The hardliners in power in Khartoum have done it again. Like magicians who divert your attention with a bit of flash while they perform their deceit elsewhere, President Omar al-Bashir and the leadership in Khartoum have changed the terms of the debate with the international community with their cynical expulsion of international relief agencies that tended to three million displaced persons in Darfur. No longer is the focus of international pressure on the government’s failure to pursue peace in Darfur, its faltering commitment to implementation of the 2005 North-South peace agreement, its failure to address regional crises in the Abyei and south Kordofan, or the charges of war crimes against its president.
Instead, the Khartoum clique has turned the international community into supplicants pleading for the right to return and help save the lives of Sudanese people. Even more impressive, Khartoum has put foreign governments and respected relief agencies on the defensive, having to prove that their internal reporting on the massive rapes, human rights abuses by the government, and continuing attacks by the state-sponsored proxy militia -- the Janjaweed -- do not represent “spying” on behalf of the International Criminal Court.
This strategy has been successful because the expulsion of international relief agencies makes a huge difference for the Sudanese people. Khartoum claims that its own forces, supplemented by a few UN bodies and some neophyte NGOs, can distribute food and medicine to the displaced persons. Given that the World Food Programme has just distributed food to cover the next 60 days, there may indeed be a delay in seeing the full deadly impact of the government’s decision.
But relief operations are about much more than doling out supplies. They involve monitoring malnourished children and providing targeted therapeutic feeding that only a few specialized NGOs can accomplish. They involve sophisticated water and sanitation programs that keep cholera and other water-borne diseases under control, requiring specialized expertise. They involve integrated systems for displaced persons outside the camps, including food-for-work season programs to rehabilitate infrastructure. Once the rainy returns in another six weeks or so, the importance of experience and well-equipped NGOs will become even more vital.
Further, the expulsion of humanitarian agencies from Darfur is affecting surrounding regions, where these groups also operated. Already shaky regions such as the Blue Nile, South Kordofan and Abyei have lost vital relief and recovery assistance, making them far more unstable. Security in these regions is essential to implement the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the north and south, which ended decades of civil war costing millions of lives.
Meanwhile, President al-Bashir parades around his region, posing as an Islamic David standing up to the Western Goliath, and the expulsion of the relief agencies as the slingshot he is using to bring down his tormentors. Despite the fact that the victims in Darfur are all Muslims, this strategy has proven effective with many fellow leaders in the Arab League and African Union, causing unhelpful rifts in international efforts to bring peace to Darfur and the rest of Sudan.
Still, there are signs that Khartoum may have gone too far. Public displays of support from Arab and African leaders are grudgingly given, and are accompanied by private statements that Khartoum expulsion of aid agencies was both a moral and tactical blunder, showing its callous disregard for its own people.
Further, the Obama Administration has tapped Scott Gration as his special envoy to Sudan, tasking him – along with Senator John Kerry -- with testing the value of engaging the regime. With Obama’s own brand of magic behind him, Gration will first push for the full restoration of humanitarian assistance for the displaced. If Bashir senses that his martyr’s role is wearing thin, the sands may indeed start shifting.
But Gration cannot stop there, as he well knows. He needs to build on any progress in negotiations by securing tangible and permanent steps from Khartoum to produce a peaceful settlement of the Darfur crisis, including through ongoing negotiations; to end its annihilation campaign in Darfur; and to guarantee Darfuri participation in next year’s general elections. The ruling National Congress Party must also fully implement its side of the CPA, including by rapidly demarcating the 1956 North-South border, repealing repressive laws on the media and civil society, and making national security and intelligence agencies accountable to other national institutions.
At the same time, the Darfur rebel groups and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement must also be pressed to demonstrate equal commitments to a peaceful settlement in Darfur and implementation of the CPA. In particular, the various Darfuri factional leaders must be told that they cannot sit comfortably in Paris, London and Ndjamena and use Bashir’s actions as an excuse to stay away from peace talks in Doha, Qatar. They do not get to pick their negotiating partner, and refusing to talk would only hurt their own people.
The fate of the people of Darfur and the rest of Sudan depends upon whether the international community can avoid falling for Bashir’s latest act of legerdemain, and keep its eyes on the true prize: a just and lasting peace in Sudan.
Fouad Hikmat is the Horn of Africa Project Director for the International Crisis Group. Donald Steinberg, Deputy President for Policy for the International Crisis Group, served as President Clinton’s special assistant for African affairs.