Dangerous Weeks Ahead
Sudan is in a state of high tension at the moment, and we face a dangerous month ahead. Darfur is witnessing its worst fighting for a year.
The immediate cause of the tension is the expected arrest warrant to be issued by the ICC, the immediate cause of the fighting is JEM’s offensive.
The Sudan Government sees the ICC as the gravest threat to its survival it has ever faced and a matter of life and death. It is a national issue, not one confined to Darfur. Up to now, the Sudan Government has responded coolly to the threat, but it is clear that no option is off the table should an arrest warrant be issued.
Key to how the Khartoum leadership responds will be the reactions of others, international and domestic. If the reaction all round were to be that the arrest warrant changes nothing and business as usual should continue, then the NCP and security leadership is likely to remain cool. But if the reactions are otherwise, then the response could be very adverse.
President Omar al Bashir has made it clear that he considers the UN responsible for allowing the ICC Prosecutor to proceed with his application for an arrest warrant, and he will hold the Secretary General and the Security Council responsible should the warrant be issued. Should this happen, all relations with the UN will be up for reconsideration. In Darfur, UNAMID is relatively protected because it is a joint mission with the African Union, which is opposed to the arrest warrant. UNMIS may be more exposed. Possibly the test for the UN will be if its senior officials, including the Special Representatives, are ready to meet with President Bashir, who is their host. If they refuse to meet with him, the government may conclude that they have no business being in Sudan. A similar test may be applied to ambassadors accredited to Sudan: will they meet with the President?
More sensitive still is the question of how the national parties respond. Just recently, Hassan al Turabi was arrested for demanding that Bashir be handed over to the ICC. This, we can be confident, will be the fate of any national political figures who take this line. The government expects that many Darfurians will openly support the ICC and has already discounted this, as far as the IDP camps and rural areas are concerned. But it is unlikely to tolerate open opposition in Khartoum.
The SPLM’s reaction will be pivotal. There seems to be a range of views within the SPLM, with some seeing the indictment as a threat to the CPA and others seeing it as leverage against the NCP. First Vice President Salva Kiir has emphasized the strategic interest of the south in seeing a stable and legitimate Government of National Unity. But it is not difficult to foresee a ratchet of escalation in which the NCP suspends or stalls on certain CPA provisions, leading to a crisis which in turn pushes some SPLM figures to argue that this is the opportunity to short-circuit the CPA and push for unilateral independence. Relations between the NCP and the SPLM will be absolutely crucial in the coming weeks and could determine the country’s fate.
The ICC issue is so preoccupying the NCP leadership that all other political business in Sudan is grinding to a halt. This in itself portends crisis as it means that key CPA implementation deadlines will slip.
Meanwhile, parts of Darfur are again in flames, with the worst fighting in the region since the beginning of 2008. This began with the military takeover of Muhajiriya, formerly controlled by SLA-Minawi, by JEM. Other Minawi strongholds have also fallen and JEM is now threatening Gereida. Minni Minawi tried to fight off the attackers without the Sudanese army, but having lost, the government is responding at scale with its most readily available military asset, the airforce. Reports indicate high-technology bombardment and considerable casualties, in Muhajiriya and other places including Gereida and north Darfur.
The operation was carried out by former SLA-Minawi commanders who had defected, and JEM is now claiming their loyalty. There are some indications that JEM had intended to mount an offensive in South Kordofan, which is already a tinderbox, which would have been a very dangerous escalation of the war, but instead seized Muhajiriya because the opportunity arose.
For some time, JEM has been saying that it is the only armed opposition movement worthy of the name and should be the sole group represented at the planned peace talks in Doha. JEM’s offensive can be seen as an attempt to turn that claim into a reality on the ground. It is common for the run-up to peace talks to see this kind of military action. Taking Muhajiriya also allows JEM to recruit more fighters and to make new appeals to the Arabs.
The timing may also be connected to the ICC. JEM’s leaders do not want any ICC announcement to be solely an international affair, and want to position themselves as the Sudanese champions of the ICC. The government suspects a link between JEM and Turabi on this issue.
The immediate loser in this fighting has been Minni Minawi. He refused Sudan Armed Forces assistance in defending Muhajiriya. Only after losing the battle did the army and airforce intervene. The Sudan Government has been quite open about bombing JEM positions in Muhajiriya. Having lost his main territorial base in Darfur, Minawi is now losing the little independence he possessed. He has called upon SAF to defend Gereida, knowing that as soon as Sudanese troops take up positions there, they will not leave unless by force of arms.
Meanwhile the Arab tribes are agitating for arms from the government, while also watching this contest to see who emerges on top. In this context, the ICC is a mixed blessing for JEM, as an arrest warrant would probably push the Arabs into siding with the government.
Ironically, the Khartoum leadership is less unhappy about JEM taking over Muhajiriya. Their argument is that it is easier to deal politically with JEM once it has a base inside Sudan. It will not be hostage to Chadian agendas and now, for the first time, JEM has an incentive to negotiate a ceasefire because it has something to defend. Bombing Muhajiriya and other areas of JEM activity would therefore not just be a military tactic but a signal that it is time to negotiate a truce.
But the current fighting might also portend something altogether more dangerous: a true showdown. There is no question that some of Khartoum’s leaders see the conjunction of JEM attacks, Turabi’s hardline stand, and the imminent ICC arrest warrant, as the first round of a new war for regime survival. This weekend’s air raids signal that the government has the capacity and readiness to strike as hard as it considers necessary.
What should be done? My proposal is that the UN Security Council should invoke Article 16 without condition. I think that there is sufficient threat to peace and security arising in the current situation for the Security Council to have reason to be seized of the matter. Most unusually, there is an immediate step the Council can take. I do not support putting conditions on the Article 16 deferral. Using every opportunity for leverage on the Sudan Government is not a strategy but a habit, and in my view the absolute priority is to focus on the CPA and Sudan’s progress towards democracy and stability, and only when that objective is agreed does it make any sense to apply additional leverage. The 12-month deferral is the time period in which the strategy for that objective needs to be in place and seen to be working.
Equally importantly, making justice conditional on specific political actions would, in my view, be in violation of basic values of human rights and the independence of the Court. From the viewpoint of The Hague or New York, it may not be evident how much damage is being done to the standing of the ICC by the ongoing escalation of reciprocal machismo.
In this context, there can be both incentive and pressure for a reduction in violence in Darfur, reining in JEM’s adventurism and halting the terror unleashed by the Sudanese airforce.