Darfur: Peace Talks and Skirmishes Continue Amid Sudan’s Other Conflicts

In her book Fighting for Darfur, Rebecca Hamilton describes a pattern where outside observers of Sudan tend, at any given time, to focus on one of the country’s problems to the exclusion of others. US government concern with brokering the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005 and ending twenty-two years of civil war between North and South Sudan, for example, limited the attention policymakers gave to the violence in Darfur. We are back at a time when it has become difficult to maintain a comprehensive view of the problems Sudan is facing. With Southern Sudanese independence approaching on July 9, conflicts are raging in North-South border areas like Abyei and Southern Kordofan. The South struggles with its own rebel groups – seven, by Reuters’ count. Ironically, Darfur may be getting the least attention of all right now. This post gives an update on the situation there.

Far away from Darfur, the African Union, the Arab League, and the United Nations have been coordinating peace talks in Doha, Qatar since 2009. A draft peace agreement (read the Sudan Tribune’s copy here [.pdf]) that emerged from the talks was presented to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon on Monday. The Arab League is urging the Darfur rebels to sign the accord.

But in Darfur itself, violence has picked up since December 2010. Human Rights Watch attributes the recent clashes to a break between Sudanese President Omar al Bashir and Minni Arko Minawi, a leader in the rebel Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) “who signed the Darfur Peace Agreement in 2006 and was appointed special adviser to President Omar al-Bashir and head of the Darfur Transitional Regional Authority.” Bashir’s dismissal of Minawi helped touch off a new wave of fighting that has continued up to the present. HRW said earlier this month that “since December 2010, a surge in government-led attacks on populated areas and a campaign of aerial bombing have killed and injured scores of civilians, destroyed property, and displaced more than 70,000 people, largely from ethnic Zaghawa and Fur communities linked to rebel groups.”

Just this Sunday, 27 people died in government attacks on rebels.

The situation in Darfur is not isolated from developments elsewhere. North Sudan’s other conflicts, like the conflict in Darfur, stem partly from objections by “peripheral” populations to the policies pursued in Khartoum, the political center. The potential for groups in Darfur, Southern Kordofan, and elsewhere to articulate shared grievances and demands could boost rebel morale and even introduce a degree of coordination between the groups, but any signs of cooperation could also heighten worries in Khartoum, which might respond by unleashing further violence. Darfur is also affected by the civil war in Libya, where some rebel leaders, such as the Justice and Equality Movement’s Khalil Ibrahim, reside. Khartoum has accused Darfur rebel groups of fighting for Qaddhafi, and it seems Khartoum may fear that Qaddhafi’s fall or prolonged war in Libya could convince some rebel leaders to return home to Darfur. One source even alleges that the Sudanese government recently tried to assassinate Ibrahim.

The challenge for me, and I suspect for some others, in viewing the violence in Darfur is to keep coming back to the larger picture without omitting crucial parts of it. Julie Flint points out in a piece on Southern Kordofan that none of Sudan’s multiple conflicts is reducible to any other:

The war in the Nuba mountains is already being seen through the lens of earlier wars: the north-south war; the Darfur war; the jihad. It is different. The sheer number of armed men under organised command on both sides has never before been matched in Sudan— including more than 60,000 on the government side. In focusing so heavily on the north-south conflict, the international community has underestimated the determination of the Nuba: their fighters are more numerous and much better led than the Darfur rebels, with formidable organisational skills, command capabilities and discipline.

The uniqueness Flint finds in Southern Kordofan is also manifest with the conflict in Darfur. At the same time, all of these conflicts affect the stability of Sudan, and indeed of surrounding countries like Chad and the Central African Republic. As multi-sited violence continues in Sudan, the least we can do as observers is to attempt to keep zooming in and zooming out, preserving a sense of what makes each conflict different while holding on to a sense of what makes each relevant.