There is no military solution for the Darfur conflict. But peace may be achieved by better management of the Sudanese region's dwindling natural resources.
The last week or so has seen two items of good news emerge about Darfur, a part of the world that has seen little more than catastrophe in recent years. At the weekend, field commanders of the various splinter rebel factions met, under the auspices of the UN and the African Union, in the Tanzanian resort of Arusha to hammer out a common position ahead of talks with the Sudanese government.
Peace talks offer the best opportunity for an end to the violence and the international community should make every effort to prevent splits in the ranks of the rebels to form, as they did last year causing the collapse of the May 2006 Darfur peace agreement. It should also use carrots and sticks to persuade Khartoum to attend peace talks without unnecessary preconditions.
The second promising development was last week's unanimous UN Security Council resolution authorising the deployment of 26,000 peacekeeping troops and police to beef up the AU peacekeepers which have been on the ground for the last couple of years. The passage of the resolution shows a promising trend away from the aggressive unilateral militarism advocated by Washington and so disastrously being played out in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As Conor Foley pointed out, the UN resolution “confirms a growing trend towards ‘regional interventions'”. This is significant, he explained, because: “the suspicion in much of the world that ‘humanitarian interventions' had become a code word for western imperialism has hardened into certainty since the invasion of Iraq.”
Perhaps in recognition that sanctions do little to hurt corrupt regimes but inflict massive suffering on vulnerable civilian populations, as was the case in Iraq, the threat of economic sanctions was removed from the final resolution.
However, optimistic estimates show that the UN force would not be fully deployed before the end of the year. In the meantime, the near-bankrupt AU peacekeeping mission on the ground should be beefed up and given a broader mandate to protect civilians, with the EU and the US footing the bill.
But even assuming that the joint UN-AU force is deployed successfully and manages to arrest the violence, its efforts alone will not bring an end to the violence – that requires a wholly different sort of intervention.
Some critics of the puny international response to date, such as certain elements of the Save Darfur Coalition, argue that “genocide” could have been averted with timely international action. I totally agree. However, whereas they advocated a “non-consensual deployment of UN troops” (i.e. invasion), what I have in mind would have been a large-scale humanitarian and developmental investment two decades ago.
It is generally accepted that the Darfur conflict started in 2003. However, this is actually when it turned into full-scale warfare, when rebels fed up with the economic neglect of the Khartoum government launched their offensive. The conflict really began in the mid-1980s during an extended drought, and its accompanying desertification, coupled with overpopulation.
Had the international community paid attention to the warning signs and invested adequately in the sustainable management of the region's dwindling water reserves and natural resources, the underlying environmental catastrophe fuelling the mass murder would have been resolved.
The reductionist and simplistic talk of “Africans” versus “Arabs” currently dominating the discourse on Darfur, masks the environmental roots of the conflict that have aggravated traditional tribal relations. The absence of water and arable land has pitted the Khartoum-backed, cattle herding Baqqarah (meaning cow in Arabic) tribes of north Darfur against the settled farming tribes (the Tunjur-Fur, Zaghawa and Massaleit) of the more arable south.
Sceptics of western intentions draw parallels between Darfur and Iraq, saying that the humanitarian disaster is just a fig leaf the West is using to disguise its interest in Sudanese oil which the Chinese are currently making the most of. However, a more telling parallel is between now and the time of British colonial rule.
Before the British arrived, Darfur was an independent kingdom ruled by the Keira dynasty. In the 17th century, it was the most powerful realm in the Sahel region of Africa, but internal strife and war with its neighbours weakened it significantly. In the 19th century, Egypt, under the guidance of its British masters, destroyed the last remnants of the Keira kingdom in its bid to construct a unified “Egypt and Sudan”, which would be easier to manage from London. At the time, the main interest in Darfur was control of the slave and ivory trade to the south. Sudan's legendary Mahdi liberated Darfur from British rule but continued the old colonial practices.
In 1898, the Anglo-Egyptian government in Khartoum decided to recognise Darfurian independence. But then in the World War I, Britain had a change of heart and decided to annex it forcibly to the Sudan. The Sudanese government, taking its cue from the British, has considered it an integral part of the country ever since and has used the same colonial brutality to keep hold of the region.
With the unfolding human catastrophe in Darfur, no one can afford to be smug or take a holier-than-thou attitude. Many parties – the British, Egyptians and the modern Sudanese government – are reaping what they sowed there: forcible annexation and criminal neglect of Darfur's development.
Regardless of past injustices, our main concern should be turning Darfur's fortunes around. The international community must put in place a generous global fund to tackle the environmental catastrophe subsuming Darfur and help ensure that there is sufficient water and arable land for its poor citizens to grow their crops and graze their cattle without coming to blows.
“Sudan is unlikely to see a lasting peace unless widespread and rapidly accelerating environmental degradation is urgently addressed. Investment in environmental management, financed by the international community and from the country's emerging boom in oil and gas exports, will be a vital part of the peace building effort.”
Handled correctly, Darfur could be an important dress rehearsal for similar disasters that will occur in the coming decades, potentially sparking conflicts in the Nile Basin, particularly between Egypt and Ethiopia, and possibly worsening the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Experts have been warning of the prospects of 21st century “water wars” in the Middle East and Africa for decades. It's time the world paid them some heed. In his speech to the UN, Gordon Brown recognised that “as peace is established, [we must] offer to and begin to invest in recovery and reconstruction”. Let's hope that Brown and the international community back up this pledge with deeds. After all, for the cost of the war in Iraq a hundred Darfurs could have been greened.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 6 August 2007.