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Multi-tasking Sudan’s conflicts

December 16, 2010

sudanunWhen I first began to cover Darfur in 2003 – nobody was interested. The story was all about the north-south peace talks in Naivasha. “Where’s Darfur again – is that in the south?” I would often hear.

But once Darfur’s conflict stalled the Naivasha talks to end Africa’s longest civil war, and reports of appalling atrocities in Sudan’s west began to seep into the public domain, Darfur became the only story. It overshadowed even the historic 2005 north-south peace deal named “comprehensive” because the negotiators said it would resolve all of Sudan’s problems.

Year after year Darfur dominated the diplomacy and headlines while many in Sudan kept warning – don’t forget the north-south problem – it will come back to haunt you.

After years of neglecting the north-south accord, much of which was either not fully implemented – or done only after threats and standoffs – here we are again at crisis point where Sudan is heading for an acrimonious split and again there is a battle to implement the final chapter – the referendum on southern secession.

And while all hands turn again to resolve the north-south standoff, Darfur is sliding back into crisis – largely unnoticed because of the hype about the likely split of Sudan.

In the past year, since the largest aid agencies working in Darfur were expelled and kidnappings forced others to withdraw to main towns, there is little information about a deteriorating humanitarian situation of 4 million aid recipients with even the United Nations too scared to speak out.

None of the main groups are negotiating with Khartoum in Qatar-based talks. The chief mediator’s only recent achievement was a tour of Darfur with no specific aim, and which sparked violence resulting in two Darfuris dying, nine injured and a major university being closed down.

In the past weeks, the 2006 Darfur peace deal was declared dead in the water by both sides and the only major rebel group to sign began to move its troops south, to join with other rebels still fighting Khartoum, a U.N. source said.

Khartoum who is chasing them, accuses the south of supporting the Darfur rebels, the same reason why the Naivasha peace talks stalled in 2003-4.

We seem to have come full circle.

But yet it still seems the international community over the past seven years has been unable to figure out how to multi-task Sudan’s conflicts.

Uniquely Sudan has two separate, massive and expensive U.N. peacekeeping missions, who are unable to coordinate operations while the Darfur and southern conflicts have become intertwined along the north-south border.

We have more high-level international envoys than any other country I know – former presidents, ministers and career diplomats galore jet in to hold endless meetings. 

The approach in Sudan has more often than not been one of crisis management rather than crisis prevention.

And the lack of a comprehensive, one-country approach to Sudan’s problems has helped us along the path to the looming split of the south and is now fuelling talks of secession for Darfur too. The collapse of the Sudanese state as we know it now seems almost inevitable as southerners demonstrate in support of secession in the southern capital Juba.

In the aftermath I wonder what lessons will be learned.

(Photo: Students shout as they surround an United Nations vehicle at a protest during the visit of U.N./AU negotiator and chief mediator. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah)

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