Contrived and Disingenuous Optimism by African Union and UN Officials
In its eight-year battle to turn Darfur into a "black box," Khartoum is finally prevailing. The National Islamic Front/National Congress Party (NIF/NCP) little expected that the genocidal counterinsurgency war it launched in April 2003 would capture so much of the world’s attention—or that it would galvanize an extraordinary advocacy movement, which in turn helped prompt deployment of what was at the time the world’s largest humanitarian operation. Regular and informed reports from Reuters and other newswires; substantial newspaper accounts, with significant datelines in Darfur; regular human rights reports; accounts from humanitarian organizations, particularly about the epidemic of rape; the UN-authorized Darfur Panel of Experts reporting on aerial attacks by Khartoum, each a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1591 (March 2005)—all made it impossible for even a modestly attentive consumer of news to miss the human catastrophe that was unfolding in Darfur.
Today Darfur is largely invisible except for Radio Dabanga, the occasional report from Human Rights Watch—and the relentlessly disingenuous commentary that comes from UN and African Union officials. Indeed, comments by Georg Charpentier (the chief UN humanitarian official in Sudan) have either been misleading or outright lies; he has distorted through omission and has consistently failed to speak forthrightly about humanitarian conditions experienced by the people in Darfur and neighboring eastern Chad. I have detailed at length Charpentier’s dishonesty previously, and will observe only that nothing has changed.
But if the international community is not broadly informed about how bad conditions in Darfur are, then the chances for renewed and demanding international engagement are small. This does much to explain the absurd over-selling of the "peace agreement" signed in Doha (Qatar) on July 15 by one small, cobbled together, unrepresentative, and politically and militarily powerless "rebel" group, the so-called "Liberation and Justice Movement" (LJM, actually an ad hoc amalgamation of very small splinter factions brought together in two groupings, one by former U.S. special envoy Scott Gration and the other by Libyan strongman Muamar Gaddafi). As Sudan analyst Laura Jones recently argued in The Christian Science Monitor (on-line), the LJM is a "rebel group with limited political or military influence on the ground and little support from Darfuris." Even more dangerously, the Doha "agreement" gives Khartoum an excuse to refuse further negotiations, thus excluding the more powerful rebel groups. Instancing the Justice and Equality Movement, which had offered significant changes to the draft text in Doha, Jones rightly points out:
"True to form, the [Khartoum] government is thus removing the possibility of meaningful negotiations with a group whose buy-in is necessary for ending conflict in Darfur, while claiming that it is genuinely seeking peace."
Sadly, this was all too evident from the beginning of the "Doha process," as I argued early in early 2009("The Qatar ‘Peace Process’: Less Than Meets the Eye," Sudan Tribune, February 9, 2009). The Doha process has been most aptly described as "the Abuja process re-played as farce" (the compromised Abuja negotiations yielded the fatally flawed "Darfur Peace Agreement," May 2006). Even more ominously, the agreement gives Khartoum a clear go-ahead for its "New Strategy for Darfur," first promulgated last September and offering an exceedingly ugly final solution to issues in Darfur. As Jones persuasively argues,
"By claiming that it legitimately engaged in the Doha process and signed a peace document, the government will likely feel it has legitimate grounds to push for the ‘next phase,’ which is engagement in Darfur. This approach has gotten some degree of support from the likes of Ibrahim Gambari, the African Union-United Nations Joint Special Representative for Darfur and the new interim joint mediator, who is pushing a similar move known at the Darfur Political Process, or DPP. Yet moving the peace process inside Darfur only facilitates government manipulation and avoids any sort of international oversight or criticism. The opening for anew internal process that the signing provides could therefore work against the prospects for long-term peace and stability."
I discussed in some detail this "New Strategy for Darfur"—the "domestication" of the peace process—at the time it was officially made policy by Khartoum. Too much of my grim prognostication is now playing out.
Notably, Jones highlights Ibrahim Gambari’s support for the "new strategy" (here given the more neutral and unrevealing name of the "Darfur Political Process." Gambari, who is both incompetent and dishonest, is also particularly important, as he is now the interim UN/AU special mediator for Darfur negotiations—a job Gambari has been grabbing at for many months(unsurprisingly, he has the full support of the African Union Peace and Security Council). In the nasty infighting between Gambari, Thabo Mbeki, and the overmatched former joint mediator Djibril Bassolé—unseemly squabbling reported to me in appalling detail by an observer at Doha—Gambari has prevailed in seizing the Darfur portfolio.
His comments as a consequence take on a particular significance, since he is also still functioning as head of the painfully ineffectual UN/AU Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) and as a consequence must take responsibility for much of the peacekeeping mission’s failures. But let’s first look back to his predecessor, Rodolphe Adada, and the military commander of UNMID at the time Adada stepped down (August 2009). On the occasion, the two departing leaders claimed that the war in Darfur was over, and had devolved into a "low-intensity" security problem. General Martin Agwai, the Nigerian force commander, declared that "as of today, I would not say there is a war going on in Darfur," but rather "very low intensity" engagements. "What you have is security issues more now. Banditry, localised issues…" Rodolphe Adada of Congo, Gambari’s fatuous predecessor, declared arrogantly, "I have achieved results" in Darfur. "There is no more fighting proper on the ground.""Right now there is no high-intensity conflict in Darfur…. Call it what you will but this is what is happening in Darfur—a lot of banditry, carjacking, attacks on houses."
How to put these claims in context? Let’s look first at human displacement, since it is so closely tied to violence against civilians in Darfur. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated that in 2007—when UNAMID began to build on the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) force already in place—300,000 people were newly displaced. In 2008, the first year in which UNAMID had a UN mandate as a force in its own right, OCHA estimated that 317,000 people were newly displaced. And for 2009, the Canadian "Peace Operations Monitor" found evidence that suggested "over 214,000 people were newly displaced between January and June  alone." The total for this period of UNAMID deployment and execution of mandate, under Adada and Agwai, is thus well over 800,000. Nothing could belie more completely their August 2009claim that security issues were "low-intensity" or that the only violence was merely "banditry," "carjacking," and break-in’s.
Moreover, the assessments by Agwai and Adada completely failed to anticipate the violence initiated by Khartoum’s Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) the very next month in the Korma region northwest of el-Fasher in North Darfur. A significant military offensive by the SAF and its Janjaweed militia forces began in early September, newly displacing thousands of civilians, many of whose needs were not assessed by UNAMID or humanitarian organizations for an unconscionable period of time. UNAMID leaders, then as now, were simply unwilling to demand access from Khartoum, and this encouraged believe many rebel leaders to believe that UNAMID was actually complicit with the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). At the end of September 2009, I detailed the scale of the violence Adada and Agwai had so blithely characterized, and the account in no way comported with their characterizations.
Most consequentially unanticipated by Adada and Agwai, though all too clearly threatening, was the complete breakdown of the feeble Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA); the last vestige of the agreement collapsed in late 2010, when the only rebel DPA signatory, Minni Minawi, finally had enough of the sham in which he was participating and left the regime. Fighting broke out almost immediately, and on December 10, 2010 violence exploded in the Khor Abeche area, as Khartoum launched a massive military campaign that is still underway (Zaghawa civilians, Minawi’s ethnic group, are particular targets). This entailed relentless aerial bombardment of civilian targets: there were approximately 75 confirmed attacks against civilians in Darfur in 2009, and so far this year there have been more than 90 such attacks, with a great many casualties (see www.sudanbombing.org).
So how has Ibrahim Gambari reckoned with the perversely inaccurate accounts of his predecessors? With misleading and self-congratulatory language of his own:
"’Ongoing intermittent clashes continue to adversely affect the humanitarian situation’ displacing some 60,000 to 70,000 people, said Gambari, the UN special representative to the African Union said. But he added that ‘considerable progress’ has been made since May during negotiations in Doha between the Sudanese government in Khartoum and the rebels. ‘Clashes and displacements are now on the decrease,’ said Gambari. ‘Every effort should be made for reaching a ceasefire. The imperative of peace is now, as the people have suffered far too long and far too deeply.’" (Agence France-Presse, July 22, 2011) [N.B. A much more plausible estimate of the number of displaced, since mid-December 2010 to the present, is the figure used by Radio Dabanga: 140,000.]
For all the reasons suggested above, there is good reason to believe that Doha will more likely hinder than advance the peace process. The "considerable progress" Gambari speaks of is purely a reflection of efforts to cement his role as permanent UN/AU representative for these negotiations (never mind the unending failures of leadership during his tenure as head of UNAMID). There is, in fact, no real progress and the rejection of the Doha agreement by rebel groups with military and political clout has been complete—as it has been by the majority of Darfuris, and virtually all Darfuris who are refugees in Chad, where their freedom to speak is not threatened by the omnipresent security services in the towns and camps of Darfur itself.
"Clashes and displacements are now on the decrease": how would Gambari know? UNAMID has been repeatedly denied access to key sites of fighting. In mid-May when there were several immensely destructive bombing raids on towns and villages in North and South Darfur (see below), UNAMID was denied access, as it has so often been, including to most of the populous Jebel Marra, the embattled rebel-held mountain stronghold in the center of Darfur. In short, what Gambari offers is a chilling echo of Agwai’s claim that in Darfur there were only "very low intensity engagements," and Adada’s self-serving claim:"’I have achieved results in Darfur.’ ‘There is no more fighting proper on the ground.’ ‘Right now there is no high-intensity conflict in Darfur.’"
But Gambari is also generating his own catalog of absurd pronouncements. In addition to his claim that violence is "diminishing" (again, how would he know, given UNAMID’s extreme limitations?), he has also offered some of the more perverse examples of "moral equivalence"; in mid-May, in the immediate wake of Khartoum’s savage aerial attacks on civilian targets, Gambari is reported as,
"…express[ing] concern over the air strikes. ‘I call upon all parties to exercise the utmost restraint in the use of lethal force,’ he said. Non-government groups and UN agencies operating in south Sudan were told Tuesday by the Sudanese government that they would be limited to a zone of 15 kilometers (10 miles) around the town of Nyala, UNAMID said." (Reuters [dateline: Khartoum], May 23, 2011)
In response to deadly aerial attacks by the only party to the conflict with an air force, attacks that inflicted a great many civilian casualties, Gambari "calls upon all parties to exercise restraint in the use of lethal force," and acquiesces before Khartoum’s refusal to allow these atrocity crimes to be investigated by UNAMID. It’s not hard to see why so many Darfuris, and rebel leaders, despise Gambari.
An even more disingenuous account is offered by Gambari in his assessment of violent mortality in Darfur:
"’If you look at the statistics, between January and May, just over 400 people have been killed by armed conflict in Darfur. If you compare it with south Sudan over the same period, they say 1,200 people have been killed by armed conflict,’ Gambari told reporters." (Agence France-Presse [dateline: Khartoum], June 27, 2011)
And what is this figure of"400 killed by armed conflict" between January and May based on? It is simply UNAMID’s total of those violent deaths it was actually able to confirm by physical investigation; given the extremely limited access (for example, to the May bombings that killed or wounded many dozens), this figure is utterly without meaning. With such severe constraints on access, the figure can’t possibly be representative. Here we should recall the massacre at the village market of Tabarat, North Darfur, on September 2, 2010.Some fifty men and boys were killed, at point blank range, by Janjaweed militia, armed and supplied by Khartoum. A series of interviews with survivors by a Reuters correspondent suggests how extraordinarily brutal the attack was:
"Five survivors of the attack told Reuters that heavily armed Arab militia had targeted male victims and shot many at point blank range."
"[M]en were rounded up by militia wearing military uniforms who rode into the market on horses and camels pretending to be buying goods before spraying the shops with gunfire. Then vehicles mounted with machine guns and carrying militia fighters appeared and rounded up some of the men, survivors said. ‘They laid them down and they came up close and shot them in their heads,’ Abakr Abdelkarim, 45, told Reuters by telephone from the town of Tawilla, where many of the victims had sought refuge and medical help. ‘ (Those killed) were all men and one woman—some men were tied with rope behind the cars and dragged until they died.’"
"[Witnesses] said after the attack they had gone to the joint UN-African Union (UNAMID) peacekeeping base in Tawilla to ask peacekeepers to come to Tabarat but they refused. ‘They also refused to come and help us recover the bodies,’ [Adam] Saleh added."
Not only did UNAMID refuse to move from their base at nearby Tawila to protect civilians (their key mandate), not only did they not help recover the bodies of the dead, but they allowed Khartoum to block their investigators for many days, certainly time enough to sanitize the atrocity crime scene. To this day there is no public account from UNAMID or Gambari about the Tabarat incident, the perpetrators, or the number killed and wounded. How can we possibly take UNAMID casualty figures seriously? Most consequentially, Gambari’s figure of "400 killed" does not include casualties that are directly war-related, even if the deaths are from malnutrition, disease, and lack of water. His is a disgracefully incomplete account, and works to push Darfur further into the shadows.
Despite the efforts of men like Gambari, Adada, and Charpentier, there is great deal of news about Darfur coming from Radio Dabanga and occasionally a human rights report or humanitarian assessment based on the bits of information that do leak out. I assembled much of the information available on humanitarian conditions in January 2011, and it makes for extremely grim reading. Human Rights Watch reported in late January and again in June on the violence and human rights abuses that prevail in Darfur; the first of these reports does not comport at all well with Gambari’s optimism about the level of violence in Darfur:
"Sudanese government and rebel attacks on civilians in Darfur have dramatically increased in recent weeks without signs of abating, Human Rights Watch said today [January 28,2011]."
But without question, the single most important news source—both for the consequences of violence and for specific humanitarian conditions—is Radio Dabanga, particularly in keeping before us the reality of an ongoing epidemic of rape (an issue never discussed seriously by UN officials, including Gambari) and bombing attacks on civilians (conspicuously contravening the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 1591) with each attack). The Khartoum regime is predictably infuriated by their reporting efforts, and has arrested a number of people associated with Radio Dabanga, part of a relentless crackdown on the exceedingly limited press freedoms in North Sudan. But still, with remarkable resourcefulness and dedication, Radio Dabanga remains the voice of the people of Darfur. If others are content to let Darfuris struggle on their own, or with the help of disingenuous and callous international diplomatic "assistance"(Gambari and Mbeki are far from alone), Radio Dabanga is a distinct voice of honesty.
For example, on the extremely sensitive issue of the returns of displaced persons to their lands and villages, Khartoum’s "New Strategy for Darfur" is extremely aggressive, primarily because this would eventually remove the raison d’êtref or an international humanitarian presence. But humanitarians have worried since 2004 about the consequences of returns that are not voluntary and secure, something that was certainly not of concern to former Minister of the Interior (and now Minister of Defense) Abdel Rahmin Mohamed Hussein. Hussein was pushing for returns even as genocidal violence was still substantial. But returns have also been pushed by some in the international community, including former U.S special envoy Gration, who "strongly supported" Khartoum’s "New Strategy," as did AU representative Thabo Mbeki. And what do we know of the very few returns that have taken place? The UN and AU insist on overselling the fact of even these few returns; inevitably, it falls to Radio Dabanga to give us meaningful accounts of what these returns confront, this reported on July 26, 2011:
Voluntary Repatriation: 7 families found in a critical state
"Meanwhile, 7 families who came back to the Guido region in the framework of the Sudanese Government’s voluntary repatriation initiative were found in an extremely worrying state. Witnesses told Radio Dabanga that they were part of 25 families who left Kalma Camp (South Darfur) as a part of the Voluntary Return program. However, the journey was too dangerous, and 18 families were forced to travel back to their original camp in South Darfur. Furthermore, they reported to Radio Dabanga that the remaining families did not receive any support from the province of West Darfur, even though it organized the deportation. They now call for international action to save these families, who are currently in a critical state."
(In the same Radio Dabanga dispatch): "Complaining farmers from Guido Camp (near Garsila, West-Darfur) pointed out the deliberate destruction of their farms by shepherds [i.e., nomadic Arab herders]. According to them, the shepherds intentionally set out their cows [i.e., cattle, as opposed to camels] in the farms, setting chaos and destructing their properties. Protesters are immediately beaten up, and women are raped, making them reluctant to return to their fields. Several female farmers reported the incidents to the local authorities, but no action was apparently taken. They now call on UNAMID and the United Nations to provide them with the necessary protection."("Guido Region: reports of farmer attacks, rapes and failed repatriations," Radio Dabanga, July 26, 2011)
We hear nothing of this from UNAMID or the UN, even as this example is quite telling of the difficulties that will confront any returns, voluntary or otherwise.
The remainder of this account is posted separately as Part 2: it is a selection of headlines and brief story lines from the most recent few months, working roughly backwards in chronological order, with some grouping by subject (occasionally other news sources are cited to give further context to what Radio Dabanga has reported). It is quite long, but I cannot apologize for including so much, even as it is only a portion of what has been reported by Radio Dabanga. Virtually none of these accounts has been assessed by UNAMID.
These are the lives Darfuris actually live, not the statistically contrived misrepresentations proffered by the UN, which in turn seem sufficient for those content to see Darfur "de-coupled" from larger concerns in Sudan.[End of Part 1]
Eric Reeves has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade. He is author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.