It is grimly ironic that a group of international eminences—the “Elders,” as they are called—arrived in Khartoum on Sunday, the same day more than 10 African Union peacekeepers were killed during a large-scale rebel attack near the village of Haskanita, in eastern North Darfur. Chaired by South African archbishop Desmond Tutu, the delegation, which also includes former US president Jimmy Carter and Lakhdar Brahimi, a former UN envoy to Iraq, offered earnest, but now familiar platitudes: “We, the Elders, are here because we care deeply for the fate of our planet, and we feel intensely for the suffering of millions of people in Darfur who yearn for nothing more than peace and dignity.” The rebel force—apparently comprising a faction of the Justice and Equality Movement and rogue commanders from the Sudan Liberation Army/Unity faction—took a savagely more expedient view of the situation, seizing a number of vehicles and other military equipment from the AU outpost.
Nothing can justify this barbaric attack against peacekeepers attempting, however feebly, to provide protection in Darfur. But the AU forces have been badly betrayed by their political and military leaders, particularly AU commissioner Alpha Oumar Konar, who has become abject in his deference to Khartoum, particularly on security issues. The AU leadership has also refused to respond to the legitimate concerns of rebel groups that did not sign last year’s ill-conceived and disastrously consummated Darfur Peace Agreement, including the rebel demand for more public and timely reports about atrocity crimes committed by Khartoum’s forces. This is also the same AU leadership that stubbornly refused to ask earlier for a UN takeover of the Darfur mission, even as its inadequacies were apparent to all, including a number of African leaders. These failings have all contributed to growing distrust, even hatred of the AU by Darfuris.
This is sadly just as true of civilians in the camps, which fearful AU civilian police no longer dare to enter. These camps, into which some people have been displaced for over four years, have become cauldrons of rage and despair, awash in weapons, and increasingly beyond the control of traditional leaders—the sheikhs and omdas who might prevent restless young men and boys from acquiring the guns that will make the camps the next front line in Khartoum’s genocidal counter-insurgency war in Darfur.
Rebel leaders complain with understandable anger that many AU reports on village bombing attacks and atrocities committed by Khartoum and its Janjaweed allies are never made public. In the Haskanita area, for example, there are strong indications that Khartoum and its Janjaweed allies had been actively engaged in attacks on civilian targets in preceding weeks. These attacks included offensive military flights, explicitly prohibited by UN Security Council Resolution 1591. Moreover, after the signing of the Darfur peace agreement, the AU also bowed to Khartoum’s demand that non-signatory rebel factions be excluded from the ceasefire commission, essentially ending any chance for balanced monitoring of the anemic ceasefire agreement. The lack of a mandate for civilian protection has also constantly compromised the standing of AU forces on the ground in Darfur.
For these and other reasons, securing the presence of rebel groups at the peace talks scheduled for later this month in Libya will be extremely difficult. Abdel Wahid el-Nur, founder of the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army, continues to refuse to participate in the talks. He has enormous, if diminishing, support within the camps, particularly among his fellow Fur tribesmen. As Darfuri civilians grow more impatient with negotiations that leave them languishing in camps, Abdel Wahid’s resistance to participating becomes all the more consequential. But the attack on Haskanita also reveals how easily a rebel faction can become a spoiler. Moreover, the rebel groups have also become much more fractious and divided over the past year. Divisions along ethnic, political, and personal lines have increasingly overcome the desperate need for military and particularly political unity. They will need to join together and engage in the talks with a real unity of purpose, if they are to succeed.
But the peace talks are also destined to fail without a great deal more pressure on Khartoum to negotiate in good faith. This means accepting that the current peace agreement is a dead letter for both the rebels and Darfuri civilians, and that arrangements for security, compensation and power-sharing will need substantial modification. Of particular importance are international guarantors for the security provisions in any agreement, preeminently the disarming of the Janjaweed and the various paramilitary forces into which they have been recycled. Only with such disarmament will people dare to leave the camps and return to their villages.
It is a perverse irony, then, that the rebel attack on Haskanita will almost certainly strengthen the regime’s hand. By portraying itself as the AU’s ally against the rebels, even as it continues to oppose the deployment of a genuinely hybrid force, this cabal of gnocidaires may extract from the international community a more forgiving diplomatic attitude. But there is an alternative response. While the outrageous attack on AU peacekeepers in Haskanita can lead to more hand-wringing, more unctuous talk from international figures like the Elders, more excessively broad condemnation of all rebel leaders, it can also provide the catalyst for a serious effort to confront Khartoum, the essential first step in bringing real security to Darfur. The latter is distinctly the more important effort.
[Eric Reeves is author of “A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide”]