Whither the Darfur Mediation? (I)
This is the first in a series of three postings on the challenges facing the UN-AU Mediation. It is an edited version of a paper written jointly by myself and Abdul Mohammed and presented to the AU-UN informal consultations with the international partners on the mediation strategy held in Geneva last week.
Part 1: Is the Darfur Conflict Intractable?
The war in Darfur is showing all the signs of an intractable conflict. By this we do not mean a conflict that cannot be resolved, rather one that is very difficult to bring to a mediated, peaceful resolution.
According to Chester Crocker and his colleagues Fen Hampson and Pamela Aall, who studied such conflicts and attempts to resolve them, intractable conflicts have a number of salient characteristics.
One characteristic of intractable conflicts is that they are long-standing, so that deep psychological wounds, a sense of victimization and grievance run deep. This is certainly true of Darfur—each of the parties considers that it is the victim of a deep injustice. The victims of the extreme violence of 2003 and 2004—primarily the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa—believe that the wrongs they suffered during that period of intense hostilities have yet to be addressed. These violations came on top of a much longer experience of neglect and discrimination. The Darfur Arabs feel they have been neglected and demonized, and the Sudan government sees itself as the victim of anti-Arab conspiracies in the western world.
A war that is fought over a long period isn’t fought at a constant high level of intensity. Most protracted conflicts consist of occasional bursts of extreme violence, followed by longer periods of relative calm. These episodes of stasis are periods of opportunity for grappling with the dynamics of the conflict and pushing it in the direction of resolution or at least non-escalation. Typically, these opportunities are missed and the parties fail to remove themselves from the danger zone for renewed outbreaks of intense violence. Darfur certainly has this characteristic—the war has been marked by intermittent episodes of extreme violence and long periods in which the level of organized violence has been low. And international engagement has not, as a rule, recognized and built upon the chances for making progress when violence has temporarily abated. Since the abatement of intense hostilities in January 2005, there have been three notable episodes of increased violence, one in March-April 2006, the second in August-October 2006, and the third beginning in January this year and still continuing.
Some intractable conflicts are neglected by the world, with no serious mediation efforts. Others have defied repeated attempts by outsiders at finding mediated solutions. Darfur falls into the latter category. It has consumed vast amounts of time and energy of international peacemakers but without success. But at the same time it is fair to ask whether those energies have been directed to the right priorities. Relatively little time has been spent with ordinary Darfurians and their community leaders, listening to them. And much effort has been expended on measures that can at best manage the crisis rather than resolve it.
Intractable conflicts are commonly those in which extremists on both sides, or individuals with little interest in a peaceful resolution, determine the political landscape of possibilities. This may occur because leaders on both sides have vested interests in continuing the conflict, or because the opportunities for gaining military advantages do not disappear. We can see an intractable conflict as a conflict led by spoilers, for whom negotiation represents little more than a breathing space before the next military campaign.
This also seems appropriate to the Darfur situation—the leading actors have not exhausted their military options, or do not believe they have done so, which means that the battlefield is the primary theatre for engagement, and any peace talks are strictly ancillary to that.
Intractability most often occurs when the sides to the conflict are frozen in their political and military postures. But it can also happen, less obviously, when a conflict is in flux. If the constellation of military actors and their sponsors is changing, each of the parties may have reason to hang on, gambling that the alignment may come into their favour so that they can strike the knockout blow. In some cases (the former civil war in Chad and the ongoing one in Somalia are examples) this flux can continue for years.
Darfur is a combination of the two. The government and movements are inflexible in their strategic political demands but tactically opportunistic, and as the political alignments within the region and among its neighbours constantly reshuffle, the parties look for and hope for a better political and military deal. The chronic indeterminacy of Sudanese politics is a peculiar feature of that country, which led one of us (Alex) to christen it “the turbulent state” and develop an analysis of intractability that focuses on Sudan’s peculiar combination of a dominant centre that lacks a single locus of power.
Intractability can occur because, for the leaders of the belligerent parties, making peace seems to carry higher risks than continuing war. They may fear that, if peace comes, they will lose their political paramountcy. With democracy and justice, their fears of losing leadership may be even higher. They may suspect that a peace accord will simply be a pretext for others—perhaps foreign governments—to take advantage of their military weakness.
This is very apposite in the case of Darfur. The Sudan government fears that there is an international conspiracy to remove it from power, come what may. It sees no point in making an agreement for Darfur while its enemies remain in power and unconstrained in Chad. The NCP knows that it is not popular in Sudan, and still less so in Darfur, and would not win any free and fair vote. The Darfur rebels similarly fear that they will be swindled of any gains they make in a peace agreement by the unfair implementation of the accord—or indeed by the democratic process itself.
Darfur also possesses its own special complications. It’s both an international war—between Sudan and Chad, which are acting as state belligerents with each seeking to topple the other—and a civil war. Its a war in which many of the locally-mobilized belligerents are ready to switch sides or withdraw from the conflict altogether.
Darfur’s war is a war in its own right and it is also connected to the national questions in Sudan, especially the unresolved question of national unity. The resolution of the Darfur conflict becomes more difficult as the key questions in Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement approach their moments of truth. Will national elections go ahead in 2009 and will Darfurians vote? Will the referendum on self-determination in the South go ahead in 2011 and how will this impact on Darfur? One of the fundamental rationales for the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement was to bring Darfur into Sudan’s national effort at democratization and its debate on how to handle the question of unity. Has this opportunity been lost? If those national efforts proceed without Darfurians’ active participation, the nature of Darfur’s peace process will change fundamentally.
And finally, as mediators venture into Darfur, they face the wreckage of previous failed mediation attempts blocking the most obvious paths they should be following. Sensible proposals that might have helped to resolve the conflict have been discredited because they are part of bigger packages that the parties have rejected. And the mediators themselves are compromised by their involvement in earlier efforts.
The second installment will look at the motivations and interests of the belligerent parties.