Since the conflict in Darfur began three years ago, about 180,000 people have died, mainly because of hunger and disease; about 2 million have been displaced. Clearly, the conflict is too vicious and costly to be allowed to continue, but the current efforts of the African Union (AU) to resolve it are not equal to the task. But the so-called international community – which has totally ignored far more vicious conflicts in the African continent – cannot seriously be concerned about the fate of the people of Darfur or of Sudan as a whole. The proposals recently made by US president Bush and UN secretary general Kofi Annan for the replacement of the AU peace mission with a UN-NATO force may, therefore, reasonably be dismissed as having ulterior motives. They may well only make the situation even worse.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo – only one example of the many African countries beset by civil war – four million people have died since 1997, and according to the UN 1,200 are dying of war-related causes every day, yet neither Bush nor Annan has shown much interest in intervening to end the Congolese people's tragedy. Yet both men are set on sending international ‘peace-keeping' forces into Darfur – accusing Khartoum of committing genocide by arming and financing the so-called Arab Janjaweed militia that is fighting the armed rebel groups seeking autonomy and the subsequent right to secede, as already gained by the Christian-controlled southern region. It was in January 2005 that Khartoum was forced to give in to strong US-led international pressure and sign a deal with the Christian rebels in southern Sudan.
The peace deal gave the rebels, led by the late Colonel John Garang, the right to form their own government and to hold a referendum on the right to secede. The rebels did indeed form their own government, led by Garang, and have since received the public support of the central government. In fact, president Hassan al-Bashir travelled to the south on the first anniversary of the peace deal and said in public that Khartoum would be bound by the results of the referendum. But despite the clarity of the text on secession in the peace agreement and Khartoum's reassurances, the rebels have been busy seeking UN and US support for their right to secede, making it clear that they will in fact seriously seek total independence.
The southern rebels' determination to obtain such independence was clearly reflected in the recent visit to Washington by Rebecca Garang, the widow of the late John Garang. Invited bypresident Bush's wife to give the visit a low profile, Mrs Garang nevertheless met the president publicly and held secret talks in the White House, although the Sudanese embassy was held at arms' length. But the secrecy of the talks was breached when well-informed sources briefed ash-Sharq al-Awsat, the Saudi daily, on the contents of the closed session. Mrs Garang, who is minister of roads and movement in the government of southern Sudan, attended the talks on February 10 and the details of those talks were made public later.
According to ash-Sharq al-Awsat, Mrs Garang discussed with US officials a proposal for the establishment of diplomatic relations between the US and southern Sudan. The sources also told the Saudi daily that the closed session discussed diplomatic relations between the rebel government and Canada: a clear indication that Canadian officials were present at the talks. As neither the rebels nor US officials have so far denied these revelations, the no-longer-secret talks can be taken as one of the first signs that the region really is heading for secession.
But the open contacts between Bush and Annan on the issue and the call by the former for the involvement of NATO forces in Darfur are also clear signs of international backing for secession. Bush is also frank about his desire to see that a peace deal similar to that achieved in southern Sudan is also reached in Darfur. He said in Tampa, Florida, on February 17 that NATO should be involved more closely in the affairs of the region through peacekeepers under the UN's umbrella. But he quickly added that the matter "will require NATO stewardship, planning, facilitating, organising" as well as the doubling of the AU peacekeepers there, which number 7,000.
It is not strange that Bush – who is committed to the break-up of the large Muslim country into smaller units, some controlled by Christian minorities – should behave in this manner. But Annan – who, as UN secretary-general and himself an African, should be opposed to the break-up of an African state – has no excuse for conniving with Bush against Khartoum. Astonishingly, Annan has put Bush under strong pressure to include US troops in the international (NATO) peace force he wants despatched to Darfur. Equally astonishingly, he sees no need to be discreet about his pressure on Bush to send US troops to a country he knows to be strategically targeted by Washington. He was quoted, for instance, by Reuters on February 11 as saying that he would indeed do so during their scheduled meeting.
As far as pressure on leaders is concerned, Bush has the means to resist. But Bashir, who is under far greater pressure – not only from Annan and Washington but also US Arab allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia – is far more vulnerable. That Arab leaders will exert strong pressure on him to accept Bush's and Annan's proposals for the ‘internationalisation' of the Darfurconflict is not in doubt. The best occasion for such pressure will come when the Arab League summit opens in Khartoum later this month. According to Amr Musa, the Arab League secretary-general, Darfur will be on the summit agenda. If these leaders are prepared to put pressure on Hamas to recognise Israel, there is little doubt that Bashir will also be targeted.