Darfur's fragile peace

Alex de Waal
4 July 2006

The collapse of the Darfur peace agreement designed to resolve the conflict in western Sudan could be averted by a more comprehensive approach to the key issue of disarmament, says Alex de Waal.

The implementation of the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) signed on 5 May 2006 is stalling, amid new insecurity across the western Sudanese region. In these circumstances, more calls are being made for armed intervention by Nato or other western forces. A quick examination of the record of military intervention and of the problems that would await an intervention force in Darfur, counsels caution – and also suggests that the DPA's security-arrangements chapter can provide a blueprint for progress.

There are vigorous debates on the law and ethics of intervention that often serve to obscure the key criterion that justifies sending troops on a humanitarian mission: will they succeed? The limited patience of western publics for such missions – especially when casualties are involved – suggests that a variant on the criterion might be appropriate: will they succeed quickly?

The criterion of "quick success" immediately rules out the pundits' favourite proposals for intervention in Darfur. The central question for an intervention force is what to do about the janjaweed militia. The various militia groups that have been labeled janjaweed have over the last few years been responsible for horrendous atrocities. They have also been engaged in some fierce fighting against the combat-hardened guerrillas of the Darfur rebel movements. A Nato force able to protect civilians and disarm the janjaweed is the option favoured by many activists.

To disarm a militia, combat-tested and operating in its own terrain with support from its own communities, requires a counter-insurgency operation of formidable capacity. In 1988, a combined air-and-land attack by the Chadian army and France's Opération Épervier (Operation Sparrowhawk) crossed the border into Darfur and defeated the first janjaweed groups sheltering there. At that time there were fewer than 500 janjaweed militiamen; today there 20,000 or so, depending on what definition is used.

Similar commando strikes might be possible against the principal janjaweed headquarters today. But, as many janjaweed units are now part of the Sudanese regular forces, this would entail declaring war on the Sudan government. No doubt some advocates of intervention would be delighted to do just that.

A purely military solution to the janjaweed problem would be large, long and costly. The basic rule of thumb for suppressing insurgencies is that a force ration of ten to one is required. This implies an intervention force of 200,000 for an indefinite period.

Alex de Waal is a fellow of the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard University, and a director of Justice Africa. He has been an advisor to the African Union mediation group facilitating the Darfur peace negotiations.

His books include Famine that Kills: Darfur, Sudan, 1984-5 (Oxford University Press, 1989; revised edition, 2005), Islamism and Its Enemies in the Horn of Africa (Indiana University Press, 2004), and (with Julie Flint) Darfur: A Short History of a Long War (Zed Books, 2006).

Also by Alex de Waal in openDemocracy:

"The African state and global governance"
(30 May 2003)

A piece-by-piece plan

There are many reasons to criticise the Darfur Peace Agreement. But its provisions for disarming the janjaweed are not among them. Throughout the negotiations leading up to the final drafting of the DPA, all involved – the rebel movements, the Sudanese government, the African Union, the United Nations and international partners – agreed that disarming the janjaweed was the responsibility of those who had (for the most part) armed them in the first place, namely the Khartoum government.

The government plan has first to be approved by the African Union (this should have happened on 23 June, but procedural wrangles caused the meeting to be postponed). Then the Sudanese army has to do the tough work. Then the movements, the AU and the international community – including an international "security advisory team" – monitor and verify. This seems a sensible division of labour.

The real difficulties with the janjaweed disarmament plan are elsewhere. It is not at all clear that the Sudan government could actually disarm them. Although most were armed by Khartoum and have conducted joint operations with the army and air force, they have uncertain political loyalties. Most janjaweed leaders distrust Khartoum; many keep lines of communication open with the leaders of the Sudan Liberation Movement. Some could switch sides; all could resist an attempt at disarmament. Those absorbed into paramilitary forces might well mutiny. The army doesn't have much control outside its main garrisons and it certainly doesn't have the capacity to force the janjaweed to submit.

The trick is to break the problem down into manageable chunks and deal with them one by one. This is precisely what the DPA does. It specifies that the janjaweed should be confined to specific places, kept away from displacment camps and locations where people are returning home, and away from localities where the movements are withdrawing or encamping their forces. The first phase of disarmament focuses upon heavy weapons and vehicles.

Subsequent phases of the disarmament process include reforming and downsizing the paramilitary institutions that have absorbed janjaweed (to be done under the auspices of a commission headed by a nominee of the rebel movements), establishing controlled migration routes for nomadic pastoralists, and setting up a community disarmament process supervised by a group of tribal elders known as the "peace and reconciliation council".

The thinking behind this council is that community leaders – including the commanders of the majority of militia forces that are essentially community defence groups – should be allies of the arms-control process, and not fear it. Disarmament therefore becomes staged, reciprocal, and collectively monitored. It will take time to collect weapons – a minimum of five years, according to specialists – but the fruits in terms of increased security will be seen much earlier. Once community leaders are confident that the end state will leave no group disadvantaged vis-à-vis its neighbours, the process can be started relatively painlessly. By this mechanism, the main forces needed for neutralising and disarming aggressive militia elements thereby come from the Darfurian communities themselves.

This is not a new concept. It is an approach to disarmament that has been tried elsewhere in Africa, and to date it is the only approach that has registered any success. Among those who helped to design the Darfurian template in the DPA were former guerrillas and military officers who had run similar programmes in Ethiopia and Somaliland, as well as other parts of Sudan. They advised patience: a painstaking process of building confidence was first necessary. Peacekeeping troops would be necessary, but as long as they built up good relations with local leaders, their "force multiplier" would be those tribal chiefs themselves.

Also on the Darfur conflict in openDemocracy:

Gareth Evans, "Genocide in Sudan? An open letter to world leaders"
(August 2004)

Stephen Ellis, "Darfur: countdown to catastrophe"
(June 2004)

Lyndall Stein,
"Darfur journal"
(November 2004)

Suliman Baldo, "Darfur's peace plan: the view from the ground"
(May 2006)

Simon Roughneen, "Darfur: between peace and delivery"
(June 2006)

This approach points to a different kind of foreign intervention: smaller, smarter, and with a long-term perspective. Numbers, armaments and mandate may be important, but the key is the vision of what the mission is there to do. A force commander who knows that his troops will be on the ground for five years at least, and who regards tribal leaders and the commanders of community defence groups as his allies in a collective effort, will do far more with far less. A robust, quick reaction force may be needed for trouble-spots and to inspire confidence, but it should be ancillary to the main objective of the mission.

This is not fanciful. The level of bloodshed and turmoil in rural Somalia in 1993 was no less than Darfur today. 30,000 United States marines failed to control it. The last outpost outside Mogadishu where the marines remained was the town of Baardheere (Bardera) and the surrounding area. It was the toughest assignment and nobody wanted to take it over from a full-strength mechanized marine battalion with air support.

Finally, 200 Botswanans came in, with open-sided desert vehicles, no armour and no helicopters. "You'll never go outside the base", advised the departing American colonel. Within six weeks the Botswanans had made more progress in controlling the district than the Americans had made in six months. Their approach was simple: they asked the clan elders what their problems were and worked collaboratively to solve them.

Similarly, a few dozen unarmed ceasefire monitors kept the peace in the Nuba mountains, in the Kordofan region of Sudan that neighbours Darfur, for three years, following a conflict that was in many ways just as vicious as in Darfur.

A mission impossible

The African forces in Darfur have been given mission impossible. The world expects them to behave like a fully-armed protection force, but without the troops, the logistics or the mandate they need. A peace agreement has been signed – but not by enough of the Darfur factions to make it politically workable, yet. The African Union's mandate has now been extended by three months to the end of 2006 after discussions at the AU summit in Banjul, Gambia; but the AU remains desperate to hand the mission over to the United Nations, and its aim is primarily to hold the fort and get out with as few mishaps as possible.

The UN meanwhile contemplates a Darfur entanglement with trepidation. The UN special representative in Sudan, Jan Pronk, wrote at the end of June that he feared the peace agreement might collapse. The DPA was a sound text, he argued, but the AU had already missed the first major implementation deadlines and the political support to make it work simply wasn't there.

At the time of writing, it seems likely that a number of factors – the failure of the Abdul Wahid Mohamed Nur faction of the SLM to sign the agreement, the weakness of the Minni Minawi faction (which has signed), widespread distrust of the Khartoum government, and the incapacity of the African Union – will soon make the Darfur Peace Agreement a dead letter. An historic opportunity will have gone by. But the basic formula of a solution will remain unchanged.

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