Khartoum, October 2011
Adam Yaqub, Shangal Tobay, Darfur, 2005.
It took me a long minute to recognize Adam Yaqub Sherif. The first and last time I had met him, in 2005, he was proudly wearing the standard uniform of the Darfur rebel – kalashnikov, turban expertly wrapped around his head, Thuraya satellite phone and charm-filled leather bags around his neck. He was the very icon of the young rebellion, and this had not gone unnoticed by the few Western humanitarians who had met him. They had nicknamed him « the handsome commmander of Shangal Tobay » - the area of eastern Darfur he controlled on behalf of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA).
Six years later, Shangal Tobay was retaken by the government. Its population of Zaghawa - the tribe Adam Yaqub is from - was accused of supporting the rebels, and so pushed into camps for the displaced.
When I find him again, Adam Yaqub is hiding in a house in Khartoum, and looks thinner, tired, and still suffering from a bullet which penetrated his back during fighting in 2004. He is still the picture of the Darfur rebellion: weakened, consistently fragmenting into factions, and increasingly disliked by the international community. There is real fatigue vis-à-vis this seemingly endless Darfur conflict, now relegated far below priorities such as Syria or Libya. At most, international players blame the rebels who refuse to sign peace with the government, endlessly imposing conditions. Some of the rebels have even been 'sanctioned' by the United Nations Security Council. Adam Yaqub is one of them.
For eight months, from February to September 2011, I was part of the group of 'experts' charged, amongst other things, with proposing to the Security Council a list of individuals who should be sanctioned, and of monitoring existing sanctions. Created in 2005, the 'Panel of experts on the Sudan' is neither the most well-known nor the most influential institution, but in theory, acting under the famous 'Chapter VII' , it was given substantial powers, including that of proposing 'sanctions' on individuals involved in the Darfur war. This could be for all kind of reasons – from recruiting child-soldiers to the refusal to participate to peace talks, including, naturally, any kind of human rights violation.
The sanctions themselves can appear limited (individuals are forbidden to travel outside their country and their financial assets have to be frozen), but the initial idea was that, if well implemented, they ought to have an impact on the decisions of key players in the conflict.
The first time I entered the office of the Panel of experts - well worn, garish wall-to-wall carpet, grey metal furniture and a pervasive tobacco smell, on the fifth floor of an Addis Ababa building - one of those raw concrete 60s blocks that blight the Ethiopian capital - I immediately noticed, sellotaped to the wall, a large sheet of white paper entitled 'individual sanctions' and covered in Sudanese names written with a black felt-tip pen. Included were high government officials, little tribal chiefs, and, of course, the rebels. Here were the traces of a brainstorming during which the former Panel had designated individuals it deemed to deserve sanctions.
Since 2006, successive Panels have proposed to the Security Council tens of individuals: it goes from heads of State (the Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, of course, but also his Chadian counterpart Idriss Déby) and other government officials, to leaders of the countless Darfur rebel factions. But until now, the Security Council has only validated the experts' suggestions for four individuals (and that in 2006): Adam Yaqub, Jibril Abdelkarim aka « Tek », Musa Hilal and Ja’far Mohamed El-Hassan. The list is an interesting sample of the various actors of the Darfur conflict, each one's trajectory illustrating this war's complexity. It also showed, at the time, a clear desire for balance – two individuals who were then clearly aligned to the government and two others who were rebels.
On the government side was a Sudanese army general, Ja’far Mohamed El-Hassan, commander of the forces deployed in Darfur in 2004-6; and Musa Hilal, the traditional chief of the Mahamid Arab tribe in North Darfur, known to have been one of the main leaders of the suppletive militias called 'Janjaweed', responsible of countless destructions of villages at the height of the conflict in 2003-5. On the rebel side, Adam Yaqub also has an interesting trajectory: before joining the SLA in Darfur, he had spent six years in the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army), the rebel movement of South Sudan which played an important role in the raising of a 'brother movement' in Darfur. As for the second rebel leader, Jibril ‘Tek’ is a former colonel of the Chadian army who became the chief of staff of Darfur's second rebel group, the JEM (Justice and Equality Movement), before deciding to play solo and found the NMRD (National Movement for Reform and Development).
In this game – listing suspects – you quickly end up playing the cop. But a good cop is supposed to meet and question the suspects. Successive experts never met any of the four sanctioned individuals, with the exception of general Ja’far, before he was sanctioned. Khartoum's representatives repeated to each successive panel that Ja’far had been unfairly sanctioned and that anyway, as he was now retired, imposing sanctions on him was pointless.
The fact that successive experts didn't meet the three other individuals is more surprising. Of course, war chiefs, rebels or janjaweed are often distrustful, but many are also eager for contacts with the international community. Musa Hilal, for instance, has for a long time shown himself open to dialogue with Western diplomats. This is confirmed by a confidential US code-cable published in 2011 by Wikileaks, based on a 2009 meeting between the US chargé in Khartoum and Hilal, who was particulary critical of his government: « He repeatedly emphasised that the loyalty of Darfur’s Arab tribes, and presumably his own, is up for grabs, if the West is interested », the code-cable says. At the same time, the Arab chief told me: « Since 2005, I told members of the international community to forget about the government and help us bring all Darfurians together – rebel leaders and tribal leaders like myself, I am sure we can reach an agreement. »
Needless to say, the government is embarrassed by these declarations. I remember an appointment Hilal had given me in Khartoum, when, as I arrived in front of his luxury villa, I was informed he had just left. The guards at the door were not his usual young kinsmen – I would be told later they had just been replaced by intelligence officers, and that the security services had summoned Hilal in an emergency, under suspicion of preparing a coup...
“ Nobody from the United Nations informed me of sanctions against me,” Musa Hilal told me when I finally managed to meet him again. “I was informed about them through local media only.” Adam Yaqub told me exactly the same thing. This actually seems to be a common practice in UN sanctions regimes. For instance, according to former experts of the Panel on Côte d’Ivoire, several individuals in this country had also learned they were sanctioned in the local media. A former Panel recommended a change to this practice, but it seemed this advice was not heeded.
Adam Yaqub also learnt from the media that he was now called 'Shant', a name or a nickname he had never heard before. It's probably an acronym borrowed by mistake, by a UN expert, from the Africain Union (AU) mission then in charge to 'keep peace' in Darfur, whose reports sometimes used 'Shant' for 'Shangal Tobay', the town where Adam Yaqub was a commander. Since, the nickname has re-appeared in UN documents, as have many other mistakes: thus Adam Yaqub's birth is dated as « circa 1976 », though he was born six years before...
These inaccuracies have been published on the « List of individuals subject to measures imposed by paragraph 3 of Resolution 1591 », which also includes justifications for sanctioning them – and those look sometimes very light, to say the least. For instance, Adam Yaqub is accused of having « violated the cease-fire agreement by attacking a Government of Sudan military contingent that was escorting a convoy of trucks near Abu Hamra, Northern Darfur on July 23, 2005 ». At the time, the 2004 cease-fire had been violated on countless occasions by the two sides. In August 05, working for one of the few international NGOs present in the area of Abu Hamra and Shangal Tobay, I had travelled there. I had noted that the area had been attacked by the government five times in 04 after the cease-fire, and already three times in the first half of 05. « Abu Hamra was our main camp, we were just reacting to attacks by the government into our area », Adam Yaqub remembered, implying the government was the one to violate the cease-fire.
For sure, government forces violated the cease-fire the next day (24 July 05) when, in response to fighting the day before, they attacked Shangal Tobay as well as neighbouring villages and IDP camps - violences that are not mentioned in the list of the sanctioned individuals.
At the time, the NGO for which I was working had drawn conclusions very different from those of the UN – its July 2005 Situation Report bears as headline: « Noticeable breach of cease-fire by the government of Sudan in Shangal Tobay on 24th July ». But the sanctions against Adam Yaqub seem to be based on less direct, and maybe biased, sources, in particular testimonies of 'W1' and 'W2', two African Union officers based in Khor Abeshe, some fifty kms from Shangal Tobay.
« AU interviewed me three times after this battle, I felt they were on the government’s side, » Adam Yaqub told me. AU troops in Darfur have often been criticized for their lack of neutrality and their failure to protect civilians, including during the 2005 incidents in Shangal Tobay. The area, regretted the same NGO Situation Report, “was supposed to be very safe thanks to the presence (…) of 144 AU soldiers, [but it] did not deter the government soldiers from attacking.”
The AU is also clearly at the origin of the sanctions against Jibril 'Tek', who was specifically accused, in 2005 as well, of kidnapping 18 AU soldiers for a few hours as well as of threatening to shoot down AU helicopters – neither incident causing any casualty.
Tek recognizes that he threatened to shoot the helicopters because “at this time, the government was shooting us with helicopters painted in white so that we confused them with those of the AU.” But as soon as the AU did respect the rebels' wish to be warned in advance of the flights, there was no more problem, he explains. However he denies any responsibility in the kidnapping, for which he's blaming another rebel chief, Mohamed Saleh Harba. A press correspondent who visited the area and met the hostages soon after their release confirms: “Tek wasn’t present himself… One of the hostages, an Egyptian, pretended to have been sitting beside one Jibril, but he had no evidence it was Tek. He didn’t know him before. »
The basis for sanctioning Jibril « Tek » for his responsibility in this incident doesn’t seem much stronger than that.
The same press correspondent also believed it was unlikely Musa Hilal was responsible for the attacks for which he was sanctioned – against villages and camps in the northern part of West Darfur in September 05: « I don’t think Musa Hilal has ever been in this area. » Chief of the Mahamid Arabs of North Darfur, Hilal could have been sanctioned for attacks in his region, but he can easily deny any responsibility in the far West. Even a fellow tribesman known for having been arrested by Hilal asserts: « he never fought in this area. »
Meeting sanctioned individuals, I also realized the sanctions were violated at multiple times – all seem to have kept crossing borders quietly. Adam Yaqub needed treatment for the bullet in his back and couldn't find it in Sudan. In 2010, he spent more than three months in Egypt, with a passport in his name and a visa in due form. In mid-2009, Musa Hilal also went to Egypt but for other reasons – to talk peace with JEM rebel leaders. The trip was authorized by the Egyptian government, and Hilal told me he had met Omar Suleiman, then head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate. « The US Intelligence also was well informed, » Hilal claimed. « I met some Americans when I was in Cairo, but they came to greet only - I did not have real interaction with them. »
Later on, on 19 February 2011, Musa Hilal travelled to Chad as one of more than eighty members of a Darfurian delegation come to present condolences to president Idriss Déby, one week after his mother's death. “The reason I went there is simply because I have a good relationship with him,” Hilal told me. “It’s not only a political relationship, it’s a biological one, we have some family bonds from our grandfathers.”
Although an Arab leader, Hilal claims to have ancestors from the Zaghawa, President Déby’s cross-border tribe. The code-cable published by Wikileaks quoted him saying: “The political leader I am closest to and admire is President Déby of Chad.” In the past, President Déby had also invited Hilal and his representatives to Chad to negotiate with Darfur rebels, behind the back of the Sudanese government.
Since 2005, most of Musa Hilal's travels to neighbouring countries, in violation of the sanctions, seem to have been aimed at dialogue with the rebels. Listening to him as he evokes his convictions on Darfur unity and peace, attempting to evaluate his sincerity in his broken voice, his rare smile, his eyes strangely lined with kohl (as some sheikhs of the Arabian Peninsula do), is an antidote against any temptation of a simplistic reading of the conflict as a 'racial' war between 'Africans and Arabs'. A few days ago, I was chatting with a non-Arab chief whose son had recently been murdered by one of Musa Hilal’s militia leader. At the end he asked me to drop him at Hilal’s office – I understood they were going to solve the problem between themselves, behind the back of the government and of the international community.
Leaving this complexity unnoticed, one of the few Western journalists who interviewed Musa Hilal labelled him 'the Monster of Darfur'. There's of course no doubt he has been one of the main leaders of the so-called ‘Janjaweed’ pro-government militias, predominantly recruited from amongst Arabs. He is now also a member of the government: in 2008, he was appointed by president al-Bashir adviser on tribal and local affairs, and in 2010 he was elected in Parliament. However he has always, and increasingly, presented himself as very autonomous from the government, and keen to participate in any peace talks, notably those which have taken place in Doha, Qatar, since 2009. Rebel leaders agree that he could play a positive role in the peace process. On the condition that he could travel...
In the first half of 2011, with an unusual boldness, officials from the UN-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) proposed to invite Hilal to the Doha talks. But the idea was abandoned – UNAMID and the joint UN-African Union mediation were affraid, probably rightly, that the presence in Doha of such a controversial figure would trigger criticism from international payers and the media. It doesn't seem that the sanctions were taken into account. « We were working for peace, » a former member of the mediation told me. « So these sanctions didn’t really matter, no? »
Thus the UN can violate their own rules? Yes, as is proven by the case of Jibril 'Tek'. I can't remember the number of drinks I’ve had with the sanctioned rebel chief on the terrace of Doha's Mövenpick Tower and Suites Hotel, since, in August 2010, UNAMID flew 'Tek' to Qatar. Carrying a very official 'laissez passer' issued by the joint mediation team, 'Tek' spent nearly one year hosted in Mövenpick's luxury tower, in the middle of the Qatari capital's futuristic and excentric skyscrapers. Also invited, Adam Yaqub declined – he was in hospital in Egypt. In none of the cases did the UN mediators ask the Security Council its authorization to ignore the travel ban.
That the UN don't respect their own sanctions is serious enough. But there could have been negative consequences if the sanctions, strictly implemented, had prevented players of the conflict to join the peace talks.
UN bureaucrats should have realized the conflict and its actors had evolved, and that some of the sanctioned individuals, if they were not necessarily committed to peace in 2005, had changed. Here is the dilemma: the sanctions are supposed to contribute to ending the violence, but, while 'criminalizing' players of the conflict, they can also endanger peace. « Whatever peace process can emerge on Darfur that does not involve me means nothing,” Musa Hilal told me.
While the Darfur peace process was sinking, the idea grew, amongst international payers, to sanction rebel leaders refusing to join the talks. In 2010, one of those was proposed by the experts. For once, the motive was justified: the SLA's founder Abdelwahid Mohamed Nur has systematically refused all negotiations since 2006. The Security Council was about to make him the fifth sanctioned individual, but the US had finally frozen the process. For two reasons, according to Western diplomats: the justification of the sanctions against the rebel chief would be legally insufficient and above all sanctioning him might not have the desired effect of obliging him to join the talks without conditions. It was feared that sanctioning Abdelwahid would give him further legitimacy.
When I told the UN that I felt that the parties to a conflict should have the right to refuse negotiations, in particular when, as is the case in Darfur, a peace process is undermined by international divisions, UN bureaucrats reacted nervously.
No way can you criticize international players, was I unambiguously told. It's not useful, as they can't be sanctioned. Only local actors can be, and especially rebels. Indeed, after nine years of war, the Security Council can only agree on minimal points – like blaming the rebels. The government is a more difficult target, since, as with Syria, China and Russia systematically oppose the attempts of the three Western Security Council members.
No matter, then, that the system is inefficient, unfair or even damaging for peace, what matters is hiding the international community's deep divisions and maintaining the illusion that the UN acts with force in Darfur.
It's worth remembering that the international community only mobilized very late on Darfur, in early 2004, after one year of extreme violence. More, this awakening only happened thanks to the tenth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, with a simplistic speech: Darfur was another Rwanda, the West had thus the opportunity to repair its fault of not having been able to act in Rwanda.
Was the reaction adequate? The first result was an unprecedented humanitarian deployment (the most important international operation since the Marshall Plan), but whose freedom of manoeuvre has since then been relentlessly shrinking.
Possibly much more vital issues were left to young, and not necessarily compatible, international actors. Thus the peace talks and peace keeping were given to the brand new African Union before they were finally transferred to AU-UN 'hybrid' institutions, with no better success. In March 2005, as this was not enough, the Security Council decided to show more of its muscle and asked the International Criminal Court (itself very young), to judge the crimes committed in Darfur. Two days before, the Council had decided not only the creation of individual sanctions, but also an arms embargo which proved to be equaly inefficient (limited just to Darfur, it was not preventing arms sales to Sudan).
Was this accumulation of resolutions without effect the best mean to end the war – or only a cheap way for states (in particular the US) to claim that this time, yes, they would not remain helpless in front of violence?
In September 2011, I resigned from the United Nations.
The sanctions kept being violated. Adam Yaqub travelled to Chad, then Uganda, then to the new State of South Sudan.
In February 2012, Musa Hilal declared that the sanctions had not prevented him from travelling to various countries. On January 20th, his ties with Chad were reinforced by the wedding of his daughter with president Déby. UNAMID’s head, Ibrahim Gambari, was criticized for attending the ceremony. In doing so, he witnessed another violation of the sanctions: Hilal received a considerable dowry ($25 million according to the media, although Chadian sources say it was much lower than that, less than $1 million) in exchange for his daughter, while his assets are supposed to be frozen. But maybe Gambari thinks engaging with all players, even those identified as criminals, can be useful for peace in Darfur. In that case, it was worth attending the wedding.
Also in February, the Security Council unanimously renewed the mandate of the Sudan Panel – barely « expressing its concern that the travel ban and asset freeze was not being implemented by all States » (but what about the UN themselves?). « What’s the point of U.N. sanctions in Darfur when even the U.N. flouts them ? » asked the Washington Post’s UN correspondent, Colum Lynch.
On May 2, after the resumption of the war at the border between Sudan and South Sudan, also involving rebels from Darfur and other restive areas of Sudan, the Security Council adopted Resolution #2046, requesting the governments of Sudan and South Sudan to « immediately cease all hostilities », « withdraw all of their armed forces to their side of the border », « activate, within no more than a week of the adoption of this resolution » a demilitarised border zone, and urging Khartoum « to permit humanitarian access to the affected population » of the rebel areas of South Kordofan and Blue Nile. The UN threatened, in case of non compliance, « to take appropriate additional measures under Article 41 ». This means sanctions, again. I doubt Khartoum, Juba or the Sudanese rebels were frightened. Only last week did they finally sign an agreement to activate the demilitarised zone, and there is still much to do to solve the two Sudans’ merging conflicts.
In May, I also learned that Adam Yaqub, during yet another trip to Egypt, had been diagnosed with cancer and told his days were numbered. But I'm convinced that, dying or dead, he will still remain for some time on the sanctions list of the Security Council. The show must go on.
The individuals I have written about here should not have been sanctioned:
- first because the UN - including most of its so-called experts - are not knowledgeable enough to identify individuals who really deserve sanctions;
- second because it is impossible to ensure that the motives in sanctioning them are solid enough;
- third, the UN does not have the power to make sure the sanctions are properly implemented;
- fourth because the UN is unable to ensure coherence in the sanctions regime, making sure that if one person is sanctioned for one particular crime, another person responsible of the same or a similar crime should be sanctioned as well; this, by the way is less the responsibility of the experts than of the member states, and the fact that they're not able to agree on which major players to sanction);
- fifth and maybe most importantly, at least in the Darfur case, the sanctions are or might be endangering the peace process, which should be the UN's priority.
When Western member states really want to act on a file that, like Darfur, they labelled as a humanitarian priority, but don't find consensus for action within the Security Council, they do not hesitate to act without the UN. We can only conclude that in the case of Sudan, they never really wanted to act and have been happy to maintain the illusion that the UN is acting. When action fails, they can blame - and eventually even sanction - the local players for a mess that is in fact in part of their own making.