November 2005

This week the seventh round of the Abuja talks between the Government of Sudan and the rebel movements will start. Will it be the last one, producing a peace agreement before the end of the year? The chances are diminishing. Since the end of the sixth round the Sudanese Liberation Movement/Army SLM/A has become more and more internally divided. The movement has organized a conference in Haskenita, somewhat to the North of El Fashr, the capital of Darfur. It was meant to unite the various forces within the movement, but the Chairman, Abdul Wahid, did not agree. He remained absent. The conference elected his Secretary General Minnie Minawi as his successor. Since then numerous efforts have been made to re-unite or reconcile the two leaders and the forces behind them, but without success.

Minawi is a Zaghawa. His support comes in particular from Nort Darfur. Wahid is a Fur. He is stronger in South Darfur, especially in the western part of the Jebel Mara, a beautiful mountainous area, not easily accessible. Wahid had marginalized Minawi and his supporters during the previous rounds of the Abuja talks. He now pays the price for that attitude. Minawi considers himself elected in a legitimate way and rejects any claim from Wahid to represent the movement during the next round.

Aerial view of a village in Darfur

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Photo: Paula Souverijn-Eisenberg (c)

During the last two weeks I went twice to Muhajeria in Darfur to talk with Minawi, his SLM Council and the military commanders supporting him. I argued that the United Nations cannot take a stance on internal matters in a movement and therefore cannot be expected to legalize the outcome of his conference. Moreover, nobody in the guerilla movement is clean. And whatever the legitimacy of the election may be, the most important question is whether signatures under a peace agreement will result in an end to the fightings. Will all commanders, including those who continue to support Wahid, abide and keep the ceasefire which should be a central element of a peace agreement? In order to ensure that this will be the case, Wahid cannot be excluded from the talks. Legitimacy is one thing, power is another.

Gradually Minawi showed some understanding and flexibility. Not all his colleagues did. Some described Wahid as a dictator, who should not be allowed to speak on their behalf. Others were so proud on their accomplishments - in their words: a democratic movement - that they considered all comments from outside a form of betrayal. However, besides the tribal dimensions and besides also the sheer jockeying for power between the various opponents, there is a clear hesitation amongst many people in Darfur, who previously had supported SLM, to accept the decisions of Haskenita. The conference, which many, including me, thought to be necessary in order to make it possible for the movement to get its act together, was organized in such a way that it became counterproductive.

Not everything is lost. If the upcoming talks are facilitated and chaired in a wise and flexible manner it is still possible to reach a result. A sustainable ceasefire between the Government and the rebel movements is a precondition for an effective disarmament of the real villains: the Janjaweed and Arab militia who continue to attack villages and kill indiscriminately unarmed farmers, women and children. In September the camp Aro Sharow and neighbouring villages in West Darfur were attacked by hundreds of such fighters on camel and horseback. Over thirty people were slaughtered. In October the village of Tama in South Darfur was fully destroyed. Here too more than thirty farmers were killed. In November villages around Gereida in South Darfur were attacked, resulting in many dozens of deaths. The government should stop it. It doesn't. They say that this is out of their control. Not many do believe this. To the extent that this is true, they are also responsible, because two years ago the Government decided to use the militia rather than the army to fight the SLM. The ghost is out of the bottle. The UN Security Council so far has not been willing to use its powers to enforce disarmament of these militia.

The African Union forces in Darfur cannot prevent these attacks either. They do an excellent job, but they are not robust and numerous enough and lack adequate equipment. The United Nations forces which are part of the mission which I lead have no mandate in Darfur.

So, the anomaly is that we need a peace agreement to protect the civilians in Darfur against the attacks by militia who themselves are not present at the negotiation table. Only after such a peace agreement SLM and the Government together could turn against these militia. Then also the Security Council could be persuaded to take more effective steps to ensure security on the ground. Without such a peace agreement more radical steps would be veto-ed by at least one of the permanent members of the Council.

All these and other arguments I used to persuade SLM that a peace agreement is essential to protect the people they claim to represent. Further internal strife, continuous jockeying for power and renewed delay tactics would make the present leadership of the rebel movements lose all their credibility.
The humanitarian situation in Darfur has improved. Last year, in 2004, the child malnutrition rate was 22%. Amongst these children 4% were severely undernourished. These percentages went down to 12%, respectively 1.4% this year.

The figures with regard to mortality show the same tendency. In the period concerned the mortality rate went down from 0.7% to 0.5% and child mortality from 1% to 0.7%.

Children at a way station (a 'rest stop' and assembly area) outside of Juba, waiting for the river barges to leave for Bor

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Photo: Paula Souverijn-Eisenberg (c)

The tendency is remarkable. I am always quite sceptic when I see figures concerning the humanitarian situation or the impact of humanitarian assistance. The figures are often biased towards the interest of the agency producing them. Governments often present a rosy picture, in order not to be held accountable. Humanitarians are inclined to present a gloomy picture, in order to sustain their appeal for more assistance. However, the figures mentioned above are the result of a joint study by various UN agencies and Government ministries, assisted by a renowned international institute, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA. So, the pattern portrayed by these figures is quite credible.

Does this mean that there is progress? Yes and no. Yes, because these rates are now below the so-called critical thresholds. It seems that the most severe threats are under control, next to violence of course. As a matter of fact, the mortality and malnutrition rates ere even below those before the outbreak of the war in Darfur.

However, there is no reason for complacency whatsoever. All this is the result of large scale humanitarian assistance and nothing else. In the last one and a half year the international community has brought massive relief aid to the people of Darfur. The United Nations and the non-governmental agencies brought huge resources - money, food, transportation and, last but least, aid workers - to the country. As a matter of fact, in terms of both human and financial resources, aid to Darfur and aid to South Sudan presently are the two largest United Nations humanitarian operations in the world. This is bound to have an impact. As soon as the inflow of resources would decline, the situation would worsen again. I am afraid that this will happen. The major donor countries have already made clear that next year the aid budget for Darfur will be curtailed.

WFP truck in Mershing, South Darfur

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Photo: Paula Souverijn-Eisenberg (c)

If peace would be established, the need for humanitarian assistance would gradually make place for reconstruction and development assistance. In that case we would be able to live with less relief aid. We hope that a peace agreement will be reached around the end of this year. However, this is far from certain. Moreover, both with and without a peace agreement insecurity will prevail. There are many warlords, bandits and militia who do not feel bound by an agreement. Security, for both the people of Darfur as well as for the humanitarian workers will improve only gradually. Many roads are very unsafe and will remain so. Attacks are taking place daily. Truckers are afraid to drive in Darfur. The African Union troops are still not large and strong enough to protect all convoys. Many people can only be reached by air. Malnutrition and mortality will undoubtedly increase, even if food aid would remain available, when this aid can not be brought to the people.

So, the figures are better, but the perspective is gloomy. There is less malnutrition, but not more food security. For an improvement in the food security situation two conditions must be met. First: more local food production. The rains this year were better than last year. That means that the crops were higher. But a sustainable increase requires more than that. Farmers need to return to the field. Access to land and water must be guaranteed. However, the refugees and displaced people are afraid to go back to their villages because attacks continue. Also last month militia on horseback and camel killed dozens of people and destroyed their houses. An international force will have to guarantee security of the areas of origin of the refugees and displaced people before a sustained increase in agricultural production can be expected. That requires reconciliation and a fair system to solve land disputes. All this is needed to enhance food security.

Second: food security requires an adequate income of those people who do not produce food themselves, but buy it on the market. According to the same study mentioned above last year nearly half of all resident households in Darfur managed to have acceptable food consumption from their own means. This year only 20% was able to do so. Darfur has impoverished at an alarming scale.

All this underlines the urgency of a solution. Please spread the message. More and more we get the impression that such a sense of urgency is lacking everywhere, in Khartoum, in Darfur and also in the capitals of the Western world. There is no room for complacency. On the contrary. While this year has shown remarkable improvements, without a peace agreement being reached soon, we may head towards a return to the catastophy of 2003 and 2004.
In May 2004 the Government of Sudan and the Darfur rebel movements SLA and JEM agreed on a cease fire. Since then six rounds of talks took place in Abuja, Nigeria, in order to get a peace agreement. The first four were not successful. The fifth, in June this year, produced a Declaration of Principles for further talks. Ten days ago the sixth round came to an end. The results were mixed. The main subject of the talks this time - sharing of power - could not be concluded. The rebel movements were internally more divided than ever. Not all leaders showed up. Moreover, the talks were accompanied by an increase in violence on the ground in Darfur.

In the past such fighting had often resulted in mutual accusations concerning cease fire violations, leading to a break down of the talks. Not this time. The parties stayed at the negotiation table. They were able to discuss substance rather than focusing on procedures only. At the end they issued a joint communiqué in which they committed themselves to reach an agreement before the end of this year.

So, there is some hope. In January this year after two decades of war a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed between the Government of Sudan and the SPLM, the strongest movement in the South of Sudan. That was a huge step forward, after about four years of talks. So far it seems to hold. There is a new constitution, a new Government of National Unity, a new Government in the South and a beginning of military redeployment. However, this precious peace will only be sustainable if there is peace everywhere in Sudan, including in Darfur. Peace is indivisible.

Right after the signing of the CPA the UN set a new objective: a peace agreement in Darfur before the end of 2005. Some commentators thought that this was not ambitious enough. Others were more pessimistic. But one has to declare an objective and work towards that end, trying to make it unavoidable and self-fulfilling. Gradually members of the Security Council became convinced that this aim was attainable. The Council included this objective in its Resolutions. The Parties had to accept it. The Government, under pressure, was the first. On January 1, 2006, Sudan will commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of its independence. Sudan was about the first country that became independent after the colonial period. That pride should not be torn by ongoing civil war and atrocities against citizens. The movements gradually also accepted ultimo 2005 as the target date. Leaders present in Abuja now have declared so. Rebel commanders on the ground are no longer asking for more time. So, it is possible.

Between now and the beginning of the seventh round - on 21 November - some conditions have to be met. The movements should understand that they cannot bet on two horses. They should talk, not shoot. The Government should grant the movements a just deal: equitable power sharing, a fair distribution of resources (land, oil, water, income and wealth), an end to impunity of the killers, guaranteed security for all Darfurians in their own villages. The international community should speak with one voice, should be tough towards all parties (“We do no longer accept a continuation of the war and the atrocities and we will hold you accountable”). The same international community should also make all necessary resources available to fund reconstruction of the pillaged and destroyed villages and to keep an effective international force in Darfur. Such a force should sustain the peace agreement, once reached, and facilitate the return of refugees and displaced people to their homes.

It is a moral imperative. The present situation is not tolerable. The plight of the people chased away from their homes, terrorized, raped and killed has been horrendous. It still is. It is possible to bring an end to this before the end of this year and to make a new beginning: return, reconciliation, reform, justice, security, sustained peace. The next two months are crucial.

Raped women demand punishment of the Janjaweed immediately

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Photo: Paula Souverijn-Eisenberg (c)