Khartoum's Controversial Darfur Peace Process

Khartoum's Controversial Darfur Peace Process

Assadig Mustafa Zakaria Musa

Since conflict erupted in Darfur in 2003, several agreements have been put in place, but none has brought lasting peace to the region. The latest initiative, the Darfur Political Process, comes from the Sudanese government.

Assadig Mustafa Zakaria Musa, a reporter for Radio Dabanga and a contributor to Fi al Mizan, an IWPR-produced radio programme about justice issues in Darfur, explains what the Darfur Political Process is and where it might be going.  

What is the Darfur Political Process, and how does it differ from other peace efforts that have been launched?

When it unveiled this latest initiative last August, the government in Khartoum referred to it as “Darfur Peace From Within”. Unlike other strategies, developed outside Darfur by external actors and rebel movements, the idea behind this plan is to engage with players within the region – namely civil society and elected political representatives.

There are five prongs to the strategy – security (which means ending the rebel insurgency), development (providing new schools, hospitals and roads), Darfur dialogue (negotiating directly with the people of Darfur rather than through rebel representatives), the Doha talks (these internationally-backed peace negotiations with rebel groups are to continue, but the people of Darfur should have the final say on any agreement), and an end to inter-communal conflict. 

Isn’t the Darfur Political Process simply an attempt by Khartoum to sidetrack the ongoing Doha talks and impose a local process which it can manage and manipulate?

This certainly seems to be what the government is doing. Over the years, Khartoum has become frustrated at not being able to influence the Darfur discussions as it would like to. Moving the debate closer to home gives it greater control over an eventual solution.

As a result of last year’s election, 90 per cent of elected politicians in Darfur come from Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party, NCP, and many of the rest are linked to the party in some way. By engaging solely with them, the government can be sure that it has a loyal support base, one that is unlikely to be fully representative of the people of Darfur. 

How can one talk of a meaningful and lasting peace if none of the rebel groups supports the DPP?

It is indeed very difficult to imagine a lasting peace agreement that excludes the rebel movements, but this is one of the core purposes that lie behind the DPP. Khartoum cares far less about arriving at a political solution than it does about crushing the rebel movements. The DPP initiative takes the negotiations away from rebel leaders and gives the government greater control over who it’s going to talk to.

It’s also important to remember that the rebels are still armed militia groups, and have not yet managed to form themselves into coherent political entities able to conduct decisive talks with the government. 

Meanwhile the Doha talks go on, but only two rebel groups are taking part in them, while the SLM/A of Minni Minnawi, who signed the Darfur Peace Agreement, DPA – the first of its kind – with Khartoum in 2006, says the deal is off and his group is back at war with the government. What are the chances of any kind of negotiated settlement with some or all of the rebel groups?

When Minni Minnawi signed the DPA, commentators warned that without the backing of other rebel groups, the agreement would have only limited impact in the region. Now Minnawi has pulled out of this agreement, since he realises it has achieved very little in terms of peace and unity for Darfur.

There is a huge danger that without broader support, the Doha talks will go down the same path. There’s been a lot of pressure for other movements to join the talks, but at this point that doesn’t seem likely to happen. Very little confidence exists between the government and the rebel movements. And if an agreement is reached with only one or two of the rebel groups, how can that really be called a peace settlement? 

Why does the US appear more critical of the DPP than it was previously?

The US was never overtly supportive of the DPP. Its position has always been – and still is – that any mechanism within Darfur should be an extension of rather than a replacement for the Doha talks. But when the Sudanese government started talking about the DPP at the end of last year, it was clear that the Obama administration’s priority was the referendum on South Sudan’s future, not the simmering conflict in Darfur. Washington was therefore prepared to stay quiet on Darfur and go along with the DPP, as long as Khartoum didn’t seek to disrupt the referendum in the south.

Now that the South Sudan referendum is over, there are signs that Washington is changing tack and becoming more outspokenly critical of DPP, which it sees as a way for Khartoum to plaster over the problems in Darfur. 

How does Khartoum benefit from pressing ahead with the DPP, at a time when conflict continues within Darfur?

If we look at the talks taking place in Doha and also within the DPP framework, and then compare that with the government’s behaviour on the ground, it’s easy to conclude that Khartoum doesn’t want peace. It talks about peace on the one hand, but at the same time persists with attacks on civilians. It wants internally displaced people, IDPs, to return home, yet it continues to destroy villages, thereby displacing even more people.

By developing the DPP, Khartoum is hoping to create legitimacy for its actions in Darfur. But it’s difficult to see this initiative as anything more than cover for a government-designed and -imposed solution. 

Khartoum favours dividing Darfur into five constituent parts instead of three, which would make a divide-and-rule policy even easier to pursue. Meanwhile, many people in Darfur would prefer to see their region unified into a single territorial unit. How can these differences be reconciled?

Prior to 1994, Darfur counted as a separate region, but it was subsequently divided into three states by Khartoum, which wanted to weaken it to prevent it threatening the newly-formed Islamic government.

It is now clear that the government wants to further fragment the region, which would make it even harder for Darfur to speak with a single voice. Others do not want this, and are calling for the region to be unified.

The solution being proposed is to hold a referendum on the issue. If, as Khartoum hopes, the population of Darfur does not vote in favour of unity, then the government will be able to justify its decision to further divide the region. Since the overwhelming majority of elected representatives in Darfur come from the NCP, some are wondering how representative a referendum can really be. 

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