The Positive Impact of African Union Forces in Darfur

By Boris S. Nikitin
2010, Vol. 2 No. 01 | pg. 1/3 |

After the wave of liberalization of many African states in the late twentieth-century, the world has seen a rise in the amount of international and internal conflicts that have taken thousands of human lives. Ethnic tensions and economic hardships have often been the driving factors perpetuating conflict between groups within a particular state. In the case of Sudan, which has experienced decades of civil war, government forces have fought to suppress the recent uprising in Darfur, instigated by the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), and the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA). Since 2003, there have been many attempts to intervene in the conflict, however, most have failed due to lack of cooperation from the Sudanese government, which does not want foreign intervention in its domestic affairs. African Union (AU) troops were initially assembled as an observation force, which grew into a 7,000 strong force that focused on civilian protection and curtailing the government-sponsored genocide in Sudan (Wadlow, p.88). Despite many issues the AU force faces, it has achieved a significant impact in the areas under its control, which have resulted in human lives saved as well as the restoration of the confidence of populations affected by conflict.

The ongoing civil war in Darfur is not a unique case of ethnic tension and genocide. It is comparable to Bosnia and Rwanda, where acts of genocide were carried out by one warring party; “Although the analogy between Rwanda and Darfur is somewhat problematic in terms of the nature of the conflicts, it seems apposite with regard to the international responses they commanded, or indeed the lack thereof” (Piiparinen, p.72). States that have acquired long-sought independence sometimes experience severe civil wars, because the population has the ability to voice its frustration and anger towards a particular ethnic, economic group, or the government that oppressed the population. In the case of Sudan, the decade long civil war has been centered on the issue of land rights, Islamism, and the autocracy of the government.

Land has been seen as the case of conflict not only in Sudan, but in many other African countries, due to scarcity of productive land for agriculture. In Africa, where droughts are common, land plays a central role, as the population tries to sustain itself in light of poverty, disease, and oppressive governments. Northern Sudan is more developed in than the South, which faces a number of problems, including a lack of government attention and a very poor resource distribution system. An Arab-dominated government has put itself in opposition to the non-Arab population by providing more favorable economic conditions for the North, which is rich in natural resources. “The nascent polarization exacerbated seriously into a full-scale ethnic conflict between the Fur and the Arabs during 1987–1989 as a consequence of which the warring parties started, for the first time, to identify themselves as “Arabs” or “Africans” instead of prior “Sudanese” or “westerners” or “Darfurians”” (Vehnamaki, p.65)

Poor farmers of the poverty-stricken Darfur region created multiple liberation movements which called for the fair treatment of the entire Sudanese population, land reform, and a restructuring of the government that would reflect the opinions and voices of the Sudanese population. However, the rebel movements were not an even match for the government forces “as against a ramshackle resistance Khartoum had decades of experience in dividing and ruling, it had an army with heavy weapons, it had local agents in the janiawid, and it was fighting on its enemies’ land, amid their homes and families” (Daly, p.281). The SLM/SLA movement consisted of mostly young people who were at a disconnect with the older and more experienced people that had been in the Janjaweed militia, a fact that has strained the fragile peace process that has been broken multiple times by attacks of government troops.

In the case of Sudan, the 2003 attack of the JEM and SLA against government forces is not the beginning of the conflict. In analyzing the drivers of the Sudanese conflict, it is necessary to examine the historic perspective of the conflict to pinpoint the issues that drive the clash. One of the warning signs of the “conflict was a dramatic increase in violent incidents between farmers and herders. One cause for these incidents was the cyclical droughts of the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s which forced the herders to encroach on the lands of the farmers” (Waal, p.70). Historically, the land in Darfur was communally or individually owned, where a person of any tribe could have asked for permission of the land-owning tribe to build a house or use the land as pasture. Such a system was in use until the mid-twentieth century, when the new government of Sudan passed land reform which changed land ownership. Following the colonial legacies, the system of property rights did not effectively give access to land to all Sudanese, due to the 1970 Unregistered Land Act, which “declared that all non-registered land was the property of the state – in practice this meant that majority of land in Sudan and almost all the land in Darfur” (Waal, p.79).

Such a move by the government created civil uproar, especially from land owning tribes, unlike some of the Arab population, which did not possess any land and was interested in the adopted legislation. The Abuja agreement of 2005 established that the traditional tenure system be kept in place, although this contradicts Khartoum’s wishes of abolishing the old tenure structure. Sudan’s government would lose the capability of appropriating the land, which is usually a component of the state’s power and is strongly tied up to the issue of sovereignty. Additionally, the 2005 agreement poses a problem for some Arabs hoping to secure tenure rights in exchange for cooperation with the Janjaweed forces. Land has been one of the biggest driving components of the conflict in Sudan, which will define the future of the war-torn state depending on the agreement that the government and rebel forces sign.

Over the decades of civil war, the conflict in Darfur has had its ups and downs, creating massive civil casualties and millions of Internationally Displaced Persons (IDP), who have fled into the neighboring state of Chad. 2003 was the turning point in the Sudanese conflict. In April, there was an attack by the JEM and SLA militias on the government base, which brought devastation to the government-controlled air base as well as an enormous embarrassment to the Sudanese government. In retaliation, government forces along with government-backed Janjaweed militia instigated a massive attack on the Sudanese population, as well as on the liberation movements. Over the years of conflict, hundreds of thousands of Sudanese have died, around two million of which are IDP, who have been affected by the brutality of Janjaweed militia, who have been practicing open warfare tactics including rape, torture, destruction of villages, and murder (Cohen, p.52).

In 2005, there was an internationally mediated peace agreement which was supposed to halt the violence and bring parties to the negotiating table for further discussion. However, the violence continued months after, and reconciliation talks have been indefinitely abandoned due the significant differences that the warring parties have. It is very hard to assess the goals of the warring parties in Sudan, especially the government side, which breaks the fragile truce that has been numerously established throughout the mediation process. Clearly, the government wants to suppress the rebel’s movement by using brutal military force which has leveled hundreds of villages, which usually do not contain many rebel forces. As Vehnamaki points out, “the extent of the Khartoum government’s active involvement in atrocities is too unclear to confirm its intent—a fact that prohibited the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur (2005) set up by the UN Secretary-General from declaring the atrocities genocide” (p.69). Khartoum attempts to distance itself from the atrocities being carried out by the Janjaweed forces, by showing that it is not backing the militias and that the estimated dead by international organizations are grossly overestimated. Therfore, innocent civilians who are not necessarily participating or helping the rebel movement suffer in the end due to the Janjaweed’s actions, which create an immense humanitarian problem which is only being addressed by the AU. The role of the mediator in such cases is to get the parties away from their positions (i.e. their maximum demands) and to get at their interests (i.e. their needs that are underlying their positions) by producing a safe environment for the constructive dialogue between the parties (lecture, 2/21/08). Such tasks could be aided by international pressure through the involvement of many NGO’s and, especially, IGO’s that have the finances and the legitimacy to step in and assist struggling AMIS in such enormous task.

In the case of the Sudanese civil war, the government of Sudan plays an important role in the conflict because it is one of the major parties and instigates the violence and murder of its own citizens. Over the years, thousands of people have been killed by government supported forced in order to quell the rebellious factions within the population, “Its troops and helicopters, joined by Arab militias that it armed and financed, attacked farms and villages indiscriminately, killing tens of thousands of civilians from the rebels’ tribes, though very few rebels were killed…The government and militias stole crops and livestock, burned homes, and poisoned wells to impede Darfurians’ return” (Cohen, p.54).

Cases of government involvement in the civil war are hard to resolve because it poses an immense problem to the interveners, who have the will to stop the ongoing conflict. It is understandable that the population would not have any other way of showing anger at the government besides taking up arms and engaging in direct combat. In retaliation, the government responds with all its might and inflicts enormous amounts of damage to the entire population of Darfur, without paying particular attention to the level of its response. This poses an immense problem to the international community, because it has to deal with such a brutal government in order to find an acceptable compromise. Another option would be a military invasion with the removal of the government, similar to the Iraq invasion of 2003, but there seems to be a lack of interest and or political will among the Western nations and African states as well. Short of government overthrow, international interveners would have to work hard to find an acceptable solution to the conflict which would satisfy both parties, who have diametrically opposite goals, making the peace negotiation process even more difficult.

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