Darfur rebels bid for cessation at talks in Nigeria

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

M.A. Shaikh

Rajab 16, 1425 2004-09-01


by M.A. Shaikh (World, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 7, Rajab, 1425)

The continuing support for the rebels in Darfur and the relentless blame of the Sudanese government and so-called "Janjaweed militias" for the mayhem by the ‘international community' may reasonably be held responsible for the failure of peace in Sudan's eastern region, which has been in the grip of unrest for a year. The rebels–the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Movement for Justice and Equality (MJE) – have, with Eritrea's direct support, turned their backs on peace initiatives that could have ended the violence. Not only did they withdraw from the peace talks previously held in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), but are now also causing havoc at the current talks, sponsored by the African Union (AU), which opened in Abuja (Nigeria) on August 23. This they have done by rejecting the official agenda and proposing instead their own to serve their not-so-hidden programmes.

As soon as Olusegun Obasanjo, the Nigerian president and current AU chairman, opened the proceedings in Abuja, the two rebel groups rejected the agenda, objecting to the word "containment" (i.e. of the rebels’ arms). They want to hold on to their weapons without any outside interference, and to have only the Janjaweed militias disarmed, as demanded by the UN and Western countries. In his opening speech, Obasanjo called for the disarmament of the Janjaweed and for the collection of rebels' arms, to be followed by African forces going there to bring peace. But even as he was speaking, Western media and Western officials were calling for the disarmament of the Janjaweed by the Sudanese government; they accused it of failure to meet its responsibilities to protect the ‘African' population of Darfur against ‘ethnic cleansing' by the ‘Arab militia' that it has allegedly armed to advance its war on the rebel groups. This was not matched by any call for the rebels to be disarmed or to be forced to negotiate a settlement.

Having rejected the official agenda, one of the rebel groups, the MJE, tabled a "declaration of principles" to serve as the basis of negotiations at the Abuja talks. Among the 15 principles was "a recognition of the ethnic, cultural and religious diversities in Darfur, and the need for a profound alteration of the nature of relations between the central government and the regions". The declaration explained Darfur's ‘problem' as being a political one, directly attributable to the disparities in the share of power and wealth. As the reference to ethnic and religious diversities, and to the need for the distribution of power and wealth, immediately brings to mind the peace-deal between Khartoum and the south– represented by the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) – which grants that region the right to secede after a six-year transition period, the declaration ostensibly advocates also the preservation of Sudanese unity.

The rebels clearly do not want to be accused of seeking secession, mainly not to embarrass their foreign supporters or alienate the people of Darfur, who are predominantly Muslim and have no serious ethnic and cultural problems. The SPLA made similar absurd claims when they demanded autonomy, saying that the south's population is largely composed of Christians, when in fact they are outnumbered by the animists and Muslims there. But the evangelical Christians who control president Bush's foreign policy support the SPLA's claims, and as a result Washington leaned strongly on Khartoum to accept in principle the right of the South to secession and to adopt wealth- and power-sharing agreements during the six-year transition period.

The same US evangelical groups who sought to break up Africa's largest Muslim country by supporting the secession of southern Sudan are also behind the US government's backing for the rebels in eastern Sudan. The constant references by Western leaders and media to the huge size of not only Sudan as a whole but also of Darfur tend to encourage the feeling that it is not unreasonable to divide up this huge country. Jack Straw, the British foreign minister, who began a brief visit to Sudan on August 23, said that the country is the size of Europe and Darfur the size ofFrance. Straw, who said he had visited Darfur to see the conditions of the displaced for himself, said that he had also told president Umar al-Bashir to expedite security arrangements. But, while admitting that the government was improving its performance, and that it was for the UN secretary general to decide whether Khartoum was meeting the conditions of the Security Council resolution, Straw did not refer to the role of the rebels and their need to comply with international law.

Nor did Straw, who claims to be concerned about Sudan's security and prosperity, refer to the role of the Eritrean government in the destabilisation of its neighbour. The Eritrean government is training the Beja Congress group on its own territory. The Congress, which has been fightingKhartoum's army sporadically since 1990, belongs to the Beja tribe in Eastern Sudan but is also linked to the Darfur rebels – no doubt encouraged by Asmara. But although Britain is not directly encouraging Asmara to arm and train the Beja Congress, the US government is known to be backing its effort. The group is not a serious threat itself but, backed by a foreign government, it can destabilise the Eastern region, cutting off Port Sudan, the country's most important port, by attacking the highway linking it to Khartoum.

The enemies of Islam and Muslims, who often describe president Bashir as an ‘Islamist' and sometimes as a ‘terrorist', and his government as ‘Islamic', will doubtless exploit these problems to break up Sudan. That explains the optimism of the Darfur rebels, who have undeclared secessionist agendas. Unless Muslim and Arab countries come to Sudan's aid strongly and publicly, Darfur will be heading for secession. Sudan is a member of the AU, the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Congress (OIC), but the AU alone is dealing with the issue. The absurdity of the role the Arab League pretends to play was made plain when Amr Musa, its Egyptian secretary general, announced in late August merely that he had written to all members to dispatch immediate food aid to the refugees in Darfur.

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