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

Share

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

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

JavaScript Developer (Angular, Web Forms, HTML5, Ext JS,CSS3)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: JavaScript Dev...

BC2

£50000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

SAP Data Migration Consultant

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a FTSE 100 organisation are u...

Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Simon Usborne: The more you watch pro cycling, the more you understand its social complexity

Simon Usborne
 

i Editor's Letter: The final instalment of our WW1 series

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice