Will the UN occupy Darfur?

Significant changes are currently taking place on the ground in Darfur. The peacekeeping forces of the African Union (AU) are being replaced by a hybrid AU-UN force under overall UN control. The assumption is that the change will be for the better, but this is questionable.
The balance between the military and political dimensions of peacekeeping is crucial.

Once it had overcome its teething problems—and before it ran into major funding difficulties—the AU got this relationship right: it privileged the politics, where the UN has tended to privilege the military dimension, which is why the UN-controlled hybrid force runs the risk of becoming an occupation force.

The AU’s involvement in Darfur began a year after the start of the insurgency, when in April 2004 it brokered the N’djamena Humanitarian Ceasefire Agreement between the Sudanese government and the rebel movements. The result was the setting up of the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS), which started with a group of 60 observers in June 2004, and expanded to 3 605 by the end of the year: 450 observers, 2 341 soldiers and 814 police officers.

The troops came from six countries—Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Senegal, Gambia and Kenya—and the police from Ghana. A Joint Assessment Mission, led by the AU with participants from the UN, the EU and Canada, followed in March 2005. It called for an increase in the numbers of soldiers and police to a total of roughly 8 000.

One member of the assessment team was Major General Henry Anyidoho from Ghana, who was UN deputy force commander in Rwanda at the time of the genocide. I met him in Khartoum in May this year and asked what he thought of AMIS. “I got to Darfur in January 2005,” he said. “I found out they were doing an incredibly good job. First, the rebel movements were still intact, so it was easy to deal with the government and the two rebel movements. Second, the Janjaweed were pretty well under control. Third, the ceasefire agreement was being observed.” This positive view was shared by Refugees International, which reported in November 2005 that earlier in the year, AMIS had been able to provide some security and deterrence.

By the time the Refugees International report appeared, however, it was clear that the rebel movements were beginning to split. The difficulty for the AU now was how to get all these groups together, but it remained committed to a political solution, knowing that only a renegotiated ceasefire would provide protection for civilians in Darfur.

Another unfortunate development was that support for AMIS from Western donor countries began to weaken just as the going got rough.

“Donors call the shots,” Anyidoho told me. “When donor fatigue set in, the world began calling for UN forces. The AU force has not been paid since January 2007. It is short of aviation fuel from time to time. Donors have provided the AU with commercial, not military, helicopters, so the pilots must decide whether or not to go to an area.” In July, when I made my second visit this year to Sudan, the AU force still hadn’t been paid. AMIS has faced a series of problems of this sort.

The AU had assumed that the ceasefire would be observed by all parties, and expected that its mission would be needed for only a short time. As the rebels began to split, and the political agreement underlying the ceasefire began to unravel, fighting resumed and the inadequacy of AMIS’s mandate became apparent. The AU itself had quickly become a target both for the belligerents and for anybody agitated by the conflict—including the media, the international NGOs and the IDPs they had come to “save”.

AMIS has responded ineptly to such problems. It has almost no appreciation of the critical role of spin in shaping public opinion in modern Western democracies and has neither a public relations office nor a legal department. Instead of releasing its version of events in a convincing way, it always communicates in the form of a press release.

The powerful, usually well- intentioned international NGO community in Darfur has added its voice to those who see the presence of the UN, and of the Western powers in particular, as the only viable solution to the crisis. Refugees International wants the UN to take charge of African peacekeepers, on the grounds that “‘blue-hatting’ a mission ... has worked in the past in such places as Burundi and Liberia”. They argue, above all, that the UN has the resources to support more troops on the ground, and to furnish them with superior weaponry. RI has even called on the UN Security Council to establish a no-fly zone over Darfur and on Nato and other forces to assist AMIS in enforcing it. There are concerns, naturally, that such measures would ratchet up the military element of the “humanitarian intervention”, but there has been hardly any discussion of their potential political consequences. It is this tension between the military and political aspects of intervention that explains the contradictions in UN Security Council Resolution 1769 of 31 July.

Resolution 1769 begins by affirming that this “hybrid operation should have a predominantly African character and the troops should, as far as possible, be sourced from African countries”. At the same time, the resolution “emphasises there can be no military solution to the conflict in Darfur” and stresses the importance of the Darfur Peace Agreement as the basis for a “lasting political solution and sustained security in Darfur”. It deplores the fact that “the Agreement has not been fully implemented by the signatories and not signed by all parties to the conflict,” and calls for an immediate ceasefire, including a stop to the government’s aerial bombings. Here, then, is the contradiction at the heart of Resolution 1769: it aims to enforce a ceasefire that does not exist.

“The AU has become part of the conflict,” Mohamed Saley, the leader of the JEM splinter group that allegedly abducted the AMIS patrol in October 2005, told Reuters at the time. “We want the AU to leave and we have warned them not to travel to our areas.” Trying to keep the peace in the absence of a peace agreement made the AU “part of the conflict”.

There is no reason to believe that the fate of the UN will be any different. To strengthen the mandate in the absence of a political agreement is more likely to deepen than to solve the dilemma. To enforce the ceasefire will mean taking on the role of an invading—and not a peacekeeping—force. Darfur, which is a bit smaller than France—and larger than Iraq—will surely require a force of more than the 26 000 currently planned by the UN.

“What is the solution?” I asked General Anyidoho, who has recently been appointed joint deputy special representative for the hybrid force.

“Threefold,” he replied, military fashion. “First, a complete ceasefire.” (This would require a political agreement among all the fighting forces.) “Second, talks involving a cross-section of Darfurians. They must agree. And third, “the government has a big role to play. This is not a failed state; there is a sitting government”. What about the Janjaweed? “They are nomadic forces on horseback; they have always been there. They are spread across Sahelian Africa: Niger, Sudan, Chad, the Central African Republic. The problem is that the AK-47 has replaced the bow and arrow. The Janjaweed should be disarmed before the rebels turn in their arms.”

Mahmood Mamdani is Herbert Lehman professor of government and a professor of anthropology at Columbia University. This is an edited excerpt of his article “Blue-hatting Darfur”, which appeared in the September 6 London Review of Books

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