After nearly a decade of trying to keep the peace in Darfur, the United Nations and the African Union believe they are seeing light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, few others agree.
Claiming that violence in the region has decreased significantly, UN secretary general António Guterres is recommending huge cuts to the size and budget of the United Nations/African Union Mission in Darfur (Unamid). The AU’s Peace and Security Council has endorsed this proposal.
The proposed reductions, which are likely to be approved by the Security Council in a vote next week, will reduce the size of Unamid’s military component by 44% and its police component by 30%. It will also result in the closure of 18 Unamid staging posts.
Critics say Darfur remains as violent as ever, and that these reductions will further handicap a peacekeeping mission that already has a poor track record of protecting civilians.
“I’m both sad and angered by this way of the UN basically betraying the Darfur people,” said Aïcha El Basri, a former Unamid spokesperson, who blew the whistle on how top UN officials allegedly covered up crimes against humanity in Darfur.
“I was hoping that the UN wouldn’t surrender to the pressure from the Sudanese government, but it does look like it’s working.”
She said the decision to scale down Unamid is based on false information about reductions in the levels of violence. “[The UN] was never serious about confronting the Sudanese government and bringing them to justice. They failed all the way. In order to downplay their failure, they have adopted and agreed to a fake narrative, to a narrative that I witnessed, which is a narrative of a cover-up, of deceit, lies and deception … I’m in touch with people from Darfur, internally displaced persons, actual workers from Unamid, and they are saying the opposite.”
Hussein Abusharati, the spokesperson for the Darfur Displaced and Refugees Association, speaking to Radio Dabanga, said: “A reduction of the number of Unamid peacekeepers will make the Darfuris more vulnerable to abuses of all kinds by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and other militias operating in the region.
“The current situation requires the joint UN-AU forces to strengthen their force in order to protect the people, rather than a withdrawal or reduction of the troops. The last couple of years, the attacks, killings, rapes, theft and kidnapping have increased again.”
The conflict in Darfur dates back to 2003, when armed groups began fighting against President Omar al-Bashir’s government in Khartoum. The response was especially brutal, and hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed in what the International Criminal Court (ICC) describes as a genocide. The massacres earned al-Bashir an ICC arrest warrant, although he has refused to appear in The Hague.
Unamid was supposed to stop these killings. It came into existence in 2008 as a replacement for the toothless African Union Mission in Sudan. Unamid was at one stage the largest peacekeeping mission in the world, with a contingent that included 13 632 military personnel, 1 282 police officers and a budget well in excess of a billion dollars.
But Unamid wasn’t necessarily an improvement on its predecessor.
“Broadly speaking, I think Unamid is troubled,” said John Stupart, the editor of the African Defence Review. “There are so many spots in Darfur still at risk for conflict and low-level violence. Human rights abuses are constantly happening. It’s almost the stereotypical case of ‘what are the peacekeepers actually doing?’.
“Unamid has also had so many scandals by various nations there for sexual abuse, human rights abuses, torture, bribery and extortion. It hasn’t got the best reputation at all.”
Eric Reeves, a Sudanese scholar, gives a similar assessment. “Nobody thinks [Unamid] is anything but the grossest failure judged by any reasonable peacekeeping standards. Given its failure and its massive expense, the United Nations Peacekeeping Office has been quite eager to shut it down.”
Despite its many and obvious flaws, Unamid remains the only force to protect civilians and facilitates the provision of humanitarian aid. An estimated three million Darfuris — nearly half the population — are in need of this. “The slender reed of humanitarian protection is going to be severed,” said Reeves.
He said the proposed cuts to Unamid are part of an international process to reintegrate Sudan, once a pariah state. “The Europeans are desperate to stem the flow of African migrants to the European continent. And Khartoum has been enlisted as the primary ally in this effort, as Sudan is a transit point for many,” Reeves said.
“In the case of the United States, which doesn’t face a migration problem, the US wants to stay onsides with Khartoum in gathering counterterrorism intelligence.”
A spokesman for Unamid declined to comment on the proposed cuts until the Security Council vote.
South Africa’s patchy record in Darfur
Darfur might be on the other end of the continent, but that hasn’t stopped South Africa from playing a major role in attempts to end the conflict there.
South African troops were part of the United Nations/African Union Mission in Darfur from its inception in 2008 until South Africa’s withdrawal in 2016. About 800 South African soldiers were in Darfur at any one time.
By and large, the troops acquitted themselves well, said defence analyst John Stupart: “South Africa was a slightly better peacekeeping force than other countries. We didn’t just stay in our base, we did go out on patrols, we did try provide some semblance of control in our sector.”
The Darfur experience was an important testing ground for the South African National Defence Force. “We learnt a lot of valuable lessons just from a soldiering point of view. Our soldiers got a lot of experience in peacekeeping and operating in a dangerous environment,” said Stupart.
Another South African who has played a pivotal — albeit controversial — role in Darfur’s recent history is Thabo Mbeki. The former president is head of the AU’s High-Level Implementation Panel on Darfur and, as such, has been deeply enmeshed in the delicate negotiations between the government and rebel groups. It’s his job to implement the “road map” to peace — a document authored by Mbeki himself.
But Mbeki is no longer viewed as an impartial arbiter. Leaked minutes from a meeting of senior officials suggest that President Omar al-Bashir’s government views him as an ally, whereas rebel groups have repeatedly criticised his perceived pro-Khartoum bias.
None of this criticism is likely to deter Mbeki, who sees his mediation in Sudan as integral to his post-presidential legacy.
He will ensure that, for better or worse, at least one South African will continue to play a role in determining Darfur’s future.