Saturday, May 23, 2009

Winds of change

Change promised by President Barack Obama is coming swiftly to Africa.

The change is in focus and approach: focus on finding a solution to festering problems and approaching the issues through collective action -- if possible.

Key areas are Sudan and Darfur.

This past week the State Department announced that U.S. special envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, will travel to China, Qatar, Britain and France to revive the sagging Darfur peace talks.

China clearly is a key to ending the nearly six-year war between the Khartoum government led by President Omar al-Bashir and the ethnic "African" majority of rebels fighting in Darfur.

Al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in connection with Darfur, depends on the petro-dollars that flow into the country from China and other countries who buy Sudanese oil.

Getting China, which routinely turns a blind eye to Africa's turmoil as long as its investments turn profits, to help pressure Sudan to change its Darfur policy, would be a huge accomplishment. China has long denied responsiblity for arming or financing Sudan's role in the Darfur conflict.

But China is just the first stop.

Gration then meets with counterparts from Russia, Britain, France and the European Union in Doha, Qatar, which has been a broker of the Darfur peace talks.

He then travels to London to reconvene a Sudan diplomatic troika of the United States, Britain and Norway.

In London Gration sits down with the Contact Group on Sudan -- Canada, the European Union, France, Netherlands, Norway, Britain and the United States -- which is following up on the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

The agreement, as most know, ended 22 years of war between Sudan's north and south, the longest civil war in Africa that led to the deaths of around 2 million people and displaced millions more.

Critical to that deal was the sharing of oil revenues between Khartoum and South Sudan -- a source of conflict between the two entities.

Looming in the background of these talks are Sudanese national elections scheduled for February of next year and an independence referendum for South Sudan in 2011.

Whether either will happen is in doubt. Already the Khartoum government has pushed South Sudanese Dinka tribesmen out of the oil-rich Abyei region and is said to be behind ethnic clashes deeper in South Sudan which have killed at least 700 to 800 people in the past couple of months.

The Contact Group last met in Brussels in December. High on the agenda this time has to be what the international community can and will do to insure that the elections take place -- events that are critical to both peace in Sudan and stability in the region.

This will not be easy, and most likely will be resisted by al-Bashir and his National Congress Party in Khartoum which is loathe to let the south secede, just as they cling to the desire to remake Darfur into a pro-Khartoum ethnic "Arab" province.

A critical stop on the Gration tour will be his stop in Paris to meet not only with senior French officials, but with the leader of the Sudan Liberation Army, a rebel faction headed by Abdul Wahid Mohammed Nur, self-exiled in France.

As leader of one of the key rebel groups, Nur has refused to engage in peace talks with Sudan unless and until Sudan not only ceases hostilities in Darfur, but withdraws.

Considering the history of Darfur and the ICC charges against al-Bashir and two others in Sudan, a ranking cabinet minister and a janjaweed militia commander, the demands seem reasonable.

One of the major failures of peace talks for Darfur has been the fracturing of the rebels into some 20 groups. This has allowed Sudan to point fingers at the rebels as the primary impediment to peace and deflect blame from themselves.

Uniting or consolidating the rebels would be a major step forward. Gration will try to convince Nur to drop some of his demands and join the peace process.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly described the trip as an effort by the State Department to "align positions" in the international community on the Darfur peace process.

It is an interesting choice of words, but appropriate.

Although the peace mission in Darfur is technically under the 2007 United Nations and African Union joint peacekeeping force called UNAMID, it has languished under a lack of commitment from contributors and leadership, largely from the diplomatic ineptitude of the Bush administration.

Gration is attempting to provide that leadership.

The U.S., the region, and the world have nothing to lose and much to gain. If the international community and the rebels can show something of a united front on Darfur, it might get the begrudging agreement of the Sudanese government to reverse its decision to expel 13 humanitarian organizations from Darfur after the ICC warrants were issued against al-Bashir.

This would be good news for millions of Darfuris stranded by the forced abandonment of the aid groups.

But it also might lay the groundwork for serious efforts to end the six-year conflict that has claimed 300,000 lives and forced more than 2.2 million people to flee.

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