In a matter of days, the African Union (AU) makes a decision that will do much to determine the future of the fledgling organization. At the Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) summit of January 29-30, it will either elect the President of Khartoum’s National Islamic Front (NIF) regime to chairmanship of the AU—or it will elect the head of another African country, one not responsible for massive, ongoing genocidal destruction. To be sure, the world outside Africa has been scandalously unresponsive to the four-year counter-insurgency war that Khartoum has waged against the non-Arab or African populations of Darfur, a campaign that has now claimed half a million lives and produced a conflict-affected population of some 5 million civilians in Darfur itself and neighboring eastern Chad. But the AU itself has in many ways been just as unresponsive, both politically and diplomatically. Militarily, the under-equipped and under-manned AU force on the ground in Darfur has performed poorly, without an appropriate civilian protection mandate, and is now badly demoralized. The AU recognizes that it desperately needs augmentation by non-African forces—something Khartoum adamantly refuses to accept.
But it is the issue of the AU chairmanship that is on the immediate horizon, and it will tell us a great deal about whether the AU is any better than its corrupt predecessor, the Organization of African Unity. This impending determination will also give us an important clue about whether the AU is finally prepared to stand up to Khartoum and make the appropriate demand for deployment of protection forces to Darfur. The world outside Africa has been hamstrung responding to Darfur in large measure because the AU itself has for so long refused to acknowledge its current limitations, even as the organization certainly represents the future of peacekeeping and inter-state security in Africa.
Certainly nothing entitles the NIF gnocidaires, or Omar al-Bashir in particular, to the AU chairmanship, despite the implicit deal struck last year when the AU summit was held in Khartoum. In return for waiting a year, and presuming things improved in Darfur, the NIF would be given the AU chair, so the arrangement went. This was in one sense modestly encouraging: for the first time, the symbolically important role of AU chairman was not given to the government of the host country. Instead, Congolese President Dennis Sassou Nguesso was elected. Nguesso was hardly an ideal candidate, but at least he was not orchestrating genocide.
But of course all the reasons that rightly worked to deny Khartoum the AU chairmanship last year still obtain. In fact, conditions in Darfur have deteriorated very badly over the past year, despite the signing of the poorly conceived Darfur Peace Agreement (May 2005, Abuja Nigeria). Khartoum’s August military offensive and large-scale re-mobilizing of the brutal Janjaweed militias ensured that no security could be achieved for either civilians or humanitarians. Moreover, there are almost daily reports of Khartoum’s indiscriminate bombing of civilian villages in rebel-held territory. Indeed, when the AU recently attempted to broker a cease-fire with non-signatory rebel groups, the response of the regime was to bomb the site of the meeting, despite explicit promises not to.
Humanitarian operations are on the verge of collapse, and fourteen UN organizations—including the World Food Program—declared last week that while they have “been holding the line for the survival and protection of millions,” “that line cannot be held much longer.” Nongovernmental humanitarian organizations are even more explicit in their dire assessments of security. In the event that these organizations are forced to withdraw because of Khartoum-orchestrated violence, civilian mortality will be catastrophic—potentially in excess of 100,000 lives a month, according to a grim prognosis from Jan Egeland, former head of UN humanitarian operations.
There are no specific grounds for determining the presidency of the AU other than rotation among Africa’s different regions. But responsibility for genocide must certainly constitute, in all cases, grounds for disqualification. Such basic moral common sense is as important for the long-term viability of the AU as it is for Darfur. As Human Rights Watch put it last week, “awarding Sudan the chairmanship would not only reward the sponsors of crimes against humanity in Darfur, it would irreparably discredit the AU.”
And Darfur cannot afford a discredited AU. If the AU hopes to play any role in providing security on the ground or authority for the diplomatic auspices necessary to forge a real peace agreement, one with meaningful security guarantees and guarantors, then it can’t be led by the brutal security cabal that has engineered this cataclysm of human suffering and destruction. Indeed, the most militarily potent Darfuri rebel group has sent clear signals that if the AU elects al-Bashir as chair, it will have nothing more to do with the organization. It is difficult to imagine a more catastrophic confluence of military, diplomatic, and humanitarian developments.
The AU must summon the finally modest political courage necessary to say no to Khartoum’s gnocidaires. Failure in this critical moment will be a disaster both for the organization and the people of Darfur.
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