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, September 5

A new analogy for Darfur

In Derek’s Sudan roundup last week he mentioned Alex de Waal and Julie Flint’s op-ed in the Washington Post about the changing (or already changed) situation in Darfur. They argue Darfur today much less intimates genocide than it does anarchy.

An article in the New York Times last week echoed this view, as does a piece in the Economist today, which looks at the connection between the fragile peace in South Sudan and the continuing violence in Darfur, warning that the latter has added pressure that may undermine the former and destabilize the entire country. All three of these analyses offer the same analogy: Somalia.

De Waal and Flint write:

“For the past three years, Darfur has been descending into this murky world of tribes-in-arms and warlords who serve the highest bidder, with some community leaders of integrity trying to carve out localities of tranquility. Many Arab militias are talking to the rebels; many erstwhile rebel leaders have struck bargains with the regime, receiving high-sounding positions and nice villas in return for providing an adornment to the government's attempts to show a pluralistic facade.”

Jeffrey Gettleman of the Times, meanwhile, reports:
“Some aid workers say Darfur is beginning to resemble Somalia, the world’s longest-running showcase for AK-47-fed chaos. Highwaymen in green camouflage—rebel fighters? local militia? janjaweed?—routinely flag down trucks and drag out passengers, robbing the men and sexually assaulting the women. Newly empowered warlords are exacting taxes. The galaxy of rebel armies—the Greater Sudan Liberation Movement, the Popular Forces Troops, the Sudan Democratic Group, to name a few new arrivals—keeps expanding, and ideology seems to fade away. Despite peace talks among them in early August, the rebels, mostly non-Arabs, are now also battling themselves.”

And the Economist observes:
“Getting assistance to those who need it is becoming increasingly difficult. Large areas are now too dangerous for aid workers to operate within as Arab militias which once attacked African villagers now turn on each other, and as rival tribes scrap over the land grabbed in previous rounds of fighting. As in Somalia, where tribal feuds have helped to destroy the state, the power of local warlords is increasing fast. This suggests that Khartoum’s ability—even if it wished to do so—to control events may be slipping.”

One troubling aspect of this growing chaos, which is noted in the Times article, is that it may have been partially prompted by news of a more robust U.N. intervention. Gettleman writes, referring to the new trend of inter-Arab fighting,
“United Nations officials say the militias may be jockeying for power and trying to seize turf before the long-awaited hybrid force of United Nations and African Union peacekeepers begins to arrive, perhaps later this year. Today’s battlefields are superimposed on yesterday’s, with the Arab militias killing one another over the same burned villages and stingy riverbeds where so much blood has already been spilled.”

The implications of this peacekeeping force are hard to discern. De Waal and Flint write their column as a warning to a hypothetical U.S. soldier posted to Darfur. While we probably don’t have to worry about American troops getting anywhere near the area, the prospects for the upcoming U.N.-A.U. force, and the situation’s increasing similarity to Somalia’s mayhem, raise important questions about what will happen in January 2008, as well as frightening recollections of what happened in October 1993.

De Waal and Flint advise the soldier disembarking in Darfur: “What can you expect? According to news reports, a sort of slow-motion Rwanda in the desert. What will you find on arrival? A reality that's complicated and messy. A Darfur that has more in common with Chad, southern Sudan and—dare we say it?—Somalia.”

As the paradigm shifts from ‘1994 Rwanda’ to ‘1993 Somalia,’ so too do the concerns about the role of peacekeepers. The disastrous intervention in 1990s Somalia that culminated in the Battle of Mogadishu (immortalized in the evening news images of dead American rangers being dragged through the streets, and later in Mark Bowden’s book “Black Hawk Down” and the movie by the same name), was a case of good intentions gone horribly awry, which paved the way for the 13 years of anarchic violence that followed—the fighting drew briefly to a close last year under the order brought by the Islamic Court Union, only to be renewed after Ethiopia’s U.S.-supported invasion ousted the de facto government. (Somaliland and Puntland in Somalia’s north, by contrast, which never had any outside intervention, are currently relatively stable and democratic.)

Whereas Rwanda seemed a case of peacekeepers positioned to do good without the mandate to act, Somalia seemed an instance of peacekeepers authorized to act from a position in which they couldn’t do any good. While Darfur’s new hybrid force was a coup for activists and advocates for more international action, and while it—the world’s largest peacekeeping force—still brings hope of a change for the better, we ought to heed the warnings of experts like de Waal and think carefully about what this force realistically can accomplish, and what it should really try to accomplish.

In Somalia, we went from distributing food rations to hunting down warlords and ended up with a pullout that not only doomed Somalia for the foreseeable future, but effectively ruined any chance for a future intervention of its kind elsewhere (i.e., “Somalia Syndrome”), including one in Rwanda six months later. Sudan is bigger than Somalia, has more resources at stake, and probably presents an overall much more complex and difficult scenario—an implosion like that in Somalia 14 years ago would be far worse; washing our hands of it and averting our eyes to the wreckage for the next decade won’t be an option this time around.