Time to Get Serious
The agreement between the UN, AU and Sudan Government in Addis Ababa today (June 12) on the AU-UN hybrid peacekeeping force for Darfur might—just might—be a breakthrough. Ambiguity lurks in the text. Problems will multiply with actually making it happen. But the progress made today should be an opportunity to refocus attention on the real center of gravity of the problem: peace and democracy.
In Addis Ababa, the Sudan government signed up to the proposals put forward jointly by the AU and UN, namely a 20,000-strong force, mainly composed of African troops, with a strong mandate and a protection capability, whose commander reports through a special envoy to both the AU Peace and Security Council and the UN Security Council. There are plenty of ambiguities still in the agreement and some loopholes that could be exploited to hinder its implementation. Khartoum didn’t agree to the full text of the AU-UN joint report, just to the presentation made in the meeting; how the force commander will work under the joint authority of two separate institutions isn’t yet clear; there are questions over how the Chad border is to be monitored; and mechanisms for reviewing the agreement remain to be worked out. In the worst case it could turn into an unwieldy operation in which two institutions, neither of which are renowned for speed and flexibility of action, end up further tying one another down. We will be lucky if the full hybrid force is functional before the end of the year and that gives plenty of time to work on the institutional arrangements. Another danger is that many Darfurians’ expectations of what international troops can deliver is so inflated that they will be grievously disappointed when the UN soldiers don’t disarm the Janjawiid, guard every displaced persons’ camp, or chase down bandits.
Some short-term action is needed to bolster the forces already on the ground and improve their standing among Darfurians. The collapse of confidence between ordinary Darfurians and most of the AMIS forces is palpable and approaching crisis. Something visible and dramatic is needed, like the short-term transfer of UN troops from Southern Sudan, to show people that things are changing. Also, AMIS’s mandate is up for review at the end of June. Instead of simply rolling over the existing mandate until the end of the year, it would make sense to stiffen it in anticipation of the incoming hybrid force. And the rebel groups that didn’t sign the DPA last year should be brought back into the ceasefire commission.
That’s a formidable list of problems to overcome. What should be the international response: more pressure to get Khartoum to sign up to the details? Or a change in tack and tone, refocusing on the challenges of Darfur’s peace process and Sudan’s national democratization? I favor the latter. This is the opportunity to get serious about Sudan’s central issues.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement commits the government to free and fair elections in the 12 months between July 9, 2008 and July 9, 2009. This is the main event: where diplomats and activists should concentrate their efforts. The Darfur peacekeepers’ saga is far from over, but after today we should be switching our emphasis.
The "mid-term elections"—so-called because they happen half-way through the interim period leading up to the Southern Sudanese referendum on self-determination—are the best chance to transform Sudan in more than twenty years. For these elections to happen, a lot of work is needed. Sudan needs a proper census, which involves an agreement on where the North-South boundary lies and an agreement on the voting rights of displaced people. It will be next-to-impossible for the Sudan government to carry out a credible census in the Darfur displaced camps, but a team that includes the UN, AU and representatives of the government’s independent census office could do it. Sudan needs to reform its national security act, because the existing one prohibits most kinds of public meeting. It needs a new media act and a new NGOs act, as well as a political parties act. The national assembly has enough committed democrats to push these through if they have support, but the legislative timetable is tight.
Sudan’s major opposition parties, such as the Umma Party and the Popular Congress, need to change their political tack, which is currently headed towards an election boycott. International pressure could be helpful here. Another role for the international community is creating a mechanism for people in Chadian refugee camps and rebel-administered areas to vote—just because people are outside of government jurisdiction does not deny them their rights as citizens. Hard work is needed to transform former rebel groups into viable civilian political parties. National debates are needed on the key issues facing the country: there has been a South-South dialogue and a Darfur-Darfur dialogue is planned, so why not a "Sudan-Sudan dialogue"?
Any peace agreement for Darfur makes sense only as a buttress to the national democratization process contained in the CPA. Any power-sharing arrangements—whether those contained in the Abuja DPA or those drawn up in a new agreement—will be purely interim. The governorships and ministerial posts awarded to the Darfurian rebels will be theirs only until elections are held. Many Darfurians are deeply skeptical of elections, fearing that the ruling National Congress Party will manipulate the vote. Yet they do not want to be the ones who slow down or stall the elections.
This provides a focal point for Sudanese and foreign activists: making sure that the national elections are free, fair and credible. With progress on the UN peacekeepers, it’s time to get serious on the main issue.