It is three months since the signing of a peace agreement to end the conflict in Darfur, and peace remains a forlorn hope for this isolated region in western Sudan. Although US President George W. Bush met rebel leader Minni Arkou Minnawi on July 26 and exhorted him to work harder to restore peace, the magnitude of the task is now beyond the Sudanese and requires the re-engagement of Western governments to pressure all the combatants to work together.
The May 5 peace agreement is a hasty compromise, full of significant challenges and loopholes, but it is Darfur’s best and only hope of restoring peace. Yet there has been woeful progress in implementing the peace agreement, with only the Minnawi-led fraction of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the government of Sudan signing the agreement. Fighting between the combatants remains frequent, endangering international relief workers and giving little incentive for two million displaced civilians to leave squalid and lawless camps within Darfur and neighbouring Chad.
The fundamental problem with the peace process is that none of the combatants are committed to peace, unless it is on their terms. This is compounded by the rebels being able only to remain united long enough for personal or tribal rivalries to make them enemies.
It is this rebel disunity that poses the most immediate threat to the peace process. The rebels who are refusing to sign the peace agreement are a fraction of the SLA led by the group’s former chairman Abdel Wahid Mohamed Nur and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). The former is insisting that the government cede more autonomy to Darfur and compensate the conflict’s victims. The latter has a more national agenda, beginning with a Darfurian being appointed as a vice-president of Sudan.
It would be easy to dismiss both groups given their small numbers and lack of heavy weaponry. Yet the JEM is developing its links with opposition groups in other parts of Sudan, and if Abdel Wahid can mobilise his Fur tribe, a significant proportion of Darfur’s population could oppose the peace process.
For now, it is hard to see how the rebels can find enough common ground to work together. The hostility between Minnawi and Abdel Wahid is personal, and Minnawi has shown in recent months that he will use his military superiority to force Abdel Wahid to acknowledge his authority. Although Abdel Wahid and the JEM have pledged to help each other, it is an uneasy alliance with many in the SLA regarding the JEM’s Islamist agenda with suspicion.
Yet the rebels cannot oppose the agreement indefinitely in the hope that international pressure will compel the government to agree to their demands. This may have been a sensible move while the international community blamed Sudanese President Omar Bashir for prolonging the conflict. Now that Bashir has signed a peace deal endorsed by the international community, the pressure is now on Abdel Wahid and the JEM to compromise.
For Bashir, the peace deal gives him relief from international criticism and a tool to divide the rebels further. His government is notorious for manipulating events and people to ensure its survival. This peace agreement will be no different, and there are plenty of loopholes in the agreement to exploit. One of the most serious being the reliance on his government to disarm the Janjaweed militias - accused of committing atrocities against the rebels’ civilian supporters on behalf of the government.
Ultimately Bashir fears that giving more autonomy to the regions such as Darfur will weaken the central government; thus, beginning the country’s slide into disintegration and ruining the prospects of his regime’s survival.
So a breakdown of the peace agreement would not be unwelcome to Bashir. He can easily blame the rebels for the agreement’s failure. Furthermore, the need to preserve security if the peace process collapsed is the perfect justification for deploying more of his military to Darfur. The break-up of Sudan would then be averted, as far as Bashir is concerned.
It is nonetheless encouraging that the JEM and Abdel Wahid have not dismissed further negotiations. An opportunity to pursue these without the distraction of on-going combat presents itself in August and September when the heaviest falls of the wet season is likely to impede military operations.
Western governments need to seize this opportunity to re-engage the Darfur combatants. Although the African Union (AU) mediators should be commended for keeping the combatants at the negotiating table since 2003, Western involvement is crucial. After all, it was Western diplomatic pressure that forced Bashir and Minnawi to sign the peace agreement in May.
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