20 December 2007

Sudan: Peacekeepers for Darfur an Ongoing Source of Conflict


Khartoum — The hope for a lasting peace in Darfur is pinned on the deployment of 26,000 peacekeeping troops to the troubled region. However, squabbling between the many rebel factions, the Sudanese government and the international community still threatens to derail the process.

Operating under joint African Union and United Nations command, the force should have been in place by the end of 2007. But, according to Nouredinne Mezin, spokesman for the African Union Mission in Sudan, just 9,000 troops will be on the ground by this deadline, with more deployments to follow in 2008. The force has also not been given a single helicopter yet, despite requiring at least 24 to guarantee the safety of ground troops.

All sides have been trading accusations about why this delay has occurred.

Abu Al Gasim Seif Eldein, a prominent member of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), which has been in an uneasy alliance with the ruling National Congress Party since 2005, says: "The Sudanese government are finding all sorts of reasons not to comply with the decisions of the international community. The government has no intention of resolving this problem. It is a game for them -- appeasing the international community on one hand and frustrating the peace process on the other." The SPLM entered a power-sharing arrangement with government after signing a peace deal to end more than two decades of war in south Sudan.

But Mutrif Sidiq, under-secretary at the foreign affairs ministry, insists that government is doing everything it can to co-operate with the international demands. "Unfortunately, some of those working in the U.N. circle want to poison the relationship between Sudan and the U.N," he says. "It is very easy to hang the failures of the U.N. on the government of Sudan. The U.N. will never admit its own failings, and this is very frustrating for us."

One of the key sticking points to deployment of the force has been the make-up of the ground troops. Sudan has already invited international condemnation for turning down troops from Norway and Sweden. "Let's not forget that the hybrid operation is essentially an augmentation of the African Union force already on the ground," says Sidiq. "It is a necessary priority for ground troops to be African, so that they can be nearer to the people and build on what already exists."

The conclusions of a meeting that took place in Addis Ababa on Nov. 16, 2006 stipulate that: "The peacekeeping force will have a predominantly African character. The troops should, as far as possible, be sourced from African countries. Backstopping and command and control structures will be provided by the UN."

Sidiq says that his government is not opposed to non-African contributions in other areas of the operation, such as the support services. Any deficiencies in the African ground force can be made up by the international support teams, he argues.

It is sometimes too easy to see the Darfur conflict as being about Arab versus non-Arab, or government versus rebels. Reality is far more complex than this.

There has been fighting between ethnic groups in the region for many years. It is only recently, though, that the fighting has intensified, largely because of competition for scarce resources. Encroaching desertification in the region has prompted tribes to relocate, bringing them into contact and often conflict with tribes from other areas. Many in the international community accuse the Sudanese government of using traditional tribal rivalries to provoke war as part of a wider "Islamicisation" strategy.

There are estimated to be more than a dozen distinct rebel factions operating in Darfur, but most trace their origins back to one of two groups.

The Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) was established at the end of the 1980s, in response to attacks from Arab communities, backed by the government, against non-Arab farmers.

The Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) has quite different roots. In 1999, Hassan Al Turabi, leader of the National Islamic Front, sought to bring Muslims from Darfur into government in order to carve out a powerbase for himself in the region. When Al Turabi was thrown out of government in 1999, the Muslims he had brought in were also expelled and went on to form the JEM.

Although the rebel groups in Darfur are distinct from those in the south, many share the same ideologies and have supported each other in their fight against the government.

In recent years Darfur's rebel movements have splintered into numerous factions, each vying for dominance in the region. When Minni Minawi, leader of an SLA faction, signed up to the Darfur Peace Agreement in 2006, no other leader followed him.

The U.N. insists that a lasting peace is dependent on consolidation of rebel forces. Following a tour of the Darfur region recently, U.N. special envoy Jan Eliasson expressed satisfaction that there seemed to be some unity emerging -- though some rebel leaders, such as Abdul Wahid from the SLA and Khalil Ibrahim from JEM, continue to pursue separate agendas.

"We are optimistic about peace, so long as the government doesn't keep involving parties that are not directly involved in this conflict," says Ahmed Adam Bakhit, speaking on behalf of Ibrahim. JEM fighters have recently launched attacks on Chinese-owned oil installations, in a bid to force China out of the area. Internationally, Beijing has come under fire for its continued support of Sudan, in the face of the Darfur crisis.

What all sides seem able to agree on is that the prospect of a lasting peace in Darfur is a shaky one. Whilst those that fled fighting in south Sudan are slowly trickling back home, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) says that things are looking much less positive in Darfur. "Things could go either way. It is really a question of wait and see," says Gerard Waite, Darfur co-ordinator for the IOM.

Eldein says that some in government fear prosecution before the International Criminal Court (ICC) if there is a settlement for Darfur. The ICC has issued warrants for the arrest of Ahmad Muhammad Harun, minister for humanitarian affairs, and Ali Muhammad Al Abd-Al-Rahman, a militia leader. But Sidiq insists that, since Sudan is not a signatory to the ICC, it should not be subjected to its rules.

Looking ahead to 2008, Sidiq says: "I think of myself as an optimist, but this is conditional. If we go the same way we are going now and we absolve the rebels from responsibility, the picture will be very gloomy. But if we show firmness and commitment to what we have said before, that whoever is going to join the political process will be rewarded and those that do not will be punished, I think peace can be achieved."

Eldein also sees some reason to be hopeful, but for rather different reasons. He thinks that the tide could be turning against the government, and that some Arab groups in Darfur, which previously supported the government, could decide to unite with the rebels. "If this is true, things will become much easier," he predicts.

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