Darfur peace agreement: so near, so far

Alex de Waal
28 September 2006

The Darfur peace deal signed in May 2006 has failed to halt the cycle of violence and suffering, says a member of the African Union's mediation team. A new settlement will be harder. But for Alex de Waal, there is no alternative to painstaking, constructive engagement.

The African Union mediation team that laboured in Abuja, Nigeria, to try to bring a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Darfur was neither naïve, deluded, nor opportunistic. Many times during our interminable sessions with the Sudan government and rebel delegations, and with the international partners, the members of the mediation team - of which I was one - asked ourselves whether we were part of a fraudulent process. We were well aware of the shortcomings of the mediation effort, and foresaw the perils of the path taken. It is tragic that the worst fears have come true. But that failure does not make the peace negotiations, however flawed, a pointless exercise. Sooner or later something similar will have to be undertaken to salvage Darfur.

Gérard Prunier takes a different view. I will leave the slurs and misrepresentations in his openDemocracy article ("Darfur's Sudan problem", 15 September 2006) for the reader of our respective writings to judge. It would take too long to correct Prunier's errors, most of them arising from the fact that he attacks straw men. Even his attacks on the Sudan government are attacks on a caricature of a much more complicated reality. I will also leave his simplistic account of Sudanese and Darfurian history for others to critique.

The more interesting question is: should we (the international community, the African Union) seek a mediated settlement to a horrible conflict? It is not always clear that a negotiated agreement is possible or even wise. A bad peace deal can make things worse - and indeed things have certainly got worse since the (incomplete) signing of the Darfur Peace Agreement on 5 May 2006.

Alex de Waal is replying to the openDemocracy article by Gérard Prunier:

"Darfur's Sudan problem"
(15 September 2006)

A process and its pressures

The African Union mediation faced four formidable constraints. The first, specific to Darfur, was the mismatch between the adversaries. Just as the war was an asymmetric war - the government had fought the rebels to a standstill and had the power to push them back further, though not to achieve a military solution - the negotiation was asymmetric.

The government delegation was headed by experienced and capable negotiators. They were rarely tested by rebel negotiators who were divided and incapable, and who rarely entered into meaningful dialogue, preferring to restate their extreme positions and try to convince the mediators and the international community of the correctness of their position. The parties were divided by deep mutual distrust, even hatred, and little confidence was built between them. What happened instead was the continuation of a historically-rooted pattern of political bargaining between powerful groups at the centre, and much less powerful ones at the periphery.

Here it is crucial to note that central governments in Khartoum consist of competing groups, none of which have total control over the state and its policies. They too compete among themselves for power, and for clients in the peripheries, such as Darfur. Throughout the mediation, rebel leaders were privately approaching government figures and trying to strike personal deals. They talked often, but rarely did they go deep into the substantive political issues.

A second constraint was the comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) signed by the Sudan government and the erstwhile southern rebels, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), in January 2005. Although the CPA was less than comprehensive in that it failed to include specific provisions for Darfur (or indeed for that other unresolved war, in eastern Sudan), it did provide important mechanisms for the transformation of Sudan into a democratic country. Notably, it provided for elections in 2009, a form of federal government with wealth-sharing between centre and states, and a host of measures to guarantee human rights.

There are major concerns with the implementation of the CPA, but even its critics agree that it has achieved an end to the war between north and south, set up a government of southern Sudan, and brought the SPLM into the central government with senior positions. Recognising that the question of democratic transformation had already been agreed, all that the Darfur peace negotiations could achieve was an interim distribution of power between the ruling parties and the rebels, until elections were held. Related to this was the fact that the rebels could not expect to win at the negotiating table what they had failed to do on the battlefield - they couldn't negotiate the government out of power.

A third constraint was time. Most mediations that bring African civil wars to an end are long drawn-out processes, with negotiations interspersed with the implementation of intermediate agreements (such as ceasefires) and confidence-building mechanisms. As the AU mediation began and continued, advisors (including myself) repeatedly asked for sufficient time to allow the parties to negotiate and build at least a modicum of trust.

But, constantly, a stream of high-profile international visitors insisted that the process be hurried to a conclusion, because the humanitarian crisis was so bad. People were dying, we were told, so we should not be so slow. What finally convinced the United States to push for an accelerated conclusion to the talks was Khartoum's promise that if a deal was signed, it would allow United Nations troops in. President Omar al-Bashir then reneged on that promise.

A fourth constraint was the nature of the representation at the peace talks. Usually, peace talks begin when belligerent parties recognise that they need to talk to each other, and when each side has a coherent leadership. In this case, neither held true. The government still believed it could buy off parts of the rebel movement and crush the remainder militarily. The rebels had a fragmented leadership, always in flux, and often encouraged to believe that their salvation would come through an international military intervention. The question of who should represent the rebels was a fraught issue, and ultimately some fairly arbitrary decisions were taken to allow two factions of the Sudan Liberation Army to be present, one headed by Abdul Wahid Mohamed Nur and the other by Minni Minawi.

Alex de Waal is a fellow of the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard University, and a director of Justice Africa.
His books include Famine that Kills: Darfur, Sudan, 1984-85 (Oxford University Press, 1989, revised edition, 2005), and (with Julie Flint) Darfur: A Short History of a Long War (Zed Books, 2006)

Also by Alex de Waal in openDemocracy:

"The African state and global governance"
(30 May 2003)

"Darfur's fragile peace"
(5 July 2006)

"The global aids campaign: a generation's struggle"
(22 August 2006)

A window closes

So, the Darfur peace talks did not represent a textbook mediation. The odds were stacked heavily against success. Most of the plenary meetings were farcical. We knew that no agreement would overcome the mutual suspicions, and that the more important deals would be made under the table, and would not be reflected in the formal agreement in the signing ceremony. But although the peace talks were slow, they were for real. They kept the rebel movements in a coherent set of discussions with each other, with the international community, and with the government. They held the government in check.

The fatal problem with the mediation was not that it existed, but that it was rushed to a premature conclusion in the first days of May. The reason for this was that the UN Security Council demanded that the mediation meet a wholly artificial deadline of 30 April to conclude the talks.

The mediation rushed to complete a text a week before this deadline, knowing that it could not possibly be properly negotiated in the days remaining. The hope was that a relatively fair text would be acceptable to the parties. Much of it was. In particular, all parts of the security-arrangements chapter and almost all of the wealth-sharing provisions had been discussed in advance, though not necessarily agreed. It was encouraging that, when the text was presented, all the rebels initially accepted the security arrangements text in its entirety and said that the wealth-sharing was "90%" of what they had hoped. Where they were disappointed was on the power-sharing, where the government still retained its majority in most institutions.

Many in the mediation team believed that with another month or six weeks, the Abdul Wahid Mohamed Nur faction could have been brought on board, giving the agreement the critical political mass needed to make the Darfur Peace Agreement work. Without this group, most of us knew that it simply wouldn't work, as Minawi's faction was too small and its reputation for human-rights abuses too bad to make it a trusted representative of Darfurians.

The remaining differences between Abdel Wahid and the government on 6 May were agonisingly small. I took the personal initiative of remaining behind in Abuja when everyone else left in the days after 5 May, and directly mediated between him and the government for another month. We came desperately close to an agreement, which, I firmly believe, would have tipped Darfur towards peace. What killed this process was Abdel Wahid's own erratic behaviour, which by July had caused even his most senior lieutenants to desert him and announce a new SLA leadership.

The people of Darfur face some grim options. UN troops, even if they can be agreed as a replacement for African Union forces after the latter's now extended mandate until the end of 2006, would be a stopgap measure at best. A mediated political settlement will not be easy. It is harder now than it was in May, as positions have polarised and distrust has deepened over the last few months. Without it, any elections in 2009 will be meaningless, and the achievements of the North-South Comprehensive Peace Agreement will unravel.

Or, as Prunier seems to propose, the international community could take sides, perhaps as the French did in Chad or Rwanda. Or, as he also seems to suggest, we could wait until "political-military control and positioning on the ground have been redefined by the combatants themselves" - a recipe that sounds rather like allowing the war to continue unchecked. How that could lead to a "true negotiation" in which the dominant Khartoum elites yield power to a new federation is a puzzle to me.

It is always easier to sit on the sidelines, foretell doom and demand the impossible. In Sudan, the doomsayers will often be proven right. Occasionally they are confounded, as with the January 2005 CPA. It is worth persisting with painstaking and flawed processes, and growing the thick skin that any constructive engagement requires, for those rare victories.

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