Africa Matters is a blog that follows the news and offers analysis of African affairs. Our aim is to delve deeper into the issues of African politics and development. We don’t presume to be experts, and we don’t presume to have all the answers—we are just trying to ask the right questions.

Wednesday, March 14

Kristof and Prunier on Darfur

In his column in today’s New York Times, Nicholas Kristof writes that, despite already harboring a genocide, the situation in Darfur, Sudan, threatens to deteriorate further. The conflict has so far taken the lives of some 400,000 people and displaced two million more, and the spillover has drawn into the fighting neighboring Chad and Central African Republic. The question, of course, is what can be done to end the atrocities and secure peace?

Kristof turned to his readers for inspiration. Unfortunately, he finds most of their suggestions unpalatable. The more bellicose avenues readers offered, like hiring a private security firm or arming the rebels and Darfurian civilians themselves, he writes, are untenable in this post-Iraq War world and would only serve to propagate the image of oil-thirsty American imperialism and bolster support for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. Punishing China, too, via a boycott, would similarly embolden China’s stance with regard to Sudan. More practical, Kristof thinks, are the politics of shame, such as organizing a “Genocide Olympics” campaign to reprove China, host of the Games in 2008, purchaser of 65 percent of Sudan’s oil, and supplier of much of the country’s arms. He also stresses the need to continue pushing the press (“the slacker now is ABC News”) to devote more time to coverage of this story.

But most importantly, Kristof argues, President Bush must ratchet up pressure on Khartoum to end the violence, and outside actors must develop a comprehensive peace plan and coax the parties to the table. Achieving this, however, requires more than simply the will to act; realizing either of these proposals may prove deceptively difficult.

First, President Bashir is not simply a stubborn tyrant; he has (at least perceived) rational incentives for his campaign of ethnic cleansing. As Gérard Prunier wrote in Le Monde Diplomatique last week, the purge of Darfur is part of the government’s larger plan to establish an “ethnic cordon sanitaire” that cuts through the region. The oppression of Nuba Mountain tribes—starting with land seizures in the 1970s and 80s and leading to violence and outright crimes against humanity during the Second Sudanese Civil War from 1992 to 2002—was as well part of this move to fortify territorial control in the country. Prunier writes, “It has become a strategic necessity to subdue revolt in Darfur by any means.” The “Arab” Khartoum administration’s greatest fear is that “black African” tribes in Darfur will ally with African tribes in southern Sudan, who threaten secession and whose territory encompasses much of the country’s oil riches.

The truth is, for the government the cost of compliance with the demands of the international community is still far too high. Acceding to the U.N. would risk heightening internal opposition and empowering endogenous threats to the regime—in particular, prosecutions by the International Criminal Court would be a boon to Bashir’s domestic opponents. The former U.N. special representative in Sudan (before being expelled), Jan Pronk, said: “... high political officials in Sudan have told me that they had weighed the risk of non-compliance with Security Council resolutions against the risk of compliance ... and they had come to a rational conclusion: the risk of compliance would be much greater than the risk of non-compliance. They have been proven right.” As such, the threats posed by the U.S., the U.N., the A.U., foreign investors, or any other entity must be substantial enough to outweigh the competing pressures on the regime, and they will most likely have to include guarantees of some sort that the current powers that be will maintain control in some form and won’t be subject to punishment.

Moreover, a workable peace treaty has proven difficult to achieve. The Darfurian rebels don’t present a unified front; the current, largely meaningless treaty—signed in Abuja, Nigeria, on May 5, 2006—has, in fact, the signature of only one of six rebel factions. Meanwhile, the government’s ongoing attacks on the remaining five guerrilla groups appear intended to prevent leaders from reconvening to form a cohesive bloc.

At present, the factions are split largely along ethnic and tribal lines. Minni Minnawi’s SLM-MM was the sole signatory to the Abuja accord. The other two offshoots of the original Sudan Liberation Movement, the SLM-AWN and the SLM-Free Choice, comprise armies of Fur fighters from Jebel Marra and a coalition of smaller African tribes like the Tunjur and the Dajju, respectively. The latter group accepted the peace deal only to gain access to the proposed protected humanitarian supply routes, because its constitutive tribes were often denied access to IDP camps. In addition, there is the Popular Combat Forces, the only all-Arab faction; the Justice for Equality Movement, which has close ties to the religious leader Hassan al-Turabi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the global Sunni Islamist movement; the National Redemption Front, a multiethnic umbrella organization that rejected the May treaty and renewed attacks in July; and the unaligned G19, a group of 19 commanders and their followers who tentatively support the NRF.

On top of all this, there is the lobby of the Chadian government, which backs Sudanese rebels and claims Bashir supports rebels in Chad; the Janjaweed Arab militias, who have acted as Khartoum’s proxy warriors in Darfur; and, indirectly, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in the south, whose own agreement with the government seems to be crumbling, not to mention the other ethnic minorities around the country, like the Nuba, who don’t have a seat at the table but nonetheless have a real stake in whatever resolution comes about in Darfur.

Aside from the difficulties in getting either side to make and keep any kind of peace, it also seems that calls for action on the part of third parties have, so far, fallen on deaf ears. The only meaningful action taken to date to curb the violence in Darfur was the creation of an African Union peacekeeping force, but this has been largely ineffectual. The U.N. authorized its own force, but the Sudanese government refuses to accept it, while the A.U. force—which, by way of compromise, the U.N. now wants to “hybridize” with its own staff—has not done, and, really, cannot do, the job, with or without U.N. assistance. While groups like Enough and Save Darfur advocate strengthening the A.U. contingent to the agreed-upon 20,300-troop level (from its current size of 7,500 men), Prunier points out that at least 30,000 troops would be required to cover adequately a region the size of Darfur. But more importantly, even then, the force’s mandate would still be far too weak. As of now, the peacekeepers are forbidden from undertaking offensive patrols and are permitted only to negotiate—“They are there to count the dead.”

Underlying the entire situation and explaining the inaction of outsiders are some very powerful ulterior motives. The U.S., for one, considers Bashir an important ally in the struggle against terrorism, a concern that will no doubt trump nearly any other. China, meanwhile, the main obstacle on the Security Council, has a massive stake invested in Sudan, which is China’s second-largest African trade partner, an important source of oil for a country that desperately needs to quench a rapidly rising demand for the stuff, and a big buyer of Chinese guns. When Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Sudan recently, the talk was all business (which totaled $2.9 billion in 2006). So far, the U.S. has really only offered rhetoric to halt the Sudanese government, and, in fact, China has chimed in a little too; but this has not prompted adequate action. Despite the Security Council resolution, China insists Sudanese sovereignty be respected.

There is a growing state-level movement in the U.S. to divest from Sudan. Governor Schwarzenegger in California led the way by ordering that all public bodies sell shares in companies doing work in Sudan, and Vermont followed suit in February, 2007. Oregon, Illinois, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Maine have passed, if not fully enacted, similar legislation, and campaigns are underway in many other states. Some universities have done the same. Divestment, of course, played an important role in ending Apartheid in South Africa, but with Sudan’s oil wealth and the continued backing of China, it is hard to see whether this will be enough to tip the scale.

Today, the suffering in Darfur is horrific and poised to get worse; the prospects for improvement seem grim given the complexity of the situation on the ground and the jumble of competing incentives and motivations. Ironically, it seems that perhaps the group best-positioned to take on the Sudanese government right now is the SPLM in the south—if these fellow rebels declare independence, as they have threatened to do, and take a sizable chunk of Sudanese oil with them, this could destabilize the Bashir regime, present Darfurians with an important ally, or fundamentally alter the political dynamics in and around Sudan in countless other ways. Southern independence, however, could be at least four years away.

It is undoubtedly frustrating and revolting when atrocities of this magnitude persist while we are rendered so helpless in the face of them and solutions remain elusive. Nevertheless, we ought to be wary of taking action simply for the sake of taking action, without first taking the time to comprehend the potential externalities of our intervention—last year’s insufficient peace agreement, for instance, seemed to worsen the conflict, much the same way that the Arusha Accords, and their exclusion of Hutu extremists, precipitated the Rwandan Genocide.

Divestment and continued pressure on the Bush administration to take more decisive action is each probably worth a try, even if the chances of success are slim. One slightly sanguine prospect, Kristof suggests, is that President Bush is set to introduce sanctions on Sudan, like those on Iran and North Korea. Advocates (like Kristof and Enough) further urge the enforcement of a no-fly zone.

Does any of this serve to answer the question of what can be done? Well, perhaps the question we should ask first, before asking what we can do, is at what point—if there’s one at all—will Sudan break? With China’s ongoing support, is there anything the U.S. or any other non-U.N. body can do to alter the payoffs enough to change President Bashir’s mind? If there isn’t, is there anything we can do to compel or inveigle China—which has proven obstinate in the face of censure for a number of other human rights violations, like the occupation of Tibet or the treatment of Falun Gong practitioners—to adopt a more critical stance? If these courses seem unpromising, perhaps the best bet for real change in Sudan—with regard to Darfur, but more generally too—lies in southern Sudan’s nascent and burgeoning democracy, which we can, and should, support.


Vinh said...


'Twas an articulate and erudite analysis methinks. Question: Is there a real possibility that the Southern rebels would declare independence? You say that it could be at least four years away. Are they actively building their military or are there other factors that are currently holding them back from another armed rebellion?

Nice shoutout by the way to the change agents. What was that old guy's name?

Vinh "Durfurian or Darfurian" Doquang

Aaron said...

Hey Vinh, thanks for the comment.

Alex de Waal actually wrote a very good article in The Nation about a week ago (thanks to Derek for pointing this out) that takes a much closer look at the relationship between Southern Sudan and Darfur. Basically, as it stands now, the south has quasi-autonomy, about half the seats in the National Assembly and Cabinet, the vice presidency, an oil-sharing agreement, and the (former-rebel) SPLA remaining as the army in the south. Especially following the untimely death of longtime SPLA leader John Garang in 2005 and some stalling by the government on initiatives like demarcating the border, the referendum to choose between unity and independence set for 2011, de Waal thinks, will almost surely decide on the latter (if conducted freely and fairly). So, I think that sort of answers your question, but it’s still incredibly hard to see what this all entails—de Waal warns that if this isn’t handled properly, it could lead to countrywide collapse.

The piece is definitely worth reading—de Waal has a pretty interesting take on what to do about Darfur. He thinks sanctions will be largely useless, as well nearly any other type of coercive pressure from outsiders, but that a no-fly zone could be somewhat effective. In the end, he believes resolving the crisis in Darfur will take a comprehensive and thoughtful peace agreement (not a rushed one like the Abuja treaty) that also takes into account the future of Southern Sudan and starts making arrangements for the outcome of the referendum there. One of the reasons he thinks Darfur erupted into crisis in the first place is because the north-south pact split the government between Khartoum and the SPLM, but essentially left out all other groups, Darfurians among them. He also has some interesting insights into intra-regime politics in Khartoum (which Prunier also looks at a bit in his piece, especially with regard to the U.S.’s relationship with them on matters of terrorism), and he actually portrays the blockage of a U.N. peacekeeping force as the result of a veto by Bashir, against some of his advisors and others within his government, almost entirely out of fear of ICC indictments. If this is true, then there’s an argument to be made that in two of the first three cases taken up by the Court (Sudan and Uganda), indictments have actually served to impede the peace process and incentivize continued fighting.

Oh, and by the way, I ran into the entire Congar Fam today. They’re pretty short.