Darfur: another tough job for Ibrahim Gambari

Ibrahim Gambari, head of Darfur peacekeeping mission, meets with traditional leaders at a camp for internally displaced people in West Darfur Ibrahim Gambari, head of the Darfur peacekeeping mission, meets with traditional leaders at a camp for internally displaced people in West Darfur, as part of an effort to involve more community representatives in the peace process.
UN Photo / Albert Gonzalez Farran

When veteran United Nations trouble-shooter Ibrahim Gambari was named head of the joint African Union-UN peacekeeping mission in the western Sudanese region of Darfur this January, there were reasons for cautious optimism. Although some 2 million people remain displaced, the conflict that had taken upwards of 300,000 lives since 2003 had receded considerably, accounting for less than 300 deaths from military confrontations in all of 2009. Talks between the Sudanese government and armed opposition groups seemed to be back on track.

But when Africa Renewal caught up with the former Nigerian diplomat in New York on 30 July, the day the Security Council extended the mandate of the African Union-UN Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) for another year, he painted a decidedly bleaker picture.

In May, one of the major armed groups, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), had withdrawn from the peace talks and “we saw the resumption of the fighting,” Mr. Gambari explained. Since then, “more people have been killed through direct confrontation between the government and the armed opposition than in any period since UNAMID was established” at the end of 2008.

“Criminality also increased — carjackings, hostage-takings, kidnappings and direct attacks on UN peacekeepers,” he added. Recently, three Rwandese peacekeepers were killed in an ambush, two civilian UNAMID policemen were kidnapped for several days and a UNAMID helicopter and crew were seized after mistakenly landing in an unauthorized area.

“Finally,” Mr. Gambari said, “there was fighting in Kalma camp,” a vast settlement of some 100,000 internally displaced people (IDPs), which has been wracked by violent protests by Darfuri groups that favour or oppose the peace talks. “There was allegedly some incitement by one of the leaders of an armed opposition group,” he said. “We hope this is not the case. But incitement to commit murder is something that has to be condemned…. We are calling on the people to calm down and embrace peace and a peaceful resolution of the disturbances there.” Order was finally restored in Kalma by heavy UNAMID patrolling. Humanitarian assistance to the camp resumed in mid-August, but the situation remains tense.

Firmer response

Part of the solution to the deteriorating security situation will be a firmer response by UNAMID military and police forces, he said. “In the past, the criminal elements tended to think we’re a soft target. But now we are robustly responding to the attacks and reminding everybody that attacks on peacekeepers is a war crime. We also call on the government to check this impunity, to arrest those who are responsible and prosecute them.”

It was only in June, after the deaths of the three peacekeepers, he noted, that the Sudanese government formally condemned attacks on UNAMID personnel. “More importantly, they decided to set up an emergency committee to deal with these kinds of incidents in the future. So we see that the government is responding…. It’s a good beginning.”

Mr. Gambari declined to speculate on how the indictment in July of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on genocide charges by the International Criminal Court might affect UNAMID’s efforts. “I have troops on the ground. I rely on the government of Sudan to guarantee our security, to remove obstacles to our movement and allow use of our aerial assets. I have to deal with them on a daily basis in order to do my work.”

Peace talks key

Ultimately, the solution to the crisis in Darfur lies in peace talks. The current negotiations are taking place in Doha, Qatar, and follow up on a 2006 peace agreement between the government and one of the major opposition groups. Since that initial accord, several other groups have also signed cease-fires, but the fragmentation of the armed movements has hampered comprehensive negotiations.

And time is not on Darfur’s side. “It is in everybody’s interest to bring the peace process in Darfur to a conclusion before the end of this year,” Mr. Gambari asserted. After that, he worries that “the attention of the international community will move elsewhere,” with the impending referendum on independence for Southern Sudan in early 2011.

UNAMID is working with the AU-UN mediator, Djibril Bassolé, to bring representatives of internally displaced people (IDPs) and of Darfuri civil society groups into talks. That is vital for achieving a “grand peace” agreement, Mr. Gambari said, one that extends beyond the armed movements.

The longer people are obliged to remain in the displaced camps, he explained, “the more the dangers of radicalization,” as shown by incidents like those at Kalma. Ultimately, he said, there needs to be a serious programme for the voluntary return of IDPs to their homes. Mr. Gambari is working with UN agencies, the League of Arab States, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Qatar government to develop “real programmes” to provide social services, security and means of livelihood in the IDPs former homes. “All of that will not happen if there is a climate of incitement to violence.”

Complex reality

International advocacy and activism on behalf of peace and human rights in Darfur has played an important role in raising global awareness of the crisis, Mr. Gambari observed. “But the downside is oversimplification” by the advocacy groups, he cautioned. He challenged the view “that Darfur is a case of Arab Muslims killing poor black Africans. The reality is a lot more complex. Between January and April of this year more people were killed in intra-Arab tribal conflict than in direct confrontation between government forces and the armed opposition groups.”

The root causes of the Darfur conflict, he argued, lie in a combination factors, including a scarcity of basic resources such as water and grazing land. “Also the feeling of marginalization by the periphery — in Darfur and Southern Sudan — against what they consider the over-concentration of power in the centre in Khartoum. So it’s a very complex situation.”

Mr. Gambari is no stranger to tough assignments. Since he left his post as Nigeria’s ambassador to the UN in 1999, he has served successive UN Secretaries-General in a variety of positions, including as a special adviser on Africa, head of political affairs and adviser on Iraq. He now finds himself amidst an intractable conflict that may tax even his formidable diplomatic skills.

— Africa Renewal online