After the Sudan Government and JEM signed a ‘Declaration of Intent’ in Doha earlier this week, hopes have been raised that a ceasefire might be in prospect. We should be cautious.
Since September 2003 there has been a succession of ceasefires, declarations of cessation of hostilities, and efforts to agree an end to fighting. None has worked.
One of the reasons for failure is that all agreements thus far have been incomplete. Some groups have been left out, and as a result the agreement has led to more violence, not less, as the excluded groups assert their presence, and the included groups try to suppress their excluded rivals. That danger exists in the wake of Doha. Many of the other armed movements will see the Doha agreement as part of Khalil Ibrahim’s strategy of ensuring that JEM is the only recognized opposition group, thereby de-legitimizing all others. The mediation will need to work rapidly and in close coordination with UNAMID on the ground to ensure that this interpretation of Doha does not prevail and the agreement leads to more security, not less.
A second reason for recurrent failure is that mediators have often assumed that a ceasefire, or a cessation of hostilities, can be negotiated rapidly and simply. It cannot. The purely technical challenges of achieving a workable ceasefire are considerable, and the groundwork has not yet been done.
A ceasefire is a complex military operation which requires specific training, which is rarely provided even to graduates of military colleges. A ceasefire is not a matter of stopping firing: it involves rules about movement, deployment, resupply and communication. It allows the forces to fire under certain circumstances. The ceasefire provisions in the Darfur Peace Agreement of May 2006 ran to 177 paragraphs over 28 pages, with another 79 paragraphs and ten pages concerning post-ceasefire security arrangements. In some ways, these provisions were too complicated to be implemented (and were quickly rendered irrelevant anyway). But in other respects they were too simple because they did not include the detailed mapping that the professional military officers on all sides recognized was essential if the proposals were to work.
Officers in a regular army need to be trained in the rules of a ceasefire. Commanders in armed movements, many of whom have not attended staff college, are in greater need of training. Rebels also tend to be suspicious of any proposals for restricting their military activities, fearing that any provisions they do not understand are a trap. It is not enough to hold a workshop for the leaders. In a poorly-organized rebel movement, all commanders must have ceasefire training because the leaders won’t pass on what they have learned and cannot give orders that their subordinates will follow. The training must therefore be done in the field.
In late 2004, African security specialists (led by former guerrillas from Zimbabwe and Ethiopia) prepared a proposal for technical training for the Darfur armed movements. Their estimate was that about six months’ training was required before the armed movements would be ready to negotiate a workable ceasefire, and that any short cuts would not only doom the process to failure but would be dangerous. They further estimated that three months’ work would be needed to negotiate the ceasefire. This proposal was rejected as being too slow. It was presented again in late 2005, in 2006 and 2007 and each time rejected as being ‘leisurely’. Even today, some international officials working on Darfur make the mistake of assuming that technical training is a longer-term activity akin to the retraining of former combatants in the skills they will need after demobilization and therefore is a non-urgent activity that can be postponed.
Another issue is the provisioning of combatants during a ceasefire. This can be a major problem for an irregular force, especially one that supplies itself by taxing trade, stealing vehicles or raiding enemy forces. Major problems of discipline arise when fighters are not paid, clothed, housed or fed. Some turn to banditry. Logistical support to the members of rebel movements may be essential to ensure that they comply with a ceasefire—and is obviously conditional on them respecting such a ceasefire. This assistance provides an incentive for the armed movements to comply with agreements including humanitarian access and cessation of hostilities. In the Abuja talks, this was one of the issues that most concerned the armed movements.
Most models of ceasefires have been developed for armies that can adopt a defensive posture within clearly-identified territories. Mapping forces and precisely demarcating areas of control are essential components of ceasefire negotiation and implementation. It has been a recurrent headache in Darfur. This is workable for the infantry forces of SLA-Abdel Wahid in and around Jebel Marra, but not for the other SLA groups or JEM, which are Landcruiser-based. In the context of these highly mobile armed groups, using four wheel drive vehicles rather than consolidated territory as the basis of their organization, it is harder to apply these models.
Darfur also poses special problems because it consists of several overlapping kinds of conflict. There is a limited insurgency/counter-insurgency war alongside various forms of political and criminal violence, much of which is best seen as a fusion between politics and criminality, in the form of violent bargaining over the price of loyalty for militias and tribal-military units. Analysis of the patterns of violence will be the subject of a later posting.
Four years ago, security experts estimated that we were six to nine months away from a workable ceasefire. Today we are six to nine months away from a workable ceasefire—though progress could be more rapid in some locations, and slower in others. This is unfortunate and unnecessary, to say the least.