War in Darfur over? Not quite

BOSTON — The war in Darfur is over? That’s what the outgoing general of the United Nations forces in that troubled African region says.

General Martin Agwai, who is leaving his post this week, said the vicious fighting over the past six years has subsided as the rebel groups have divided into insignificant factions. He says the Darfur region of Sudan now suffers more from low-level disputes and banditry, instead of war.

But many people are not buying that line. Especially the nearly 3 million refugees in Darfur. They remain huddled in their camps, terrified of attacks by government-sponsored militia, according to experts on the long-running conflict.

The U.N. says 300,000 people have died in Darfur, but the Sudanese government says the fatalities are much lower, at 10,000. About 7 million people live in Darfur, out of Sudan's total population of about 40 million.

The war broke out in the arid, impoverished Darfur region of western Sudan (see map below) in 2003 when rebel groups attacked government targets. They accused the the Arab-dominated Khartoum government of oppressing black Africans. Pro-government militias hit back with brutal force, killing thousands of civilians. The U.S. and many rights groups charge the government sponsored the violence and have called it genocide. The Khartoum government denies supporting the militias, but the international court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant earlier this year for President Omar al-Bashir, accusing him of war crimes.

Agwai, who led the joint U.N. and African Union peacekeeping force known as Unamid, said that Darfur now suffers more from isolated "security issues" than a full-blown conflict.

"Banditry, localised issues, people trying to resolve issues over water and land at a local level. But real war as such, I think we are over that," he said.

But several specialists on the Darfur conflict reject Agwai’s assertion that the war has been resolved.

“This is incredibly premature. To say the war in Darfur is over directly contradicts what we see on the ground,” said Colin Thomas-Jensen, policy adviser for Enough, the anti-genocide project at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

“There may be a lull in the violence, but you cannot say that it is over. There is no political settlement and no political process to resolve the conflict. Neither side is defeated and the government is building up its arms stockpile,” Thomas-Jensen told GlobalPost.

He said if the Darfur conflict were really over, “we would see from 2.5 to 3 million people begin to return to their homes and start to rebuild their lives. But that’s not happening. The people who were driven from their homes and who lost family, they remain frightened. They do not feel safe outside the camps because the Sudanese government still has a military proxy group that is committing atrocities outside the camps. To chalk this up to banditry and lawlessness is flatly disingenuous.”

Enough charges that the Sudan government is stockpiling weapons in preparation for renewed conflict in Darfur as well as a possible re-ignited war in southern Sudan.

“The Khartoum government has bought fighter jets from China and artillery and surface-to surface-missiles. They have bought tanks from former Soviet republics. And it is well known that Sudan now manufactures its own small arms, mostly AK-47 rifles, thanks to help from the Chinese,” Thomas-Jensen said.

Sudan analyst Gillian Lusk said the U.N. general’s statement was "unhelpful" because it could lead people to believe that Darfur's problems had been solved.

"There has been a large decline in fighting in Darfur, and that is undoubtedly a good thing for the people," she told the BBC. "But it is the government that turns the tap on and off — they can restart the violence whenever they want."

The Washington-based Save Darfur Coalition also finds fault with Agwai's statement. "The political and humanitarian crisis in Darfur is not over. Nor is the threat of full-scale fighting over, said Sean Brooks, policy associate of Save Darfur Coalition. "We find Gen. Agwai's statement surprising, considering that just a few weeks ago he said that the U.N. forces are only at 70 percent deployment and need to be fully deployed to protect the people of Darfur. There are still no U.N. helicopters to fully meet the protection mandate for refugees and aid workers. 2009 has been the most dangerous year for aid workers with kidnappings and hijackings."

Concerted international pressure, "particularly from Egypt and other neighboring states, the Arab League and the African Union is needed to get the Khartoum government to be committed to the peace process," said Brooks.  All sides agree that a political solution is needed to fully end the conflict.

The Sudan government, however, has proved so far to be relatively impervious to international pressure, as it has wealth from its oil exports and support from neighboring Arab and African countries.

Last week, the U.S. envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, said the existence of 26 different rebel factions was a major obstacle to reaching a peace agreement with the government. Gration brokered talks that led to four groups agreeing to work together, calling the deal a "very strong foundation for rebel unification."

However much more concerted international pressure is needed to get the Sudanese government to commit to fully implementing a comprehensive peace agreement.

Thomas-Jensen of Enough concludes, “What is needed is a credible and inclusive political process to create a lasting resolution to the conflict.”

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