/ Weblog / English / April 2006
However, there are other fights as well. Quite a few tribes are engaged in violent conflict with each other. As a matter of fact, many Sudanese believe that the Darfur conflict is not political, but tribal. In my view it is both. The demands of the rebel movements concerning sharing of power and wealth are of a political nature. A high government official in Darfur, a Darfurian himself, appointed by the Khartoum government and member of the ruling National Congress Party, once told me that there are Darfurians who fight the government and other Darfurians, who do not fight, but the latter share with the rebels a grudge against the government. Darfur against Khartoum; it is a political conflict.
But the conflict is also tribal. The tribal dimension is often underestimated by people outside Sudan. However, tribal conflicts are age-old and deeply rooted. There is an ethnic dimension to the tribal conflicts, to the extent that some tribes are considered to be African, others Arab. There is also an economic dimension: the struggle for land and water, the looting of cattle, the most important resource of many tribes. Tribal conflicts are often related to land claims, with a long history. Some tribes consider themselves as more Darfurian than others, because they settled in Darfur much earlier. Some tribes, though living in Darfur since many generations, are still considered to be Chadian, or West African. Some tribes were favored by the British colonial regime. Others were accustomed to keep slaves. Some tribes are more closely affiliated with the rebels (the Fur, the Zaghawa and the Massaliet). Other tribes are more inclined to support notions of pan-Arabism.
Many tribes have militia, in order to defend their interests. They fight ruthlessly, retaliate out of proportion and often use pre-emptive strikes. Killing if women and children is seen as an acceptable form of revenge for the looting of cattle. Militia do not respect human rights or international law. No wonder that notions of genocide and ethnic cleansing have been used in order to describe the ordeals of the victims of the militia.
The Sudanese government and the authorities in Darfur have taken many initiatives to organize tribal reconciliation conferences. There are old traditions underlying such reconciliations. Respecting them would guarantee that the tribal leaders representing their tribes in the reconciliations have been chosen by the tribes themselves, instead of being appointed by the authorities. The tradition also guarantees that there is mediation by respected facilitators, independent of the government. An essential element of reconciliation is the payment of blood money as a form of compensation of the victims. However, though some efforts were successful, most reconciliations did not last long. The modernization of the governance system in Darfur during the last twenty years has undermined the position of traditional leaders. The war did the same. A new generation with easy access to weapons has lost respect for traditional leaders. Moreover, the government, eager to stay in power, has not been able to withstand temptations to manipulate traditional leaders. The outcome of quite a few of these reconciliations could not be sustained. Some were more or less imposed on weaker tribes, who were threatened that they would be attacked if they would not sign. In other reconciliation conferences appointed leaders dominated the deliberations. Often not all damage that had been done in the past was considered due for compensation. Perpetrators of the crimes often were not indicted, but only had to pay blood money. This practice did not help to bring an end to the impunity prevailing throughout Darfur. Moreover, the agreed sums of blood money often were not paid. So, often new attacks took place, again resulting in revenge and retaliation.
To a certain extent this was due to the fact that the authorities had an understandable interest in reconciliation amongst tribes fighting each other. Too soon success was claimed. The government was even more enticed to do so, when tribal reconciliations were considered an alternative to the political negotiations with the rebel movements.
For these reasons the UN has been reluctant to associate itself with the reconciliation efforts. However, they are necessary, not as a substitute for political talks, but as an essential complement. We have participated as observer in some sessions and promised that, if the conditions of fairness would be met, we could help in the follow up of the reconciliation with reconstruction and development programs to the benefit of the tribes concerned.
I went this week to Nyala to talk with leaders of the Birgit, the Myseria and the Zaghawa about the possible restart of reconciliation efforts between these tribes who are fighting each other in the area around the town Sheria. Many Zaghawa support the Minnie Minawi faction of the SLA. All Zaghawa have been expelled from Sheria. That includes women, children, elderly and others who do not carry weapons. I was struck by the deep and total mistrust. No distinction is made between combatants and others. Everybody belonging to a tribe is, in the eyes of other tribes, responsible for the doings of the tribal fighters. I met only people who consider themselves victims. Nobody admits having attacked, everybody claims having been attacked. Attacks always have been made by 'unknown' people. Conspiracy theories abound.
It is not very different from the political talks. I had a similar experience one day later, when I flew to North Darfur, to meet with a number of SLA commanders. I visited them, sitting under some huge trees in the edge of the desert, in order to plead for an end to the infighting between the rebels which cause much victims and endanger the humanitarian assistance by the UN and the non-governmental organizations. Here again the same song was sung: it is not us, but the others, and behind the others there is the government, the Janjaweed, other countries, and so on.
Deep mistrust is typical for Sudan. Double-speak, denial, divide and rule, dishonoring of agreements, it has been customary practice since the beginning of the war between North and South Sudan. It has not disappeared since peace was reached. It has affected Darfur as well. It will take decades to reach sustained reconciliation throughout Sudan and to install a new culture of peace and trust.
These rebels had good contacts in West Darfur. The border between Cad and Sudan is long and beyond control. The rebel movements in Darfur, from their side, are receiving support from forces in Chad. Such support does consist of weapons as well as combatants, often tribally organized. The government of Chad had accused the Sudanese government of directly supporting the Chadian rebels, while the Sudanese government mutatis mutandis had said the same. There is no proof, but both accusations deserve to be taken seriously.
However, this does not mean that the conflicts in either of the two countries are the result of foreign intervention. Support from outside may have fed the conflicts, but in both Darfur as well as in Chad the root causes are domestic. Rebel movements in Chad exist since many years. As a matter of fact the present Chadian leadership came to power through a military coup, about fifteen years ago, that was launched from Sudan. It had its basis in the mountainous area Jebel Moon, to the North of the capital of Western Darfur, El Geneina, close to the border with Chad. The military government was contested throughout the ninety nineties. The conflicts were partly tribal - the Zaghawa, living in both Chad and Darfur, played an important role -, partly regional, partly economic, partly purely political: any group that has grasped power by force and is able to keep the power for a while gets contested and will lose domestic support to the benefit of others. Not only in democratic societies, but also in societies without democratic means to change power, the ruling power constellation has a limited life span. After a while its authority gets eroded, the power base weakens, the supporting constituency will shrink, it becomes vulnerable for attacks and a new leadership contest will arise.
I remember the thundering applause for Kofi Annan at last year's summit of the African Union in Addis Ababa, when he criticized African leaders who were trying to use their constitutional powers to change the constitution in order to ensure a third term in office. The applause came from the African politicians and civil servants in his audience. It sounded like a promise: the beginning of a new period of good governance and democratic leadership. One year later we witness how President Obasanjo of Nigeria, President Museveni of Uganda and President Deby of Chad have made efforts in this direction. To this end in Chad new elections have been scheduled next month. It is amazing how new leaders, having made a good start with better governance during their first term in office, tend to make the same mistake as their autocratic predecessors. After having ruled their country for a number of years political leaders are seduced by their own power to cling to the might. It is also amazing how Western governments, despite sermons about good governance, often back such inclinations, fearing that the alternative would harm their interests. However, it is not amazing that rulers, who seem to be successful in this respect, turn out to have won a Pyrrhus victory. Often this is the beginning of the end of their rule. As a rule such an end does not come smoothly, but with a bang.
This may very well be the case in Chad. There are various rebel movements with different interests, different tribal affiliations and with regional backgrounds. One of them is the Front Uni pour le Changement et la Democratie (FUC), led by Mahamat Nour Abdelkrim, a Tama. Another one is the Rassemblement des Forces Democratiques (RaFD), getting its support in particular from the Zaghawa. A third is the Socle pour le Changement et l'Unite Democratique (SCUD), which started in Eastern Chad. It received the support from quite a few defectors from the Deby regime and got a base in Darfur as well. The various movements are not yet united and compete with each other. But together they form a serious challenge to the present regime.
President Deby has responded by putting the blame on Khartoum. He has cut diplomatic relations with Sudan. The Tripoli Agreement, signed by Presidents Deby and Bashir in February, during a Summit meeting attended by Presidents Sassou-Nguesso of Congo, Blaise Compare of Bourkina Fasso, Bozize of the Central African Republic and Kaddafi of Libya, together with AU Chairperson Konare, does not seem to function at all. The African Union does not seem to have enough influence to turn the tide. President Deby has also decided to nullify an international agreement regarding the use of oil revenue for poverty reduction. He has threatened to cut the oil exports supplies. A couple of years ago this agreement, reached under the auspices of the World Bank, was heralded as an innovation in international development cooperation. However, Deby wants the money to uphold his power base and to finance his army. The innovation, meant to help one of the poorest countries in Africa to meet the Millennium Development Goals, alleviate poverty and avoid pillaging of the region where the oil has been found, has collapsed.
Poor Chad. Poor Chadians. Poor people, who have sought refuge in Chad. Deby had threatened to retaliate against Khartoum by expelling about 200.000 refugees who during the Darfur slaughter campaign of 2003 had fled across the border. It is an inhuman threat. Forcing refugees, who are victims of previous conflicts, to flee again in the course of a conflict which is not of their making, would result in great additional suffering. The UN mission in Sudan, together with the UN agencies, has started preparing an emergency program to assist possible new refugees. Under pressure of the international community Deby has withdrawn the threat. However, increased violence in Chad may result in massive new displacements.
It does not have to get this far. But here again, like with regard to so many countries of Africa, the international community will have to apply wisdom, determination and a concerted approach in order to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe and to help a collapsing state to get back on its feet. Thereafter the Chadians themselves, like the Sudanese, will have to decide how they together can turn a nearly failing state into a surviving nation and a sustainable society.
It is far from certain that the transition from an African Union peace force in Darfur towards a peace force led by the United Nations will take place before the end of this year. It may even be postponed indefinitely. Early this year the African Union Peace and Security Council, meeting at the level of Ambassadors, had decided to support such a transition. In March the Council met again, this time at ministerial level, and reconfirmed its decision. However, the AU Executive Council seems to be lukewarm to this idea. President Konare has stated that the decision has not yet been made. A transition to the UN is an option, no more than that, and not the preferred option. The other options are an extension of the AU force or a so-called ‘coalition of the willing’, with the AU as its core.