The Middle East Channel

Peace in Darfur: still a long way off

It is too early to tell – but the "framework agreement" recently signed between the Government of Sudan and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the most effective armed rebel movement in Darfur, offers some hope for peace in Darfur. The commitment to an immediate ceasefire and reaching a final accord by March 15 advances ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

It is too early to tell – but the "framework agreement" recently signed between the Government of Sudan and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the most effective armed rebel movement in Darfur, offers some hope for peace in Darfur. The commitment to an immediate ceasefire and reaching a final accord by March 15 advances the dialogue further than at any point since May 2006 – when President Omar al-Bashir’s government signed the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) with what was then considered the strongest of the movements. The problems with that agreement are the same as those threatening the current talks: the fragmentation of the movements and questions about the sincerity of the Sudanese government. 

The rushed-together DPA helped precipitate the complete unraveling of non-signatory rebel movements – which proliferated from two to almost 30 by 2007. It is therefore more good news that 10 factions have recently united as the Liberation and Justice Movement (LJM) and appointed a respected former governor of Darfur to represent them. In the coming days, they may sign their own "framework agreement" with the Sudanese government upon which the mediators would begin working with the parties to draft a final text. If this happens, only a few movements will remain outside of the talks. The holdouts, however, include Abdel Wahid al-Nur who, while based in Paris since 2006, has maintained popularity and allegiances among many of the millions of displaced persons living in camps throughout Darfur.

The internally displaced persons (IDPs) will ultimately help decide the agreement’s fate by voting with their feet. Almost all IDP leaders continue to claim that the security conditions are not suitable to return to their villages. The Sudanese government, however, claims that 90 percent of Darfur is now secure and, therefore, IDPs should begin voluntarily returning home. While systematic violence in Darfur has markedly declined, there remain volatile hotspots and the lack of peace makes any decision to return fraught with risk and uncertainty.  It is also true that returning home for many would mean leaving behind basic services – such as clean water, education, and health care – often available in the camps or nearby towns. 

The international community for the past four years has attempted to bypass Abdel Wahid as his unmovable pre-conditions for negotiations (which include disarmament of the notorious janjaweed and the removal of ‘settlers’ on the land of the displaced) amount to the full implementation of a peace agreement. Some countries and envoys have tried to promote other commanders and politicians among his tribe, the Fur (the largest and historic rulers of many areas in the region), to leadership positions. This strategy has largely backfired – creating more divisions among the movements and in some cases deeper allegiance to Abdel Wahid. A more successful approach has been supporting the involvement of civil society and IDP leaders in formal peace talks. Last November, 170 such Darfuri delegates met in Qatar and produced the Doha Declaration affirming their collective views on a number of issues to be included in any final agreement. 

Meanwhile, the endgame of the Sudanese government remains unclear.  The sudden announcement of the agreement with JEM resulted primarily from the rapprochement a few weeks earlier between Sudan and Chad, which had been supporting JEM in its proxy war with Sudan since 2006. At the same time that Bashir’s government sees a benefit in negotiating a deal with JEM and perhaps the LJM, it has launched a massive offensive on the territory controlled by commanders loyal to Abdel Wahid. In two weeks of fighting, the UN estimates that up to 400 civilians have been killed and 40,000 displaced. Clearly, a military solution remains part of the government’s strategy.

In this regard, the omnipresence of the military and intelligence services in the major cities and the fear of uncontrolled militias loyal to the government and various armed movements in rural areas continue to suffocate the potential for local dialogue about Darfur’s future. Rather than engage Darfuris on solutions to local security challenges, the Sudanese government continues pushing upcoming elections as a political solution to its Darfur problem. Election results that will represent the popular will seem wildly far-fetched. Opposition leaders and human rights activists, for example, have been recently detained without charges and many of the conflict-affected communities lack candidates on the ballot to represent their interests. Elections, therefore, could serve as a catalyst for even more violence.

This gap between the government’s rhetoric for peace in Doha and its repressive policies in Darfur only further distances it from emerging constituencies for peace. Continued rebel infighting means also that they have generally ignored demands for peace and the specific concerns of the conflict’s victims. So while some Sudanese and the international community believe that these framework agreements could offer the best road yet to sustainable peace, a senior UNAMID official speculated to me recently that any agreements signed in Doha (even if by all the various factions) may not change much on the ground in the short term.

Only a joint commitment by both the Sudanese government and the movements to rebuild trust with the people of Darfur, so that the root causes of the conflict can be addressed, will lead to a durable peace. This means ensuring the inclusion of Darfur’s civil society in the ongoing negotiations and capable mechanisms for local participatory politics and governance in any final agreement.

Sean P. Brooks is a policy expert at the Save Darfur Coalition. He recently returned from a trip to Sudan during which he spent a week in Darfur. 

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