National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 16, 2004

Darfur: A genocide waiting to be prevented

Nairobi, Kenya

Two high-profile officials provided the world with an overdue diplomatic road show in late June and early July. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, followed soon after by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, traveled to Darfur, western Sudan, site of an unfolding humanitarian crisis that many consider genocide.

Since February last year, ethnic Arab militias called the Janjaweed, backed by the central government in Khartoum, have inflicted stunning violence on black Africans in Darfur. The violence has left at least 10,000 dead and more than 1 million displaced. The Bush administration has described the violence as “ethnic cleansing.”

While in Khartoum, Powell talked tough. “The Janjaweed must be controlled. They must be broken,” he said. They must be kept from perpetrating acts of violence against the Sudanese population, he said, adding that he had given Sudan a timetable of “days and weeks” to rein in the militias.

Sudan’s Foreign Minister Mustafa Ismail said, “Fine.” The government, he said, would send more forces to provide security, ease restrictions on humanitarian groups and speed up negotiations with the rebels.

But the militias did not agree. The Janjaweed said they were offended that Powell jetted in and jetted out without seeing them. “Why didn’t he talk to us as brothers?” they asked. “If he wants to treat us like that, then we’ll go ahead with the fighting.”

Only a few observers noted that Powell’s and Annan’s trips were a slip in diplomatic etiquette. The visits coincided with celebrations for the 15th anniversary of President Omar el-Bashir’s seizing power from the democratically elected government of Sadiq el Mahdi.

Bashir hasn’t led Sudan to new heights. He hounded not only Mahdi and his supporters, he destroyed his own supporters who could become rivals. People in the West can’t forget that he provided haven to Osama bin Laden.

He has said that if he had had enough power he would have reduced the little that existed in southern Sudan to a sea of sand. As it was, he had a share in the deaths of more than 3 million southern Sudanese.

Neither Powell nor Annan is the type of person to be in the neighborhood for such a man’s anniversary party.

Of course, Powell -- a person who does appear willing to do good -- had no choice. It happens that George W. Bush is in a reelection campaign. Powerful interest groups, some with religious and ideological agendas, others with money interests, want Bashir tamed.

Those with axes to grind against Middle Easterners of Arab descent have taken the side of persecuted black Muslims in the Sudan. This offers them an opportunity to point at a double standard. They argue that Arab countries rarely condemn their own, even Sudan, which has engaged in unparalleled bloodletting over the last 20 years in its southern region.

Annan, too, has no option but to deal with Bashir. The massacres in Rwanda happened while he headed the U.N. peacekeeping division. He certainly doesn’t want another genocide on his watch. And that is where Darfur is headed.

What is interesting is that the international community never noticed what was coming in Darfur.

On March 20, 2003, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement issued a statement signed by Samson Kwaje, a respected Catholic layman with a doctorate in economics. The statement charged the Khartoum government with instigating tribal and racial conflict in Darfur. It was, the statement said, part of a 20-year pattern by the Khartoum ruling elite to marginalize non-Arab Sudanese. The following day, Mini Arkou Minawi from Darfur announced the formation of armed resistance against the militias. A disaster was in the making.

Refugees from Darfur seeking safety in Chad have reported to aid workers that the militias carried out mass rapes and execution-style killings. Villages and food supplies have been looted and burned while government helicopter gunships circled overhead, they said.

There is abundance of outrage in the West over what is going on in western Sudan. Which leads one to wonder, where are the African leaders? Why didn’t Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo and South African’s Thabo Mbeki go to Khartoum and remind Bashir of his duty to protect his citizens?

Annan upbraided 30 heads of state at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, July 6. “The ruined villages, the camps overflowing with sick and hungry women and children, the fear in the eyes of the people, should be a clear warning to us all -- without action, the brutalities already inflicted on the civilian population of Darfur could be a prelude to even greater humanitarian catastrophe -- a catastrophe that could destabilize the region,” he said.

The leaders pledged to send a few hundred troops to Darfur to patrol refugee camps and border areas between Sudan and Chad and to guard personnel it will send to monitor a ceasefire.

Africa Union officials also promised to investigate the charges of massacre. However, they have shown a notable lack of a sense of urgency. All that is required of them is sustained loud howls of condemnation, but these have not been forthcoming.

African international powerlessness is well known. This can be blamed on many things that include lack of readily deployed resources. One resource that Africa can muster but has been reluctant to do is to make use of collective outrage when bad things happen in its midst.

Joseph Adero Ngala, an African journalist based in Kenya, was in Khartoum in early July. He won the German Shalom Prize for reporting in Rwanda and Sudan in 1995.

‘It is our problem and we must solve it’

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- The Sudan government recognizes the Darfur crisis as a big problem that it must address using all the resources at its disposal, Sudan President Omar-el Bashir told NCR July 7 on the sidelines of the African Union summit in the Ethiopian capital.

Bashir said his government was very supportive of the peace initiatives by the African Union to solve the Darfur problem, adding that Africans must learn to solve their own problems before inviting outsiders to do so.

In a statement July 7 the African Union, made up of 53 member states, urged Sudan to disarm Arab militias responsible for the violence. The statement called the situation in Darfur “grave,” with “unacceptable levels of deaths and human suffering” but stopped short of calling it genocide.

The statement said Sudan agreed to attend union-mediated talks on Darfur in Ethiopia July 15, but Reuters reported that the rebels say they will not negotiate unless Khartoum stops arming and supporting the militias. The central government denies it supports the militias.

Bashir told NCR that Khartoum would implement all the recommendations of African Union commission chairman Alpha Oumar Konare and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to bring an immediate end to the Darfur crisis.

“With the same spirit and dedication that we are solving the southern Sudan problem, we are going to solve the Darfur issue,” he said.

“It is our problem and we must solve it. We will address it using not only the established government structures but will also involve other systems which work, like the use of traditional leaders,” Bashir said.

He said that if Africans, through the African Union, succeed in solving the problems in western Sudan, this would be used as a model for conflict resolution, and it would show that Africans are unique in their traditions and level of development.

“Any part of Africa has a great potential for conflicts due to high levels of illiteracy, ignorance, poverty and consequently lack of basic services, like water, roads or schools. All these are a ripe environment for conflict,” he said.

“That is why, as Africans, we are better placed to resolve our own conflicts,” he said. “We understand our situation better than outsiders.” He described the Darfur problem as a resource-based conflict.

He said he was against foreign troops been deployed in the area since this could lead to more conflict. “You see, the foreigners will not understand the people’s cultures. This could complicate the situation and yet we must address the problem now,” Bashir said.

The African Union was founded two years ago to win increased Western investment in return for ending wars and despotism and curbing corruption. Analysts say the situation in Darfur is the union’s first major test.

The United Nations has called the situation in Darfur the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

-- Joseph Adero Ngala

National Catholic Reporter, July 16, 2004

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