Doha reconciliation talks : a remake of Abuja’ deception ?

11 mars 2009
As can be seen by the fact that violence remains a daily routine in Darfour, with war operations being launched against rebel groups and civilian population alike, and the overall situation having fallen into chaos, due to continuous attempts by the Government of Sudan to divide rebel groups, forbid the UNAMID to fulfil its mandate, impede the return of the 2, 7 millions displaced to return home, and refuse to disarm its Janjaweed proxy militias.
This policy of the Khartoum government is so firmly established that none of the truly representative groups have accepted to go into negotiations with the Sudan government. So the JEM acceptance to join the Doha conference came as a surprise. The more so that the JEM was the most extreme in its opposition toKhartoum: its claim is not to obtain an improvement of the lot of the population of Darfur, but rather to topple the Khartoum regime.

JEM’reality behind the show

Discovering “Dr” Khalil Ibrahim on TV, dressed in army fatigue, the face covered by a desert –designed headdress, is highly misleading. Dr Khalil is much more likely to be met in 5 stars hostels of the European capitals, conveniently dressed in suit and tie, than among his fighters in the arid landscapes of Northern Darfur, where the movement is operating.
Who is JEM ? One of the two movements that launched the rebellion against the government forces in Darfur by the end of 2002, it is completely different from its competitor, the SLA. While the latter is a secularist group, with a broad constituency among the peasants and herders of the slopes and plateaus surrounding the jebel Marra, the Massalit of the West and the Zaghawa groups scattered throughout the area, who demand an equal treatment from the central government as the relatively privileged inhabitants of the Nile valley, the JEM emanates from the small Tiné clan of the Zaghawa, on the fringes of the desert and at the border of Chad. Whereas the Zaghawa don’t account more than 8 % of the whole population of Darfur, this clan can not represent more than 1 % of it. But its relative strength comes from a combination of different and sometimes conflicting factors.

An offspring of the Sudanese Islamic movement

Khalil Ibrahim was one of the educated youth from the peripheries of the country, that joined Hassan al-Turabi in support of its claimed intend to broaden the base of the Sudanese central power by the integration of members of peripheral regions into its National Islamic Front. So “Dr” Khalil Ibrahim (he did not complete his medical education), serving as an agent of the National Security and a militant of the National Islamic Front, became a Minister of Health in Northern Darfur, and later in the war torn South during the 90’s. From his short assignment in Darfur, he is only remembered for having squandered the whole budget of his Ministry.
But the long term view of Hassan al-Turabi met with a staunch resistance of the members of the party that claimed an Arab and Muslim identity and who didn’t endorse Hassan al-Turabi‘s dreams of an islamic revolution at the world scale. So when its mentor was put under house arrest following the internal coup of the cadres of the party grouped around Omer el Bechir in 1999, Khalil Ibrahim went into launching an armed rebellion. Hassan al-Turabi, from its prison, having kept the keys of the treasury of the party, and the upper hand on its following in the provinces, provided the funds and the agenda: the toppling of his former comrades, with Darfour as the starting ground.

The power base of the Zaghawa Chadian power structure

Khalil Ibrahim, belonging to the sultan’s family of Tiné, is a cousin to President Idriss Deby from Chad. His folk played a major role to establish him in this position, by chasing the former president, Hissein Habré, back in 1990. So Khalil Ibrahim was in position to request from his cousin a military support that was generously, albeit reluctantly given to him, the Ndjamena regime fearing the retaliation of Khartoum on its fragile grip on power.
A small tribal base, an islamist predicament and a strong military and logistical external support, that’s what the JEM is about.

All the JEM is Zaghawa, but few Zaghawa are JEM

It has to be mentioned here that the Zaghawa people are in their majority not represented by this group and this agenda. Since the mid-eighties where most of them shifted from a nomadic life of camel herders to a sedentary life of farmers and petty traders, a strong business community emerged through the smuggling trade between Sudan and Libya. These affluent merchants give a strong support to the cause of Darfur, but with no preference toward JEM. Many prominent leaders of the rebellion emanate from the Zaghawa community. But they do not support a Zaghawa, an islamic or Chadian agenda. It should be sufficient to name Dr Sherif Harir, a distinguished anthropologist at the university of Bergen in Norway, who has been exposing the causes of backwardness and poverty of Darfur for over 20 years, and who now leads the group of fractions united under the Eritrean umbrella ; Dr Suleiman Jamous, the former co-ordinator for humanitarian aid of the SLA, a senior activist well respected among the INGOs and the UN agencies, who now joined the SLA-Unity group, and last Mini Minnawi, a former school master, assistant to the leader of the SLA, Abdelwahid Mohamed Nur, whom he betrayed at the Haskanit conference in October 2005, with the backing of the CIA . Mini Minnawi claimed to be the new Chairman, imposed by the foreign trustees at the table of negotiations in Abuja, and was at last the only one to sign the short lived peace agreement. He was rewarded with the title of “Special assistant to the president” Omar al-Bashir, and his troops were integrated into the Sudanese army. They ended up attacking villages alongside of the janjaweed, their former enemies, and fighting their former comrades of the SLA.And Mini Minnawi is now so fearful and so isolated, being unable to deliver a peace in Darfur at Khartoum’s conditions, that a few years after having been received at the White House by President George Bush, he keeps cautiously away from Khartoum.
So there was no point for the Khartoum government to negotiate with a baseless movement, unable to help bringing peace to Darfur.

How to save soldier Al-Bashir ?

Khartoum is facing an emergency: the threat of seeing the president Omer al-Bashir being indicted by the general prosecutor of the CPI of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur is becoming a major concern. The Western countries have at last decided to take support the action of the CPI. Not that they want a regime change in Khartoum: the indictment of general Bechir is a way to clear the entire regime, which is a tightly knit system involving a closed number of decision-makers, of its collective responsibility. The possible removal of General Al-Bashir would then only give way to a more presentable leader, to be chosen among the core group of the former NIF, with no change in the regime long term policy.
It has not been an easy move, since the US strongly oppose any empowerment of the CPI, that could one day lead them to be held accountable of their acts in war operations. And because there are shared secrets between Khartoum and Washington, as far as cooperation in the “war on terror” is concerned. And because the Khartoum government is a reliable business partner for all western countries, and that it is ready to share the resources of its country with foreign companies.
So the Doha talks are just an attempt to save soldier Al-Bashir, with the staunch support of the Qatari government, that has been a long time advocate of the Sudan islamist regime cause in the international arena. It was well known from the start that the SLA of Abdelwahid Mohamed Nour, the only really politically representative group of a large array of ethnic and social groups of the population of Darfur, and foremost the displaced, wouldn’t be ready to play the game: their priority remains the return of the displaced to their homes, an adequate compensation for their plight, and the disarming of the janjaweed. This has all been promised several times by the GOS. But nothing has been done, not least because, on Khartoum’s side, there does not seem to be any will to return to the pre-war situation, let alone to grant any concessions to the rebels.
Khartoum could not even rely on the Mini Minnawi faction, which is not ready to give credit any more to Khartoum’s commitments. And the group supported by Eritrea is in search of an way out of the crisis that would give the Asmara regime the credit and status of a alued peace broker in the subregion, from Somalia to Chad.

The GOS and the JEM, unexpected bedfellows

JEM remained the sole option. It might seem paradoxical that it would have been interested in a fake peace agreement, less than one year after its failed attack on Khartoum. This attack has proven that its aim was foremost the toppling of the present regime, and in pursuing it, it didn’t care of the price to be paid by their kin : the repression by the regime, after the defeat of the aggressors, has been merciless: mass man’s hunt and random arrests, torture and killings have been systematic on the Darfourians living in Khartoum, and especially the Zaghawa.
But if the GOS needed this show of goodwill to try to appease Western countries, and close the ranks of their supporters throughout the Arab and Muslim world, the JEM itself had no choice than to abide by the tempting Qatari pressures, and to show the goodwill requested by the UN, the African Union and the Arab League.

Bad times for the JEM

The JEM is in effect under pressure from the Chadian government, although he twice saved in the recent months, as a proxy militia which was able to check the attacks of Chadian rebels supported by Khartoum, that were about to overcome the Chadian governmental Forces. In order to secure a lasting peace with Sudan, and obtain the halt of the Sudanese support to its challengers, the Chadian president is now ready to expel the JEM cadres and troops, back inside the Sudanese territory : there they would be an easy prey for both Khartoum’s the ground and aerial forces.
The JEM, as all rebel movements, is also under pressure from the international community, which has to take its revenge over the blow of Abuja. Negotiators and facilitators of all kind had spent a lot of money to get GOS and rebel negotiators mend fences, and nothing came out of these one year-long exhausting seven rounds of negotiations. They had been helplessly seeing the dividing manoeuvres of the GOS, the lavish corruption by the Nigerian guests, but the general mood of the international staff present in Abuja had been to fall on the helpless rebels who refused to sign a peace agreement void of any guarantee and any serious commitment by the GOS.

The international community united behind Khartoum

For various reasons, there has been from the start a tacit agreement for all foreign powers to search a swift settlement to the Darfur crisis, at any cost for the civilian population. Behind the humanitarian show and the useless international military deployment are only a few concerns that matter: Darfour is just a marginal problem, hiding the danger of a collapse of Sudan, the largest country in Africa, and a country that is blessed with plentiful resources attracting a tense and global competition. The Sudan government should therefore not be put at risk of collapse: his ruthless grip on the country is able and competent, with a clear view of world and regional affairs. It wants to develop the country in the frame of the global economy, and its islamic and arabist predicament is just a tool to obtain the submission of internal segments of the population, and foremost a blind support of the Arab and Islamic world. So no one is any more keen to go for a regime change. Even the SPLA has become the staunchest supporter of general Al-Bashir, in fear of an untimely crumbling of the Naivasha agreement, which is in in its view the gate open to independence. So yes to a weakened Bashir, that could be easier to handle, but still a Bashir, and let’s hope for general elections this year, and for a successful referendum on independence in 2011 !
The more so because there is no other option than this government : the opposition is weakened and divided, so the lessons of Iraq should not be forgotten… In short, it can safely be said that the Doha talks, although being presented as a turn in the crisis of Darfur, are nothing but an attempt to present the Sudan government as in search of partners for peace, and the CPI as a dangerous war monger, who could, if not checked, endanger the wholehearted search for peace of Khartoum. It remains to be seen if the CPI will abide by the pressures of western countries who want to avoid having Bashir put in the corner. If he should be removed as a scapegoat for the crimes of the regime, it could only be from inside the national islaic Front in power, and the balance of forces at that moment is certainly not in favour of those who would defend that option: in face of dwindling oil revenues, the regime will be a need to tighten its control over the population, with the National Security keeping the upper hand on strategic options, which is no good news for Darfur nor for the rest of the country.