recent briefing at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that these groups are “fed up and frustrated with political bickering among rebel leaders. If the rebel leaders don’t step up and represent them in the issues they care about most, security compensation, the return of their land and development, they are ready to represent themselves” (PDF).
The logistics of such representation presents an enormous challenge. The AU/UN mediation team has acknowledged the importance of consulting with non-rebel stakeholders prior to the start of peace talks. Their road-map suggests, however, that these groups will not have a seat at the negotiating table. From a mediation standpoint, more groups at the table makes it only more difficult to reconcile their positions. And even if the mediation team agrees to allow non-rebel groups to participate in talks, legitimate and credible representatives of each group must be identified. At the Abuja talks that led to the 2006 agreement, tribal group representatives were all members of the National Congress Party. They thus hewed to the position of the Sudanese government, which may not have been an accurate reflection of their respective tribes.
Currently, it appears that the AU/UN mediators will draw from their consultations with Darfur’s non-rebel groups to bring their positions into the talks in Libya. Some experts say this will not produce a process that is inclusive enough. “It is completely disingenuous to imagine that you can satisfy people who want their voices heard by acting as a proxy on their behalf when the stakes are survival,” says Laurie Nathan, a research fellow at the University of Cape Town who was a member of the AU mediation team during the Abuja peace talks.
Under the auspices of a committee designed to prepare for the Darfur-Darfur Dialogue and Consultation, a provision of the 2006 agreement, the African Union’s Abdul Mohammad has traveled around the region talking to people who were left out of the peace process since late spring 2007. He organized a series of day-long consultations and grassroots meetings to get ideas and feedback from civil society groups, Arab tribes, women’s groups, internally displaced people, and business organizations. Mozersky of the International Crisis Group says this process could be used to select delegates to attend the peace talks in Tripoli, but it’s not clear if the AU/UN mediation team is going to do so. There is substantial international pressure to push peace talks forward quickly, says Mudawi, and this is preventing a bottom-up process that would foster “real and general representation.” Nathan suggests that it might be beneficial to hold peace talks in Darfur, where civil society could participate in the talks without being at the negotiating table. The security situation in the region prohibits this option right now, he says, but it could be possible down the road once the AU/UN peacekeeping force is on the ground.
Pessimism Regarding the Process
The proliferation of rebel factions and lack of inclusion of non-rebel groups has prompted widespread pessimism regarding possible outcomes of the talks in Libya. Nathan says that even if an agreement comes out of Libya, it will only be effective if the parties themselves agree to implement it. “What they’re trying to do is not to forge a peace agreement, but is to forge peace,” he says. “In a civil war, a peace agreement must be implemented by the parties themselves and there must be cooperation.”
Calls for patience and reduced expectations are nearly universal. “This is not going to be a quick and easy peace process,” says Mozersky. “The peacemaking strategy must reflect the reality on the ground.” Even those who see possibilities for a positive outcome from the talks in Libya are cautious about what to expect. “I am more optimistic now than I have been in a long time, but it is a guarded optimism,” said U.S. Special Envoy Natsios at the CSIS briefing.