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Doha: Darfur’s hope?


Next Monday the Doha peace process enters a new phase with the planned direct talks between the Sudanese government and some Darfur rebel groups. Although it is quite miraculous that four years after the failed Abuja agreement direct talks between both adversaries can take place, the perspectives are above all pessimistic. Not only the National Congress Party (NCP) is unwilling to settle the conflict before the national elections, which are scheduled for April later this year, the agendas and demands of the Bashir government and the various Darfur rebel groups differ too much to cherish any hope for an agreement that at least aspires some kind of relief for the troubled region. There are multiple reasons why Darfur’s people should not expect salvation of the peace talks in Doha.

Firstly, Khartoum refuses to negotiate a final settlement, at least not before April’s national elections. The NCP manipulated the census (hold between April and May 2008) and the upcoming national elections in such a way that its victory is almost guaranteed. Electoral boundaries based on the results of the census isolate major constituencies (largely non-NCP votes1) and give non-Arabs (Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit) little chance to obtain high-level positions in the any of Darfur’s three states. As a result alternative, pro-NCP but less legitimate Darfur leaders will be chosen, and the NCP would accomplish its goal, namely the consolidation of its power in Northern Sudan. Darfur’s main rebel groups, JEM (Justice and Equality Movement), rejected the results of the census and any form of elections that is organized on it. That Khartoum is not considering to install peace in Darfur is further demonstrated through the recent air and land attacks carried out by Sudanese government troops and militias in North Darfur and Jebel Marra, homeland of Abdel Wahid al-Nur’s rebels.

Secondly, the main rebel groups remain loyal to their agendas outlined at the beginning of the insurgency. They want not only national senior positions for Darfurians –they seek the second vice president post-, but also an unified Darfur region and a redistribution of Sudan’s wealth. Hence, in contrast to Minni Minawi, leader of one faction of the SLA (Sudanese Liberation Army), they will not bend for Khartoum in return for a senior post and a cheque.

Thirdly, the Darfur rebel groups don’t form a block and hence fail to put considerable pressure on Khartoum to sign a serious peace deal. Although since the start of the rebellion there was disagreement between the two main rebel groups, JEM and SLA/M, internal divisions have increased in such a matter that there is a complete fragmentation of the rebel forces and a growing loss of popular support for their cause. Conscious of being the strongest military force, Khalil Ibrahim and his JEM, increasingly distance themselves from the other rebel groups and Darfur’s civil society by claiming to be the Darfur’s sole representative and objecting the participation of other rebel movements and Darfur social groups as IDP’s, women, traditional community leaders, Arabs, refugees in Eastern Chad and the Diaspora. The other main rebel group, the SLA fraction of Abdel Wahid al-Nur, lost considerable influence on the ground, certainly military, due to various splits. In contrary to the other SLA fraction of Minni Minawi, al-Nur is not willing to compromise on his agenda. Since the failed Abuja deal, he rejects to join any peace talks with Khartoum as long there is no disarmament of the government supported militias and the guarantee of a safe return of Darfur’s IDP’s to their homeland. Other rebel groups control small pockets of territory and there are genuine doubts about their capacity and will to enforce a possible agreement, as well about their ‘raison d’être’ –they combat the political, socio-economical marginalization of Darfur (like the SLA fraction of Abdel Wahid and JEM) or their only aim is to profit from the conflict’s economic opportunities?

Fourthly, on the 17 of February 2009, JEM and the Sudanese government signed the goodwill and confidence building agreement in Doha in which they promised to release prisoners of war and political detainees from both sides. The agreement also stated that Khartoum would facilitate the work of humanitarian organizations to deliver food and humanitarian assistance to Darfur’s IDP’s. Instead the NCP expelled the main international humanitarian organizations that provided aid to Darfur’s IDP’s and sentenced JEM’s prisoners of war to death, while JEM has fulfilled all terms of the agreement. Hence, taking into account that this agreement was only signed between two parties and discussed relative uncomplicated matters, there is little hope that Doha delivers a viable peace deal given that there are a lot more actors invoked, following very different agenda’s and discussing a very complex conflict as Darfur.
Fifthly, whatever the outcome of Doha, the future of Darfur depends largely on Chad’s domestic political situation and the long-running conflict between N’Djamena and Khartoum. For decades both states fight a proxy-war, using Darfur as staging ground for their proxies. The NCP trains and arms various Chadian rebel groups in Darfur and uses the vast region to launch bold attacks on Chad’s capital, N’Djamena. As well they are used as auxiliaries in NCP’s counter-insurgency in Darfur. The same counts for Idriss Déby’s regime who uses Darfur rebel groups, in particular JEM, to counter the Chadian insurgent groups and to topple the NCP regime. Although last months there is a normalization in the bilateral relations of Sudan and Chad, resulting in an agreement to deploy next month a joint force to patrol the troubled border; both regimes have a great record of broken promises and non-fulfilling agreements.

In contrary to the last failed attempt to reach a peace deal (at Sirte in October 2007), the African Union-United Nations mediation team performed its job well this time. It prepared cautiously and intensively the peace talks, organizing numerous consultation meetings with rebels and the Sudanese government without putting pressure on the former to participate in the peace process. As well there were consultation meetings with Darfur’s civil society groups and their presence in Doha is assured, as well those of the United States, the European Union, the Arab League and the African Union. The big absent is however China. China is for years Sudan single most important trade partner and international protector. If there is one state that has a considerable influence on the NCP and can force Bashir into signing a viable peace deal, it would be China.

Concluding, seeing through the beautiful rhetoric statements made in Qatar’s capital, there should be no hope for a breakthrough. Overlooking the facts on the ground, the interests of the key players and the complexity of the conflict, the best the Doha process might deliver is yet another temporary cessation of hostilities. Meanwhile Darfur keeps on burning, forcing the overwhelming majority of its civilians to a survival struggle. But hell what, they have been doing it already for three decades.


1.- Many Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa (non-Arabs) were not counted because they are in IDP camps or areas controlled by rebel movements. Neither Darfur’s refugees in Chad are included.

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