More than just a new development of Darfur’s volatile security situation, recent clashes in IDP camps highlight the very real and immediate impact of the peace process. Fighting between pro and anti SLA Abdul Wahid figures in Kalma camp (South Darfur) and Hamadiya camp (West Darfur) were kicked off by the aftermath of the last round of the Doha Civil Society meetings. While not the only factor in the violence, the first time participation of some IDPs from these camps, breaking the boycott on the process, inflamed tensions. The incident is an example of the complexities involved in the civil society process, and also of the political changes underway in Darfur, in this case abetted by international mediation driving the civil society process. Some of these challenges are outlined in our recent report Civil Society in Darfur: The Missing Peace published by the United States Institute of Peace.
It has become received wisdom that achieving lasting peace in Darfur requires more from a peace process than that which yielded the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) in 2006. Mediators and diplomats have long paid lip service to the idea of involving ‘civil society’ as part of a more ‘inclusive’ peace process. Over the last year however, this has become more of a reality, as the African Union/United Nations Joint Mediation Support Team (JMST) has toiled to operationalise into the Darfur peace process what was previously a somewhat vague concept. Civil society is now arguably the main event.
A strong civil society track to the peace process, previously seen by many as a rather fluffy – if well-meaning – goal, now has increasingly clear practical uses. First, it can be a vehicle for bringing crucial constituencies into the process, particularly where the recognised leaders of these constituencies are either excluded or intransigent. Fur IDPs and Abbala nomads are two groups whose buy-in is essential if a peace deal is to be respected. Neither have leaders that are representing them in the current ‘Track 1’ process. Bringing influential individuals from these groups into the civil society talks is – as demonstrated by the clashes in Kalma and Hamadiya – a difficult task, but one that remains essential.
Non-combatants also need to be involved in discussions of some of Darfur’s thornier issues, particularly issues of land, displacement and return, which cannot be resolved by rebel and government representatives alone. Moreover, a civil society bloc has the potential to generate momentum and positively pressure the existing Track 1 actors to engage, and to ensure popular buy-in and legitimacy for an eventual agreement.
However, though the Civil Society process remains nascent, some of the challenges it throws up are already evident. Firstly, participation in the process remains controversial and divisive among some communities in Darfur, communities that are essential for the process’s success. Many Fur IDP sheikhs loyal to Abdul Wahid’s faction of the Sudan Liberation Army refuse to participate in any peace process, following the rejectionist line of their leader. This may be in the process of changing though with some signs of growing support for the Doha process even amongst IDPs previously loyal to SLA-Abdul Wahid.
Second, other communities – namely the Abbala Arabs – remain outside the process more because of their pariah status than from their own choosing. Engaging with these groups, historically associated with the Janjaweed, is necessary for peace. But there is precious little knowledge of them amongst international actors. Mapping and contacts are missing. Moreover, the necessary engagement between these groups and other communities in Darfur, is still a bridge too far for some communities.
Thirdly, how the rebel groups relate to the process is unclear. Historically more open to engaging with civil society than the government, they are increasingly struggling to maintain their positions as spokesmen for the people of Darfur. Finally, there is the challenge of coordination amongst the international community. With the greater attention on civil society has come the attendant competition amongst international actors, which must be put aside in the interest of the process’ success. There is – as is common in Sudan – a lack of coordination and clear leadership among the international players (JMST, UNAMID, African Union High-Level Implementation Panel, US Government). This uncertain stewardship trickles down to the civil society players, sowing confusion as to who is in charge and where the process is going.
The Government of Sudan’s recent “New Strategy” took note of those international divisions. Without dismissing any of those foreign partners, it echoes AUHIP’s idea of “domesticating” the peace process, meaning relocating it to Sudan. With a commitment to an “extensive internal process”, including the creation of a “Darfur Consultative Forum”, to “complete” the two Doha civil society conferences, the strategy gives more space to civil society. But the danger in domestication is to exclude some key players, in particular those IDPs who were already boycotting Doha, not to mention the Darfur refugees in Chad, some of whom had joined the second Civil Society Conference in Doha. As with the Doha Civil Society process the role of the rebels is unclear. Moreover, the government’s intention to include Darfur’s newly elected officials into the peace process, understandable in the post-elections context, poses a risk to the process’s fragile equilibrium.
Civil society involvement in the peace process is a necessity, but it is vital that international mediators as well as national actors focus on ‘doing it right’ rather than ‘doing it quickly’. Getting civil society right is far more important than rushing it to an artificial deadline driven by the government-rebel negotiations or by the South Sudan referendum. The process of selection of civil society participants is nearly as important as the results of the discussions in which they are involved. If civil society participants are rejected by the population as unrepresentative, the process will be seen as illegitimate. Civil society must be engaged and selected with care, diplomacy and based on a sound understanding of local political and social fault lines. Not only do the Kalma and Hamadiya incidents show that Darfuri ‘civil society’ is subject to influence by various armed and political parties. They also remind international mediators that civil society, often idealised as a neutral arena for building consensus, can easily become a site of new divisions. There are dangers in ignoring the delicacy required of this process.