The Sudanese security authorities have instructed newspapers to avoid reporting the activities of rebel groups in the country. Local reports say the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) contacted chief editors of national newspapers and ordered them not to publish any statements by Darfur rebel leader Khalil Ibrahim or leaders of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement North (SPLM-N), which is fighting the government in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan states.
The acting editor-in-chief of Sudanese newspaper Ajras Al-Huriya, Faiz Al-Silaik, has announced that the paper will protest censorship by not publishing for one week. The Sudanese authorities introduced pre-publication censorship for two daily newspapers in May. On Saturday the security forces visited four other independent/opposition papers, directly censoring much of their content. The press crackdown is focused on reporting of a doctor’s strike, and the arrest warrant the International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued for President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir for war crimes in the Darfur region of Sudan.
Darfur’s agony can be ended. It needs Sudan’s government and Darfur’s rebel leaders to make the right choice, today. The African Union’s “Darfur Peace Agreement” is not only a good deal on paper, but is workable on the ground. If those leaders sign the deal in the Nigerian capital Abuja today, the people of that troubled land of Darfur can begin their long journey back to peace and normality.
If they don’t sign, the horrors of the last years will be redoubled. Few doubt that Khartoum’s “Plan B” is anything other than a large-scale military offensive. As local clashes escalate, more tribal militia mobilize. Darfurian elders warn of a Hobbesian war of all against all. Next door, Chad is spiraling into civil war that involves Darfurian factions too. We are the precipice of a regional maelstrom. Those who criticize the AU’s text, and the efforts of Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick to clinch the deal, must ponder that scenario.
At 86 pages and 510 paragraphs, the text is exceedingly long, complicated and prone to misreading. As one of those who crafted it over five grueling months in an Abuja hotel, let me explain its strengths and weaknesses.
There’s no simple formula to fix Darfur’s war. There are no winners who can dictate their terms. It is essential to preserve the delicate balance between North and South enshrined in last year’s peace agreement that ended the 20-year war in the South.
Over long months of negotiation, we in the Mediation could not find a consensus. The warring parties were too far apart. The Movements, especially, hardly shifted from a maximalist negotiating position. Instead we proposed a position in between. There was an intense debate within the Mediation on how to handle this and what positions to propose. The first reaction of the Movements and their sympathizers is that the AU proposals fall well short of their legitimate demands and are a sell-out to Khartoum. I urge them to read the text carefully, to examine what actually they gain.
Certainly, we disappointed the rebel Movements: they don’t win a political majority and have to share power with the ruling National Congress Party. But the central concepts provide mechanisms whereby they can, if they can realize their central demands. They have a “Senior Assistant to the President” who chairs the “Transitional Darfur Regional Authority”. This is a vice-president in all but name, and a powerful executive organ to lead the tasks of rebuilding Darfur’s shattered social fabric. They have substantial representation at all levels of Darfur’s state and local governments and if they win the democratic elections scheduled for 2009, then Darfur is theirs to rule. Darfur’s permanent status also goes to a referendum, and if the Movements win that then they will have an autonomous region.
Darfur has always been poor and is now devastated. Our proposal has strong provisions for reconstruction including a fund to compensate victims of the atrocities.
We know full well that a deal between Government and rebels cannot solve all Darfur’s complex problems, and so we propose a “Darfur-Darfur Dialogue and Reconciliation” to be held within 60 days, at which representatives of every group in the region can meet to begin the process of stitching the social fabric back together again, addressing problems such as land ownership and nomadic migration.
The deal isn’t perfect, but it can work. Its chapter on security arrangements is especially strong, and was worked out in detail with AU, UN and U.S. military experts. We have carefully plotted every military position and militia camp, and mapped ceasefire lines and demilitarized zones. As we marked up our map, I revisited in my mind the villages I knew from twenty years ago, retracing in my memory my travels on foot, horseback and Landrover through Darfur’s then-peaceful countryside. Two villages I lived in are deserted ruins; one is a rebel headquarters; another is an army base; yet another has been emptied of the people I knew and is occupied by Janjaweed. The Force Commander of the African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur says he can do the job: but of course he needs more troops.
Disarming the Janjaweed is a top priority. Having lived with Darfur’s nomads in their desert camps, I know personally just how tough they are, and I have never taken seriously the ideas of sending international forces to defeat them in battle. Instead, we insist that the Government first confines all militia to camps, takes away their heavy weapons, and has a staged process for disarming them well before the rebels have to move to cantonment sites. Our solution is principled and practical.
“Where are the guarantees?” one of the rebel commanders demanded. He fears that Khartoum will renege on the deal once it is signed. The Government’s record certainly doesn’t inspire confidence. But my answer to the anxious guerilla was that there are few peace agreements so strongly bolstered by guarantees. UN Security Council Resolutions insist that the Janjaweed be disarmed and that individuals who obstruct peace can be placed under sanctions.
Axiomatic to a negotiated end to a war is that each side comes to terms with its former enemy. Many Darfurians still choke on this. After what they have suffered, it is understandable. Their spokesmen still rehearse their grievances and point the finger of blame at the Government, the international community — and now also the African Union for not endorsing all their demands.
But the stark reality is that if Khartoum refuses to give ground on the rebels’ final demands on how many of their troops are integrated in the national army, and the Movement leaders fail to grasp their best chance for peace, then Darfur faces a cataclysm. All those who believe in peace for Darfur will ask ourselves whether we did enough to bring it about, and the needless deaths occur will scar our consciences. Today is the day.
Alex de Waal is an adviser to the African Union mediation on the conflict in Darfur. He writes here in a personal capacity.