Andrew Natsios, America’s special envoy to Sudan, has warned that the Bush administration will resort to an unspecified “Plan B if the Sudanese government does not agree to an expanded international peacekeeping force for Darfur by January 1, 2007. Natsios and other US officials have refused to say what Plan B is. The whisper in Washington, and in US embassies in the region, is that there isn’t one: “Plan B is merely the latest in a series of empty threats that have failed to make any impression at all on the people responsible for most of the killing in Darfur. But “What is Plan B? is the wrong question. So, too, is: “Is there a Plan B? The question that really needs asking is: “What was – is – Plan A? The bitter truth is that there has never been a Plan A. In common with the rest of the international community, the United States has never had a plan that looked more than a few weeks ahead. The fate of Darfur and its 7 million inhabitants has been left in the hands of the hopelessly under-resourced and inexperienced African Union (AU). This has resulted in woefully inadequate protection for the people of Darfur and a peace agreement that is rejected by most of the people and most of the rebel factions. Last but not least, it has meant that there has been someone else to blame when things go wrong.
We are witnessing what is arguably the most critical moment in the history of independent Sudan. The conflict in Darfur has spread not just to Chad, but also to the Central African Republic, threatening to destabilize the entire region. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended two decades of war in southern Sudan is coming apart at the seams and, with it, hopes – and promises – for democratization across Sudan. In Darfur itself, Khartoum is once again attempting to defeat the rebels by military force directed against the tribes accused of supporting them. Four million people – more than half the region’s population – are reliant on aid for their survival. Another half a million are beyond the reach of aid. So here’s a plan: First, ensure the rapid appointment of the joint AU-United Nations special representative for Sudan decided upon at last week’s meeting of the AU’s Peace and Security Council. The AU has been headless in Sudan since the departure of its first special representative, Baba Gana Kingibe, more than two months ago. Kingibe’s successor must have what Kingibe didn’t have (largely through his own fault): a functioning secretariat and support from political and strategy advisors with real understanding of Darfur. Second, get a ceasefire. Debating which peacekeeping force should assume responsibility for Darfur is an exercise in futility as long as there is no peace to keep. After the Darfur Peace Agreement was signed in Abuja on May 5, the Darfur Ceasefire Commission was transformed into an implementation committee for the DPA and non-signatories were thrown off it. The Ceasefire Commission must now be reconstituted, from all those involved in the fighting, and sit permanently. Both sides could see advantage in this today. Despite massive reinforcements in recent months, Khartoum has suffered a string of battlefield defeats that have left large amounts of arms and ammunition in rebel hands and weakened the morale of the Sudan Armed Forces. With President Idriss Deby’s regime in Chad ripe to fall at any moment, rebel factions who enjoy Chadian support may well welcome a way back into the political game from which they have been excluded ever since Abuja shut up shop. Third, support a meeting – in Darfur – of commanders from the factions which have not endorsed the DPA, to enable them to come up with a common platform for fresh talks and to staunch the splintering of the rebel movement. This is playing into government hands by weakening the opposition. The all-important rebel groups who are fighting government forces in North Darfur are adamant that they will not engage in new talks without first forging a common position among themselves. (A first attempt, in the Bir Maza area in mid-November, failed after the government attacked the area.) Salim Ahmed Salim, the AU’s special envoy for Darfur, said last week that Khartoum wants to address the concerns of the non-signatories of Abuja in order to “bring them all on board . This is putting the horse before the cart. The commanders’ conference must precede Abuja II – whoever hosts it this time around. Fourth, go back to the DPA. Forget semantics. If “re-open and “re-negotiate offend, speak of “additional protocols. Use whatever language is necessary to remedy the errors and omissions of the agreement and to significantly broaden support for it. Its power-sharing provisions at the regional level are abysmal and time pressure at Abuja cut short a number of key discussions on how to disarm militias. Darfur is not a homogenous lump. Not all the militias in Darfur are what are commonly referred to as Janjaweed – fully fledged government proxies. Some are purely tribal and owe no allegiance whatsoever to the government. To make Darfur safe, what is needed is a longer process of voluntary, reciprocal disarmament in which all tribal leaders have a say. Fifth, pay (long overdue) attention to Arabs of Darfur. The Abbala, the Arab camel nomads of North Darfur, have always been the most vulnerable, the most neglected, of Darfur’s many communities. For many, recruitment into the Janjaweed, which carries with it monthly remuneration, has been a survival mechanism carried to genocidal extremes. Woo impoverished Abbala away from dependence on a government that has always despised them with development projects and livelihood strategies. Sixth, let the International Criminal Court take care of the bad guys. Support it in all possible ways. That’s for starters. There is no quick and easy answer to the tragic mess Darfur has been allowed to become, while cries of “Never again! stand in for solutions. Be sure that Khartoum knows a red herring when it sees one. “Plan B is not keeping it awake at night.
Julie Flint has written extensively on Sudan. She is the author, with Alex de Waal, of “Darfur: A Short History of a Long War. She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.