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The Failure of the African Union in Darfur


The Failure of the African Union in Darfur: Much too little, much too late;
A global failure to protect civilian populations facing genocide

By Eric Reeves

September 7, 2005 — The rapidly deteriorating security situation in Darfur, particularly West Darfur and South Darfur states, yet again highlights what has been conspicuously obvious to any honest observer for months: the African Union force in Darfur is radically inadequate to the task of protecting civilians and humanitarian operations. Nor can the AU begin to provide the security that will allow for a resumption of meaningful agricultural production in Darfur, leaving millions entirely dependent upon international food aid. The pretense that the AU---without a mandate for civilian protection, and without adequate manpower, material resources, transport, logistics, or administrative capacity---is capable of providing security in Darfur represents an increasingly deadly complicity in ongoing genocidal destruction.


Over the past fourteen months of deployment, the African Union has failed to demonstrate either the military capacity or the political will necessary to protect Darfur’s acutely vulnerable civilian populations and critical humanitarian operations. Most conspicuously, the AU has not demanded of Khartoum an explicit mandate for civilian protection, but has suggested instead that its forces will create a "de facto" mandate. While this has proved true on a very limited scale, with heroic measures on the part of some AU officers, too many officers and troops are without sufficient motivation. As a result, the epidemic of rape and sexual violence continues throughout Darfur; smaller-scale but immensely threatening violence (including "banditry"---see below) abounds; insecurity continues to displace as many as 3 million Darfuris; and humanitarian organizations are forced ever closer to withdrawing in the face of intolerable risks to their operations.

This last threat must be taken extremely seriously, for the consequences would be massive human destruction in the short term. Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) warns in its just-issued US annual report, with a particular focus on Darfur, that "displaced Darfurians remain totally dependent on international assistance, which could be cut off at a moment’s notice because of the continued insecurity in the region" (MSF, Annual Report [US], page 5). This ominous statement comes from the humanitarian organization with what is by far the largest, longest, and most substantial presence in Darfur. By accepting the AU as the sole guarantor for the security of humanitarian personnel and operations, the international community has allowed continuing violence, by all parties, to push aid organizations to the very brink of withdrawal (all these organizations currently have contingency plans for the rapid extraction of expatriate workers; Sudanese nationals, who are 90% of the aid workers in Darfur, will be left vulnerable to retribution by Khartoum’s National Islamic Front).

The current failure of the AU will only be compounded in the coming months without dramatic intervention by the international community; this expanding failure will take primary form as enormous, ongoing human suffering and destruction. This bleak reality will obtain even if an increase to 7,700 personnel---now all too predictably delayed---eventually takes place. This force will still be far too small, too poorly equipped, and lacking in sufficient cohesion. Yet it remains the case that the International Crisis Group (ICG), alone among international organizations, and without support from a single national or regional leader, has declared the clear inadequacy of the AU and called for urgent deployment of a NATO "bridging force" (see below).

Indeed, to date the ICG assessment of the AU has been publicly seconded only by the foreign minister of Senegal, Cheikh Tidiane Gadio, who in July 2005 courageously declared the current situation in Darfur to be "totally unacceptable." With US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice standing uncomfortably by his side, Gadio insisted:

"Madam Secretary, you know, you have to deal with the facts on the ground.... Those militias [the Janjaweed], they’re still very active...killing people, burning villages, raping women. [ ] We are totally dissatisfied with the fact that the African Union...has asked the international community to allow it to be an African solution to an African problem, and unfortunately the logistics from our own governments did not follow." (Reuters and Agence France-Presse, July 20, 2005)

Gadio’s prescription was as apt as it was politically unpalatable:

"The UN Security Council, the European Union, the African Union, the United States---we should all come together in a new way of dealing with the suffering of the people of Darfur.... We have to do something."

But nothing is being done by the international community beyond providing the resources for a Sisyphean humanitarian effort---and promoting the fiction that the current augmenting of AU forces will somehow address Darfur’s acute and growing security needs. And even this increase in the AU force has come to a standstill because of the entirely predictable seasonal rains (heaviest in August and September), and a lack of fuel (given Khartoum’s scheduled maintenance of the country’s major refinery, this too should have been anticipated by both the AU and the humanitarian community in Darfur):

"A fuel shortage has temporarily stalled the deployment of African Union troops across Sudan’s troubled region of Darfur, a senior AU official said on Saturday [September 3, 2005]. The head of the AU’s Darfur taskforce, Ki Doulay, said a lack of fuel in El-Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, had grounded AU planes meant to ferry troops across the vast region."

"Lack of fuel, compounded by bad weather, had also hindered the arrival of battalions from Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa---sent to bolster AU troops monitoring a shaky truce between Darfur rebels and the government. ’There is no fuel for our planes.’" (Reuters, September 3, 2005)

This bespeaks incompetent planning, of which there are far too many other examples.

But again, even if eventually deployed to the level of 7,700 personnel, the AU still will not be able to protect humanitarian convoys that are daily more vulnerable (see below); it cannot secure the more than 200 camps for displaced persons and their increasingly resource-stripped environs; it cannot provide security in vast rural regions (Darfur is the size of France); it cannot oversee the resumption of agricultural production in areas that have been the sites of horrific violence and human destruction for two and a half years. As ICG has argued compellingly, however singularly:

"If the AU cannot meet these objectives---numbers and quality of troops, and time [60 days]---NATO should work closely with the AU to deploy its own bridging force and bring the total force up to 12,000 to 15,000 within 60 days and maintain it at that level until the AU can perform the mission entirely with its own personnel. The AU should agree that until such time, its units would come under command and control of the NATO mission. The UN Security Council should authorise the mission with a civilian protection mandate but if it does not, the AU and NATO would need to assume the responsibility and agree on an appropriate mandate." (The International Crisis Group [Nairobi/Brussels], "The AU’s Mission in Darfur: Bridging the Gaps," July 6, 2005, Overview, page 2; at http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?l=1&id=3547)

To be sure, even the ICG estimate---12,000 to 15,000 to have been deployed by this date (sixty days from the time of the report’s publication, July 6, 2005)---represents a minimum; almost all other military estimates of necessary force are considerably higher. But the international community is as far from supporting an urgent deployment of 12,000 troops as it is from supporting a total of 22,000 troops. A highly constrained AU force, however transparently inadequate to the task of civilian and humanitarian protection, remains the default policy of Europe, the US, Canada, the UN, the Arab League, and a number of human rights organizations and other international actors.


The African Union is also failing Darfur politically, and has begun resorting to distortion and dishonesty by way of responding to its inability to oversee significant diplomatic progress in Abuja, Nigeria. This dishonesty takes two forms: downplaying the scale and significance of security issues (abetted in this effort especially by UN officials such as Jan Pronk, Kofi Annan’s special representative for Darfur), and excessively praising the National Islamic Front (NIF) in Khartoum for "good faith" efforts at securing peace for Darfur.

For example, Salim Ahmed Salim, AU special envoy for Darfur, recently "expressed his satisfaction with the ’unequivocal commitment of the Sudanese government’ to contribute to the success of the forthcoming round of peace talks" (UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, September 5, 2005). But it is difficult to understand how Khartoum’s commitment to peace can be "unequivocal" if the NIF continues to arm and support the Janjaweed---the greatest obstacle to both security and peace in Darfur. Such support has been authoritatively confirmed both by humanitarian organizations and by AU officers on the ground (see New York Times [dateline: Khartoum] August 21, 2005).

Certainly the Janjaweed and other paramilitary groups allied with Khartoum continue to operate in all three Darfur states. As Kofi Annan notes in his most recent report to the Security Council (August 2005):

"The Government [of Sudan] still shows no intention of disarming the Janjaweed or other militias, ’and is yet to hold a significant number of them accountable for the atrocities of earlier months.’" (Associated Press, August 16, 2005)

Such facts cannot be wished away by the AU in the interests of simplifying the political and security situation in Darfur. The humanitarian crisis takes its present dimensions from countless Janjaweed attacks of the past as well as ongoing threats to non-Arab or African civilians by these brutal militia proxies. We must note, for example, the account recently offered by MSF of events in Shangil Tobaya, North Darfur:

"On July 24, [2005] the MSF team in Shangil Tobaya, in north Darfur, witnessed an attack on the internally displaced persons (IDP) camp located directly next to the MSF clinic. Grenades were used, several shelters in the camp were burned, and hundreds of IDPs were forced to again run for their lives. The MSF team provided medical assistance to 14 people, all of them were civilians with bullet and shrapnel wounds. Four of the injured were children."

In another recent report of Janjaweed violence, the highly reliable Sudan Organization Against Torture (SOAT) "strongly condemns the attack on Amar Jadeed village," an attack that clearly involved the Janjaweed:

"On 19 August 2005, armed men on horseback allegedly attacked and looted Amar Jadeed village, North West of Labado, Shearia province, South Darfur state. The attack took place at approximately 01.00am when the villagers were sleeping. During the attack, three of the villagers were killed and tens were wounded. The militias also looted 630 camels. Following the attack, the militias travelled to the North towards Niteaga, Shearia province where there has been confirmed reports of a gradual build-up of Janjaweed militias in the area."

"The Birgid tribe Administration have reported the attack on Amar Jadeed and the amassing of Janjaweed militias in Niteaga to African Union observers in the region and to the Governor of Shearia, however no action has thus far been taken." (SOAT human rights alert: "Darfur: Attack on Amar Jadeed Village," September 1, 2005)

Too many times such attacks have been reported to the AU with no follow-up; and this is for the simple reason that the AU simply does not have the investigative resources, let alone the protection forces, required by the current levels of violence in Darfur.

The pervasiveness of violence in Darfur is also suggested by MSF, which reports that it,

"continues to treat victims of violence in all locations where it is present in Darfur. ’Our teams are still witnessing repeated violence against the population,’ says Dr. Rowan Gillies, president of MSF International. We are deeply concerned about this and its consequences for our patients and their families.’" ("Doctors Without Borders Alarmed by Ongoing Violence in Darfur," press release, August 5, 2005)

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has also recently made clear the imperative of Janjaweed disarmament:

"’There is one overriding problem that needs to be resolved---that of armed militias [the Janjaweed],’ Niels Scott, head of the Darfur unit of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Khartoum, added. ’We are receiving reports of banditry and armed attacks on a daily basis and these people need to be neutralised,’ he said." (UN IRIN, August 9, 2005)

The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) recently reports that "the security situation in Darfur is deteriorating, with a continuing series of armed robberies target commercial vehicles and nongovernmental organizations"; the same report speaks of "no-go areas in West Darfur," and finds that "the general security situation around IDP camps in South Darfur remains precarious"; "there have also been reports of police and military firing at IDPs while there are collecting firewood" (UNHCR Report on Sudan, August 27, 2005).

Violence in Darfur is increasingly ascribed by observers on the ground to "banditry," involving armed renegades from both the Janjaweed and the insurgency groups; but this does not exculpate Khartoum. The NIF bears responsibility for having created what various UN officials have in moments of honesty described as a "climate of impunity" in Darfur. Such "impunity" continues to be encouraged by Khartoum, which has failed to restrain or disarm the Janjaweed, and has refused to begin meaningful judicial proceedings against those responsible for massive, deliberate civilian destruction. It thus makes no sense for the AU to "condemn the provocative banditry" of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) in the Melam area of South Darfur (UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, September 5, 2005) and not to condemn equally harshly attacks such as those on Shangil Tobaya and Amar Jadeed.

To suggest that attacks by the SLA "cast doubts on the commitment of the [SLA] to the Abuja talks" (PANA, September 3, 2005) is hypocritical without equally frank condemnation of Khartoum for failing to restrain the Janjaweed---as explicitly demanded by UN Security Council Resolution 1556 (July 30, 2004). Here we should also recall Khartoum’s deliberate launching of a major military campaign on the very eve of peace talks in Abuja last December (2004). Nothing has changed in the NIF’s military calculations other than a growing conviction that the genocidal status quo has replaced the need for further such offensives. As Kofi Annan is obliged to note in his July report to the Security Council:

"So many villages have been destroyed since the war began that there are now fewer locations for militia to strike. In addition, the threat of [Janjaweed] attack---on villages or other concentrations of civilian population---persists. [ ] Active combat has been replaced by a suffocating environment of intimidation and fear, perpetuated by ever-present militia." (Paragraph 40)

Despite this assessment, confirmed by all humanitarian organizations on the ground and by numerous independent observers, Darfur is nonetheless described as in "a fragile equilibrium" by Jan Pronk, Kofi Annan’s special representative for Darfur; Baba Gana Kingibe, head of the African Union mission in Sudan speaks of a "security situation on the ground [that] is calm" (UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, July 19, 2005); the Nigerian military head of the AU force in Darfur, Major General Festus Okonkwo, declares that previously savage Janjaweed predations have been reduced to the "snatching of cars and tires" (BBC, July 20, 2005).

This is flatly contradicted by a host of evidence, including that cited above. Such assessments are also sharply rebuked by continuous reports of uncontrolled sexual violence on the part of the Janjaweed, directed now mainly against women and girls in camps for the displaced (where they are 60% of the total population). A UN report released this week is one of several telling accounts:

"Women and girls continue to experience sexual violence in the strife-torn western Sudanese region of Darfur and more needs to be done to prevent such crimes, a joint report by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the UN Children’s Fund said. ’Sexual violence was consistently reported during attacks on villages, but was reported to be continuing even at the time of the study---especially when women and girls left the camps,’ the report said."

"The study mentioned ’physical injuries due to beatings, rape, miscarriages, excessive bleeding or injuries sustained during flight from the enemies’ as some of the health problems cited by women in the focus groups. Sexually transmitted diseases, malnutrition, irregular menstrual cycles and psychological disturbances such as nightmares were also frequently mentioned by women." (UN IRIN, September 6, 2005; URL for report is http://www.humanitarianinfo.org/darfur/)

Though the UN chooses not to speak frankly about the overwhelming responsibility of the Janjaweed for this sexual violence, the victims themselves are quite explicit. MSF’s report on sexual violence in Darfur ("The Crushing Burden of Rape: Sexual Violence in Darfur") offers many examples such as the following:

[from three women of the Fur tribe, 25, 30 and 40, October 2004, West Darfur]:

"We saw five Arab men who came to us and asked where our husbands were. Then they told us that we should have sex with them. We said no. So they beat and raped us. After they abused us, the told us that now we would have Arab babies; and if they would find any Fur, they would rape them again to change the colour of their children.’" ("The Crushing Burden of Rape: Sexual Violence in Darfur," MSF-Holland report, March 2005, page 1, at http://www.artsenzondergrenzen.nl/index.php?pid=338)

Countless such stories continue to be registered by both humanitarian and human rights organizations in Darfur (for example, a recent UN High Commission for Refugees report [August 27, 2005] finds "an alarming rate of sexual assault being reported in the Labado area [South Darfur]." A magisterial overview of the larger issues raised by the used of systematic rape as a weapon of war can be found at:

Tara Gingerich, JD, MA and Jennifer Leaning, MD, SMH, "The Use of Rape as a Weapon of War in the conflict in Darfur, Sudan" (October 2004), prepared for the US Agency for International Development/OTI under the auspices of the Harvard School of Public Health and the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights (at http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/fxbcenter/).

The AU has failed to stem the epidemic of sexual violence in Darfur, and gives no evidence of being able to do so with an additional 2,000 personnel, whenever they may be deployed. Until the camps for displaced persons are secured---and the environs in which girls and women collect firewood, water, and animal fodder---rape will continue to be widely prevalent in Darfur.


Growing violence on the part of uncontrolled or renegade elements of the SLA/M must be condemned in the harshest terms. Attacks such as those reported in the Masteri area of West Darfur by International Aid Services (Sweden) pose an extremely grave threat to humanitarian operations:

"On Thursday afternoon 1st September 2005, International Aid Services (IAS), Tearfund and FAR traveled in a seven-vehicle convoy on the road from Kongo Harasa to El Geneina, West Darfur. On the road between Kongo Harasa and Masteri, they were attacked by a rebel group. The whole team were severely beaten up and harassed by the perpetrators. Several items and personal belongings were taken from the staff and the vehicles during the raid. The team was released after a while and was able to make it back to El Geneina. Within only a month time, IAS has managed to escape one attempt to an attack in the area and this was the second attack carried out on IAS staff in Western Darfur. IAS does not find this acceptable and the violence against civilians must come to an end." (IAS press release, September 5, 2005)

Reporting on evidently the same event, a Reuters dispatch is even more ominous:

"Armed men attacked and robbed an aid convoy travelling in western Darfur and threatened to kill aid workers if they used the same route again, a senior official with one of the aid groups involved said on Saturday. The incident on Thursday in the Masteri area, southwest of El Geneina, was the most serious in a recent spate of attacks against aid vehicles in Sudan’s Darfur region, where rebel groups are fighting the government. ’They (armed men) severely beat the people travelling in the convoy---there were some broken limbs.... They cleaned out the cars. They took phones, money, radios, everything,’ the official told Reuters. ’They threatened to kill the people in the convoy if they saw them travelling on the same road again,’ the official added. ’If this keeps up, we will have deaths,’ said the official, adding that his organisation was suspending operations for a month and staff would remain within the confines of Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, until the group assesses the situation."

"A senior United Nations official working in Darfur said banditry in several areas across Darfur had become the most serious security concern in the region the size of France. ’It is just a matter of good fortune that there have not yet been any deaths,’ [said] Niels Scott, head of the Darfur unit for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs." (Reuters, September 3, 2005)

Of course there have been deaths, to both expatriate and Sudanese humanitarian workers; three such deaths forced the withdrawal last year of the very important organization Save the Children/UK.

There can be absolutely no justification for these actions; condemnation must be without qualification. Even so, violence on the part of evidently uncontrolled elements within the increasingly disorganized insurgency movements only makes more compelling the case for international humanitarian intervention. Whether the threats to aid workers and operations come from the Janjaweed, the insurgency movements, or opportunistic elements on either side, the imperative is to provide security. Without such security we will see more organizations suspending operations, or even withdrawing. The consequences for those civilians now entirely dependent on international humanitarian relief will be catastrophic.

[Ominously, Agence France-Presse reports that the SLA/M will not be attending the Abuja talks, scheduled to reconvene next week (September 15):

"The main rebel group in the war-torn region of Darfur in western Sudan Tuesday [September 6, 2005] demanded the postponement of peace talks with the Khartoum government due to be held in the Nigerian capital next week. ’The movement officially affirms that it will not go to the negotiations before convening its general conference,’ said a statement from the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM). ’The movement is not ready.’"

"SLM leaders said they were planning to organize the conference in Darfur to discuss developments and plot strategy for the future, but they still have to set a date for the gathering." (AFP, September 6, 2005)

This diplomatic disarray on the part of what is by far the larger of the two major insurgency movements augurs extremely poorly for the Abuja negotiations. In short, there is no political solution to the Darfur crisis in prospect, no diplomatic means of ending genocide by attrition. We may be all too sure of the terrible human consequences of relying on the AU force alone to provide security to millions of vulnerable civilians and thousands of humanitarian workers.]


The assessment offered by AU Special Envoy for Darfur, Salim Ahmed Salim---

"Salim expressed his satisfaction with the ’unequivocal commitment of the Sudanese government’ to contribute to the success of the forthcoming round peace talks." (UN IRIN, September 5, 2005)

— -stands in sharp contrast with an especially insightful dispatch from Reuters, speaking to precisely the issue of the NIF’s commitment to peace in southern Sudan and Darfur:

"Sudan’s ruling elite looks unwilling to share power with former southern rebels, despite agreeing to do so in a January peace deal to end Africa’s longest civil war, analysts and diplomats say. ’It seems at the moment that they might be trying to set up a shadow government as advisers inside the presidency,’ a western diplomat in Khartoum told Reuters. ’The signs aren’t good that they are serious about power-sharing.’" (Reuters, September 5, 2005)

This is precisely the concern that many had expressed even prior to the signing of the January 9, 2005 "Comprehensive Peace Agreement" (CPA). The distinguished Sudanese journalist Alfred Taban offers his typically authoritative views:

"’They [the National Islamic Front] were interested in silencing the guns and that’s it,’ said Alfred Taban, chairman of the board of directors of the English-language daily Khartoum Monitor." (Reuters, September 5, 2005)

Though the Darfur insurgents have increasingly fragmented, descending ever more perilously into warlordism, their distrust of the NIF at Abuja and AU mediation in general is hardly misplaced ("rebels say the government is trying to stop the fighting without implementing real change"). And as David Mozersky, senior Sudan analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG), notes, "[the NIF-dominated] government would have to be pushed to put the peace deal into action. ’They won’t do it themselves’" (Reuters, September 5, 2005).

This hardly sounds like Salim’s "unequivocal commitment" to a comprehensive peace for Sudan that includes Darfur.

Beyond these all too persuasive analyses of the NIF-dominated "Government of National Unity," there are the relentless reports of human rights abuses by the NIF security apparatus. Peter Takirambudde, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, recently spoke about the human rights situation in Sudan in the wake of the January 9, 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement:

"’The government [i.e., the NIF regime] promised that the North-South Peace accord would usher in a new day in Sudan, but we have yet to see it in the field of human rights. Beyond the conflict in Darfur, Sudanese across the country still remain at risk of arbitrary arrest, detention and torture.’"

"’Sudan has incorporated the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other human rights treaties into its interim constitution. But such steps will be meaningless if Sudanese citizens continue to suffer arrests, torture, and death sentences after unfair trials.’" (Human Rights Watch press release, September 7, 2005)


For far too long, and with immensely destructive consequences, the AU has downplayed the dimensions of the crisis in Darfur and the urgency of large-scale humanitarian intervention. This is particularly true of Nigeria, which has in many ways led the AU. It was President of Nigeria who declared in February of this year that, "’things are looking greatly better in Darfur,’ [President Olusegun] Obasanjo said." (Agence France-Presse, February 28, 2005).

At the time there were 2.45 million "conflict-affected persons" in Darfur (UN Darfur Humanitarian Profile No. 11 and 12, page 3); presently there are over 3.2 million "conflict-affected persons" (UN Darfur Humanitarian Profile No. 16, page 3). Admissions of young malnourished children to Supplementary Feeding Centers have more than doubled. The UN World Food Program estimates that 3.5 million people currently need food assistance. The chief UNICEF representative in Darfur is reported as estimating there are "more than three million refugees"---presumably a figure for internally displaced persons as well as refugees in eastern Chad (Reuters, August 31, 2005). Insecurity, while evolving in nature, continues to deteriorate. Current excess mortality in Darfur exceeds 6,000 human beings per month (see most recent mortality assessment by this writer, at http://www.sudanreeves.org/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=67&mode=thread&order=0&thold=0).

How are "things looking better in Darfur," President Obasanjo?

It is also Obasanjo who has anchored the troika of Nigeria, Libya, and Egypt, the group which has most insistently declared that Darfur represents "an African problem demanding an African solution." The hollowness of this ultimately self-interested rhetoric in the face of Darfur’s genocide does not prevent it from intimidating far too much of the international community. Here again, the AU is failing Darfur.

The African Union’s first major deployment in Africa is currently a military, political, and moral failure; we do the fledgling and highly promising organization no service by allowing it to compound this present failure in the months ahead. Without vastly increased international resources, including NATO military personnel, genocide by attrition will continue indefinitely in Darfur. Nothing could burden future operations by the AU Peace and Security Commission more onerously than such a legacy.

- Eric Reeves
- Smith College
- Northampton, MA 01063
- Tel. 413-585-3326
- Email. ereeves@smith.edu
- www.sudanreeves.org

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