Richard Dowden: Darfur can best be resolved by Africans

Pushed by the growing disillusionment of their people, Africa's rulers have begun to address Africa's deeper problems

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The last time there was a disaster in Africa on the scale of Darfur - in Rwanda and the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo in the mid-1990s - it seemed that most of Africa was descending into mayhem and murder. Every country from Somalia on the north-east tip of the continent to Namibia in the south-west was caught up, directly or indirectly, in wars - mostly small, nasty and very lethal. Few fighters die in Africa's wars; the biggest killers are hunger and disease, when millions of poor people are driven from their homes with nothing to support themselves. Meanwhile in West Africa, Sierra Leone, Liberia and great swaths of Nigeria were embroiled in vicious local conflicts.

The last time there was a disaster in Africa on the scale of Darfur - in Rwanda and the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo in the mid-1990s - it seemed that most of Africa was descending into mayhem and murder. Every country from Somalia on the north-east tip of the continent to Namibia in the south-west was caught up, directly or indirectly, in wars - mostly small, nasty and very lethal. Few fighters die in Africa's wars; the biggest killers are hunger and disease, when millions of poor people are driven from their homes with nothing to support themselves. Meanwhile in West Africa, Sierra Leone, Liberia and great swaths of Nigeria were embroiled in vicious local conflicts.

Today, Darfur in western Sudan is the only full-scale war in Africa. Indeed the "main" conflict in Sudan - the five-decade war between north and south - is close to resolution. A ceasefire has been maintained more or less for over a year and final agreement is close. Conflicts flicker on in Congo and Somalia, Côte d'Ivoire could explode again at any minute and parts of Nigeria seem constantly on the brink of catastrophe, but elsewhere, compared to a decade ago, millions more Africans are able to get on with their lives without fear of attack. Whether a momentary pause or real peace, Africa is calmer now than it has been for decades.

This change - I would hesitate to call it transformation - has come about partly because the rest of the world is taking Africa more seriously. Thanks to America's need for West African oil, Tony Blair's determination to push Africa up the political agenda, and fears that an impoverished chaotic Africa may produce or harbour anti-Western Islamists, Western countries have become more engaged in Africa. And on the African side, its governments have become more engaged in issues outside their own countries.

The old Organisation of African Unity had become a club where Africa's boss men met, slapped each other on the back, passed fatuous resolutions and returned home to wreck their countries. Prompted by Libya and led by South Africa, African states formed a new pan-African organisation, the African Union, and gave it a vision and remit far greater than the OAU.

The old principle of non-interference in internal affairs has been superseded by demands for investigation and intervention in other countries' governance. Pushed by the growing disillusionment and anger of their own peoples and stung by the shame of Africa's global image as "a scar on the conscience of the world" or "the hopeless continent", Africa's rulers have begun to address Africa's deeper problems. That includes bringing peace to trouble spots like Darfur.

The Chairman of the AU Commission, its driving body, is Alpha Oumar Konaré, a former president of Mali, who talks reality, not rhetoric, and treats African heads of state as equals. At the AU summit earlier this month, he bluntly told Sudan's president, Omar el-Bashir, that he knew that his government was arming militias and bombing civilians. He did not want denials, he wanted it stopped. Furthermore, the summit agreed to send peacekeeping troops to back up AU observers on the ground in Darfur - even though the Sudan government opposed the idea. That would have been unthinkable five years ago. Darfur will be the test of Africa's determination to deal with its own problems. The AU's credibility depends on making peace there.

Darfur's war has its roots in a centuries-old conflict - essentially the competition for land between settled farmers and the cattle-herding pastoralists who bring their cattle south in the dry season to graze. Where once growing and grazing areas were agreed and disputes settled with a few spears and swords, today the competition for land and the alarming spread of automatic rifles means that such disputes end quickly in total war.

In Darfur, the pastoralists are Arabised Bedouin of the semi-desert zones and the settled farmers are from black African - but Muslim - ethnic groups. Although distinguished as Arab and African, outsiders would be pushed to tell the difference in looks. Intermarriage is common, making "Arab" and "African" political rather than racial labels.

Locally everyone knows who is who and whose side they are on. Now the local land disputes and rivalries are subsumed in a larger and more significant war and when there is an overall ceasefire, there will need to be hundreds of local agreements renegotiated on land rights. It will be a nightmare task.

The rebels started the war because they realised that peace was imminent in the war that has divided Sudan on and off for 50 years. Peace between the Khartoum Arab clique and the southern rebels, the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army, led by John Garang, looked like a stitch-up to the rest of Sudan. Areas such as Darfur, neglected and marginalised like the South, saw they would be cut off from power and the new oil wealth by this new deal. They also saw that war had got Garang into government so they copied him. In turn Bashir saw that if he even began to negotiate with them, he would be sending a message to the rest of Sudan too - war gets you a slice of power and wealth. The Darfur rebellion had to be stopped dead.

Darfur may be a remote province but its politics link directly into the government in Khartoum. What happens here may lead to a fragmentation of the whole country. A settlement on terms too favourable to the rebels could spark revolts among other marginalised peoples. The president is weaker than he looks.

It is against this tricky background that a ceasefire must be negotiated and agreement secured to allow humanitarian aid to reach those in need. Then there must be peace making and reconstruction. The lead player in all of this must be the AU. In the short term, African peacekeeping soldiers must be sent to protect the refugee camps and get food convoys across battle lines.

Tony Blair has already hinted British troops should be sent. Maybe, but only in close co-operation with the AU. This is its war and unilateral action by outsiders trying to save Africa will cause resentment and undermine this new organisation's role. British troops should certainly be kept away from the front line, not just for their own safety, but because, as British, they could be a target for Islamists. Darfur is no Sierra Leone. There, British troops were welcomed and trusted, but Darfur is one of the areas in Africa where British troops would not be welcomed because of their role in Iraq. That is an added complication Darfur does not need. The same goes for the Americans.

Britain's role should be to provide logistics and perhaps airborne surveillance. It could also provide help for a rapid reaction group that could respond quickly to hotspots. Even more important, it should support the laborious and long-term process of bringing leaders of the myriad small communities together to negotiate the competition for land and water.

Successful humanitarian aid missions can be only judged against what might have been and that is hard to quantify. This time, we see what is happening on television every night. If we are still looking at the same pictures in a month, it will not just be a humanitarian mission that failed. It will demonstrate that Africa's new bid to fix its own problems has failed, too.

The writer is Director of the Royal African Society

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