Who Was Behind the Darfur Raid?

  • Share
  • Read Later

The killing of 10 African Union peacekeepers in Darfur has highlighted the political complexity of Africa's worst humanitarian crisis. That's because the perpetrators of Saturday's attack at Haskanita, which also left up to 50 more peacekeeping troops missing, appear to have been a breakaway group of Darfur rebels. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the large-scale attack on the AU camp that killed seven Nigerian soldiers, an officer from Senegal and two observers from Botswana. The Sudanese government blamed the rebels, who in turn pointed fingers at the Sudanese army or its proxy, the Janjaweed militia. But reports from the scene indicate that the attackers were, in fact, from a breakaway group calling itself (apparently without irony) the Sudanese Liberation ArmyľUnity. The Nigerian commander of the U.N.-mandated AU force, General Martin Luther Agwai, implicitly implicated anti-government forces. "Rebel groups, who indulge in such random violence and bloodshed, undermine their own credibility on any negotiation table," he said. The reports suggest the SLA-U's motive was to steal weapons and vehicles, or perhaps damage a force they accuse of bias.

The incident at Haskanita is a reminder of the sometimes simplistic understanding of the Darfur crisis in Western public opinion: This schema divides the territory into bad guys — the Arab supremacist Janjaweed, their backers in the Sudanese government and their protectors in the oil-hungry Chinese government — and good guys, the oppressed African Darfuris. And it frames the issue simply as one of genocide; i.e., the attempt to eliminate an entire group of people. This view is common among many of the Western-based advocates of intervention in Darfur and of stepping up pressure on China (through, for example, boycotting the 2008 Olympic Games) to squeeze the government in Khartoum.

That the Janjaweed are bad guys is beyond doubt — they precipitated a conflict that has killed 200,000 and left 2 million homeless in four years, and their own catalogue of atrocities includes mass murder, wholesale rape and burning of "enemy" villages. The same is true of the Sudanese government, which has instigated and supported the Janjaweed reign of terror, and also of Beijing, which shows ruthless cynicism by shielding Khartoum from international sanction in keeping with its insistence that countries should be left to manage their own internal affairs — a position driven by its desire to protect its oil interests in southern Sudan.

Where the analysis falls short is in its depiction of all Darfuris as good guys. There's no question that the penniless refugees threatened with famine and violence deserve all the support the international community can muster — and, to the shame of the international community, that's a lot less than they've been getting. But the situation is more complex than simply Arabs waging genocide against Africans. Many Darfuri Arabs oppose the fanaticism of the Janjaweed. And some of the rebel groups fighting the government and the Janjaweed are, if anything, even more intolerant in their Islamic beliefs than their enemies are. Meanwhile, the latest attack shows that to group all 17 Darfuri rebel groups and splinter factions under the same banner is to ignore the complex network of rivalries that divide them and which, as TIME reported last spring, has even led some to ally themselves with breakaway Janjaweed commanders.

Na´ve analysis can produce simplistic solutions. A robust peacekeeping mission, mandated to protect civilians, is certainly a key element to ending the bloodshed in Darfur. But peacekeepers alone are not enough to solve the problem. It also requires the consent of those rebel factions that have thus far rejected the peace terms accepted by the government and the main rebel leadership — in fact, it requires that the rebels unite behind a single civilian leadership to represent all Darfuris. Equally important to the prospects for peace will be economic development, not only in order to diminish the appeal of warfare to the combatants but also in recognition of the fact that the conflict is partly driven by the increasing scarcity of resources in a drought-ravaged part of the world. Indeed, it might be argued that one of the most effective steps toward resolving the conflict would be a halt to the climate-change patterns that have caused the creeping desertification at the roots of a conflict that began as one between nomads and pastoralists over land. While that may be, at best, a long-term hope, more immediate challenges may be to end the 16-year civil war in Somalia in order to free up more African peacekeeping troops, and to find enough water and firewood to sustain the 2 million refugees who have all but exhausted supplies in and around their camps.

Even before the question of whether meeting this daunting list of challenges is within the capacity of the international community, thus far it has demonstrated depressingly little will to tackle the depths of the problem. Saturday's attack serves as a sharp reminder that oversimplifying the crisis in Darfur is no solution at all.