Sudan: The last ten percent – ISN

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Darfurian girl branded by janjawee (ISN)

Darfurian girl branded by janjaweed (ISN)

Despite renewed violence in Darfur and Abyei, Sudan’s government thinks the country is more or less at peace, Simon Roughneen writes for ISN Security Watch.

Since early February, Sudanese air strikes and ground attacks in western Darfur, carried out in tandem with janjaweed militia elements, have displaced between 30,000-60,000 people and left unknown numbers dead or missing.

Meanwhile, deadlock over the future status of Abyei, an oil-rich disputed region along the north-south divide in Sudan, has contributed to a recent upsurge in fighting between the southern army and local Arab pastoralists affiliated to the National Congress Party (NCP), the dominant component in the country’s national unity government.

Despite this upsurge in violence, the peace deal between north and south is already 90 percent implemented, this according to Dr Rabbi Abdul-Atti, an adviser to the Sudanese information minister, speaking to reporters in Nairobi.

The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) is the former southern rebel group now in uneasy government partnership with the NCP. John Andruga Duku is SPLM/A spokesman in Nairobi, and he described the NCP take on peace deal implementation as “totally misleading.”

The SPLM/A temporarily withdrew from government in late 2007, in protest at perceived NCP stalling. That stand-off ended with a mutual commitment to move on all outstanding elements of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed amid much international fanfare in January 2005, and ending a war that ran since 1983 and cost around two million lives.

In an ironic twist, the pre-CPA diplomacy overlooked the then-new war in Sudan’s western Darfur region, just as now, the world’s focus on Darfur has sidelined the north-south peace process. Arguably, the CPA provides a blueprint for resolution of Sudan’s complex and interlocking civil wars, including Darfur, and the failed peace agreements in Darfur entailed institutional links to the CPA structures at the national political level. But with renewed bloodshed close to the Chadian border, any claim that peace in Sudan is 90 percent on track seems absurd.


After Sudan-backed Chadian rebels failed to oust President Idriss Deby in N’djamena in early February, Khartoum, or rather the NCP, launched an all-out offensive north of the west Darfurian regional capital El-Geneina, ostensibly to dislodge the ascendant Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), which had itself violated ceasefire agreements by attacking Sudanese army posts in late 2007.

JEM is supported by the Chadian government, an internationalization of the Darfur conflict that Khartoum doubtless finds alarming, as Deby is backed in turn by France, which keeps around 1,200 soldiers in-country – part of a 1980’s security deal originally meant to stave off Libyan meddling in northern Chad.

The assault on N’djamena was simultaneously intended to prevent the arrival of an Irish-led, French-dominated EU force to eastern Chad – an almost-4,000 strong deployment aiming to protect Darfurian refugees, but seen by Chadian rebels (and therefore Khartoum) as effectively a pro-Deby praetorian guard, despite protestations of neutrality coming from EUFOR HQ in Paris.

Return to scorched-earth tactics

The western Darfur attacks – a return to the massive scorched-earth tactics that caused most of the death and displacement throughout 2004 and 2005 – killed “at least 115 people, including elderly and disabled people, women and children,” according to a report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID).

The report outlined how “Civilian homes, NGO clinics and offices, community centers, water structures, schools, food storages, milling machines and shops were systematically looted, vandalized and in many cases burned to the ground – sometimes with their occupants still inside.”

Khartoum described the report as “sheer nonsense,” and leading NCP figures have said that the Darfur campaign would run on irrespective of international opinion.

Politics aside, attackers have also targeted humanitarian workers and their assets, severely constraining aid operations. According to the World Food Programme, 35 commercial trucks and 23 drivers were hijacked or abducted in Darfur during the first two months of 2008. And in the western Darfur war zone, aid workers have been unable to access the newly displaced, many of whom either fled to Chad or hid out in the arid scrub borderlands for weeks on end.

Darfur aside, key elements of the CPA await implementation, with the NCP refusing to acknowledge the judgment of the Abyei Boundary Commission. The commission was established under the CPA, which also mandates a referendum in south Sudan in 2011, when citizens will vote on whether to secede or remain part of Sudan. All indications point to southern Sudan forming its own state come the time.

Simultaneously, Abyei will vote on whether it is part of northern or southern Sudan, and based on the boundaries set by the commission, if Abyei decides it wants to go south, and the south secedes, Khartoum will lose the region’s lucrative oil wells, which provided around 15 percent of national oil revenue in 2006.

Patronage security

Oil is Sudan’s main export and the largesse enables the NCP to run its patronage-security nexus across Sudan, funding the army and janjaweed militias in Darfur. China, India and Malaysia all have state-run oil companies in Sudan, with Beijing doubling up as Sudan’s diplomatic bodyguard at the UN Security Council.

During March, China’s Darfur envoy Liu Guijin was in Khartoum, and while the world’s media fawned over Beijing’s new-found but hollow-ringing tough love approach, the attacks in western Darfur continued.

As of January 1 2008, the hybrid UNAMID force took the peacekeeping reins from the outgoing African Union mission, which was originally deployed to Darfur to monitor a non-existent 2004 ceasefire, and ended up a politically controversial failure, attacked by pro-government militias and rebels alike. If it ever reaches full-strength, UNAMID will have 26,000 soldiers and police, but at present has little more than 9000, mostly re-hatted AU peacekeepers.

Sudan’s government has been pilloried for obstructing the force, but it remains under-equipped in any case, with western countries slow to pony-up the necessary helicopters and armored personnel carries to western Sudan’s debilitating heat and dust conditions.

And recent weeks have seen hundreds displaced by fighting in Abyei between the Arab Misseriya herders and the SPLM army. The violence is part political and part tribal: the herders are affiliated to the NCP and during the north-south war, some participated in fighting against the ethnic Dinka-led SPLM, with clear Misseriya-Dinka tribal enmities pervading this aspect of the north-south war, but with a legacy of NCP-sponsored ethnic cleansing of locals to facilitate oil companies.

Local custom allows the herders to transit their animals through Dinka land for water and pasture, but the broader political context now means that the potential for fighting has increased between the herders – egged on by their NCP backers – and the SPLM, agitated by the NCP refusal to implement the Abyei sections of the CPA.

Abyei remains a tinderbox, and as seen by JEM’s late 2007 attacks on Chinese-run oilfields close to that region – far from its western Darfur stronghold – Abyei could well be the between link Darfur and Sudan’s north-south war, if the current political deadlock is not broken.

Elections looming large

Looming large in the background are Sudan’s 2009 elections, and further on, 2011 referenda in Abyei and south Sudan. The NCP is maneuvering in advance of these, unsure of its real public standing should the electoral context be free and fair, and is holding bilateral talks with northern Sudanese opposition parties, and conditioning its Darfur and Abyei strategies around upcoming political challenges.

As is the SPLM/A, which in late 2007 met with Darfurian rebel groups, including JEM, in the southern Sudanese regional capital Juba, ostensibly to try iron out a common platform for the alphabet soup of rebels, but perhaps also to assess strategic options ahead of pan-Sudanese polls.

Certainly polls will be difficult-to-impossible to hold if conflict continues in Darfur, or re-erupts in Abyei or elsewhere on the north-south line. Even without this doomsday scenario, it remains difficult to square the latest developments in Abyei and western Darfur with the contention that Sudan is on the verge of full peace deal implementation.

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