The AU Panel and Civil Society: “There Is Nothing to Do But To Sit Around The Table.”
Across Darfur and in Khartoum over the last month, well over 2,000 leaders and representatives have interacted with the African Union Panel headed by President Mbeki. This was by far the most extensive cross-section of the Darfurian population which has ever engaged with an international figure, and included representatives of civil society, native administration, IDPs, refugees (on an earlier visit to Chad), civilians in areas held by the movements, and political parties. As will be clear from some of the postings over the last few weeks, no-one was censored, and people were free to speak their minds. Occasionally meetings ran out of time, but the Panel members too pains to explore differences of opinion and areas of controversy. It has been an extraordinary exercise in consultation requiring great stamina from the three former heads of state, Presidents Mbeki, Abubaker and Buyoya. The final meeting, in Khartoum on 25 June, brought together one hundred civil society leaders, of whom more than thirty spoke, in a day-long session that ran well over its scheduled time due to Pres. Mbeki’s determination that everyone who wished to speak should be given the chance.
Simply bringing these people together was an achievement. Amin Mekki Medani, one of Sudan’s most eminent human rights lawyers, made an important contribution in the final hearing. One of the points he made was this:
“I looked at the faces here, I have heard their names, but I don’t know eighty percent of them at least. That is telling, about how civil society is allowed to work together. The few I have met, I have met in Nairobi or Cairo or London. So the extent of collective civil society here, is it worth the name? I applaud bringing us together, due to the work of this Panel.”
Hamad Ali, speaking personally as a civil society activist, made a similar point: “National CSOs [civil society organizations] are suffering, they are not allowed to work. We are only working on an individual basis and in specific sectors – so we see the trees not the forest. We need a unified civil society forum, with access to the people. This could do much more, but every effort that we have tried so far has been cancelled.”
The AU Panel hearings provided the forum that Hamad was calling for, which had earlier been blocked.
Across these consultations and public hearings, there has been a far greater consensus on a raft of core substantive and procedural issues than I would have expected. One of the main areas of consensus was that all stakeholders should be represented in any forthcoming peace negotiations. The restricted format of the Abuja talks, in which the government and the armed movements were the sole parties represented, was widely criticized.
Idriss Yousif of the Darfur Forum summed up the views: “The war is over, there is nothing to do but to sit around the table.”
President Mbeki’s views on civil society became well-known during his visit. Speaking to civil society in Zalingei, in his closing remarks, he said:
“One of the things we hear, from you and from others, is that we must avoid the mistakes of the past. One of those mistakes was to exclude civil society from the negotiations. It’s clear that in the recommendations that the Panel will make, civil society has to be involved in the future of Darfur, in making peace and in all related questions. These recommendations will also have to be implemented, there has to be a programme of action, specifying what urgent actions are required to bring about peace, reconciliation and justice, and because it is a programme of action, someone must implement it. Our view is that we will have to maintain contact with yourselves. Whatever recommendations we will make, they will have to be implemented, and civil society is important in the implementation of those recommendations. So this is not the first and the last meeting. We shall have to stay in contact with yourselves. Also we shall need a clear follow-up mechanism, to ensure that the recommendations are implemented. So we are not closing the meeting, in reality we are adjourning the meeting.”
Pres. Mbeki continued with another recurrent theme, which is that recommendations have no value unless they can be implemented:
“Having done all of that, there comes a day when we go into the area of implementation. Then we shall get together again to say, what does civil society do with respect to our programme of implementation? We shall incorporate your views in the report we shall prepare and the programme of work we shall propose. The solution to the conflict in Darfur should not be imposed upon the people of Darfur.”
“In conclusion let me say this. Too many people have suffered. This situation must surely come to an end very quickly and it is our responsibility to ensure that we produce that result very quickly.”
But how should civil society participate? Idriss Yousif of the Darfur Forum said, “Civil society must participate in any peace talks, as observers, experts, support people. There are many stakeholders in peace, but with different roles.” Hussein Imam made a similar point: “The Sudan government and armed movements have their own agendas which are not the agenda of the majority of Darfurians. The movement’s cause was one with the people of Darfur but their approach was not supported by Darfurians. … There is now a trend of local reconciliation. People are fed up after waiting for six years. These initiatives must be supported now, for example those around Jebel Marra. How should civil society be represented. Should it come as a third party or stay as a consultative partner? Or should nothing be agreed upon unless civil society accepts?”
Nawal Hassan Osman, of the Sudanese Women’s Initiative for Darfur, stressed the limits of traditional reconciliation mechanisms, which were not designed for dealing with a conflict on a huge scale, or conflict involving the government. She argued that in any peace process, representatives of the IDPs, women, and other affected groups, must take the lead. “If women are convinced with the peace process, it is going to happen.”
There were some dissenting voices. Ibrahim Mohamed Adam was one, arguing that “The Panel should take into consideration that all the historical leadership of Darfur is destroyed, exposed to too much. Some are accused, some murdered, some monitored, traced, separated from their people in Darfur. The government is dealing with a people without leaders. The destruction of the leadership continued to the destruction of the native administration, which has been politicized by the government. And the CSOs are not real CSOs. They have complicated the issues inside and outside. … We should be represented by our tribes, not CSOs.”
This was, however, very much a minority opinion. While participants and panellists alike had no illusions about the weakness of civil society vis-í -vis those holding political and military power, they argued there was no peace without representation. Yousif Ismail Abdalla, from Masar Organization, said, “We must involve all and have dialogue among all Darfurians.” Asha Khalil al Karib of the Sudanese Organization for Research and Development, thanked the Panel for responding positively to the civil society demand for representation. “It was a call from us. In the absence of civil society, there will not be a sustainable peace.”