Meeting of 350 Darfuris on May 12 in Addis Ababa for talks to produce "Mandate Darfur" backed by Mo Ibrahim's foundation
Source: The Economist
Behind the defiance, a whirr of diplomacy
May 7, 2009
President Omar al-Bashir growls at the West for wanting him tried for alleged war crimes in an international court. But diplomacy is intensifying behind the scenesUPDATE: See Sudan Watch, Friday, May 08, 2009: "Mandate Darfur" conference backed by Mo Ibrahim Foundation may be cancelled
TWO months after the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague issued an arrest warrant for Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, for alleged war crimes in his country’s battered western region of Darfur, he seems to be sitting pretty. He has remained entirely unapologetic for the deaths of some 300,000 of his compatriots. On the day the indictment was announced he expelled 13 Western aid agencies which had been trying to keep Darfur’s 2.7m displaced people alive. He continues to denounce the court as a tool of Western neo-imperialism. He has gone on very public trips to friendly neighbouring countries, such as Egypt and Ethiopia. And he was hailed as a hero at a summit of the 22-country Arab League in Qatar, an ally of the West. In sum, he has demonstrated that the arm of the ICC’s law is embarrassingly short.
But beneath the surface, things have been less simple, less predictable and less easy for Mr Bashir. Many expected his government to lash out at its enemies, real or imagined, even more fiercely. After its initial huff and puff, it has not done so. In truth, Sudan’s rulers have been rattled by the indictment. As a result, they have been trying anew to ingratiate themselves with the West and with governments farther afield on a range of issues, all in the hope of persuading the UN Security Council to ask the ICC to suspend its indictment, which it has the power to do, for a year at a time. Despite the Sudanese government’s defiant rhetoric and the expulsion of the aid agencies, it has quietly shifted on several points. It can change tack again, as it has before. But it is plainly not immovable.
For a start, a month after the expulsion of the aid agencies, Sudan’s government announced it would honour its promise to hold a general election, albeit a bit later than expected, in February 2010. Under a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in 2005 with former rebels in the south who had been fighting for autonomy or secession for most of the past four decades, nationwide elections were supposed to be held this year. Some opposition politicians expected the beleaguered Mr Bashir, enraged by the indictment, to junk the American-brokered CPA and to break his election promise. But his refusal to do so hints at a reluctance to burn all his diplomatic bridges with the West.
If all goes well, the elections will be the first fully democratic ones since 1986, three years before Mr Bashir came to power in a coup. There are still many pitfalls, not least the compilation of a voters’ register that everyone can agree on. But assuming the poll is held, Mr Bashir and his National Congress Party might conceivably lose the presidency to Salva Kiir, the leader and likely candidate of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the southerners’ former rebel group.
And there have been flickers of hope over Darfur itself. After the indictment, Mr Bashir’s government and one of the biggest rebel groups in Darfur, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), broke off negotiations that had just begun, for the first time in years, in Qatar’s capital, Doha. But those talks have lately resumed. It would be better if all the various Darfuri rebel factions were involved. But negotiating with the best-armed lot is better than nothing.
Hopes of a successful outcome were raised on May 3rd when the governments of Sudan and Chad, its western neighbour, agreed to normalise relations after talks brokered by Qatar and Libya. Chad’s government has often stirred the pot in Darfur by arming and backing JEM.
This diplomatic spurt has been encouraged by America’s new envoy to Sudan, an energetic former air-force general, Scott Gration, who has been advising Barack Obama on African affairs for several years. Unlike his two predecessors, Mr Gration has been appointed as a full-time envoy, stressing Mr Obama’s eagerness to help make peace in Darfur. Mr Gration was born in Congo to missionary parents, speaks Swahili and knows the region well.
Above all, Sudan’s government still craves normal diplomatic ties with America and yearns to be taken off the State Department’s list of sponsors of terror. This is the West’s strongest lever for persuading Mr Bashir to end his military campaign in Darfur and to meet his obligations under the CPA, such as holding elections.
Some hope is also being invested in an initiative by civic groups in Darfur, backed by a foundation set up in London by Mo Ibrahim, a British mobile-phone tycoon of Sudanese origin. About 350 Darfuris are due to gather on May 12th in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, for five days of talks intended to produce what they are calling “Mandate Darfur”. This should outline what Darfuris would like to see in a peace deal with the Sudanese government in Khartoum. The meeting offers a chance for non-party Darfuris to circumvent the posturing of the score of fractious rebel groups that often stand for no one but themselves and invariably foster discord.
All these initiatives may lead nowhere. Sudan has long seemed inclined to fragmentation and conflict. No sooner had Chad signed its latest pact with Sudan than it accused Mr Bashir’s army of launching an attack across the border, which the Sudanese denied. By the same token, JEM was reluctant to attend the meeting in Qatar, but Mr Gration persuaded it to do so.
Since the turn of the year, fighting—between government forces and the rebels, and between tribes and rebel factions in the ravaged west—has been sporadic. Supplies of food and medicine left behind by the foreign agencies have nearly run out. But at least people are talking. And Sudan’s prickly government is giving a little ground, despite—or perhaps even because of—that controversial ICC indictment.