Home | Comment & Analysis    Friday 8 March 2013

What 10 years of conflict teaches us about Darfur


By Anne Bartlett

March 7, 2013 - Over recent days I have been bombarded with e-mails about events on Darfur that mark the 10 year anniversary of the conflict. Some analyze why the conflict is ongoing; others link Darfur to other conflicts such as South Kordofan and Blue Nile. For inexplicable reasons, most assume that we can now apply the same type of methods that failed to “save” Darfur to the current conflicts on Sudan’s border. Gripped by the desire to do something, nearly all assume that sending more press releases will make the international community sit up and take action to stop the government of Sudan. Ramping up to “act” for Sudan, these groups appear to be operating in a time warp from 2003, using the same faulty logic.

After ten years of failure to produce substantive change in Darfur, the current state of affairs can be boiled down to a number of problematic assumptions: First, in most things that get published about Darfur and Sudan, both the history and geopolitical interests of international actors is missing. This creates the myopic assumption that by informing international governments that something bad is happening, they will have the heart to apply political leverage to change the situation. It assumes that such governments were not involved in creating the problem in the first place and that by giving them “a message” it will magically make them listen. Not only does this ignore the track record of the countries concerned, but it fundamentally miscalculates what “listening” actually means in diplomatic language.

Second, this problem brings another issue into sharp relief. Over recent years, there has been a clear imperative to separate the political causes of a conflict from its humanitarian outcomes. In other words, international governments like to provide humanitarian aid to affected populations, without compromising their own political objectives. This leaves the dynamics causing the violence in play, while providing a top-dressing of humanitarian aid to prevent outright catastrophe. Yet for the populations involved, all it does is to slow down the carnage, create unintended consequences - such as making government officials grow rich from doing business around aid – while destroying local markets and infrastructure. It does all of this damage while it also stops the momentum for real change.

Third, while recent campaigns suggest that shame actually works, all evidence points to the contrary. For governments like the NCP, the only motivating factor is power. With power comes money, life chances, the ability to slaughter opponents with impunity and of course, the ability to do all of this with no consequences at all from external governments, provided one waves the fundamentalist flag and shouts about terrorism. This in turn cows external powers into misplaced intelligence sharing arrangements and secures one’s seat on the “war on terror” gravy train. To believe that shame might be influence the collective psyche of the Government of Sudan or those involved with them, is little more than a trip to fantasy land.

Fourth, the kinds of campaigns we are seeing do little to bring about the long-term sustainability of regions suffering from conflict. In fact the reverse is true. In the “sound-bite advocacy” around Darfur we are encouraged to believe that the problem is about “Africans” and “Arabs” when it is not. We are told that the problem is simply a matter of hawakir, when in fact there are much more complex dynamics at play. We are fed a “insurgency/counter-insurgency” narrative straight out of a military playbook, which implies that Darfur, Blue Nile, South Kordofan (and previously South Sudan) are places full of belligerent people, who dislike their government and have nothing better to do than to start uprisings. We are also told that the solution is to get all the armed movements to agree. But where does this consider the constellation of different interests at work, the genesis of different identities in Sudan and the racism and violence of the political system that produced all these hostilities in the first place? The truth is that it does not, but never mind the actual politics of the situation, because it is much easier to stereotype and simplify everyone.

If the last 10 years have taught us anything, it is that shouting louder just doesn’t work. Many of the conflicts that are unfolding in Sudan are doing so because the Sudanese government has put much more thought into how to kill people, than everyone else has put into how to stop them. Close to a decade ago, I was in the UN trying to pass a resolution when it became clear just how much study time the Sudanese regime devotes to mimicking the actions of international governments. They buy nice suits, send their people abroad to study in the US and Europe, hire handsome individuals who know the language and culture of the West. Such individuals then wander around international arenas like the UN schmoozing with all concerned, while studying international governments and their representatives in a way that puts the West to shame. Their goal is to ascertain where the red lines are, where individual or collective weaknesses lie and how they can create space within the negotiation framework to prevent agreements from being implemented. In return, western diplomats engage such people in the belief that they have the higher intellect, can never be fooled, and are expert negotiators who understand how to play politics much better than their Sudanese counterparts.

After ten years of this nonsense, a different approach is now needed:

1) In general, for the sake of all Sudanese people suffering under the boot of the regime, there needs to be a much harder line and greater efforts to promote accountability. First, this means that every time the Sudanese government reneges on an agreement, life should get harder for them. Sanctions should be beefed up; assets in Swiss banks and elsewhere frozen; bans should be implemented on government officials’ family members entering western countries for education, to buy thoubs and enjoy themselves, or for other purposes. Agreements should automatically contain default punitive clauses that cannot be negotiated away. Red lines need to mean just that, because this is the only language the NCP understands;

2) Second, rather than wasting time with more agreements, the time has come to work with what we’ve already got. The Sudanese government’s standard weapon for getting what it wants is the delaying tactic of endless negotiations, in which it agrees to something that it has no intention of honoring. International governments are then forced to wait … and then wait some more. Assurances are given from negotiators that action is just around the corner. Of course nothing ever happens, except more prevarication. Over time, this serves the interests of Khartoum very well, but grinds the peace-making process to a slow and painful halt;

3) The third issue is education. For most, education is a nice dream, but usually comes way down the list of government priorities. It is one of those things that can be put off without anyone really noticing. However this attitude is fundamentally miscalculated. Education is at the route of every issue facing post-conflict societies. From governance down, lack of education affects the capacity to make informed decisions on a world stage; it affects the social capital of the population and their ability to compete in regional economies; it makes the application of abstract principles such as human rights and national reconciliation almost impossible, because people stick to their immediate kinship groups and local priorities. Even worse from my perspective, lack of education holds post-conflict societies hostage to external consultants and their agendas, rather than developing programs by and for the local population;

4) Fourth, where Darfur is concerned the main priority is an international land tenure commission to be set up and to be headed by an impartial expert. We simply cannot keep talking about peace while there are disputes over the hakura system and its interrelationship with customary laws in relation to land usage. Even if peace was achieved tomorrow, nothing will be solved in Darfur unless this issue is tackled, because there is little in the way of a useable foundation to build on. The time to start this is now, even if it is outside Darfur;

5) The fifth issue is also about preparation. One the problems in Darfur and elsewhere is that conflict has started without a serious plan about what to do when it all ends. Strategic planning needs to look at local mechanisms for achieving change. So for example, how will the ajaweed system work at the local level to resolve the number of disputes now running in Darfur? What kinds of local mechanisms based at the village level can assess losses and needs for development? What kinds of local reconciliation mechanisms based on real life, (rather than conflict transformation textbooks), can actually be used to bring people together on the ground? What kinds of measures can be used to deal with drought and environmental change? Without all of these things, peace agreements have no legs to move anywhere, and are unsustainable over the long term;

6) Finally, where Darfur is concerned, the international community needs to get real about Doha and Tigani Seisi. Seisi is little more than an opportunist who has no legitimacy on the ground to carry change. Doha and the Qataris are also just “wanna be” Saudis, whose intentions will ultimately bring disaster to Sudan.

On this tenth anniversary, it is foolish to repeat the mistakes of the past. As the last ten years have shown, tying one’s agenda to the agenda of others may create a lot of hot air, but very little else to change the situation. If the people of Darfur and other marginalized areas really want to change their future, it must come from within. This is the immutable truth and lesson to be learned from a decade of struggle. It is also a lesson that needs to be taken to heart urgently, if the next ten years are to be better than the last.

Dr. Anne Bartlett is Professor and Director of the International Studies Graduate Program at the University of San Francisco. She may be reached at: albartlett@usfca.edu

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