Global Policy Forum

Darfur Tests Africa's Ability to Police Itself


By Laurie Goering

Chicago Tribune
August 25, 2004

A decade ago, the Organization of African Unity stood by as genocide in Rwanda claimed close to a million lives. Now a new crisis in Darfur is testing Africa's promise to begin policing its own conflicts, and leaders are showing early signs of stepping up to the challenge, Africa analysts said Tuesday.

Sudan's government and rebels from its western region of Darfur started peace talks this week in Nigeria's capital, Abuja. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, chairman of the new African Union, is host of the meetings.

The union, which replaced the discredited and ineffective Organization of African Unity, was launched in 2002 with a new power: the right to intervene militarily in Africa's conflicts. So far that power has been used only once, to deploy a small contingent of peacekeepers to tense Burundi. But Obasanjo would like to send 2,000 troops to Darfur, a move strongly opposed by Sudan's government in Khartoum.

Whether African troops ultimately arrive in Darfur--or whether African leaders such as Obasanjo can find another way to halt the conflict--will say a great deal about whether the African Union is serious about bringing change to the continent, analysts say. "The African Union has the chance, in its embryonic state, to demonstrate in a dramatic way that it can make a difference in Africa," said John Prendergast, a special Africa adviser to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, an organization specializing in conflict analysis.

The African Union's record on resolving conflicts has not been particularly strong thus far. Two years after he intimidated the opposition and stole democratic elections, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe remains in office, despite promises by South Africa that it is engaging in "quiet diplomacy" behind the scenes.

That failure has undermined the New Partnership for Africa's Development, a South African-led initiative that seeks greater foreign investment in Africa in exchange for good governance and self-policing of the continent's conflicts. "We see Zimbabwe as undermining the entire subregion," said Jendayi Frazer, the new U.S. ambassador to South Africa. Zimbabwe's food surpluses, which once helped feed hungry neighbors throughout Southern Africa, have disappeared as Mugabe's disastrous land-redistribution effort has left much of the country's rich fields fallow.

Mbeki, Obasanjo lead way

The Darfur crisis has attracted a stronger response from the African Union for a variety of reasons. First, African leaders more committed to solving the continent's problems are emerging, particularly South Africa's Thabo Mbeki and Nigeria's Obasanjo. They have stepped forward to help place United Nations, African Union and regional peacekeeping troops from Congo to Liberia.

"There are more pragmatic attitudes in Africa--that we can take care of our own affairs," said John Stremlau, head of the international relations department at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. That also has helped build what he called "a more effective partnership between the northern rich countries and African countries to promote peace and security."

The United States and Europe, recognizing that conflict zones in Africa could become breeding grounds for terrorism, have pressed the African Union to find a resolution to the conflict in Sudan and have increasingly promised financial support for African peacekeeping efforts.

The growing push for intervention in Sudan also has been driven by Rwanda's government, which--like many governments and world bodies--has promised to stop genocide from recurring elsewhere.

African governments also have been spurred toward action in Darfur by reports that most of the atrocities there--an estimated 30,000 dead, widespread rape and the destruction of villages--have been perpetrated by government-backed Arab militias against black Africans. "The racial dimension is no doubt real," Stremlau said. "Sub-Saharan Africans don't like their brothers and sisters being abused by Arabs."

An embarrassing spotlight

But the biggest factor driving intervention in Darfur, a region under attack for a year and a half, may simply be the increasing international spotlight, which has embarrassed African leaders who have promised to lead the way in solving the continent's problems, by military force if necessary.

That will be easier in coming years. The African Union is in the process of creating a standby force of African peacekeepers capable of moving quickly into conflict zones. That body--five brigades spread across the continent--is expected to be in place by 2010. Until then, smaller forces from African nations will fill the gap. Rwanda and Nigeria have offered to send troops to Darfur. Whether that will happen, over Sudan's objections, remains to be seen.

Still, "I think the African Union is getting some teeth," Frazer said Tuesday. Though organizing and paying for interventions remains a problem, "there's a willingness to respond to crisis, there's a willingness to intervene," she said.

More Information on the Security Council
More Information on Regional Organizations and UN Peacekeeping
More Information on the Darfur Crisis


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