Mo Ibrahim: A way forward for Darfur

By Mo Ibrahim

Posted on Monday, 27 July 2009 00:00

Mo Ibrahim, Founder and Chair of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation

In mid-July a specially-appointed Panel on Darfur will present its findings to the African Union (AU). Set up to look at ways of moving the peace process forward and to present recommendations on the issues of peace, reconciliation and justice, this AU panel is chaired by former South African President Thabo Mbeki and includes former heads of state from Burundi and Nigeria among other eminent Africans. It has consulted openly and comprehensively with civil society, the Sudanese government and the armed movements in Darfur.

The AU’s increased focus on the crisis in Darfur could not have come at a more critical time. Sometime over the next year, national elections are scheduled to take place in Sudan, and then in 2011 there will be a referendum on whether the south of the country wants independence. These major events will both influence and be influenced by the peace process in Darfur. That is why; if the current situation in Darfur is allowed to persist, all these critical events could undermine the unity of the whole country and exacerbate its various regional crises.

I personally have some experience of the conflict in Darfur. In May of this year, my Foundation worked to facilitate the largest ever gathering of Darfurian civil society representatives to collectively articulate their aspirations for the future. Delegates were chosen by a Darfurian steering committee taking into account tribal, ethnic, religious, geographical and gender balance. The resulting mandate, presenting a unified Darfurian voice expressing the Darfurian people’s vision for peace, would have provided new legitimacy to the peace process. The initiative was also backed by a broad-based international coalition, ranging from the Arab League to the AU and including all major international community stakeholders. Unfortunately, at the last minute, the government of Sudan obstructed the safe passage of our delegates from Darfur, forcing us to cancel the conference. This experience and the many others like it provide some important lessons if we are to find a solution to the conflict.

For too long there has been a tedency to view the Darfur issue in isolation. The conflict is symptomatic of broader governance failures that affect the entire country of Sudan, which is a vast, multi-ethnic state that can only function and succeed under an inclusive, tolerant, and representative government. Only through democratic rule and good governance can the country maintain peace and unity. The alternative, sooner or later, will be a failed state, at a vast humanitarian cost.

The ruling National Congress Party (NCP) has been slow to recognise the need for genuine power-sharing and for a government that is representative of the diversity of Sudan. It is totally unacceptable that it is still in denial about events in Darfur, and it is tragic to hear President Omer el Beshir assert that only 10,000 people have died there. Even if that total were to be correct, which it clearly is not, it would still be 10,000 too many.

The NCP must be convinced of the importance of a total separation between party and state, freedom for civil society, a free media, an independent and professional judiciary and free and fair elections. Serious attempts by the NCP to create the conditions for free and fair elections will build confidence among the civilians and armed movements in Darfur that the government is committed to finding an equitable solution to the problems facing the region.

The refusal of the government to set up credible and independent justice mechanisms for Darfur is also unacceptable. A sustainable peace will require justice to be done. We cannot ignore the hundreds of thousands of victims of the Darfur conflict – they were our brothers and sisters and their blood is on our hands. We should consider establishing credible special courts in Sudan – with open proceedings and judges drawn from all over Africa.

There is a need not just for pressure on the NCP to accept these important conditions but also for a ‘carrot’ – a genuine reason for them to engage in constructive dialogue around power-sharing. While I am a great supporter of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and its aims, I do not think the rush to indict President Beshir was helpful. If the NCP displays a genuine commitment to meaningful dialogue and takes steps to put Darfur, and the whole of Sudan, on the road to a lasting and sustainable peace, perhaps we could consider a pause in the ICC proceedings. This could be the carrot that is so desperately needed in international engagement with Sudan.

Years of armed conflict across Sudan, and in recent years particularly in Darfur, have placed immense pressure on the social fabric of the region. With society divided, reconciliation is essential for lasting and durable peace. Civil society groups can and should play a major role here. Initiatives like Mandate Darfur, led by Darfurian people and aimed at defining a common position for all Darfurians, are vital for reconciliation to take place.

Such reconciliation needs to be led from within Darfurian civil society but it should also be supported by the international community, African groups, the Sudanese government and other national institutions. However, reconciliation must be an open and honest process, and it must not be hijacked by groups seeking to further their own agendas. The ruling party must respect civil society and allow it to function independently and honestly.

We cannot enforce or dictate reconciliation, it can only be the outcome of free discussion between free people.

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