African business, politics and lifestyle
Can’t do or won’t do? Ending Darfur’s kidnap business
Kidnapping foreign workers in Sudan for ransom has become a dangerous business in Darfur in the past year with 10 separate cases and at least 22 expatriate victims.
These are not the al Qaeda kidnaps of West Africa. The Darfuri criminals have so far demanded only money and have not killed any of their victims. Some have threatened to sell their captives to al Qaeda-linked groups if they do not get paid.
The abductions have restricted the operations of those aid and U.N. agencies still working in Darfur, with foreigners mostly relocated to the main towns and rarely travelling into the rural areas where people are most in need of help.
But the question always debated by Sudan watchers is: “Is it that Khartoum can’t protect foreign workers in Darfur or that it won’t?”
Many point to the timing as an indication — these abductions became a regular occurrence after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in March 2009.
Others speculate that the government, which has long had a hostile attitude to the international humanitarian agencies in Darfur, does not want them to get out and report on the worsening situation in the rural areas.
But the problem has escalated to a point where it negatively affects the government, making it look weak and unable to control even the region’s main towns.
Russia voiced rare criticism of its African ally after Russian aircrew were taken from Darfur’s largest town, Nyala, days after another Russian pilot was held by Arab militia loyal to the government.
Nyala was largely insulated from the brutal revolt and counter-insurgency campaign which has for seven years terrorised Darfur’s inhabitants. Now it is the epicentre of the abductions, with criminals taking foreigners from inside their guesthouses or in the town centre in broad daylight.
Fuelling the kidnaps are constant reports of Khartoum paying money for many of the hostages, another reason why the government would want to end the crimes. Kidnappers told me hundreds of thousands of dollars had been paid out to abductors.
The government says it knows who these kidnappers are and threatens to arrest them.
But the threats appear empty. After the release of the longest-held hostage, Red Cross staffer Gauthier Lefevre, no action was taken to bring the kidnappers to justice.
Cue the abduction of Samaritan’s Purse Flavia Wagner two months after Lefevre’s release. She endured a 105-day ordeal alone in captivity with her kidnappers threatening to rape or kill her on numerous occasions. And new spate of shorter kidnaps also began.
Those who support the theory that the government is sanctioning the kidnaps ask why it has not apprehended any of the criminals.
But Khartoum is not in an easy position.
The kidnappers are usually young men from the tribes that Khartoum mobilised to help quash the Darfur rebels.
One government official told me that any attack on the young Arabs could provoke the entire tribe — already disillusioned by what they see as broken government promises on development and services.
Local government in Darfur is often run by those from the same tribes as the kidnappers, creating a reluctance to act against them. In remote regions far from Khartoum, the tribe provides and therefore rules.
But it seems that Khartoum’s interests are now clearly in line with the international community’s – to stop the kidnaps. Some officials in Khartoum are now convinced action must be taken to stop the crimes.
Khartoum now has an opportunity to apprehend the abductors. The world will be watching to see what it does.