24 March 2007

Recipe for Darfur

By Liam Carroll

Newspaper commentators are the Delia Smiths of world affairs - no matter what the occasion or crisis they are always ready with a suitable recipe for western action that would - if implemented - surely lead to an easily digested solution that would satisfy all. This would then be followed by the self-congratulatory noises of those well fed on a diet of high moral fibre.

As the bloody crisis in the Sudan continues to unfold and ominous signs of wider regional collapse start to emerge, western commentators have churned out a series of such recipes that would, in their opinion, soon bring relief to the long suffering victims in Darfur whilst serving up a rather more chilling dish to the alleged sponsors of the atrocities in Khartoum.

The cauldron of animosities in the Sudan, however, goes way beyond the ruling party in Khartoum, the Janjaweed and their victims in Darfur. The oil and resource rich south has been at war with the north for years, roaming groups of armed bandits perpetuate tribal hatreds and blood feuds, whilst shrinking resources and a ready availability of weapons help to maintain a landscape ripe for enduring conflict. That isn't even to mention the nine neighboring countries, two of which, Chad and the Central African Republic are already suffering from a chronic refugee crisis that is putting tremendous pressure on their local populations.

There is no shortage though of commentators ready with their recipes for bringing the atrocities to an end; financial sanctions, no-fly zones, oil blockades, embargoes, and missile attacks are all part of a range of solutions offered up by articulate opinion. The argument goes that the government must be dealt a sharp lesson in order to force them into accepting an international UN force that will protect the millions of internally displaced persons in the camps of Darfur.

Alternatively, western moves against Khartoum rally anti-western allegiances - more extreme militants come to the fore - attacks against Darfurians escalate, civil war breaks out again and other tribes use the cover of war to execute their own land grabs, cattle raids and so on. There is plenty of scope for a descent into even greater chaos if conflicts spread further throughout a fragile region, engulfing central east Africa in a deeper and deeper crisis.

Some point the finger at China and suggest that the commercial oil deals and arms sales make China a sponsor of the government in Khartoum. Not a few of the same charges can be leveled at western governments who have often appeased unsavory regimes - frequently endorsed by profligate arms sales - in order to protect access to precious resources. It would be surprising, in that context then if China were to restrain itself in its relentless pursuit of energy supplies.

This also begs the question of whether trade and financial sanctions targeting the Sudanese government, but implemented without Chinese support, are ultimately futile and only serve to alienate the regime from international institutions like the UN and thus making the prospect of a negotiated settlement less likely.

It could be in fact that it is not the west that holds the solution to peace in Darfur at all. It could be that it is Africans that understand the dynamics at work in the Sudan far better than any westerner can. The west may be able to provide logistical support, but the strategy has to come from those who have a far better grasp of African politics.

In this sense there are several very useful things that the west could do straight away, like making sure the African Union force, which by most accounts is of at least some value in providing limited forms of security, gets paid and properly equipped. Believe it or not, it is countries like Rwanda that are providing the backbone of the AU force but might have to pull out because of crippling IMF debt repayments. That is surely something the west can fix.

In terms of a long term strategy though, there is a general agreement that a negotiated peace settlement between Khartoum and the Darfurians offers the best prospect for lasting peace. The terms of settlement and the negotiating process are likely to be complex and will undoubtedly require tactful and delicate handling, for no doubt there will be many legitimate grievances and concerns to be addressed.

There is surely some need for a measure of caution when dealing out ready solutions for crisis many miles away – we should never forget that it will probably not be us, but someone else who has to live with the consequences of what western opinion thinks must be done.