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Darfur – healing at last, hopefully

In the wake of a complex civil war like the one that ravaged Darfur, it is easy to lose hope of a return to normalcy. But the odds of claiming a peaceful Darfur never looked promising, says our managing editor Tsedale Lemma

Ed’s note: This story was first published in  March 2012 edition of Addis Standard magazine

If the UN and the African Union Commission (AUC) were places where there is, from time to time, a race to win a prize for holding a job description that is complicated and delicate at the same time, the one person to qualify would be Nigeria’s finest international diplomat Ibrahim Gambari, the Special Representative, since 2010, for the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID).

Mr. Gambari is a double agent for a peacekeeping mission both by the UN and the AUC and is tasked to deal with the world’s most complicated rebel groups and the government in the Sudan, whose President Omar al-Bashir both the UN and the AUC hold different perspectives about (the former declined to heed to the latter’s request to suspend ICC’s indictment against the President). Mr. Gambari also presides over the largest peacekeeping mission of the UN out of the 17 it maintains throughout the world.

What more does a job need to be delicate and complicated?

But why?

UNAMID Peacekeepers Prepare for Night Patrol Security Exercise

The Darfur region in the Sudan had managed to mobilize international outcry from politicians to human rights and aid organizations to the Hollywood’s mega personalities following the attack in 2003 by two Darfur based rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), against the government of Omar al-Bashir. The rebels accused the central government for repressing black Africans in Darfur in favor of the Arabs and began attacking its militia. As a response, the government of al-Bashir had hit back at the rebels by mobilizing “self-defense militias”, according to Sudan’s President. The rest of the world believes President al-Bashir armed the Arab Janjaweed militia – who had committed atrocious crimes against black Africans until 2006.

President al-Bashir, since served with the ICC arrest warrant for crimes against humanity in Darfur, denies any link with the Janjaweed militia and has publicly called them “thieves and gangsters”; but the fight between the Janjaweed militia –  who, to the horror of onlookers, would ride into villages on horses and camels savaging whatever they could find on their way – and the rebels had caused an estimated death of 300, 000 Darfuris, most of them from diseases, according to the UN; and the displacement of some 2.7 million Darfuris, making Darfur to become the world’s appalling catastrophes over the past nine years.

Cleaning the mess

Gambari – a man of multiple tasks


Once the situation was brought under the radar of the international community, the AUC deployed its own peacekeeping mission to the Sudan in 2006, which was then replaced, in 2008, by the UNAMID forces. Beyond a reasonable doubt, the Darfur the world new after the civil war broke in 2003 – a  war that is still arguable on whether it had resulted in genocide or not – was in desperate need of a watchful military patrol and diplomatic maneuver. As such close to 23, 000 UNAMID personnel are currently deployed to monitor the ins and outs of the area that is the size of France, except there are no or limited infrastructure accompanying it.

Today’s somehow composed political and military situation in Darfur is a result of an exhausting diplomatic shuttle led by the international community involving the governments of the Sudan, Chad, Uganda and the newly established South Sudan, and a number of rebel groups each with a claim of its own for a greater representation within the government in Khartoum.

The UNAMID is tasked with the laborious duty of, among others, supporting early and effective implementation of the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) and protecting civilians without prejudice to the responsibility of the government of Sudan, according to the Security Council Resolution 1769.

“My job is to do things that have to do with peacekeeping; things that affect the welfare of my troops,” says Ibrahim Gambari, during an exclusive interview with this magazine.

Peace deal on-again, off-again

Patrolling inhospitable terrain

In 2006, the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) was signed in Abuja, Nigeria. Disappointingly, it was a peace pact entered between the government of Al-Bashir and a single rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Army, led by Minni Minnawi (SLA-MM).

Curiously, by then Darfur was already a breeding ground for a number of rebel groups, each armed and drawing strongholds from the different parts of Darfuris. The other splinter rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Army-Abdul Wahid (SLA-AW), for example, draws its stronghold from Jebel Marra, and SLA-MM enjoys a handsome support from areas in North and South Darfur such as Shangal Tobaiya.

It is complicated. But the important rebel groups with whom a peace deal is a must rather than a matter of protocol include Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), Sudan Liberation Army, led by Abdel Wahid (SLA-AW), Liberation and Justice Movement (LJM) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM –N). However the SLM-MM was the only one to sign the DPA in Abuja, casting doubts in the peace pact’s durability and effectiveness.

After a mute of nearly five years marked by sporadic conflicts between the government of the Sudan and the rebels, a 2010 new mediation attempt by the government of Qatar seemed to have given peace in Darfur another chance. But Mr. Gambari didn’t want to lose sight of the latest peace process opportunity and wasted no time to rally international support behind the initiative, known as the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (DDPD).  It was signed on 14 July 2011.

The previous peace pact, the DPA, was anyhow doomed to fail from its onset. For one thing the deal was signed by a mere one rebel group, SLM-MM and the government of the Sudan. While it was still in place, proliferation of militias and inter-communal violence has continued to put the lives of displaced Darfuris at great risk. With its erratic military action against rebel groups, the Sudanese army itself remained a threat to the civilian population.

 Just how fragile peace remained, and still may be

In the name of Peace, please


Given the complexities of the situation it is easy, yet again, to assume the DDPD is no different than the now defunct DPA. The outstanding similarity between the two is that like the DPA, the DDPD is also signed between the government of the Sudan and a single rebel group, this time the Liberation and Justice Movement (LJM) led by Al-Tijani Al-Sisi.

Also many of the provisions included inside the DDPD are pretty similar to its predecessor. But Mr. Gambari sternly disputes that. “The DPA and the DDPD are different – things that were not in the DPA to address the root causes of the conflict are now clearly included in the DDPD,” he says.

True to his argument, the most important and significant difference between the DPA and DDPD is the later has a clear provision for the formation of an international follow up committee under the chairmanship of Qatar and the secretariat of the UNAMID. Members of this international committee now include the EU, League of Arab Nations, Organization of the Islamic Conference (an association of 56 Islamic states), the AUC, the five permanent members of the UN, Chad, Burkina Faso, Japan, Canada and Egypt.

The second most important difference is that unlike the DPA, the DDPD remains open for all the non-signatory rebel groups to join in.

But the chance of just doing that remains slim. Reports indicate from January to July 2011, between 60,000 and 70,000 people were newly displaced in two areas of Darfur while the SAF continued to put “increased pressure on rebel factions, including JEM while they were participating in the Doha talks,” according to eough101, a media lobby group.

It is also easy to argue that the DDPD may in fact worsen the possibility of internal conflicts for a sheer fact that the two signatory groups, the government of the Sudan and LJM, have isolated the other most important rebel groups that have not signed the pact. The government of Al-Bashir still keeps many rebel group members incarcerated and hasn’t extended clemency to any others rebel group members as it did to the prisoners of the members of LJM.

In May 2011 DDPD talks fell apart and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), said to be the “largest and most militarily sophisticated” of the rebel groups in Darfur, withdrew itself from the peace process in the wake of what it says was increased attacks by the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF). To make matters worse Khalil Ibrahim, its leader, was killed in December 2011. Although his leadership has since been replaced, what would happen next, or what would be the impact of his killing is anyone’s guess. The Sudan Liberation Army, led by Minni Minnawi (SLA-MM), the only signatory to the DPA, has also excluded itself from the DDPD.

Healing at last, hopefully  

Both the government of the Sudan and the leadership of the LJM deserve a credit for their decision to sign the peace deal and accept the inclusion of as many countries in the committee, which is tasked to meet every three months to assess the progress made and outline what needs to be done.  “Since then the committee has held a meeting of a ceasefire commission chaired by the force commander of UNAMID and aimed at bringing the government of the Sudan and the LJM to begin to identify where their forces are,” Mr. Gambari says.

But the most important meeting of the committee was its 2nd meeting, (Mr. Gambari calls it “historic”), which was held on 16 January 2012 in El-Fasher, the capital of North Darfur and the headquarters of the UNAMID.

It was during this meeting that a decision to form and launch the Darfur Regional Authority (DRA), based in El-Fasher, gained momentum. Al-Tijani Al-Sisi was tipped to be the head of the DRA. A group of commissioners and executive council members from Darfur were also appointed to look into the thorniest of all issues: the return of refugees to their home and land compensation, among others.

February 8th, 2012 was another extraordinary day in the history of Darfur since the civil war began in 2003. In a colorful celebration held in El-Fasher, Sudan’s President, Omar Al-Bashir, has launched the long awaited DRA. As part of the Doha deal, he also announced the release of all prisoners from the Liberty and Justice Movement (LJM), while formally appointing Al-Tijani Al-Sisi, its leader, to be the head of the DRA.

Although some say the DRA shares many of the weaknesses of the Transitional Regional Authority (TRA), a result of the 2006 Abuja peace accord, Mr. Gambari believes a regional authority is significantly different from a transitional regional authority. Unlike the TRA, “we now have a central interlocutor, the DRA, to help us implement the DDPD more effectively,” he says. Darfur has is divide between vast and treacherous regions and its hoped that the DRA would be instrumental in representing all on issues of power and wealth sharing with the central government in Khartoum. A sign of goodwill, Adam Youssef, a Darfuri, was assigned by the Sudanese government to be the vice president of the Sudan as of Sep. 2011.

Unlike in the past, Darfur is under constant radar of the international community. But it is also a place where close to two million refugees are still living at make shift camps under horrendous circumstances.

The Nigerian born international diplomat Ibrahim Gambari says he will be having increased diplomatic shuttles between the Sudan, Uganda, Chad and South Sudan, countries that sway a great influence over the future of Darfur. But if there is any chance for the international community to get Darfur right, now is the time.

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