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The clock is ticking when it comes to current peace talks on Darfur currently taking place in Abuja, writes Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem. But this time its not the Government of Sudan who is the spoiler at the talks, but rather the rebel forces, most of whom do not represent their people and are using their time in Abuja to snuggle up to Western donors and have a holiday at the expense of the international community.

This week is very crucial for the now-on-now-off African Union sponsored peace negotiations on Darfur in Abuja. The agreement on security is supposed to be signed failing which these round of talks could be declared dead and all the negotiators, peace envoys, rebels, government representatives and the assortment of various 'international' (meaning non African and predominantly European and American) supporters of the peace negotiations should do their tax payers a big favour and pack their bags and go home.

It is a big irony that the main culprits for this failure will not be the usual first suspect of everyone: the Government of Sudan. There is no doubt that the government is a bad government that is decapitating its opponents and aiding and abetting atrocities in Darfur and also implicated in the imploding civil war in Chad. While the government of Sudan may deserve most of the criticisms against it the obstacles to peace in Abuja are sadly fully manned by the Darfur rebel groups: JEM (Justice for Equality Movement) and SLA (Sudan Liberation Army) and the way in which their international backers continue to treat them with kid gloves and thereby encourage their belligerence.

So fixed are many on the vile nature of the Khartoum government that by definition anybody opposed to it, for whatever reasons, must be good. So desperate have various sponsors of the negotiations become that they seem prepared to get an agreement at all cost. The obsession with delegitimising the Sudan government even while negotiating with it has produced a mixed signal of inertia. At what stage does the illegitimacy of the NIF/CP government become delegitimation of the Sudan state?

These factors have prevented a more objective appreciation of the situation. The painful truth that must be faced is that neither JEM nor SLA (as presently constituted) and the various factions within and between them with their fluid alliances and struggles for personal power and prestige, are in a position to make any deals that will hold for long. How can one justify the enormous expense of having over a hundred rebels in Abuja for weeks and months with only a few of them able to engage in any serious talks and the majority just playing spoilers or peace vultures? They are becoming to Abuja what, for many years, Burundi rebels or Somali factions became to both Arusha and Nairobi respectively: Permanent tourists sponsored by the international community as a kind of direct aid to the local hospitality and leisure industry.

The rebels' attitude makes it much easier for the Sudan government to do nothing other than just watch its ill-prepared bunch and bands of armed rebels. Consequently Khartoum's representatives and commitment remain untested by the mediators and the rebels on many issues because the rebels are too absorbed in their own self-importance to concentrate or focus on the larger picture. While the Sudan government has in Abuja obviously experienced, informed and well connected security and political figures, the rebel groups have chosen to send largely ineffectual, faction-ridden elements. Give or take half a dozen on both sides, all the rebels could be sent back without any impact on the talks.

After all the months of talks one had expected that these rebels would be gaining in experience and acquiring needed skills in engaging in negotiations, but they are rather stagnating and playing reactionary politics with the lives, blood, sweat and suffering of their peoples.

There is no doubt that the cause of Darfur is just but these rebels claiming to represent the suffering masses of Darfur are not doing so justly. Like the Khartoum government they are not legitimate leaders of the people. They are their self-appointed liberators. But unlike many liberation movements in Africa, which had to depend on the people to build and plan with them, these rebels have too many willing regional and international actors indulging their delusions of grandeur.

There are many weaknesses with the AU force in Darfur and also with the mediation framework but clamouring for its replacement with a UN one instead of helping to strengthen it, is a recipe for prolonged dithering on the part of the rebels and the government. A situation in which the rebels seem to have no faith in the AU and implicit confidence in non-African governments and institutions is playing into the hands of the government. The belief by the rebels that the AU will be replaced by a different force and mediators is actually encouraging the rebels to consider their role in Abuja as mere “walk on parts”, since there will be other forums for them outside of Africa for negotiations. By default they are conceding the diplomatic and political terrain in Africa to Khartoum while putting their faith in non-Africans. They obviously have not learnt anything from the crisis of the opposition in Zimbabwe.

While they are not talking with the AU mediators they are flattered to be the darling of many Westerners in the talks. Like the true colonial-minded leaders they are, they feel gratified to be seen with one western diplomat or the other, no matter how lowly placed. It boosts their sense of self-importance. It also gives the diplomats, security operatives and intelligence gatherers masquerading as supporters of negotiations a ringside seat in playing God with African lives. I honestly think the ritual presence of outsiders (especially so called Donor-countries) in these negotiations is, on the whole, negative. They are not putting pressure on the rebels to engage positively and instead seem to be encouraging their belligerence.

The priority should be to make the ceasefire effective, stop the massacres and protect the civilians. These can only be achieved through making the African Union troops more effective and expanding their mandate if possible through the UN Security Council. If this is not possible, the AU should do so by itself and seek the necessary international support to carry out the mandate. This also means that the loopholes in the original ceasefire that are being exploited by the government and its killer groups and the rebels too, need to be plugged. It means putting all pressure on Khartoum and the rebels to sign off the security agreement and be held accountable for it. In the worse case scenario, the AU needs to show political courage and call the bluff of the rebels by calling off the talks and advising them to call back when they are ready for serious talks and agreement. Meanwhile the threat of not giving Khartoum the diplomatic and political honour of hosting the next summit, due in Khartoum in January, should be made clear if the government continues to kill its own people. A government and opposition force whose power depends on mass suffering and death of their own peoples should be denied the company of other Africans and all decent peoples the world over.

* Dr Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem is General-Secretary of the Pan African Movement, Kampala (Uganda) and Co-Director of Justice Africa

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