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How to Save Darfur’s Peace Process

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How to Save Darfur’s Peace Process

Posted by Omer Ismail on October 12, 2011

How to Save Darfur’s Peace Process

The Darfur peace process as we know it has reached the end of the line and produced shockingly few results. Three major agreements, in 2004, 2006, and 2011, have either failed to impact events on the ground or have actually made matters worse in Darfur. The time has come to recognize that the issues in Darfur mirror those in South Kordofan, Blue Nile, and the East, and should therefore not be dealt with in isolation. The international community needs to abandon its piecemeal approach to Sudan and unite behind a demand for a comprehensive solution to the problem of overly concentrated, abusive power at the center. An equitable peace deal for all of Sudan, constitutional reform, and democratic elections should be the endgame, not competing processes that play into the hands of Khartoum’s divide-and-conquer strategy.

Since the July signing of the Doha Peace Agreement, the situation in Darfur has unsurprisingly failed to improve. According to a recent statement made by U.S. Special Envoy Princeton Lyman to the House Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, “There is ongoing conflict… and approximately 2 million people are still displaced from their homes.”1 In fact, between 60,000 and 70,000 people were newly displaced from the Shangil Tobaya and East Jebel Marra areas alone between January and July of this year due to conflict.2 Government violations of the laws of war and of the human rights of its own citizens continue on a regular basis, while threats of camp closures and forced returns loom large. The current situation is a continuation of the violence seen in 2010, a particularly violent year marked by almost triple the number of fatalities as 2009.3 The current humanitarian situation on the ground clearly fails to reflect the years of effort that have gone into trying to achieve peace in Darfur, a discrepancy that has much to do with the shortcomings of the international approach to Sudan more broadly and to the peace process itself.

Despite the renewed diplomatic engagement that characterized the final months of the Darfur peace negotiations in Doha, Qatar, the outcomes from the process—which included a weak peace document agreed to by only the government of Sudan and the Liberty and Justice Movement, or LJM, a small, splinter rebel faction, and a communiqué from the May stakeholder conference that endorsed the presented framework of the peace document—only really served to demonstrate its dysfunction. After two years and millions of dollars, the peace document has yet to lead to any serious change for the people of the region, while the most significant outcome of the 500 person stakeholder conference seems to have been the government’s renewed commitment to nonengagement with the remaining rebel groups.

While there are a variety of reasons for this lack of results, one of the most prominent is undoubtedly the broader international approach to Sudan. In an effort to put out the worst fires as they arose, the international community fell into a pattern of stove-piped diplomacy, wherein each of the distinct regions of Sudan received its own separate path to peace. Yet each of these conflicts has had at its core the same overarching grievance: economic and political marginalization at the hands of the ruling regime in Khartoum. This piecemeal approach to peace in Sudan, highlighted by the various peace agreements’ focus on the symptoms of the conflict rather than its root causes, has allowed the government to play the various processes off one another, thereby ensuring that progress in one only happens at the expense of another, and to avoid broader democratic change.

In the case of Darfur, the lack of international focus on the peace talks as a result of the referendum and southern secession created an opportunity for the process to go horribly awry. The mediators’ personal grievances, their public disputes, and their competing approaches to securing peace only served to further solidify the impression that the international community lacked the energy to give the region its full attention and the unification of purpose to secure lasting peace. These divisions allowed the ruling
National Congress Party to participate in the Doha process in, at best, a minimal way, and at worst, a destructive way, without causing much opprobrium among members of the international community, which spent most of its limited energy on attacking the rebel divisions. As a result, the final document, whose enforcement mechanisms are seriously flawed, lacks a meaningful commitment to reform.

Yet the current situation offers a chance to correct the major structural flaws in the international
community’s approach to Sudan and to ending the eight-year conflict in Darfur. As conflict flares in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, and calls for overarching reform become increasingly common, the environment has become ripe for a shift in international strategy. Given the common denominator of marginalization that exists for all peripheral communities, the first priority moving forward should be a comprehensive
and inclusive peace process that in the first phase would deal with all of Sudan’s warring regions collectively—rather than individually—and help put in place mechanisms to address national issues such as power and wealth sharing in Sudan. This process, which would include a constitutional conference followed by free and fair elections, should address a large number of the grievances being negotiated ineffectively at the regional level, if done equitably.4

In the second phase of this process, stakeholders from the various regions, including Darfur, would negotiate those outstanding issues that are unique to their regions. The Doha document, while flawed, could offer a good starting point for the Darfur discussions. For this new process to not suffer the same systemic shortcomings, however, it will also need new leadership.

The resignation of African Union/United Nations Joint Chief Mediator Djibril Bassolé and the appointment of new U.S. Special Envoy Princeton Lyman created a window of opportunity for fresh thinking about the direction of the peace process in the post-Doha environment. But the appointment of Joint Special Representative Ibrahim Gambari to replace Bassolé, at least on an interim basis, has somewhat squandered it, given JSR Gambari’s already tarnished reputation among Darfuris and his need to focus attention solely on the task of peacekeeping. It is therefore essential, moving forward, that the
international community not only restructure the process in a way that puts the root causes of conflict in all of Sudan at center stage, but also pushes for new stewardship that combines African leadership with broader international leverage.