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The TNR Roundtable Part 3: What Should Obama Do About Darfur?

Click here to read Part 2: Focus on elections.

Click here for links to each part of the conversation.

From: Eric Reeves
To: Alex de Waal, Richard Just, Elizabeth Rubin, Alan Wolfe

Alex de Waal's nuanced account of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement seems an important place to start this discussion, but his characterization of the past four years seems excessively flattering of what has actually been achieved. While it is true that "the majority of Sudanese have experienced real peace for the first time in a generation," it is also true that war could break out quickly in a number of flashpoints, and that a life of peace has not ended violence in Southern Sudan or significantly lowered morbidity and mortality rates, or provided sufficient opportunities for resuming agriculturally productive lives. The Government of South Sudan has been party to and victimized by significant corruption. And an excessive percentage of the budget must be devoted to defense spending to provide a credible deterrent to the military forces of the Khartoum regime, which is acquiring advanced weaponry for itself at an exorbitant rate.

Among the central issues remaining unresolved is the enclave of Abyei, as de Waal notes, where fighting last May between the Sudan People's Liberation Army and Khartoum's Sudan Armed Forces almost led to all-out fighting in the region. More than 50,000 civilians fled from Abyei, and more violence in December reduced by 75 percent the number of displaced persons who had returned. Abyei remains a tinderbox, in part because it lies in the middle of a highly promising oil concession area. And yet Abyei and its borders, the most contested of the issues negotiated during the Naivasha talks that produced the CPA, should have been resolved by a protocol that was included in the final draft of the agreement.

The Abyei Protocol called for the creation of an Abyei Boundary Commission, with members selected by a method that proved eminently fair. The dispassionate and highly researched report was on the desk of President Al Bashir by July 2005, where it was promptly discarded. Instead of accepting what was to have been binding arbitration of this difficult issue, Khartoum has for four years preserved its own version of Abyei, with a heavy military and militia presence. (For a superb account of Khartoum's tendentious refusal to accept the findings of the ABC, see "The Abyei Protocol Demystified," by Douglas Johnson, an historian of Sudan and a member of the ABC.)

The Abyei example is telling for the other issues that de Waal mentions, many of which are far from resolved. The north-south border has still not been delineated, years after the deadline; among other things, this has allowed Khartoum to count as "northern" oil production what in fact has been extracted from Southern Sudan (under a revenue-sharing agreement Southern Sudan is to receive nearly 50 percent of revenues from oil extracted in the south).

The census results have still not been released, a potentially explosive issue if the south feels that there has been systematic or deliberate undercounting (here again the importance of delineating the north-south border). Salva Kiir, President of the Government of South Sudan, has been particularly outspoken on the issue. And the list of reneging, bad faith, non-implementation, and sheer contempt for the CPA goes on and on.

Perhaps more consequentially, national elections presently scheduled for July are not only unlikely to take place on time, but it is inconceivable that they will be held in a free and fair manner. Such electoral machinery as exists in Sudan can easily be co-opted, compromised, or rigged in any number of ways, including bribes, threats, and control of local political figures. There is no history of the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime holding meaningful elections since it came to power by military coup 20 years ago, deposing in the process an elected government.

Given Khartoum's record of agreements with Sudanese parties--it has never abided fully by any agreement with any party, ever--there would seem to be little reason to expect that the regime will hold to such an agreement now. As to a self-determination referendum--in which Southern Sudanese would vote overwhelmingly for secession--there is simply no reason to believe that if the present regime remains in power, the results would be accepted or that the referendum would even take place. (The referendum is scheduled for six and a half years following the signing of a peace agreement, according to my reading of the Machakos Protocol and the CPA itself--thus July 9, 2011.)

Given the perilous state of the CPA, de Waal is certainly right to emphasize its importance and centrality in a coherent Sudan policy by the Obama administration. Realism must attend any re-assessment and policy changes, and the potential for a collapse, even a precipitous collapse, of the CPA must be taken into account.

In the end, however, de Waal misleadingly characterizes the importance of the self-determination referendum: He argues it should be the "single priority for Sudan during the next four years"; that "everything else should be secondary and supportive to that. Let me underline: everything." This is extraordinary, particularly in light of yesterday's decision by the Khartoum regime to expel many of the largest and most important humanitarian organizations working in Darfur. Without assistance from these courageous organizations, mortality will skyrocket among the 4.7 million people the U.N. now describes as "conflict-affected" and in need of humanitarian assistance. How can Darfur not be a "priority" for the Obama administration?

In a chilling way, de Waal's prescription matches the actions of the Bush administration in 2004 when genocide still raged massively in Darfur. Determined to secure a north-south agreement, the administration tacitly acquiesced before the threat that Khartoum had clearly laid out in negotiations: Push us too hard on what is going on in Darfur, and you'll never get the north-south agreement you so desire. Tragically, this diplomatic blackmail worked, and, by the time the international community turned fully to Darfur, hundreds of thousands had been killed and almost 2 million had been displaced. Nor did Khartoum hesitate, quite publicly and explicitly, to declare--even after the CPA had been signed--that its implementation would be threatened by excessive pressure over Darfur. In the run-up to the International Criminal Court decision of March 4, this familiar threat was reiterated yet again.

The common problem in Darfur and in securing full implementation of the CPA remains, as it has from the beginning of north-south negotiations, the character of the NIF/NCP. These men are ruthless survivalists; unless we change their calculations about how they will survive, then Darfur's grim genocide by attrition will continue, with huge increases in mortality, and the CPA will wither as the real test of elections approaches.

Click here to read Part 4: The case for caution.

Click here for links to each part of the conversation.

Eric Reeves, a professor of English language and literature at Smith College, has written extensively on Sudan.

By Alex de Waal, Richard Just, Eric Reeves, Elizabeth Rubin, and Alan Wolfe