By the time you read this, there may be good news from Africa. A peace agreement could have been signed for Darfur, the place often compared with Rwanda as a cause for international shame because warnings of genocide went unheeded. If done by last night’s midnight deadline, a deal will surprise most people, since with very few exceptions the world’s press has ignored the negotiations that have been inching forward under African Union (AU) mediation in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.
I call it the Darfur Disconnect. One TV reporter after another does the standard tour into Sudan’s western region, guided by rebel groups. Out comes footage of miserable refugees huddling in tents or shelters of sticks and plastic and recounting stories of brutal treatment by government-backed Janjaweed militias. Commentators thunder away at the need for sanctions against the regime in Khartoum and denounce western leaders for not authorising Nato to intervene.
Last weekend the outrage took a new turn, with big demonstrations in several American cities, strongly promoted by the Christian right, which sees the Darfur conflict as another case of Islamic fundamentalism on the rampage. They urged Bush to stop shilly-shallying and be tougher with the government of Sudan.
The TV reports are not wrong. They just give a one-sided picture and miss the big story: the talks that the rebels are conducting with the government. The same is true of the commentaries. Why demand military involvement, when western leaders have intervened more productively by pressing both sides to reach a settlement? Over the past few days the US, with British help, has taken over the AU’s mediation role, and done it well. Robert Zoellick, the state department’s number two, and Hilary Benn, Britain’s development secretary, have been in Abuja urging the rebels not to waste the opportunity for peace. Sudan’s government accepted the US-brokered draft agreement last weekend, and it is the rebels who have been risking a collapse.
It is hard to see why. The as yet unpublished text, which I read this week, gives the rebels most of what they went to war for. In many insurgencies, Northern Ireland for one, rebels are asked to come out of hiding and join the political process with or without an amnesty. In the Darfur peace agreement, large areas of territory are recognised by the government as being under the rebels’ control and therefore closed to government troops during a transition period. This is a humiliating recognition of loss of sovereignty. The Janjaweed militias will have to be disarmed before the rebels are. Foreign peacekeepers from the AU will oversee security around the camps for internally displaced people, and government forces will be barred.
Darfur’s marginalisation (which was one of the issues that led to the conflict) will be addressed through extra funding from Sudan’s national budget. Affirmative action will give Darfurians public-service jobs. The rebels will have the right to nominate the governor of one of Darfur’s three states, and the deputy governors of the other two. The rebels will also have a top post in Sudan’s presidential administration in Khartoum.
Why were they reluctant to agree? One reason – rarely reported in the media rush to paint the rebels as heroes – is that they are seriously divided. Splits along ethnic lines have recently widened, even leading to armed clashes. There are reports that the rebels themselves have been using janjaweed-style violence, storming each other’s villages on camels. The rebels are also guilty of blocking aid to the displaced. Jan Pronk, the UN special representative, this week charged them with jeopardising aid to 450,000 vulnerable people through attacks on UN agency vehicles and non-governmental relief agencies.
One-sided international media treatment of the crisis may have emboldened the rebels to increase their demands. In many forgotten conflicts, the TV and commentary spotlights help to sound the alarm and bring pressure for action. In the Darfur case, they could be having a pernicious effect and be delaying the chance of ending the killing.
Western governments, at least, have been more even-handed. It is widely accepted the Sudanese government was responsible for the initial atrocities by overreacting to the first rebel attacks three years ago. Khartoum armed the Janjaweed, and may still control some of them. UN officials fear that without a peace deal government forces may attack the rebel-held town of Gereida, putting another 100,000 people to flight. But the US, Britain and UN now blame the rebels for atrocities and the lack of peace. The security council last week put international travel bans on four people suspected of serious crimes in Darfur. Two were mid-ranking rebel leaders. At Abuja, western mediators have been conspicuously fair. Jack Straw was there some months ago, calling on rebel leaders to be realistic and ready to compromise.
The fact that Benn took over this week as Britain’s negotiator marks an important trend. There is growing recognition that the Department for International Development cannot just be a body that handles post-conflict reconstruction and humanitarian relief. Resolving conflicts or preventing them from worsening are also legitimate DfID tasks – it is engaged in politics as well as aid.
Last year, DfID took the British government’s lead role in Ethiopia by cutting funds to the government over the repression of opposition activists. Several went on trial in Addis Ababa this week on absurd charges of “genocide” for allegedly provoking demonstrations in which more than 40 people were killed by the police. Benn’s role at the Darfur talks is another useful step.
If a peace agreement for Darfur has been signed by the deadline which the mediators set, the crisis will be a long way from over. Helping 2 million displaced people to go home will take time, care and money. There must not be another Darfur Disconnect, this time between delight at the peace deal and a failure to follow through and see it implemented. The big UN agencies are already complaining of lack of funds. The World Food Programme has had to halve its rations for the hungry. Unicef says it is only getting 15% of what it needs. The AU will need financial help to bring in the extra ceasefire monitors the peace deal requires.
And that deal may yet not be struck. This morning’s news could be bleak after all. If that is the case, the marchers in America and the world’s TV cameras should focus their anger on the rebels rather than on Khartoum.