Joshua Owens, MPA
For over five years, peace talks between Darfur rebel groups and the Government of Sudan (GoS) have failed to yield a substantive agreement. Low-level fighting and lawlessness continues, and recent developments indicate a potential relapse into serious conflict. Over the summer major clashes erupted along the North-South border between GoS and Southern-aligned groups (the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – North, or SPLM-N) in Kordofan, which was not allowed to secede with the rest of South Sudan. In November SPLM-N and the main Darfur rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice for Equality Movement (JEM), united to establish the “Sudanese Liberation Front,” with the aim of launching coordinated military attacks across Sudan and forcefully overthrowing the Bashir regime. According to a recent International Crisis Group report, “...the growing war on multiple fronts poses serious dangers for the country, for its future relationship with the Republic of South Sudan and for the stability of the region as a whole."
To build enduring peace, the international community must first realize that the current mediation strategy of facilitating negotiations between insurgent groups and the GoS is fundamentally flawed. Peace talks have failed because they have neglected (1) traditional tribal leaders and (2) building civil society. My reflections are based on my two-year experience as a development program manager in rebel-held territory in the heart of Darfur – near the fighting lines between Darfuri rebels and GoS forces (together with their Janjaweed allies). While there, I worked on a UNDP project to study and address root causes of ongoing conflict and recognized these pitfalls in the peace-building process.
1. Breakdown of the Traditional Leadership Structure
According to local accounts, a strong tribal leadership structure facilitated relatively stable relations between African and Arab tribes in Darfur for decades before the war. Tribal elders led this structure, and it provided the mechanism for maintaining the balance of power equilibrium between tribes and mediating occasional conflicts.
However, during the 1990s, a new group of young, political activists emerged from the African tribes (Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit) to protest their enduring socio-economic marginalization under Arab hegemony from Khartoum. As this group (Sudanese Liberation Movement or SLM/SLA) amassed support from neighboring Chad and the people in the isolated tribal areas of Darfur, the balance of power shifted from legitimate tribal elders to young insurgent leaders.
When the SLM finally militarized and attacked Sudanese Armed Forces in early 2003, the GoS responded by arming Arab tribes in Darfur and authorizing them to eradicate African tribes. This intervention further disrupted the delicate balance of power that had long existed between Darfuri tribes.
Nevertheless, peace talks are framed primarily as a negotiation between the GoS and rebel groups. Though these insurgents purport to represent the best interests of the African tribes, their primary concern is their own survival. SLA and JEM present unreasonable demands in peace talks and perpetuate the conflict because peace would deprive these young, zealous rebels of their raison d’être and the basis of their authority. Rebel groups continue to wield considerable power and maintain popular support only because local populations are wholly dependent on them for protection.
Therefore, effective peace negotiations and reconciliation must also engage the traditional tribal leaders. These elders are the only legitimate representatives of the best interests of the tribes, and their continued exclusion will undermine any settlement attempt.
2. Shoring Up Civil Society
Second, in order to facilitate long-term peace-building, the international community must help these areas build strong, village-level civil society institutions. According to conventional social science definitions, civil society is the space that (a) exists between the family and the state, (b) connects different families and individuals, and (c) is independent of the state. (Varshney 2001) Civil society organizations are modern and voluntary and generally take the form of cultural, social, economic, or political associations. For example, in Darfuri villages, we attempted to establish agricultural extension networks, community water and health committees, women’s trade groups, and English classes.
Most scholars of conflict agree that civil society play an important role in mitigating violence because these associations connect people from diverse backgrounds, build trust and reciprocity, and facilitate the exchange of view on public issues. In Darfur, building civil society now is vital for peace-building for two reasons: First, civilian-led organizations will help offset the power and voice of armed rebel groups and promote the legitimate leadership of civilian tribal leaders. Second, these organizations can facilitate the ethnic reconciliation process in Darfur by gradually establishing links with civil society groups in rival tribes with similar interests.
Taken together, these steps will help resolve the impasse of negotiations over Darfur. Though international attention has shifted in the past year to the plight of South Sudan, this lingering crisis in the country is no less important.