The world greeted the signing of the Darfur peace agreement (DPA) by the government of Sudan and the largest of the three rebel movements on 5 May 2006 with a sigh of relief. But while the accord does offer a necessary first step towards ending the carnage, a lot more needs to be done if peace is to return to the beleaguered region of western Sudan.
The origin of today's humanitarian disaster lies in the political conflict that erupted in this region in 2003. The Sudanese government responded disproportionately to a small rebellion launched by groups of young men in March of that year, in protest against the marginalisation and neglect of their region and the deadly attacks on their indigenous communities throughout the previous decade by militiamen of Arab origin. The government's army led these same militias, known as the janjaweed, into an indiscriminate counter-insurgency campaign targeted at these same communities.
Suliman Baldo is Africa programme director at the International Crisis Group
Also on Darfur and the region in openDemocracy:
Caspar Henderson, "Rwanda, Sudan and beyond: lessons from Africa"
Gareth Evans, "Genocide in Sudan? An open letter to world leaders"
"Darfur: countdown to catastrophe"
Katharine Houreld, "Darfur's slow burn"
(10 May 2006)
The campaign has so far left more than 200,000 people dead and forcibly displaced more than 2 million, mostly from the nomadic and sedentary Zaghawa and the settled Fur and Massaleit peoples, who collectively identify themselves as Africans though in Darfur's deceptive environment, victims and perpetrators are all black and all followers of sunni Islam. The cruelty of the government's actions sent thousands of survivors to the ranks of the rebellion. Darfurians inside the country and abroad became engaged, mainly on the side of the rebels, providing them with political backing and resources.
The rapid and uncontrolled growth of the movements proved a complicating factor, as their political action is generally weak, and their military command and control diffuse. The largest of the movements, the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLA), formally split in 2005 into two factions after months of wrangling among its leaders. One faction is headed by Abdel Wahid Mohamed Nur, who commands the following of his Fur people. The rival faction, led by Minni Minawi, is militarily stronger, with fighters predominantly from the Zaghawa people. Only the latter signed the Darfur peace agreement.
A fragile agreement
The DPA rests on several shaky pillars that all need urgent shoring up if the pact is to hold. Its protocols for wealth and power-sharing purport to address the political grievances at the origin of the conflict, but the Sudanese government made few concessions to the Darfur movements in both areas. This is best exemplified by the size of Khartoum's commitment a pathetic $30 million to a compensation commission the DPA establishes to help more than 2.5 million war victims restart their lives literally from the ashes of their homes and farms.
It is, however, the agreement's ceasefire protocol that needs the most attention. Whether the DPA will live or die will depend on the implementation of its security provisions. Without this, the rebels will not disarm and the displaced and refugees will not return that is, the war will not be over.
Unfortunately, the DPA relies far too much on the government to carry out many of the accord's provisions. For example, Khartoum is solely responsible for disarming the janjaweed despite the government's failure to comply with earlier commitments under United Nations security-council resolutions requiring it to neutralise them.
Another weakness is the African Union's lack of capacity to undertake all the implementation tasks the DPA demands of it. These include the verification of the assembly and disarmament processes for the janjaweed and later for the movement's fighters; the establishment and enforcement of buffer zones around camps for the internally displaced and the main humanitarian corridors from which the parties are excluded; and the separation of the parties' areas of control. The African Union peacekeepers are already overwhelmed with the serious deterioration of the security situation in the region, and they have little capacity or expertise to take on these new tasks.
At the political level, the first test for the African Union mediators who brokered the Abuja deal is to stay focused on broadening the buy-in of additional stakeholders beyond the SLA's Minni faction. Abdel Wahid has been holding out for a supplement letter to be appended to the agreement committing the government to boosting the compensation fund, allowing for greater SLA involvement in providing security for civilians as they return to their original homes, and granting it a role in the supervising the disarmament of the janjaweed. These are not unreasonable demands, and no effort should be spared to bring Abdel Wahid and his followers on board. His rejection of the agreement was in large part a contributing factor in the demonstrations and rioting that broke out in the displacement camps in rejection of the agreement. The African Union has given the holdouts until the end of May to either accept the deal as is or face sanctions, but in the meantime, it has failed to put in place a proper process to secure Abdel Wahid's signature.
The internationals' role
Rebel fragmentation is already playing out in other ways, challenging the implementation of the agreement. The Minni faction has the largest number of fighters, but its command exercises only loose control over them, and some might be tempted to act independently from their leaders. The smaller Justice & Equality Movement (JEM), who rejected the agreement, has little military presence on the ground, but it has proven political and propaganda savvy and thus could act as a real spoiler for the DPA. All the more reason why the African Union and its international partners should continue the effort to persuade Abdel Wahid to sign the agreement so as to broaden its constituency and isolate the hardliners.
In March and April, JEM helped President Idriss Dèby of neighbouring Chad to repel a succession of serious attempts to topple his regime led by Chadian armed groups backed by the Sudanese government. Deby has returned the favour by supporting an alliance of Darfur movements that are predominantly Zaghawa formed in January 2006. Dèby and members of his ruling circles are themselves Zaghawa, but since the signing of the DPA, he has distanced himself from the SLA's Minni faction and appears to be keeping JEM in reserve to retaliate against any further destabilisation attempts by his opponents who are still recruiting in Sudan.
Finally, the Darfur pact does not direct or mandate planning for the anticipated takeover of peacekeeping operations in Darfur by the United Nations. Close coordination between the African Union and the UN will be crucial for the success of the DPA during the intermediary period between its signing and the handover of the peacekeeping operation to the UN, which should now take place before October. Given the fragility of the agreement and the risks it is facing, the UN would be well advised to prepare for a robust mission, with a clear mandate to protect civilians under Chapter VII of the UN charter and with the capability to keep in check both rebel spoilers and government hardliners who might be tempted to continue experimenting with regime change across the border in Chad.