Darfur’s vast and complex catastrophe has increasingly come to be perceived through the narrow lens of an impending ruling by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges brought against Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir. In July, ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo provided evidence to a three judge panel that al-Bashir was guilty of crimes against humanity and genocide throughout the region. A ruling is widely expected in the very near term, which could result in an arrest warrant for a sitting head of state, a matter of no small interest.
But despite Moreno-Ocampo’s finding that al-Bashir used the entire state apparatus to conduct genocide in Darfur, he has chosen not to name some other members of the regime who bear major responsibility for the atrocities that have been perpetrated on a massive scale since 2002, and indeed earlier. Moreno-Ocampo’s focus is perplexingly singular, and obliges us to bear in mind that Sudan is not ruled by an elected or representative government of legitimate officials. The National Islamic Front (NIF), disingenuously re-named the National Congress party, is a brutal regime that came to power by military coup in 1989 and for 20 years has steadily arrogated to itself virtually all national wealth and power. And the most powerful men within this regime are just as guilty as al-Bashir of the crimes in Darfur that Moreno-Ocampo has, with a mandate from the UN security council, investigated for almost four years.
Two of these men in particular are likely to vie for the role of head of state should it become politically expedient to remove al-Bashir, who is fast losing support for his intransigent position in dealing with the ICC, both within Sudan as well as internationally, even within the Arab League. The first is Ali Osman Taha, currently the second vice-president, and the other is Nafie Ali Nafie, who has dramatically increased his power in recent years as presidential adviser. Notably, what both men have in common is their personal responsibility for handling the Darfur file Taha beginning in 2004 and Nafie beginning in 2007. They, even more than al-Bashir, have set the regime on its present course of continuing genocide by attrition.
Both Taha and Nafie are already competing for support from other members of the NIF inner circle, as well as the army, which remains a powerful political force. What this highlights is that al-Bashir is not, and has never been, entirely in control of the regime apparatus. The decision in 1999 to sideline the powerful Islamist ideologue Hassan al-Turabi, for example, is widely known to have been a collective NIF decision by an inner gang of 10. Similarly, if al-Bashir faces an arrest warrant for genocide and is deposed or forced to resign not by popular pressure or moral scruple, but by political calculation guided by the most ruthless survivalism what we will see emerge is not a new regime, but merely a reconfiguration.
What are the implications for Darfur? As Human Rights Watch has documented [http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2005/12/08/entrenching-impunity], command-and-control for military attacks on civilians in the region, including control of the Janjaweed militia, is strongly hierarchical, both militarily and politically. This ensures that whoever might replace al-Bashir will have the same role, if perhaps not as field marshal, which is al-Bashir’s other title.
What will ensue if either Taha or Nafie assumes the presidency? It may be expedient to create the impression that al-Bashir’s removal somehow fundamentally changed governance in Sudan, when in fact it will simply be reconstituted with nearly the same cast of major actors. As part of yet another charm campaign, the regime may temporarily slow its relentless war of attrition against humanitarian workers and operations in Darfur. The UN/African Union peacekeeping force, so ineffectual to date, may see some expedited deployment, though not enough to change the fundamentally untenable security dynamic in Darfur. And engagement with whatever peace forum seems most accommodating may elicit from Khartoum the appearance of a new diplomatic approach.
But there will be no fundamental change in outlook or ambition. Those responsible for genocidal destruction in Darfur including not only Nafie and Taha, but Saleh Abdallah “Gosh” (head of security), Abdel Rahim Hussein (defense minister and former minister of the interior) and Major General Ismat Zain al-Din (director of military operations) will simply recalibrate what is possible in the changed international political, economic and diplomatic circumstances.
The chances for a credible peace process would increase significantly if these changed circumstances included a real threat of punitive economic sanctions targeting the regime, a broadly enforced travel ban on all senior members of the NIF, a robustly enhanced peacekeeping force, European monetary sanctions paralleling those imposed by the US and intense pressure on China to use its leverage with Khartoum. But of course all of this has been true for years, and the international community has responded by signing agreements with the regime that are never honoured and making pusillanimous proposals that fail to address the needs of Darfur’s victims.
Grimly, there is little reason to suppose that even the indictment of al-Bashir for genocide would be the occasion for the kinds of action that will sustain and protect the 4.7 million civilians affected by this conflict, and who remain at the mercy of Khartoum’s cabal of gnocidaires.
[Eric Reeves is author of “A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide]