The UN in Sudan: A Mission that Hates Success

Reporting to the U.N. Security Council on the situation in Darfur last April, the U.N.-African Union Joint Special Representative to Darfur, Rodolphe Adada, revealed to members evidence of remarkable progress in the region during the past year. Compared to the murderous conflict which caused AU-UN troops to be send there in the first place, the current situation could be characterised as “in purely numerical terms [as] a low-intensity conflict.”

Between January 2008 and end of March 2009, about 2,000 violent deaths occurred in the region, one third of them civilian. Of the rest, 573 were combatants, and 569 died in intertribal fighting. UNAMID suffered 14 fatalities. This is by all means a remarkable turn of events. The rate of killings in Darfur has dropped below the rate of murder in some American cities, such as Chicago. During the same period, UNMIS chief in Sudan, Ashraf Qazi complained that violent deaths due to tribal conflict in the South of Sudan were much higher than casualties in Darfur.

Things continued to get better. Last June, UNAMID reported only 16 violent deaths in the whole of Darfur, almost all appeared to be the result of criminal activities not directly related to the conflict. New York usually has that number every 10 days, while Chicago nearly every week. At another level, recent UNICEF reports that infant mortality in Darfur is now lower than some other areas in Sudan, such as Kassala in the East.

The UN thus has every reason to celebrate these achievements. Its mission in Darfur has apparently achieved the impossible, in spite of limited resources and multiple constraints, and brought violence down dramatically. Self-congratulation was in order.

But New York was not at all in celebratory mood. In fact, the mood was emphatically vile, and the first thing New York did was to shoot the messenger who brought the good news. Adada became practically the victim of constructive dismissal as he was forced out of office by thinly disguised machinations. The AU, the supposed partner of the UN in the mission, was not even consulted. The mission’s top general was also abruptly replaced. At the same time, New York was actively conspiring to effectively dissolve its partnership with the AU. Its lawyers drafted “secret” memos arguing that the AU does not have any privileged role to play in what was legally and practically a purely UN mission authorised by the Security Council.

On July 30, the Council issued Resolution 1881 (2009) renewing the UNAMID mission for one more year, and at the same time “expressing concern… at the continued seriousness of the security situation and deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Darfur, and at the recurring attacks on the civilian population.” More ominously, the resolution called on UNAMID “to make full use of its mandate and capabilities” in order to protect civilians and ensure unhindered humanitarian access”.

The resolution and its tone raises some disturbing questions, indicating that the mission was in serious crisis. For one thing, where did the UN Security Council got its information about the deteriorating situation in Darfur when its own mission on the ground is telling it that the situation is in fact improving, and dramatically so? And second, what is meant by the implied criticism of the current UNAMID leadership in urging the mission to use its full mandate? Is the implication that the mission is currently holding back? And does this imply a command to be more confrontational with the government in deference to the urging of some belligerent Security Council members and their activist constituencies? And how is UNAMID to do that, when it is dependent of the Sudanese for its security, as evidenced by the military police standing guard outside its offices in Darfur cities? And how does this square with the resolution’s preamble which affirms its commitment to the sovereignty of Sudan?

The mandarins in New York and the men who pull the purse strings appear oblivious to the fact the operation in Darfur is taking place in a sovereign country with a functioning government. This is not Kosovo or East Timor. And this is not Somalia or Sierra Leone either. Sudan is not –yet- a failed sate, despite the efforts of some. And Darfur is no longer the acute humanitarian crisis the UN appears –perversely- to want it to be to justify both its presence, and to appease the activists clamouring for blood.

It is clear from the “purges” UNAMID has suffered, and the belligerent tone of the resolution, together with the concerted effort to muscle the AU out of the mission in favour of more direct UN control of operations, that the top brass in New York, and the powers who run the organisation behind the scenes, are now intent on escalating matters in Darfur, a path that could at best be described as suicidal for the mission. The powers that be appear acutely uncomfortable with the mission’s African character, which they have been forced to accept under duress. They do not regard this as “their” mission, and have continued to disparage its African component and blame it for all the shortcomings.

This in turn points to the fatal flaw in the very basis of the mission: it is a peace keeping mission with no peace to keep. Theoretically, the mission is here to enforce the 2006 Abuja Darfur Peace Agreement. But not even the most deluded person believes that fiction any more. The mission was supposed to work towards achieving peace, but its mediating function remains its weakest link. To date, the most high profile achievement of the Joint Chief Mediator has been to attend a mediation session organised by Qatar, in his input was minimal. To make matters worse, the Chief Mediator has been practically at war with the rest of the mission, and refused to invite any of his senior colleagues to the talks.

Without a serious effort to advance the peace process, the Council’s affirmation of the need for “an inclusive political settlement” as the only viable solution for the crisis becomes vacuous. And with the apparent powerlessness to even bring some of the key actors to the negotiating table, let alone getting them to talk peace, such resolutions are just talk.

Up to now, the mission has been able to achieve tangible progress through the hard work of its staff and the patient wisdom of its key figures. The new gung-ho attitude and the assault on the mission is sure to have disastrous effects all round. Darfur does not need more of those.

Abdelwahab El-Affendi is an ESRC-AHRC Fellow in the Global Uncertainties Programme, UK. He is based at the University of Westminster

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6 thoughts on “The UN in Sudan: A Mission that Hates Success

  1. Reading between the lines, the Security Council appears to be attempting two different things. One: it is endorsing the mediator, Djibrill Bassolé, as “our man”. Two: it is laying out an agenda for how the peace talks should be conducted. What makes this so fascinating is that the agenda is a 180 degree reversal from what the mediator has been doing this last twelve months. No mention of ceasefires and prisoner releases, which was what he was up to. Suddenly Libya, which has been vying with Doha as an alternative venue, pops up into the picture. And just as President Mbeki leaves Tripoli, in flies Bassolé. The reality is that Bassolé is not doing any mediation at all, just running around looking important.

  2. The bottom line diagnosis of the stalled peaceful settlement for the conflict in Darfur is that the issue has become a non-Sudanese matter and subjected to the disputed interests of regional and international players. The kidnaping of initiatives from one capital to another has become the distinctive feature of hidden agendas conflict between countries seeking to play prominent roles regarding the issue. No one country is allowed to lead the settlement to its wishful ends without obstacles being created by others to spoil any success that might emerge either by urging their allied Darfuri movements not to participate in which case the outcome proves to be of little effect as in Abuja Agreement or by pursuing hidden spoiling measures.
    As long as the issue remains far from a genuine Sudanese will, no foreign effort whichever will be of real value in achieving a true peace in Darfur, a lesson all Sudanese on either sides must learn.

  3. Sudan may be a sovereign country, but that does not mean that a UN mission should kow-tow to the Sudan government given its record of appalling abuses in every corner of the country. Why is it that the UNAMID leadership and now the Mbeki Panel are the loudest voices in support of the Sudan government? UNAMID is a Chapter VII mission and is authorized to use force. Bashir, Nafie and their cronies are the main obstruction to any serious progress in finding a resolution to the Darfur crisis in its security, political and humanitarian dimensions. Tactical cooperation is one thing, actively supporting a government with such a hideous record is something else. The fact is that UNAMID is doing Khartoum’s bidding and the AU is the softer side of a soft combo.

  4. Abdelwahab El-Affendi identifies the UN-AU mediator, Jibril Bassole, as the weakest link in the international operations in Darfur. That is without doubt the common view across the Sudanese political spectrum. In fact he is better described as the missing link. There is a great deal of speculation about why he continues to enjoy the confidence of the British and French, and why he was reappointed for another year, when the results of his efforts over a year have been zero.

    The answer is readily identifiable and requires only a few years of historical memory. Ten years ago, when the U.S.-backed “frontline states” plan for the overthrow of the Turabi-Bashir regime was stalled by the unexpected war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the western powers decided to “reinvigorate” the IGAD peace process, that had been moribund for some years. But lacking agreement about the endpoint of this strategy, the U.S. (recall, this was the Clinton Administration that had just bombed al-Shifa) and its allies could only agree on what they did NOT want, which was the success of the rival initiative led by Libya and Egypt. As a consequence, between 1999 and 2001, the function of the IGAD Sudan peace secretariat was solely to occupy the position of the mediator so that no-one else could do so. A middle-ranking Kenyan diplomat, the affable but ineffectual Ambassador Daniel Mboya, was given the job of keeping the seat warm until the U.S. decided what to do. In due course, the post-September 11 Bush Administration decided it was serious about peace, and the Kenyans duly replaced Amb. Mboya with General Lazarus Sumbeiywo. Gen. Sumbeiywo was an energetic, capable and well-connected mediator, but the key to his success was the active involvement of the “troika” of the U.S., Britain and Norway.

    Bassole is Darfur’s Mboya. He is there because he will not do anything that will upset the Americans, British and French, and he can keep the Egyptians and Libyans at bay. The NCP leaders are as frustrated as anyone by the Bassole-induced paralysis but cannot speak out against him because they would be promptly demonized as being against peace. The armed movements are contemptuous of him and his understanding of the issues which could be kindly called “superficial.” As soon as the western powers agree on a serious strategy for peace he will be brushed aside and a mediator with the requisite qualities will be appointed, who will work in close tandem with them. The flaw in this strategy is that the Sudanese parties are impatient for peace, and (unlike ten years ago) are able to take some initiatives on their own behalf, for example the recent efforts in Libya. The hazard of this is that multiple parallel peace initiatives may arise which will cancel each other out.

    As Abdelwahab correctly indicates, the UN is not playing a constructive role. He castigates the UN for marginalizing the AU. But the AU, with the exception of the panel led by President Mbeki, is asleep. What I fail to understand is why the AU Commission meekly acquiesces in UN decisions which go against its interests.

  5. Dear Abdalwahab Abdalla, I am forced to agree with your analysis. On arrival in Tripoli, Minister Bassole presented the delegates of the movements with a piece of paper asking for their inputs into a framework agreement. It was no more than a list of every area in which some negotiation might be required. The talk among the delegates was, why is the mediator taking us back to the very beginning of the process in 2004? Isn’t he aware of the DoP? One of our friends joked that Bassole is Dr Salim’s secret weapon to make his tenure as mediator look energetic, informed and professional! I am sure Bassole could have made some progress if he had wished to do so. The fact that he has not, despite the backing which he continually reminds us he has from the Americans, French and British, can mean only one thing.

  6. James your suggestion that the African Union has is pro the sudanese government is ludicrouse, unlike the UN that is heavely influenced by the major powers the AU does not seek to manipulate the Darfur conflict for political purposes. While the AU celebrates the green shoots of peace, the major powers in the UN attempt to belittle any sighn of improvments in the situation in Darfur and attack those who point out this improvments.
    Also saying that it is the Sudanese Government that is the party which is stalling peace is an absolute miss characterization of whats going on in Darfur, the Government is desperate to bring this conflict to an end, while the rebels who see no pressure beeing exerted on them what so ever are more then happy to see this conflict continue.
    Your failure to mention the refusal of rebel leaders to talk peace just shows the lack of objectivity and impartiality in the analyzation of the conflict in Darfur.

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