Downhill to the summit – ISN

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Summits such as Monday’s African Union (AU) gathering in Addis Ababa are often depicted as “pivotal” or “ground-breaking” or some such hyperbolic epithet. But for once, such appellations may actually be applicable. This time, the AU refused to allocate its revolving chairmanship to Sudanese leader Oman al-Bashir.

Had it not, the AU would have been left in the absurd position of being formally headed by a state that is a central player in a conflict region where AU peacekeeping troops are deployed.

Rebels in Sudan’s troubled Darfur region had pre-empted the summit by declaring that AU peacekeepers would become legitimate targets should Sudan be given the AU chair.

This time last year disagreement among AU states over rights abuses and ongoing violence in Darfur saw al-Bashir’s candidacy postponed until 2007. However, the situation in Darfur has deteriorated since early 2006. A May peace agreement was signed by one rebel faction and the government; however, the main ethnic Fur faction refused to sign, as did the pan-Sudanese Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).

Since then, rebels have splintered and realigned, making it increasingly difficult to establish allegiances and fiefs on the ground.

Meanwhile, the Sudanese government has breached the agreement with aerial bombing raids. Another 250,000 people have been displaced. Janjaweed militias, supported by the government, have wreaked more havoc on civilians, upping the ante by strutting through Darfur’s urban areas in paramilitary uniform.

Last year alone, 13 aid workers – all Sudanese – were killed. In December, 400 expatriate aid staff withdrew amid targeting of humanitarian facilities and personnel. A French aid worker for Action Contre le Faim was raped in late December, while some of her colleagues were sexually assaulted by unidentified rebels. Sudanese police sexually assaulted UN staff in Nyala recently, while another foreign worker for the French Medecins Sans Frontiers suffered a similar fate.

Almost three million civilians are now left vulnerable to the military outcome of Darfur’s conflict, with aid agencies forced into lockdown or withdrawal. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has urged Khartoum to allow a UN mission enter the region. Sudan already consented to a hybrid AU-UN force, to be dominated by Africans, but deployable only in three yet-to-be-defined stages.

The AU determination to prevent al-Bashir’s presidency is a shot across the bows for the National Congress Party (NCP) in Khartoum. While it is likely that the announcement was stage-managed, with pre-conference networking between diplomats ensuring that a public row between Sudan and others in the AU was averted, it is no less significant for that. Clearly, intra-African lobbying and deal-making played at least as significant a role as UN chief Ban Ki-moon’s presence at the summit.

A managed consensus overseen by South African President Thabo Mbeki and seven other African leaders ensured that Sudan consented to a further postponement of its AU leadership.

The AU built the concept of “peer review” into its almost-defunct New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD). Peer review meant, at least in theory, that African governments were to assess each others’ performance. While the allotting of the AU chair to Ghana’s John Kufour was not down to a formal peer review, it represented a more effective form of peer review than anything outlined by the flawed peer review concept.

After all, the US government would not likely consent to assessment by the British or Canadian governments, so to expect African governments to do likewise is hollow – not to mention absurd, given that undemocratic states would assess solid democracies in Benin, Ghana, Mali etc, while not having to be accountable to their own citizens.

Monday’s AU announcement needs to be followed up by Chinese pressure on Khartoum to allow effective and aggressive peacekeepers into Darfur. President Hu Jintao visits Sudan as part of an eight-nation African tour in early February. China is a key investor in Sudan’s lucrative oil sector and has repeatedly asserted that diplomacy is the only solution to Darfur’s conflict. UN troops might not be the perfect solution, but Khartoum’s intransigence prevents any effective security for civilians caught in the middle.

The Sudanese government protests that it already hosts 10,000 blue helmets policing the 2005 peace deal between the NCP and southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). That deal is looking shaky – and Chinese self-interest should dictate that Hu requests all sides to focus on trust-building, given that a return to war between north and south would harm oil drilling and exporting.

But while Darfur burns, north-south peace will come under severe pressure, as the NCP-dominated government in Khartoum seeks oil revenues to fund its military activities in Darfur, to the detriment of southern revenue entitlements established in the 2005 agreement.

If that is to be the case, Beijng is the hinge. Effete and inconsistent Western efforts to end the violence have yielded nothing apart from a flawed peace agreement. It remains to be seen, however, what leverage an undemocratic China may bring to a conflict scarred by massive rights abuses, when this may compromise commercial interests.

However, China must emulate the example set by African leaders, and face down the Sudanese government. Otherwise, the West, so far willfully impotent to resolve the Darfur crisis, should compromise commercial interests of its own.

But for now, the ball is in Beijing’s court.

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