Darfur: US “dealing with the Devil”

Another New York Times op-ed piece, “Dealing With the Devil in Darfur” by Julie Flint (IHT, June 17), warns of US support for Minni Arcua Minnawi, leader of the ethnic Zaghawa faction of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), who seems bent on his own campaign of ethnic cleansing. Minnawi’s SLA faction even has its own imprisoned dissident, Suliman Gamous. It is predictable that the US has wound up backing the most reactionary faction of the SLA. But Flint, calling for a seat at the peace table for Darfur’s Arabs (now officially represented by Sudan’s government), has nothing to say about Darfur’s majority Fur ethnicity, the Black African people who have now apparently been betrayed by the dominant faction of the SLA. There is the Fur-led SLA faction, as well as the rival (and smaller) Justice & Equality Movement (JEM). But do they speak for the Fur any more than Khartuom speaks for the Darfur Arabs?

As the peace talks for the Darfur region of Sudan drew to a close last month, the United States took over the task of defining the solution. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick flew into Abuja, Nigeria, where the talks were being held, on May 2 and three days later the Darfur Peace Agreement was signed. The only trouble is, the United States is backing the most abusive rebel leader in Darfur.

The response to the peace agreement was tepid in Abuja. But it was far cooler in Darfur, where the agreement is widely viewed as a peace between two criminal elements: the Sudanese government and Minni Arcua Minnawi, the leader of the faction of the Sudan Liberation Army that is drawn mainly from the Zaghawa tribe.

Minnawi’s group is one of three rebel groups in Darfur – the two others rejected the agreement – where the Zaghawas make up less than 8 percent of the population. The wealth and influence they have gained because of their energy, drive and capacity for strategic action have caused tensions with other tribes for years.

But since the rebellion began, the abusive behavior of Minnawi’s forces has awakened old fears that the tribe has a hidden agenda: the creation of a new Zaghawa homeland carved out of the more fertile lands of others. Minnawi’s acceptance of the peace agreement is reason enough for most Darfurians to reject it.

The tragedy of the people’s rejection is that the agreement has some virtue. There is, for the first time, a timetable for the disarmament of the janjaweed, the Arab militias that with government backing are destroying everything that makes life possible in Darfur. In three years’ time, Darfurians will have elections to choose their own representatives. Until then, a nominee of the rebel movements will occupy the fourth- highest position in the presidency and will control a new regional authority with a first-year budget for security, resettlement, reconstruction and development of more than a half-billion dollars.

The agreement also has a number of critical weaknesses, however. Most important, it is excessively reliant on the cooperation of a government that has not honored a single commitment made since it unleashed its forces against the rebels, and the marginalized tribes from which they are drawn, early in 2003.

In addition, Minnawi’s behavior in the month since he signed the agreement has not been promising. In peace as in war, Minnawi is wedded to force. On May 20, his men seized one of his most visible critics, Suliman Gamous. Gamous has been held in solitary confinement, without charge, ever since.

As humanitarian coordinator of the Sudan Liberation Army, Gamous made it possible for the UN and many nongovernmental groups to work in rebel areas. He helped hundreds of foreign journalists move safely around Darfur and document the plight of its people.

But Minnawi denied senior UN officials access to Gamous for almost a month. When concerned Zaghawas sought a meeting to ask why Gamous had been arrested, Minnawi’s chief of staff told them, “I can shoot Gamous and sodomize you.” They were stripped, bound, pistol- whipped and burned with cigarettes.

African Union officials have verified the events and have rebutted Minnawi’s claim that Chadian mercenaries were the perpetrators. But nobody involved in the peace plan has criticized him publicly. Once again, his abuses have been passed over in silence.

If the Darfur Peace Agreement is to have any hope of succeeding, the United States must stop empowering criminals and antagonizing those who are unconvinced. Rather, the peace brokers should assist rebel commanders critical of Minnawi to convene a conference and elect a leadership that would cross tribal lines and have popular support. Darfurians must be convinced that this peace is their peace and not, as many call it, the “Ila Digen peace,” the peace of Minnawi’s small clan.

The United States must increase confidence in the peace agreement by fiercely rebuking the Khartoum government – and Minnawi – for every violation of the agreement and every deadline they fail to meet. All Darfur’s tribes must be brought into the peace process – most important, the Arab tribes that had no place at the Abuja table, even though the vast majority of them did not join the janjaweed. And no regional dialogue would be complete without the involvement of the janjaweed themselves, who despite their atrocities are one of the keys to a lasting settlement.

Last, the United States must make clear that there is no peace without justice. It must provide the International Criminal Court with intelligence on the conflict to ensure that nobody, government official or rebel, gets away with murder in Darfur. A first step would be to distance itself from its new favorite son.

Minni Minnawi is not the guarantor of peace; he is one of the obstacles to it.

Julie Flint is the co-author of “Darfur: A Short History of a Long War.”

Also informative was a front-page New York Times story of June 12, “Over Tea, Sheik Denies Stirring Darfur’s Torment,” in which reporter Lydia Polgreen travels to the forbidden village of Mistariha to chat with purported Janjaweed leader Sheikh Musa Hilal, who predictably denies that the movement even exists.

“It is a lie,” he said. “Janjaweed is a thief. A criminal. I am a tribal leader, with men and women and children who follow me. How can they all be thieves and bandits? It is not possible.”

He said there were no tensions here between Arabs and non-Arabs. By way of demonstration, he ordered one of his soldiers to round up a group of market women. When the women arrived, cowering under their bright robes as Mr. Hilal hovered over them, one by one said there were no tensions here.

“I am a Fur,” said Fatouma, a woman who sells millet in the market, naming the largest non-Arab tribe in the region. Her eyes avoided Mr. Hilal’s imperious glare. “We get along with the Arabs fine,” she added, before begging to be allowed to return to her market stall.

“See!” Mr. Hilal exclaimed to his foreign visitors. “We have no problems here. We live together in peace.”

One is left wondering if this Potemkin village routine was really so crudely transparent. If so, the Sheikh needs better PR.

See our last post on Darfur.