What everyone needs to know about Darfur

IssueJune 2007
Feature by Milan Rai , Alex de Waal

PN: What is your background in relation to Darfur?

ADW: I travelled extensively in Darfur when I first went as a PhD student in 1985. I wrote my first book on famine in Darfur. Subsequently I've spent almost all of the last 22 years working on the Horn of Africa.

PN: What are the origins of the Darfur crisis?

ADW: The underlying factors are the economic and political marginalisation of Darfur, including both Arabs and non-Arabs. Darfur's received very, very little in the way of investment and services; it's had very poor representation in central government.

The problems of local disputes over land and resources all have to be seen in this context. Had there been developmental input, many of these problems could have been overcome.

CIA in Chad

The armed conflict began as a spill-over from the war in Chad. During the 1980s there was a “contra war in Chad in which the CIA and the French supported various Chadian groups trying to roll back Gaddafi. Gaddafi was defeated in 1987. Some of his proxy Arab militia forces were driven into Sudan, into Darfur, where they teamed up with local Arab groups, which had pre-existing disputes with their non-Arab neighbours. That sparked Darfur's first war, between 1987 and 1989.

Subsequent conflicts arose because of continuing incursions of Chadian Arabs, and attempts by the southern rebels in the SLPA [Sudanese People's Liberation Army] to start an insurrection in Darfur.


In 2003, these factors came together and there was a major insurgency, which the government massively over-responded to, by arming a number of proxy militia--the most prominent of which is the notorious janjaweed --who went on the rampage, pursuing their own agendas of seizing land, seizing livestock, etc, and causing the mass displacement and the horrendous suffering that we've become very familiar with.

PN: You have expressed scepticism about military “quick fixes” for Darfur.

ADW: More than scepticism, I think: outright opposition. The question is what would the impact of a military intervention be, and would a military intervention be able to achieve its goal? There needs to be a proper analysis of the nature of the conflict. You cannot easily identify one “side” who are the perpetrators of genocide and another “side” who are the victims, and simply send in forces to stand in the way of the killers, or to take on and defeat the killers. It's much more complicated than that, with multiple armed groups, multiple different agendas, overlapping groups, etc.
One of the things that has happened in the debate is that there has been a confusion between three different separate tasks that could be undertaken. Peacekeeping missions One is a peacekeeping mission. A peacekeeping mission goes to monitor, implement and occasionally enforce an existing agreement between the parties.

Coercive protection

The second option is what one might call “coercive protection”, which is sending a force in which would be there to ensure that large concentrations of civilians, such as people in IDP [internally displaced people/ refugee] camps, are protected in a real upsurge of violence.

Military intervention

The third option is a military intervention which is supposed to use force deliberately proactively to stop the Sudan government's military policies and its support for militia--for example by military strikes against the Sudanese air force and deployment of troops on the ground without the consent of the Sudan government. That would be an act of war, that would be an invasion. The consequences of that action would be incalculable.

First of all the Khartoum government would close down all the humanitarian aid operations, which have been the one positive thing that has actually been done. There could be actually an escalation of hostilities, because when it became clear that troops were coming, it would be logical for the Sudan government and its allies to take pre-emptive action.


It would have repercussions throughout Sudan especially for the north-south Comprehensive Peace Agreement. It is difficult to see how it would be possible to sustain that agreement, or the elections scheduled for next year or early 2008, in the context of military action by western countries against Sudan.

So the question is really between peacekeeping and coercive protection. Here another set of issues arise, which is actually how do you do it?

Political understanding

Given the complexity of the situation, the prime consideration is not the level of force that is available, but the level of intelligence, in the sense of political understanding and analysis of what is going on. Because there is no point in having a huge force if you really don't know who's killing who. And the reality is, if you look at most portrayals of what's happening in Darfur, they don't tell you who's killing who.

Who's killing whom?

They tell you Arabs are killing Africans, and, actually, that isn't true. The two largest sources of fatalities in the last year have been: (1) Intertribal war between two Arab tribes, both of them armed by the government, but now pursuing their own agendas. About 400 of them were killed. (2) The failed government offensive into north Darfur in which government troops were overrun and killed in large numbers; several hundred were killed by the Darfur rebels. The other significant incident consisted of the ethnic cleansing of an area called the “green belt” in the far south of Darfur, which appears to have occurred because the government feared that that would be the route for an intervention force.

So in fact already even just speaking about intervention has possibly contributed to violence in that area. Dozens of people were killed in that, we don't know the full number.

Who are the protagonists?

And a very complicated set of conflicts around a place called Gereida, also in south Darfur, where there are several protagonists, including a Janjaweed group, including the former rebel group the SLA Minni Minawi [the Darfurian Sudan Liberation Army faction led by Minni Minawi, which has signed the Darfur peace agreement, and is now part of the government]. They are fighting each other.
Although that follows the Arab/non-Arab lines it doesn't follow the government/anti-government lines, because they are now both part of the government. So it's all pretty complicated, and you'd need a very locally astute sense of what is going on.

PN: What opportunities have there been for resolving this through non-military means?

ADW: The best opportunity was the Darfur Peace Agreement which was negotiated in the first quarter of last year.

PN: You were on the negotiating team.

ADW: I was on the mediation team, and I had a primary responsibility for the security aspects of the negotiations in the last couple of months.

PN: How did you come to be on the mediation team?

ADW: Over the years I've had a familiarity with Darfur, and also I've worked with the African Union in a number advisory capacities. I was asked to be on the team; I was vetoed by the Sudan government, but then the chief mediator, Salim Ahmed Salim, attached me to his personal staff, where my role could not be vetoed by the Sudan government.

PN: Why do you describe the negotiations as a “missed opportunity”?

ADW: That opportunity was missed because it was rushed to a conclusion under the pressure of the “do something immediately” lobby. We were told that spending another two or three months on this mediation process was a luxury that couldn't be afforded.

PN: After the negotiations were shut down, you stayed behind.

ADW: During that additional month that I spent negotiating with Abdul Wahed [the rebel leader], had I had the opportunity to make the necessary changes to the text, which I'm sure the government would have agreed to, we could have got Abdul Wahed's signature.

But because, in the haste to conclude, the text was regarded as non-negotiable, those relatively minor concessions could not be written into the agreement.

PN: What were those concessions?

ADW: One was on compensation. The government had put up a rather miserly amount of $30m as its first payment into the compensation fund. They were ready to put that up to $100m, and possibly as much as $300m. $100m I think would have been acceptable to the movement [the SLM], $300m certainly would have been.

There were some clarifications on security, which was simply a matter of explanation of what was in the text.


The critical one was on power-sharing. The movement wanted more posts at a local level. I'm pretty confident that that could have been agreed -- for more seats in the local legislature.

PN: It must have been incredibly frustrating for that to have been so close, and yet not to happen.

ADW: It was profoundly frustrating. If we'd just had a little more flexibility, I have no doubt that it could have been settled.

PN: If that had gone through , then many lives since then would not have been lost.

ADW: I think that's true. I think the crisis would not have been completely resolved, it would still be an uphill struggle, but we'd have been in a completely different situation now.

PN: Are there still opportunities now to go back to that point?

ADW: At the moment, I don't believe there is an immediate prospect. I think we've been moving backwards with every passing month, because the political conditions necessary to achieve a negotiated solution slip away.

The Darfur rebels are not united, and they're becoming less united over time. The government has many fewer incentives for getting into a negotiation process. All the pressure is on getting UN troops into Darfur, which to my mind is a real distraction.

The war in Chad has really complicated things because for the president of Chad, Idris Deby, his number one political card is that he can back the Darfur rebels, and therefore gain some international leverage. All the potential mediators are compromised. The African Union is compromised because of the failure with the past process. The UN is compromised because it's committed to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement [between north and south Sudan], and the Darfurians want to revise that agreement. The US is compromised because it has very publicly signed onto that agreement.

Peace for all Sudan

The last factor is that you cannot have a workable peace agreement in Darfur unless there is a workable peace agreement in Sudan as a whole. If the Darfurians believe that the Comprehen- sive Peace Agreement is a sinking ship then there is no reason for them to come aboard it. I feel that is probably the single most serious obstacle to getting a Darfur peace agreement.

PN: What is the problem with the UN troops proposal?

ADW: We can't move forward on the peace front while we're stuck on this issue of UN troops. UN troops would have better financial stability, and a more experienced command and control system. That's really it.

Nothing happens

Their mandate would not be different to the one that would have been given to the existing AU force anyway. Following the peace agreement last year, the AU Peace and Security Council met to decide the future of the peacekeeping force. In other circumstances it would have given the AU force a tougher mandate. What it actually did was continue to press for it to be handed over to the UN---as a result of which, nothing happened on the ground.

It seems to me an extraordinary diversion of energy to spend all this time and energy on [trying to obtain] what is a very modest increment to the AU force.

PN: Is there anything hopeful you can point to?

ADW: The level of violence in Darfur is now very low. In the last year 4000 or 5000 civilians have been killed, which is lower than in Chad, probably lower than in southern Sudan. The humanitarian situation is normal. The people in the camps have nutrition and mortality rates which are normal. In the areas held by the rebels in north Darfur, which is the largest area out of reach of humanitarian agencies, life is now pretty much normal.

There is no immediate crisis. That is the good news. It is not as though people are dying in huge numbers.

PN: Is your position that there is no military solution to the crisis, there can only be a diplomatic solution, but a diplomatic solution is not on the horizon?

ADW: Yes. What we need to do is re-focus energies on that, get off the current track which resembles a sort of political virility test between Washington and Khartoum. Then we might be able to grope our way through to some sort of political issue.

But the fact that we can't doesn't mean that we should continue this dead end of sabre-rattling over UN troops. Especially in a context, to be quite frank, in which the level of human suffering today in Darfur is no way near as bad as it was three or four years ago. There is no ongoing famine, there is no ongoing genocidal massacre. It's a nasty horrible war, and it needs to be stopped, but there is no genocide today.

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