At the beginning of August the AU and UN special envoys for the Darfur peace process, Salim Ahmed Salim and Jan Eliasson, will convene a meeting of Darfur rebel leaders in Arusha. The meeting is one of the components of the Joint AU-UN Roadmap for the Darfur Political Process, which aims to revive negotiations between the Sudanese government and the Darfur rebels. Is the Roadmap more likely to bear fruit than the Abuja talks that preceded it? Have any lessons been learnt or might the same mi...read more
At the beginning of August the AU and UN special envoys for the Darfur peace process, Salim Ahmed Salim and Jan Eliasson, will convene a meeting of Darfur rebel leaders in Arusha. The meeting is one of the components of the Joint AU-UN Roadmap for the Darfur Political Process, which aims to revive negotiations between the Sudanese government and the Darfur rebels. Is the Roadmap more likely to bear fruit than the Abuja talks that preceded it? Have any lessons been learnt or might the same mistakes be made?
In 2006 the AU-led peace talks in Abuja culminated in the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) that was signed by the government and one of the rebel groups but rejected by the other groups. The agreement was divisive and unpopular in Darfur, exacerbating a protracted conflict that has left over two hundred thousand people dead and roughly two million displaced.
The glaring problem with the Roadmap is its unrealistic timeframe: in May and June there will be consultations with the Sudanese parties and Darfurian civil society, the development of a negotiation strategy and efforts to unify the divided rebel movements; June and July will be devoted to finalising the consultations and preparations for negotiations; and the final phase in August will entail a “brief and intensive negotiation session”.
This four-month timeframe has already slipped because it is completely out of sync with the dynamics of the conflict. Many formidable hurdles have to be overcome before substantive negotiations can begin, let alone be concluded with a settlement that enjoys popular support in Darfur.
For example, there is no consensus among the Sudanese government and the rebels on the agenda for negotiations and on who should participate in the talks. Nor is there consensus on whether the DPA should be revised in part, renegotiated entirely or thrown out the window. There is little common ground on the causes of the rebellion and the most appropriate remedies, and the parties’ mutual hatred and mistrust make the search for common ground a tortuous endeavour.
Complicating matters further, the rebels are even more fragmented than they were in 2006. The Abuja talks were wracked by antagonism between the three participating rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement and the two factions of the Sudan Liberation Movement. Today there are at least twelve groups, many of which claim to represent the same constituencies and few of which have proven support in Darfur. The leader with the most support, Abdul Wahid al Nur, is an erratic and indecisive negotiator. Regrettably, he has refused to attend the forthcoming AU-UN meeting in Arusha.
The violence in western Sudan poses another serious impediment. The Roadmap correctly highlights the need to consult Darfurian civil society, tribal leaders, internally displaced people, refugees and women’s groups, but this will be extremely difficult in conditions of chronic insecurity.
To add to the envoys’ woes, the AU and UN are not viewed favourably by all the parties to the conflict. The government in Khartoum is hostile to the UN while some of the rebel groups resent the AU because of its association with the DPA and because its peacekeeping force has failed to protect civilians in Darfur.
The AU and UN are painfully aware of all these obstacles. The logic of their tight timeframe is that it conveys the seriousness of the international community and the need for the Sudanese parties to move rapidly to a negotiated settlement. Given the dire situation in Darfur, the message is one of impatience and urgency.
The logic is appealing but the Abuja talks showed that it is ill-conceived and counter-productive. These talks were characterised by a steady stream of unrealistic deadlines emanating from the AU, the UN and foreign donors. Intended to put pressure on Khartoum and the rebels, the deadlines were ignored by them and succeeded only in pressurising the mediators who were obliged to heed the stipulations of their funders and masters.
This had several negative effects. First, the ever looming short-term deadlines inhibited a programmatic effort by the mediators to build momentum gradually over time and led instead to an ad hoc approach that proceeded in fits and starts. The deadline diplomacy was too simplistic to constitute a viable strategy and too rigid to allow the mediators to develop a smart strategy.
Second, the tight deadlines made it impossible for the mediators and negotiators to communicate with the people of Darfur and with important groups that were not represented at the talks. Darfurian civil society had no opportunity to shape the draft DPA and could not conceivably have acquired a sense of ownership of it.
Third, the haste induced by the deadlines precluded effective mediation. A mediator’s job is to help adversaries overcome their enmity, build their confidence in negotiations and facilitate dialogue, bargaining and collaborative problem-solving. The deadline diplomacy caused the AU mediators to neglect these tasks in favour of writing an accord that sought to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable positions of the parties. The result was that the DPA was owned by the mediators and not the parties.
In all civil wars the humanitarian need for a quick accord is indisputable. But there is never a quick fix. These conflicts have multiple, complex and intractable causes, and the difficulty of resolution is heightened immeasurably by the protagonists’ mutual hatred and suspicion. There is no point in rushing negotiations and forcing the parties to sign an agreement to which they are not committed. As happened in Abuja, they will simply leave the signing ceremony and continue fighting.
Sustainable peace requires a negotiated settlement that sufficiently meets the interests and needs of parties and citizens, sufficiently addresses the causes of the conflict, and rests on the parties’ willingness to implement agreements in a co-operative fashion. This will not be obtained through a “brief and intensive negotiation session”. A rushed process will only reproduce the errors of Abuja.
This is not to say that the international community and special envoys should stand by idly while people are being slaughtered in Darfur. If a conflict is not ripe for resolution, then the challenge is precisely to find ways to ripen it. In addition, it is absolutely imperative that African countries and foreign powers boost the AU peacekeeping force in Darfur until UN military support finally arrives.
The special envoys should not be driven by spurious deadlines, which are meant to signal seriousness but convey the opposite when they are missed and then reset without any repercussions. Instead, the envoys should be guided by a comprehensive mediation plan that reflects the realities of the conflict. They should be based in Sudan and should engage constantly in dialogue with the government and the rebels. These discussions can themselves be a useful form of indirect negotiations, preferable to big conferences where the delegates lambaste their opponents and make pious speeches about peace.
For peacemakers working on intractable conflicts, the greatest challenge is persistence and the greatest bravery, as Eliasson himself put it many years ago, is patience.
* Laurie Nathan, research fellow at the London School of Economics and the University of Cape Town, was a member of the AU mediation team for Darfur in 2006. An earlier version of this article appeared in The Sunday Times (South Africa) on 8 July.
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