Curbing Darfur crisis central to ending conflict in Sudan and the region

Curbing Darfur crisis central to ending conflict in Sudan and the region

SOURCE: Crescent Magazine Online

By M. Shaikh Ahmed

When Chadian President Idriss Deby visited Khartoum in mid-February and was embraced by President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, the event was a great surprise to everyone familiar with the nature of hostility between the two countries. Chad and Sudan have been fighting for six years across their long common border, with Chad backing the rebels in Darfur and Sudan supporting Chadian rebels against Deby. The meeting between the two has now led to a peace pact that might bring about tranquillity in Darfur and end the exploitation of the conflict by leaders of southern Sudan.

One of the reasons for facilitating the conclusion of the peace deal is the fact that Khartoum and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), Darfur’s largest armed group, reached a preliminary peace treaty in February.  But according to media analysts, the main reason for the Chad-Sudan peace deal is that leaders of both countries face daunting problems.  Bashir faces elections this month and needs to end the Darfur conflict, since JEM wants the poll to be postponed until a settlement is reached. But the elections are for the whole of Sudan and cannot, therefore, be put back simply because the rebels in Darfur demand it. Bashir has also been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war crimes, and is now accused of genocide in Darfur by Louis Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC’s chief prosecutor.

President Deby also faces legislative elections later this year and wants to have the UN force, said to be protecting refugees in eastern Chad, removed because he regards the operation as interference in the affairs of his country.  He is also subject to strong pressure from the United States and France, his main allies. The two have been very active in exerting pressure on him — and other Muslim countries in the region — to be hostile to Sudan and fight “al-Qaeda in Africa”.  They have also been active in forcing the ICC to indict President Bashir as a war criminal and are now putting pressure on its prosecutor to persist in his demand to have Bashir convicted for genocide. It is apparently not enough for the two Western meddlers to have him “indicted” for war crimes. But Deby also knows that the US and France will exert pressure on him to make sure that representatives of Islamic groups do not contest parliamentary elections later this year.

The assumption that both Deby and Bashir need to restore good relations between their mutually hostile countries for personal reasons has led many people to believe that the current peace-pact will stick, unlike past agreements.  Since 2004 the two countries have made at least four peace deals, including this last one, but all the previous ones fell apart. For example, the deal made in Doha (the capital of Qatar) last year fell apart after just two days.

But the situation is now quite different for at least two reasons. First, analysts assert that the new pact between Chad and Sudan is not the result of outside pressure. Second, both the Sudanese government and the rebels in Darfur are determined to continue the peace talks between them in Doha, as a report in al-Sharq al-Awsat daily on March 11 asserted.  Moreover, the report revealed that Deby was exerting strong pressure, through personal contacts, on JEM to force it to sign a peace deal with the government on March 15. The fact that no agreement was reached by that date does not contradict the report’s accuracy that Chad is determined to have a peace deal concluded between the two sides.

The report also reveals President Bashir’s readiness to reach a deal with the rebels. If he can conclude — as he has — a peace agreement with southern Sudan that provides for the region’s secession, the fact that he is willing to make a peace deal that keeps Darfur within the Union should not surprise anyone. The agreement signed in 2005 arranges for a referendum that provides the people of southern Sudan an opportunity to vote for secession. Their leader, Salve Kiir wasted no time in calling on them to vote for secession at the agreed referendum.

It was on November 1, 2009 that Kiir made his call to decide in favour of secession: the very day that voter-registration began across the country for the referendum. He warned his people that failure to vote for secession would lead to a result backing a one-state solution in which they “will end up as second-class citizens”.  This was the first time that Kiir had called for the ostensibly mostly Christian, oil-rich southern Sudan to split off from the Muslim north. His irresponsible move was clearly saying that in any united Sudan, the “northern Arabs” would treat “southern Africans” as “second class”, not only on the basis of religion but also of race.

But Kiir’s claims are clearly unfounded, as the people of southern Sudan belong to various ethnic groups, speak a number of distinct languages, and mostly follow traditional African religions, with only a small minority officially classified as Christian. In fact, ethnic and religious conflicts have prevailed in southern Sudan for many years and, even more significantly, clashes between the various groups have escalated in recent months, although the region has been semi-autonomous since the peace-agreement of 2005 and Kiir has been head of government.

In April of last year, for instance, fighting broke out between two members of the same ethnic group — the Nuer — when one of them attacked another and killed 71 people in the village of Torkej. On April 14 tribesmen ambushed boats carrying UN food aid to starving fellow tribemen in Akobo town in southeast Sudan. But the number of victims of ethnic clashes was much higher last year. In March, youths belonging to the Lou Nuer attacked a Murle settlement, killing at least 450 people. A month later, 250 Lou Nuer members were killed in dawn raids on 17 villages near Akobo. But those deaths are only a few examples of the mayhem resulting from ethnic clashes in southern Sudan. Not surprisingly, the West, and occasionally the UN, blames these clashes on northern Sudan, simply to ensure that southern Sudan will vote for secession in the referendum, which will be held next year.  Another example of how they plot to put the blame for the mayhem in the south on the government of Sudan is the indictment of President Bashir for war crimes.

In fact, Bashir is neither responsible either for the conflict in Darfur nor the ethnic clashes in southern Sudan. As a report in the Guardian of London on March 17 made clear, al-Bashir adopted an “unexpectedly conciliatory stance on secession”.  He even “told recent southern rallies he wanted Sudan to remain united, but that if the south decided to secede, he would be the first to recognise its independence.”  Clearly, al-Bashir is no enemy of southern Sudan — or of Darfur, for that matter — and his indictment by the ICC is nonsensical and should be withdrawn. But that is unlikely, because the West wants to ensure that secession is agreed by the referendum.  Unfortunately, members of the Islamic Union and the Arab League are not willing to defy the US and its allies and are not challenging the absurd decision to indict al-Bashir and force secession on the people of Sudan. The southern Sudanese form a small minority and it makes no political sense for them to secede, especially when they are so bitterly divided among themselves.

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