Vol. 28 No. 23 · 30 November 2006

‘I will not sign’

Alex de Waal writes about the Darfur peace negotiations

6239 words

Military intervention won’t stop the killing. Those who are clamouring for troops to fight their way into Darfur are suffering from a salvation delusion. It’s a simple reality that UN troops can’t stop an ongoing war, and their record at protecting civilians is far from perfect. Moreover, the idea of Bush and Blair acting as global moral arbiters doesn’t travel well. The crisis in Darfur is political. It’s a civil war, and like all wars it needs a political settlement. Late in the night of 16 November Kofi Annan chaired a meeting at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa at which he, the AU and the UN Security Council reaffirmed this basic fact. When he promised to bring the government of Sudan and the rebels who are still fighting around the table within weeks, the outgoing UN secretary general was adopting a simple and correct rationale: fix the politics first and the peacekeeping will follow. It’s not a distant hope: the political differences are small.

Long neglected conflicts first exploded in February 2003, when the newly formed Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) launched guerrilla raids on government garrisons, and the government responded with its well-tested counter-insurgency tool of unleashing militia – in this case the Janjawiid, drawn from Darfur’s indigenous Arabs. It was three years before a workable peace agreement was tabled. And it very nearly succeeded. Everything hinged on a few weeks this May, when the Darfur Peace Agreement was finalised and signed by the Sudan government and one of the rebel factions. Had the leader of the main part of the Sudan Liberation Movement also signed, the current crisis would not have happened. To understand why Darfur is in such straits today, and how the recent efforts of the UN and the AU can help it escape, it’s necessary to focus on the politics of the negotiations.

The Inter-Sudanese Talks on the Conflict in Darfur began inauspiciously in the Chadian capital, N’djamena, in April 2004, with an unworkable ceasefire agreement. The Chadian foreign minister ordered an extra sentence to be handwritten into the Sudan government’s copy of the agreement, specifying that the rebel forces had to go to camps and disarm. The Sudan Liberation Movement had a signed and stamped version without this provision – which they had rejected as suicidal. There was a second, equally fatal short cut: the agreement had no maps attached, and so there were no details about which territory was controlled by each side. A month later, when the first African Union ceasefire observers arrived in Darfur, they didn’t know which troops were supposed to be where, or whom to blame when one side accused the other of encroaching on its territory. From the start, the African Union Mission in Sudan was mission impossible.

After the Chadians were replaced by the African Union, there were five more rounds of peace talks in Ethiopia and in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, which served mostly as a forum in which each side could rehearse its condemnations of the other. (I was on the margins of these talks, the African Union having called me in as an adviser. The Sudan government vetoed my attendance until the chief AU mediator, Salim Ahmed Salim, overrode their objections and attached me to his personal staff.) The seventh round of talks, which began in Abuja in November 2005, was heralded as the last. The delegations would remain ensconced in a dreary hotel on the outskirts of the city until they came to a deal. Five months later, progress had been painfully slow, and the AU and its international partners – particularly the US – had lost patience. A creaking wagon, inching along from one rut to the next, was suddenly jet-propelled by an array of international political stars, headed by the Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, the US deputy secretary of state, Robert Zoellick, the British international development secretary, Hilary Benn, and others. In less than a week, government and rebels were compelled to come to a comprehensive agreement. In the late afternoon of 5 May, after a final 20-hour negotiating session, the Sudan government and the SLM faction led by Minni Arkoy Minawi signed the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA). It was a joyless climax: the Sudanese present knew that the wheels had come off, and that the agreement was, like its predecessor, unworkable. But the US and AU had staked all on a huge gamble, and were still determined to make it work against the odds.

The DPA is a weighty document, with 87 pages of text and 19 additional pages of implementation annexes. Chapter 1 covers Darfurian representation in national institutions and the way positions within Darfur are to be shared between the ruling National Congress Party and the rebels: the Congress Party gets to keep a small majority in each legislature and two of the three governorships until the 2009 elections. In an attempt to balance this, the DPA awards the fourth-ranking post in the presidency to a rebel leader, who will also chair a Transitional Darfur Regional Authority with extensive powers over security, reconstruction and the resolution of key issues such as land disputes. In 2010 there is to be a referendum as to whether Darfur should become an autonomous region – a provision that falls short of rebel demands for Darfur to become a region with full powers, immediately. Chapter 2 provides mechanisms and financing for Darfur’s three state governments, a rehabilitation fund and compensation for war victims; it also asserts the right of displaced people to return to their homes and reclaim their land. Chapter 3 specifies a comprehensive ceasefire, including the withdrawal of government troops to their garrisons, a ban on hostile military flights and the demilitarisation of humanitarian supply routes and camps for displaced persons. It allows for a community police force drawn from the displaced themselves to police the camps. This chapter also deals with the contentious questions of the future of the rebel fighters and the disarmament of the Janjawiid. It doesn’t specify a UN peacekeeping force – this issue was left for the UN to negotiate with Khartoum. The last chapter sets up a Darfur-Darfur Dialogue and Consultation, whereby the full array of Darfurian community leaders – excluded from the Abuja talks – can meet to resolve the myriad local disputes. The full text was tabled only on 25 April and the Arabic translation three days later. The Darfur rebels’ delegates in Abuja were still struggling to master the 515 paragraphs when they were called on to make a final and binding decision; none of their people in Darfur had even seen a copy.

Minawi agreed to sign with conspicuous reluctance, his face impassive and his chief of staff, Juma Haggar, sitting next to him glowering in military fatigues. He looked like a man gambling with his own life. Minawi’s exhaustion was compounded by the news, which had come just a few hours earlier, that his brother had been killed in fighting, whether by the Janjawiid militia or by his own troops, as a signal to Minawi not to sign, we didn’t know. The next day I asked him why he had signed a deal fiercely criticised by most of his faction. Minawi replied: ‘I calculated the balance of forces and I knew I had to sign.’ Another of his team, his security negotiator Ali Tirayo, just shook his head and said: ‘Bad, bad, bad.’

Minawi was not among the founders of the Darfur resistance. That honour goes to a small group of student activists and lawyers, ethnic Fur, Zaghawa and Arab. Abdel Wahid al-Nur was the founding chairman and the name best known among Darfurians, initially for a moving public plea written from prison and describing the suffering of his people at the hands of the Janjawiid militia and their friends in Sudanese Military Intelligence, and later for his vivid radio broadcasts. Minawi used to be a primary school teacher in the far north of Darfur and is an ethnic Zaghawa who was outside Darfur when the rebellion began. He began his political career as secretary to the SLM’s first military commander, the charismatic Abdalla Abbaker, and when Abbaker was killed in action, Minawi assumed the leadership of the Zaghawa wing of the movement. With only modest military training and little combat experience, he couldn’t hope to step into Abbaker’s shoes, and instead created for himself the post of ‘secretary general’. Minawi is the physical and temperamental opposite of the jovial, extrovert Abdel Wahid: lean, quiet and with a laugh that does not spread to his eyes. Abdel Wahid encouraged Minawi’s rise, but failed to establish the political structures that would have allowed the movement’s Fur and Zaghawa wings to reconcile their differing agendas. Relations between the two sharply deteriorated with internecine fighting – the clear consensus is that Minawi was the aggressor – and resulted in a de facto split in the movement. Abdel Wahid promised to hold a convention, but never delivered. Minawi stepped into the breach and set up the Haskanita Conference in October 2005, on his own terms, in territory his forces controlled and with Libyan money, and had himself elected as chairman. Frustrated with Abdel Wahid’s leadership style, best described as paralysing centralism, the US State Department was ready to give Minawi the benefit of the doubt and sent observers to the conference, an act which simply formalised the fissure. Although many SLM commanders abandoned Abdel Wahid, none of them attached themselves to Minawi: too many had been attacked, imprisoned or beaten by his men, and seen others killed.

Minawi and his advisers were angered when I said they had a ‘Bedouin’ negotiating style. The Minawi group’s approach to the peace talks was not, I suggested, to find a compromise, but rather to work out which side was going to win and then jump accordingly. Minawi thought I was insulting him and calling him a tribalist. Any mention of tribe – his fighting forces were almost 100 per cent Zaghawa, and his security detail was from his own Ila Digen clan – was like touching an open wound. ‘I am a revolutionary!’ he flared. ‘Tribe is nothing. Nothing.’ His other no-go area was human rights: Minawi never denied that his troops had killed and plundered, but he denounced those who brought up the issue and said he had never personally given his men orders to do so.

Minawi was focused. He chewed on pieces of information, asked a few penetrating questions and later said what he planned to do. He made firm tactical decisions and stuck with them, but if he had a political vision or strategy he never revealed it. His team never negotiated, entering the final days still clinging fast to the toughest positions. ‘The government is Janjawiid,’ Minawi said when we discussed the AU proposals for disarming the militia, ‘100 per cent Janjawiid. They must be disarmed and removed from Darfur, entirely.’ But, better than anyone else, Minawi knew the weakness of his political and military position. He owed his pre-eminence to his small but highly aggressive mobile forces, which had ranged far and wide across Darfur. There could be no peace without them and the US had made Minawi’s signature its priority. Routinely describing his faction as the ‘largest’ and ‘most powerful’ of the SLM groups, the State Department flattered and misjudged Minawi. Only by signing the deal, Minawi calculated, could he realise that large and powerful role.

Khartoum’s delegation was led by Dr Majzoub al-Khalifa, President Omar al-Bashir’s adviser on Darfur. He is large and intimidating, a relentless and exhausting adversary. Earlier in his career he led pay negotiations on behalf of the doctors’ union, and it was easy to imagine him wearing down health ministry officials with his meticulously researched arguments, his intimidating interruptions and his insistence that any compromise was ‘not acceptable, at all, at all’. Majzoub had files on every member of every delegation; every piece of gossip reached his ears. His underlings swarmed around him as though he were a king crocodile, and his mirthless smile and black gimlet eyes were faintly reptilian.

In Khartoum, Majzoub’s main job was to position the Congress Party to win the elections slated for 2009 under the peace agreement signed with the southern rebel group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), in 2005. His role in the Darfur talks was a logical extension of that. Darfurians comprise perhaps a quarter of northern Sudan’s electorate, and their support – or more likely, an electoral pact with the main Darfurian parties – is vital for the Congress Party if it is to secure power. Abdel Wahid, whose SLM had solid support not only among the Fur (about a quarter of Darfur’s population) but among most other groups too, was the key. Majzoub’s task was to win round that constituency. With a little more grace, he could have succeeded. But, too busy counting the small change, he missed the bargain. His own colleagues grew exasperated with his obtuseness. Although frustrated that international pressure had prevented them finishing off the rebels’ military resistance, most army generals were keen to end the war. They were embarrassed by the way their reputations had been besmirched and fearful of the monster they had unleashed, the Janjawiid. And, as one of them confided to an AU adviser, ‘we killed enough.’

The formal sessions of the talks resembled an inter-state negotiation. The government delegates sat on one side of the room, the rebels on the other, with the mediation team forming a third side of the square and international observers opposite forming the fourth. Those sessions were largely bluster and recrimination. The three rebel groups – the two SLM factions and the Justice and Equality Movement – could agree among themselves only when they adopted the most hardline stance, berating the government and reiterating their opening positions. Majzoub was never tested. He too used the formal sessions to address the gallery, while his bottom line and game plan remained opaque.

In February, in semi-secret separate negotiations, Majzoub almost clinched a deal with Abdel Wahid, whose chief negotiator, a Darfurian professor of ancient languages called Abdel Rahman Musa, actually initialled an agreement. But Abdel Wahid hadn’t prepared his SLM colleagues for such a dramatic step. There were no proper structures for consultation and decision-making – there wasn’t even any record-keeping – and Abdel Wahid had simply instructed Abdel Rahman Musa to go ahead. Nineteen SLM delegates denounced Abdel Wahid’s move and withdrew their support. The dissenters called themselves SLM-Unity and this group is now the main fighting force in north Darfur opposing the government. Abdel Wahid had already changed his mind about the deal – but he wouldn’t concede to the dissidents’ demands for more democracy within the SLM.

There were few secrets in the claustrophobic air of the Chida Hotel, and Majzoub either had sight of, or cannily anticipated, the contents of the draft DPA well before it was tabled. He worked assiduously to try to ensure that the Congress Party would not be weakened by the ‘power-sharing’ proposals in the final document. Day after day he summoned and bullied the Ethiopian head of the power-sharing mediation team, Berhanu Dinka, insisting that if the Congress Party didn’t retain a majority in every state legislature, chaos would follow, that there would be new insurrections in other parts of Sudan: malcontents would see the chance to start rebellions and then win at the negotiating table what they couldn’t win on the battlefield. On wealth-sharing and compensation, Majzoub’s position seemed self-defeating: having conceded $700 million in fiscal payments for Darfur’s state governments, he refused to raise the down payment into the fund for war victims above $30 million. On such relatively minor points, the acceptability of the deal, and Darfur’s future, rested. Finally, on the morning of 5 May, Majzoub enumerated his many reservations about the DPA text, especially the security arrangements, but said he would sign. At five minutes to six that afternoon, he shook hands with Minawi and waited – cautious even at this final hour – until his new colleague in government had signed his name on five copies, before affixing his own signature.

Abdel Wahid refused to sign. Although he agreed with all the security arrangements and with everything in the wealth-sharing section, save the meagre $30 million, he insisted that there must be parity of representation in the state assemblies. In the early days of May, Hilary Benn worked on the text to improve the rebels’ representation, retyping the text himself into the night in the hotel’s cramped office. The major headache was the independents – both government and rebels considered them as belonging to their adversary’s camp. With more time, the AU team and Benn could probably have found a formula to satisfy the SLM, and pushed Majzoub to yield. Abdel Wahid even put some remarkably modest demands on paper in a memorandum to Majzoub a week after Majzoub and Minawi had signed. He wanted clarification that his own troops would monitor the disarming of the Janjawiid and could help provide security to returning refugees, another $100 million in compensation and an extra ministerial post in each of Darfur’s three state governments.

Would those concessions have been enough? It’s not clear. In the early hours of 5 May Abdel Wahid told Zoellick and Obasanjo: ‘I need a guarantee for implementation like in Bosnia.’ The personal letter he had just received from President Bush wasn’t enough: what he wanted was international military intervention to deliver Darfur from the Khartoum government. During those crucial days, his political adviser, a Darfurian émigré studying politics at the University of Ottawa, had suddenly rushed to America. Leading SLM members say he promised Abdel Wahid that he would get a better deal – i.e. troops – and insisted that Abdel Wahid shouldn’t sign until he returned. Meanwhile, in the grounds of the Nigerian presidential villa, Abdel Wahid was being pressured, bullied and cajoled by Obasanjo, Zoellick and Benn; he was promised support to turn the SLM into a political party that could effectively contest the 2009 elections; he was told that this was a historic moment which would never come again. Abdel Wahid faced defections; his own chief negotiator turned up at the signing ceremony to declare support for the DPA. But he didn’t submit to the pressure.

The next day, he was in a reflective mood. ‘If I had known what was going to happen to my people, I would not have started this revolution,’ he said. ‘I came to Abuja to make peace and I will stay until peace is made.’ As the hotel quickly emptied, the SLM founder cut a somewhat pathetic figure, sitting tight in his room. Abdel Wahid’s use of the first person singular was grandiose, but the reality was that he held Darfur’s future in his hands. Across Darfur, thousands of people living in camps demonstrated against the DPA. They weren’t demonstrating because they disagreed with the text – which even now has not been seen by most Darfurians – but because they knew it didn’t have their man’s signature on the last page.

The only time I saw Majzoub perturbed was on 7 May, the day before he left Abuja, when he began to realise his predicament. With Minawi’s signature alone there would be no peace. Majzoub’s electoral strategy for 2009 was falling apart. But his habit of fighting every inch was too ingrained. Abdel Wahid’s memo, which he received on the morning of 14 May, gave him another chance. On the security demands he was positive: ‘Such objective is absolutely, seriously and uncompromisingly agreed upon,’ he wrote in his response that evening. But the rest of his reply was smugly evasive: ‘The government is proud that it has already started [compensation]’ and ‘the Sudan Liberation Movement and all parties are going to be represented in the ministerial and legislative posts in both federal and state levels.’ One of Majzoub’s ministerial colleagues in Khartoum phoned ahead to apologise for this ‘soft no’.

At this point, the African Union’s deadline for the remaining rebels to sign the DPA was just a day away, and Abdel Wahid told me: ‘If they give me 24 hours or 24 days or 24 years I will not sign … the AU will not determine the future of my people. If the whole world has come – and this is exactly what happened – and tells me to sign, I will not sign. I will lose anybody but I will not lose the unity of people.’ Two weeks later, facing a new, extended deadline, Abdel Wahid again baulked. ‘Remember these words: all of you, the international community, will create big chaos in Darfur, endless fighting, endless suffering, endless chaos.’

Robert Zoellick had served as a US trade representative for good reason. He had mastered every detail in the DPA. He promised and threatened: at long last Majzoub had met his match. But negotiating a Sudanese peace agreement is different from sealing a trade deal. Deadlines, pressure and inflexible insistence on the letter of agreement simply don’t work in Sudan. The US line was that there could be no renegotiation of the DPA: not one word could be changed. For Majzoub, the text was only as good as the political pressure to stick to it and he was ready to reinterpret any provision he liked whenever he liked. Overwhelmingly, the Darfurians wanted it changed. Minawi had the most riding on the agreement: if Abdel Wahid got some extra concessions, his earlier signature would look foolish. But he too was unhappy and increasingly isolated, and publicly announced on 15 May that he was working with his ‘brothers in the SLM’ to improve the text. As I went back and forth with last-gasp proposals – at this point I was the only mediator left – I asked myself whose war this was. And whose peace?

More than Abdel Wahid, whose character he openly despised, Minawi was afraid of the threat of the Justice and Equality Movement and its leader, Khalil Ibrahim. The JEM team in Abuja had been the most professional, and when they decided to engage in substantive talk, they were constructive and willing to compromise. Unlike the SLM, in which every commander was a law unto himself, they were disciplined. Khalil himself rarely put in an appearance at the talks, and when he did his minions donned identical black suits and scurried along the corridors to clear him a path. Khalil had been a mid-ranking government official and still had channels of communication to the Islamists in Khartoum. In March he met with the Sudanese vice-president, Ali Osman Taha, on a trip to Libya, and had evidently decided that May in Abuja was not the right time to sign up. Thereafter, JEM members were physically present but largely detached from the negotiations. Almost all the mediators and internationals dismissed them as an irrelevance. Only the Eritrean envoy, Abdalla Jaber, had a different view. ‘The AU is making a mistake by underestimating JEM. They are rearming. They will be a force to be reckoned with.’

Jaber was right. In June, in Asmara, the Eritrean capital, Khalil brought together some veteran Darfurian opposition leaders and SLM commanders who hadn’t signed the DPA, and created the National Redemption Front (NRF). Abdel Wahid, fresh from his final refusal to make a deal with the government, attended; but at the last moment he decided not to sign the NRF founding document. The NRF’s biggest coup was to win a military alliance with SLM-Unity. Leaders of this faction, such as Jar el Nabi Abdel Karim and Suleiman Marajan, insist that they want to reunite the SLM and make a peace deal with the government, but complain that they were given no political openings or recognition and were forced into military alliance with the NRF. The NRF has relaunched an offensive war, including one attack into neighbouring North Kordofan, and has inflicted a series of battlefield defeats on the Sudanese army. When the UN Special Representative Jan Pronk reported on those reverses and their effect on the Sudanese army’s morale in his weblog, it served as Khartoum’s pretext for expelling him.

Bit by bit, the DPA became the cover for President Bashir’s search for a military solution to the Darfur crisis. As the Abuja negotiations drew to a close, the Congress Party launched an internal discussion on Sudanese-US relations. The central question they asked was: ‘Given that we have made peace with the South and given them everything they asked for; given that we are co-operating in the war on terror; why are the Americans still determined to punish us?’ Senior Congress Party figures – they seized power in 1989, when the Berlin Wall was still standing, and have watched the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Israelis in Lebanon – simply couldn’t believe that the US had a genuine interest in the human rights of the people of Darfur. The worst fears of Khartoum’s conspiracy theorists had seemed to be justified when Zoellick arrived in Abuja and revised the security arrangements agenda of the DPA text, increasing the number of rebel combatants to be integrated into the army and security forces to 8000 (80 per cent of these positions, he indicated, would go to Minawi’s men). As Zoellick argued and arm-twisted late into the night on 2 May, agitated Sudanese generals paced up and down in the hotel car park, calling their superiors in Khartoum on satellite phones. They buttonholed mediation team members – by now excluded from the action – to ask: ‘What is America’s real agenda?’ General Ismat al Zain, the commander of the Sudanese army in Darfur, laughed scornfully at the figures: ‘Minawi won’t be able to fill a quarter of the positions the Americans are giving him.’ Reflecting Khartoum’s line that most of Minawi’s fighters are Chadian, another general asked me: ‘Why do the Americans want to give Darfur to Chad?’ There is no evidence that the State Department has ever entertained such an idea. On the contrary, its senior staff have rather straightforward ideas about the necessity of making Sudan a functional and democratic state. But after the DPA was signed, and especially after Zoellick left the administration for Wall Street, the US lacked both strategy and vision.

In principle the African Union is the custodian of the DPA. But there is only one full-time professional staff member working on Sudan at its Addis Ababa headquarters, and the DPA Implementation Team in Khartoum has only three senior professionals. Until September, the AU Special Representative was Baba Gana Kingibe, a Nigerian politician with his eye on a presidential bid, who relied on political instinct to navigate his way in Sudan. Kingibe has an astonishing capacity to size up the dynamics of a meeting in moments. But he didn’t establish a functioning secretariat, a political affairs unit or a strategy team. Leaving aside the challenges faced by its troops (unpaid for two months over the summer), the peacekeeping force in Darfur is hobbled by having just two political officers in the field. On 6 June, Kingibe agreed with Khartoum to set up a specialist working group on disarming the Janjawiid but then forgot to convene the group, so that when General Ismat presented the plan to the AU – on deadline on 23 June – there was no mechanism for assessing it or for establishing a monitoring process. No Janjawiid have been disarmed. Kingibe presided over a ceremony in which several small breakaway rebel groups signed a ‘declaration of commitment’ to the DPA, but he hadn’t got prior agreement for this with Minawi, who dismissed the groups as irrelevant or fraudulent and refused to co-operate with them.

The single biggest blunder was made in August. The Darfur Ceasefire Commission had been set up after the April 2004 N’djamena ceasefire. It had functioned poorly, and the DPA spelled out ways in which it could be strengthened. But what to do with the groups that hadn’t signed the DPA? The AU team discussed the problem in the days after 5 May and decided that the non-signatories must stay on – to succeed, a ceasefire commission had to include all those who were firing – but should not be party to the complex arrangements for monitoring the withdrawal of government troops to barracks, enforcing the ban on hostile military flights, or disarming the Janjawiid. There would therefore have to be a two-tier ceasefire commission. The government and Minawi both assert that Kingibe never explained this to them, let alone got their consent, and as soon as the JEM representatives walked into the ceasefire commission meeting on 23 June, Minawi’s delegates walked out. The commission was paralysed. Majzoub, with Minawi’s agreement, insisted that the JEM and Abdel Wahid’s SLM had become ‘outlaws to the process’, the very words used by Zoellick on 5 May. At a moment when strong guidance was needed from Washington to keep the most representative and the most militant Darfurian groups at the table, there was only silence. Kingibe concurred: to overcome the paralysis in the ceasefire commission, the representatives of Abdel Wahid and Khalil would be expelled.

The AU forces were already compromised in Darfur. Part of their role had been to provide logistical support to the rebels after the DPA was signed, and they duly transported Minawi and his commanders around the region, enabling them to reach areas they could not have reached overland, given their steady loss of territory. This was seen by the groups that were holding out as a partisan move. On 28 July, the Sudanese air force used a plane painted in AU colours to resupply the front line and evacuate their wounded. This was an act of perfidy – a war crime under the Geneva Conventions, with so many dismal precedents in Darfur that paragraph 376 had been specially written into the DPA to prevent it. The AU remained silent and many Darfurians began to see it as a party to the conflict. In an attack the AU attributed to NRF troops, five Rwandan peacekeepers were killed.

We can only guess why President Bashir decided to gamble his country’s international reputation on defying UN Security Council Resolution 1706, which authorises a robust UN force for Darfur. But circumstantial evidence suggests that Bashir’s paramount preoccupation is with preventing the secession of southern Sudan. He doesn’t want to be the leader who presided over the partition of his country, and he wants his share of money from the oil reserves that lie in the South. His party operators are busy trying to bind the SPLM, which administers the South, into an alliance that will leave them so financially and politically dependent that they will resist majority pro-separatist opinion in the region and endorse national unity. The critical first step for Bashir is to win at least a plurality in the 2009 elections, so that he can stay president. Without Darfur’s votes, and worse, with Darfur still in flames, that strategy is unravelling. Many in southern Sudan don’t believe that Bashir will allow elections to proceed and are steeling themselves for a new north-south war.

Allowing in UN troops to police a ceasefire and implement a peace agreement that will help the Congress Party consolidate its place in Sudan is one thing. Allowing in ‘international forces’ – the Arabic term, quwat al dauliya, is the same as the one used for coalition troops in Iraq and Afghanistan – midway through a conflict, with an open-ended mandate, is quite another. The combination of a huge international force – it would take many more than the 20,000 estimated to be needed to enforce a ceasefire – and 8000 Minawi troops with, Khartoum suspects, direct US backing, would in effect bring about a separation of Darfur from the rest of the country. Bashir rarely enters the political fray, preferring to serve as umpire to the different factions that comprise his government. On 3 September, however, he overruled the consensus of his party and his generals and walked into a cabinet meeting to inform his government that Resolution 1706 was to be rejected, the peacekeeping force terminated at the end of the month, and the army deployed to resolve the situation in Darfur. Bashir did not consult his first vice-president (the SPLM leader, Salva Kiir) or Minawi or, it seems, most of the other cabinet members. Visibly furious, he simply announced his decision and allowed no discussion. Bashir’s other main fear is that a UN force would be mandated to execute International Criminal Court arrest warrants. With indictments expected soon, Bashir is fearful that his close military colleagues are likely to be on the list.

Minawi was squeezed. Having moved to Khartoum, and with his remaining popular support fast disappearing, he has become a de facto prisoner of the government. Majzoub pressed home every little advantage. Minawi won few points: he had insisted he wouldn’t fly to Khartoum unless he became ‘senior assistant to the president’, and he got his way. (Majzoub wanted another candidate, probably Abdel Rahman Musa.) On paper, he is the fourth most powerful man in the government, but he is rarely consulted. His commanders in Darfur have retreated to government garrisons for their own safety, from where they are now used as proxy forces against their former comrades-in-arms. Minawi’s office in Khartoum has been attacked by Congress Party thugs and all he can do is fill the many positions the DPA made available to the rebels with his placemen. He hasn’t broadened his political base and, as he hears rumours that International Criminal Court investigators are looking into his record of killings, he must be getting very nervous.

At the beginning of the last round of talks in Abuja at the end of last year, Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem of Justice Africa and the Pan-African Movement, wrote in a column for a Nigerian newspaper: ‘Unlike many liberation movements in Africa, which had to depend on the people to build and plan with them, these rebels have too many willing regional and international actors indulging their delusions of grandeur.’ The last straw for Abdel Wahid’s lieutenants, including Ahmed Abdel Shafi, who had been with him from the very beginning, came in Nairobi on 3 June. Having changed his mind twice in as many days, Abdel Wahid finally agreed to the latest attempt to get his mainstream SLM into the peace accord, and said he would fly to southern Sudan the next day to meet with Salva Kiir, who had taken up the mantle of mediation. Kiir arrived at the town of Yei in mid-morning to discover that Abdel Wahid was still in Nairobi demanding a personal guarantee of his security. Kiir called Nairobi and, after waking Abdel Wahid up, gave the assurance. Abdel Wahid sent emissaries to finalise the logistics, only to call them back when they were halfway across town. They turned their taxi round, returned to Abdel Wahid’s flat and discovered that their leader had gone into hiding for unspecified ‘security reasons’. On 25 July, Abdel Shafi announced that 30 SLM commanders had ‘ousted’ Abdel Wahid and that he would serve as interim chairman until a conference could be held. In reality, it was another split: the SLM has fragmented into as many as a dozen different groups. Securing peace now needed an extra, preliminary step: a mechanism for getting the rebel fragments together to agree on a joint platform. An SLM commanders’ conference was due to convene in Darfur this week: security concerns and lack of logistics are delaying it.

Majzoub has been in his element, buying off the splinters one by one. He cut a deal with a commander in Jebel Marra, the mountainous heartland of Darfur, and promised the AU that he would reel them all in sooner rather than later. President Bashir has won his confrontation with the US, which is now signalling that it will accept a continued AU peacekeeping force, bolstered by UN logistics and expertise. He may also reshuffle his Darfur team, bringing in people less intransigent than Majzoub to negotiate a codicil to the DPA. With Minawi a cipher, there is no doubt who is in charge. In these fraught political currents the AU is trying to salvage the DPA through new talks. On 9 November it announced the launch of the long-awaited Darfur-Darfur Dialogue and Consultation, which aims to bring together all Darfurians in a patient discussion of their common future. On 13 November the AU invited the non-signatory SLM and JEM back to the ceasefire commission and two days later Kofi Annan flew to Addis Ababa on his farewell trip to Africa to orchestrate a push for a proper ceasefire that confines both army and rebels to clearly defined areas, and grounds the Sudanese air force, to be followed by a new round of negotiations. If these are patient and inclusive, there’s a chance to end the war, and begin the long processes of demilitarising Darfur and remedying the poverty and marginalisation that led the SLM and JEM to rebel in the first place. Darfur has one last chance, and the formula is the best so far. If there’s a workable peace agreement, the odds are that Khartoum will accept a joint AU-UN force to keep the peace. But is it too late? Many Darfurians believe that their homeland has become locked into a cycle of violence that cannot be reversed by an injection of goodwill and diplomatic acumen.

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