A letter from Darfur

Sudan is a tough nut to crack. There are two peacekeeping missions — one a joint African Union-United Nations effort set to become the world’s biggest, the other a UN mission keeping a lid on what had been Africa’s longest-running civil war in southern Sudan — and a strong central government that enjoys the support of the world’s emerging superpower, China.

There aren’t many Sudan watchers who don’t have an opinion on what should be done about Darfur or whether the comprehensive peace agreement between southern Sudan and the Khartoum government Sudan will hold. Ironically, the stronger the opinion held by interest groups the more rigid and less likely the prospects for mutual understanding and compromise.

Western public opinion, led by the media and celebrities in the United States, has stated its position on Darfur very clearly: the Sudanese government is the aggressor and the world must act aggressively and robustly to save the threatened people of Darfur from further bloodshed and displacement.

The Sudanese government and a considerable percentage of Sudanese public opinion wonder why a country with invading forces in Iraq and Afghanistan is able to point fingers. And there lies much of the dilemma; there is very little dialogue and quite a lot of posturing and even shouting over what’s best for the people of Darfur. If you have ever been involved in a domestic dispute, you know where such a path leads.

It is encouraging to note that high-level discussions between the Sudanese and British governments have been taking place behind closed doors. It is encouraging to note that the head of the UN AU Hybrid Mission to Darfur (Unamid), former Congolese foreign minister Rodolphe Adada, feels confident that he and the Khartoum leadership will be able to sit and talk at the same table, something his Dutch predecessor at the AU mission, Jan Pronk, had difficulty doing.

But one of the missing pieces of the dialogue puzzle is the round table where Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir and the leaders of the main Darfur rebel groups sit to air their differences and search for common ground. It sounds like a tall order, and it is, simply because they don’t appear to want to talk to each other. There’s a fear of losing face by being the first to compromise.

Seven years ago, in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, it looked unlikely that rebel leaders would sit down to talks with leadership in Kinshasa. It looked as though the front line dividing the country into zones supported militarily by, among others, Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Angola, was set to remain in place.

Then the UN’s peacekeeping mission in the DRC set up a radio station, bridging the front line over the air waves. All shades of political opinion were given access, creating a virtual round table discussion that effectively destroyed the rumour mill and helped a nation in turmoil understand the needs, fears and concerns of all the players.

Peace and stability have yet to return to all parts of the DRC, but the front line is gone and the government is one that was elected by the people.

Sudan is struggling to hold a census that should have been held weeks ago. The census will lead to a voters list that should take the country to national elections.

Perhaps a good start for all players would be the creation of a virtual round table debate for Darfur, a radio service providing a place where no actor in this bloody drama feels compromised and the sovereignty of Africa’s largest country is not called into question. Perhaps Unamid could facilitate the creation of such a radio service. The UN certainly has its weaknesses, but one of its great strengths is dialogue and the ability to get those who shout to listen.

David Smith is a media consultant specialising in conflict zones. He has recently returned from Darfur

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