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What Role for the UN?

Monday 10 September 2007, by Mahmood Hamdani

Mahmood Mamdani writes about the dangers of the UN’s new role in Darfur. The balance between the military and political dimensions is crucial, and the UN tends to privilege the military dimension.

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 3605 by the end of the year: 450 observers, 2341 soldiers and 814 police officers. The troops came from six countries – Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Senegal, Gambia and Kenya – and the police from Ghana. There were also military observers from Egypt and Libya, among others. 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 eight thousand, and for civilians to be brought in as humanitarian officers.

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 Janjawiid 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. Displaced persons were congregating near AMIS bases, the UN World Food Programme started parking its vehicles at AMIS sites, AMIS escorted humanitarian convoys, and helped victims of attacks get to hospitals. The round-the-clock presence of civilian police in some IDP [Internally Displaced Person] camps has provided a greater sense of security to a population that is distrustful of the Sudanese police. AMIS forces have helped to restore order and provide security during the very difficult IDP re-registration process.[1]

By the time the Refugees International report appeared, however, it was clear that the rebel movements were beginning to split. AMIS had succeeded – and this was a major political achievement – in negotiating a Declaration of Principles and getting all the insurgent factions and the government of Sudan to sign it on 5 July 2005 in Abuja. That declaration remains the only political basis for peace in Darfur. But only three months later, when the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) held its conference in Darfur, Abdel Wahid, its leader, anticipated problems and did not attend. His suspicions proved justified when Minni Minawi, the commander of the movement’s field forces, was elected to replace him. The AU decided to invite both men to peace talks in Abuja, where Minawi signed the Darfur Peace Agreement in May 2006. But the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the other original rebel movement, refused to sign, as did 19 representatives of the SLM, who defected to follow Abdel Wahid.[2] The so-called Group of 19 wielded a lot of influence among the fighters, who soon began to degenerate into tribal groupings. 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. The N’djamena Ceasefire Agreement had involved a formal collaboration between the AU, the UN and leading Western powers. According to Anyidoho, ‘Canada was to provide aircraft and maintenance, the UK vehicles, the US camps, and the EU soldiers and police.’ Donors eager to be seen to pledge money early in 2005 were reluctant to release it once the mission ran into difficulties. The US had promised $50 million to support AMIS at the donors’ conference in May 2005, but didn’t deliver. By November the following year, Congress had removed the funds from the 2006 Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill. Around the same time, the EU announced that salary payments would be made only on a quarterly basis and demanded proper financial accountability before releasing funds for the next quarter. When the paperwork didn’t arrive, the EU suspended the provision of funds.

‘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. As early as 2005, when Refugees International sent a mission to assist AMIS in North Darfur, it noted that ‘all of AMIS’s local interpreters were on strike because their salaries had been cut in half following a restructuring of salaries . . . for all AMIS personnel.’

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 to unravel, fighting resumed and the inadequacy of AMIS’s mandate became apparent. There were demands that it be expanded so that the armed peacekeepers could protect not only the unarmed observers, who were supposed to monitor the ceasefire, but also the civilian victims of the conflict.

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 (INGOs) and the IDPs they had come to ‘save’. Throughout the second half of 2005, there were attempts by all sides to murder or kidnap AU soldiers. According to Refugees International, Janjawiid attacks on villages in North Darfur, which killed ten people and displaced nearly seven thousand more, also wounded three members of an AMIS patrol; a rebel splinter group kidnapped nearly forty AMIS troops in West Darfur; four Nigerian AMIS troops and two of its civilian contractors were killed when they intervened in an attack, reportedly by the SLA, on another contractor; the next day, a JEM splinter group kidnapped an entire AMIS patrol of 18, including its American monitor, in Nana, near Tine in West Darfur.

There were other problems too. In September 2005, two AMIS soldiers died of Aids-related illnesses, sparking public anxieties. In March 2006, Channel 4 reported that women and girls as young as 11 at the Gereida IDP camp in South Darfur were claiming that AU soldiers had offered them money in exchange for sex. The AU set up a committee to inquire into alleged ‘sexual misconduct including rape and child abuse’ carried out by its forces.

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 short press release. Refugees International reported incredulously that when they asked for ‘a brochure describing their mission, officers handed RI a printed copy in English and Arabic of the Declaration of Principles . . . with photos of the signatories’.

The powerful, usually well-intentioned INGO 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, where the AU or Economic Community of West African States, after providing initial stability, handed over a mission to the UN.’ 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 Security Council Resolution 1769 of 31 July on the United Nations African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID).

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’. It calls on the secretary-general to ‘immediately begin deployment of the command and control structures and systems necessary to ensure a seamless transfer of authority from AMIS to UNAMID’, and leaves no doubt about the meaning of ‘immediately’: ‘as soon as possible and no later than 31 December 2007’. 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. It sets a firm deadline for the transfer of authority to UNAMID, but suggests no deadline for either a ceasefire or a political agreement to be reached by the warring parties. An external force can monitor a ceasefire agreed by belligerents, but only if such an agreement exists. The collapse of a ceasefire is evidence that there is no agreement. It was, after all, the breakdown of the N’djamena ceasefire that reversed the fortunes of AMIS.

‘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.

Abdu Katuntu was chair of the African Union Parliament’s Select Committee on Darfur between 2004 and 2006, during which time he made six lengthy visits to Darfur, including stays in IDP camps. I met him in Kampala a few weeks ago and asked him why the UN could not have given AMIS more resources and made its mandate more robust, instead of ‘blue-hatting’ it. ‘It would have rendered them irrelevant,’ he answered, ‘because the international community would have said the Africans have sorted out their own problem.’ I have also spoken to UN personnel who are puzzled by the organisation’s focus on only one set of belligerents. ‘There is something wrong with the UN Mission,’ an Afghan security officer in the UN’s Department of Safety and Security reflected. ‘Everyone knows that for the UN the problem is only the government and the Janjawiid. They are here to disarm them and not the rebel forces. How then can you get a political solution between them?’

The AU’s political vision is encapsulated in a provision in the Darfur Peace Agreement that calls for a Darfur-Darfur Dialogue and Consultation (DDDC). The AU distinguishes between the processes of dialogue and consultation: although the formal dialogue can begin only after a comprehensive peace agreement is in place, the AU is committed to an informal consultation intended to pave the way to such an agreement. The consultations began in July last year. The first meetings were held in cities in each of the three states of Darfur: Nyala in the south, Zalingei in the west and El Fasher in the north. They brought together grassroots activists and leaders representing many different groups: the Native Administration regime in the rural areas that was displaced (into the towns and cities) by the 2003 insurgency, local voluntary organisations, political parties (both government and opposition), intellectuals and academics (each of the three states has a university), and the more than two million displaced people living in camps in Darfur.

The first rounds of discussion in Nyala and Zalingei had produced a consensus on one issue: the DDDC should not be a top-down affair but should rather include all political and tribal affiliations (even those implicated in providing recruits for the Janjawiid). It would have to be independent of any political party or group (including the government). But the consultations produced a double shock for the African Union. A large majority at the El Fasher meeting in July this year called for an intervention by forces who would not only be ‘external’ but non-African. Most participants identified the AU as the root of their problems and the UN as the most likely source of an effective solution. ‘The AU is like the Arab League,’ the representative from El Fasher Call, a voluntary organisation, explained. ‘It responds to governments, not public pressure. All African governments are dictatorships, which is why people look at the AU with suspicion. The UN also represents governments, but most states in the UN are democratic.’ ‘We want the UN to come,’ the sultan of El Fasher added. ‘It has mercy.’

The naivety of these assumptions was typical of the discussions at El Fasher. Just as they identified the UN with Western democracies, and talked as if democracies cannot be empires, every speaker who called for UN intervention seemed to assume that UN forces – unlike those of AMIS – would be white. They did not appear to have grasped that what will change in the transition from AMIS to UNAMID is the command much more than the troops on the ground.
The discussion on UN intervention ended in a cul-de-sac. On the one hand, the call for external intervention was backed up by a strong feeling that all internal avenues (national and African) were exhausted. On the other hand, those most vociferously calling for external intervention seemed to see the UN as a benign agency without any political agenda of its own – even though it is clear that a UN intervention would be guided by the big powers of the Security Council. Many supporters of external intervention saw it as an extension of a local practice, ‘ajawiid’, whereby a third party intervenes in a conflict that cannot be resolved. But the lesson of ‘ajawiid’ is that the intervention can only be credible and effective if the third party’s interests are compatible with those of the belligerents. In El Fasher no one questioned the politics of an intervention driven by the major powers.

Local voluntary organisations were critical of the growing dependency of IDPs on international NGOs. The representative from El Fasher Call made the point with some bitterness: ‘IDPs are trying to endear themselves to international NGOs but don’t want to deal with national NGOs.’ ‘IDPs don’t believe in anything Sudanese any more,’ a representative from a Fur charity added. One participant from a construction NGO observed that the war had made people adopt a ‘consumer mentality’. The disaffection with INGOs was shared by all local voluntary organisations, regardless of their ethnic affiliation or political inclination. ‘National NGOs lack the capacity to provide necessary services,’ a representative of Sudan Development Organisation explained, not least because they are excluded by INGOs: ‘They make no attempt to acknowledge that we know the ground better, and also the demands of the people. No wonder most national NGOs have been rejected by the IDPs. If international NGOs gave us a chance, people might appreciate us more.’ One participant, however, reminded his colleagues that, without the INGOs, ‘you would not have found any IDP alive in Darfur.’ As he saw it, the problem was twofold. First, the INGOs have a short-term perspective: they may leave after peace is established, and national NGOs should be ready to fill the gap. Second, each INGO has its own agenda that limits its perspective: ‘Every organisation has its own programme for each place. There should be a dialogue among organisations to co-ordinate a programme.’

Summing up the discussions at El Fasher, the AU mediator, Salim Ahmed Salim, made the crucial point that for external intervention to work it would have to reinforce an internal process, not be a substitute for it. What matters, he argued, is ‘not how large a force it is but what they have come to defend’, since ‘without an agreement on peace, even a force of fifty thousand can’t change the situation here radically.’ He meant to caution Darfurians that to pin all hopes on the hybrid force would be tantamount to abdicating their own responsibility. But he was in a minority.

Salim reflected more widespread agreement when he remarked: ‘Even if those who have taken up arms have a cause, it is important to consult those who have not taken up arms, the civilian population.’ The point of the consultations should be ‘to show them an alternative to armed struggle: dialogue, persuasion, organisation’. Earlier negotiations, he argued, should have involved more civilians. But if civil society is to be more than a mere appendage to the second round of negotiations involving armed groups, the DDDC talks will need to be the beginning of a far more ambitious process.

No internal force appears capable of effective leadership. Even the SPLA, which is in political control of the South of Sudan and has been guaranteed, under the terms of the separate Comprehensive Peace Agreement of January 2005, 10 per cent representation in every parliament in the northern states, doesn’t have the human resources necessary for effective leadership. Like the UN, the INGOs seem to have no patience with an internal political process. For them, the people of Darfur are not citizens in a sovereign political process so much as wards in an international rescue operation with no end in sight. They are there to ‘save’ Darfur, not to ‘empower’ it. This is why many of the big INGOs and some of the American and British staff at the UN offices in Khartoum are sceptical about the DDDC. They worry that bringing together political figures and representatives of civil society for an open discussion risks conveying a feeling that normality is returning to Darfur, when it is actually the depth of the crisis that should be emphasised. The ‘humanitarian’ effort is itself based on the conviction that both the crisis and its solution are military, not political; accordingly, there is little appetite for an internal political process designed to strengthen democratic citizenship.

‘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 Janjawiid? ‘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 Janjawiid should be disarmed before the rebels turn in their arms.’

What about the camps? ‘The camps are becoming militarised. Women go out to collect firewood and they are raped. Rape has become a weapon of war. It is meant to destroy a people’s moral fabric: in an Islamic society, rape is a big blemish. The AU police used to provide firewood patrols and they were successful. But if there is security in future, men will join their women in going to collect firewood. The objective should be to close the IDP camps.’

What about the American threat to ‘take steps’ – a no-fly zone, sanctions? ‘It is not the way to go. Americans give deadlines all the time. The threat of sanctions is also not enough. They have lived under these for so long that they have become normal. They are used to living in seclusion. Now, they have oil and a friend in the Security Council . . . We can’t solve these problems through weapons. We have to sit and talk, which is why it is important to look at how Côte d’Ivoire was solved after four years of fighting. Outsiders can never solve the problem for us. It’s a distant misery for them. We have to do it for ourselves.’


1. No Power to Protect: The African Union Mission in Sudan by Sally Chin and Jonathan Morgenstein (Refugees International, November 2005).
2. Alex de Waal wrote about this in the LRB of 30 November 2006.

* This article first appeared in the London Review of Books vol. 29, no. 17, 6 September 2007 and reproduced here with the permission of the author.

* Mahmood Mamdani is the Herbert Lehman Professor of Government in the Departments of Anthropology and Political Science at Columbia University in the United States. He is also the Director of Columbia’s Institute of African Studies.[ He is also the current President of the Council for Development of Social Research in Africa (CODESRIA) Dakar, Senegal.

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