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Conflict Resolution in Africa

March 12, 2008


Two New York Times columnists, Roger Cohen and Nicholas Kristof, recently wrote about two situations in Africa that appear to have very different stories unfolding. Cohen wrote about Kofi Annan’s apparent success in brokering a power-sharing arrangement in Kenya; thus, preventing further bloodshed in that country [“African Genocide Averted,” 3 March 2008]. Kristof, on the other hand, wrote about another tragedy brewing in Sudan [“Africa’s Next Slaughter,” 2 March 2008]. Kristof begins his column reporting that Arab militiamen have surrounded the little town of Abyei in southern Sudan, ready to carry out ethnic cleansing approved by Sudan’s central government.

“In the 1980s and 1990s, it was here that the government perfected the techniques that later became notorious in Darfur: mass rape and murder by armed militias, so as to terrorize civilians and drive them away. Now Sudan is coming full circle, apparently preparing to apply the same techniques again to Abyei and parts of the south. With international attention distracted by Darfur and the United States presidential race, the Sudanese government now is chipping away at the 2005 peace treaty that ended the north-south war in Sudan. If war erupts, as many expect, the flash point will probably be here in Abyei, where the northern government is pumping oil from wells it refuses to give up.”

If war does break out as Kristof predicts, China’s role in supporting the Sudanese government will again hit the news and may very well upstage the Olympic Games Beijing will be hosting this year. China’s relationship with the government has already caused a clamor because China has not pressured Sudan to stop the fighting in Darfur. An estimated 1,000 people a day continue to be displaced there. This apparent lack of interest on the part of China caused Steven Spielberg to quit his role as an advisor to the Beijing Olympics. Kristof appears almost certain that bloodshed will come.

“Since late November, there have been repeated clashes in the Abyei area between South Sudan’s armed forces and a large tribe of Arab nomads, the Misseriya, which is armed and backed by the Sudanese government in Khartoum. Mr. Paguot said that several hundred people had been killed in these clashes, and that some of the gunmen were government soldiers who had taken off their uniforms to masquerade as tribal fighters. On Feb. 7, gunmen from the Misseriya shot up and looted a bus arriving in Abyei and began blockading the road that leads into the town from the north. That has cut off supplies, so shops in the town market are running out of fuel and food, and prices are rising. ‘It is reaching a critical point for the poor,’ said Jason Matus, a United Nations official in Abyei. A group of Misseriya has appointed officials to create their own government for Abyei and has threatened to march in with thousands of armed men to install it. This is almost exactly the same approach that President Omar al-Bashir has taken in Darfur: arm the janjaweed and unleash them on a black African population, then dismiss the slaughter as just ‘tribal fighting.’ [Joseph Dut Paguot, the acting government administrator in the Abyei region]said that 16,000 militia members were gathered on the north side of Abyei, backed by a few tanks and many pickup trucks with mounted machine guns, ready to invade. They aren’t called the janjaweed, but it’s the same idea.”

With a cowering population and little international attention or support, the people of southern Sudan (and Kristof) are probably justified in their negative assessments — in spite of some efforts that Kristof reports have been made locally to achieve a peaceful solution.

“Some local officials and Misseriya elders have worked heroically to avert violence, but state-controlled newspapers in Khartoum are carrying false reports of attacks on Arabs, inflaming tensions. In the 2005 peace agreement that ended 20 years of war between North and South Sudan, both sides agreed to accept the ‘final and binding’ ruling of the Abyei Boundary Commission. But President Bashir has rejected the findings because they would mean giving up oil wells. The agreement came about because of tireless diplomacy by the Bush administration, but since then Washington has dropped the ball. It is still possible to avert a new slaughter here, but only if there is a major international effort — involving the United Nations, Egypt, China and Europe as well as the United States — to ensure that the peace agreement is followed and that President Bashir will pay a price for attacking the south.”

China is critical because its primary relationship with Sudan is about oil — and oil is at the heart of the Abyei crisis.

“A crucial step would be for China to suspend transfers of arms to Sudan until the Khartoum government works for peace with the south and in Darfur. Unfortunately, China refuses to take that step. Mr. Bashir’s plan seems to be to encourage Arab nomads to drive out other ethnic groups from areas with oil. Then once fighting begins, he would have an excuse to cancel national elections next year — which he would almost surely lose — and he might be able to rally Sudanese Arabs behind him in a nationalist campaign to hold on to the oil fields. So remember this little town of Abyei. It’s the tinderbox for Africa’s next war, which will probably resemble Darfur but be carried out on a much wider scale.”

Cohen’s column is about a much different outcome — at least in the short term. Cohen provides an inside look at how Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General, managed to broker a power-sharing deal between Kenya’s president, “Mwai Kibaki, who had been declared the narrow winner of a demonstrably rigged election, and Raila Odinga, the opposition leader who felt robbed.” Annan brought with him several personal characteristics required by any negotiator who hopes gain traction in a negotiation process. First, he is well-known and respected, which means he could not be easily dismissed by the feuding parties. Second, he had the backing of the international community. Finally, he has an amazingly calm and reasoned demeanor. The first thing that Annan did, according to Cohen, was to ensure that when he spoke for the international community he was not one of many competing voices.

“He [placed] calls to U.S., European and African leaders. His message … was clear: ‘I said we have to make sure there’s just one mediation process. Otherwise you have the protagonists trying to bottom shop, looking elsewhere if they don’t like what you’re offering. You get diplomatic tourism and that’s no good.’ Kenya was burning. Kenya, the stable East African country from which international officials had fanned out to confront crises in Somalia, Rwanda and Darfur. Kenya, impossible mosaic of some 40 tribes that somehow held. That Kenya, 45 years after independence, was fissuring.”

As an African, Annan felt an urgency about the situation that non-African diplomats could barely appreciate. He entered the country filled with determination.

“Annan, arriving on Jan 22, had one obsession: ”We can’t let this happen to Kenya.’ Not after the one million dead between Rwanda and Darfur. Not after his UN tenure produced agreement at the world summit of 2005 on ‘R2P’ the global ‘responsibility to protect’ citizens in states whose own governments prove unable to do so. ‘Kenya had been the safe haven in a tumultuous region and suddenly Kenya itself was going,’ Annan said. ‘And when you have ethnic violence, if you don’t mediate quickly, you get a hopeless situation.’ Yes, ethnic
killing erupts like milk boiling up. Within weeks of the disputed Dec. 27 election, several hundred dead had pushed several hundred thousand people into flight. A single tribal murder is a huge dispersal multiplier: one dead, one thousand on the move. The math of national decomposition is implacable. Luos killing Kikuyus. Kikuyus murdering in revenge. Kalenjins getting in the mix. Everywhere, ethnic lines being drawn in blood and ashes. We’ve seen this movie once too often since the Cold War ended.”

Despite his stature and determination, Annan did not have an easy time getting the disputing parties to talk; but, he persevered and a month later achieved an agreement. Cohen believes the resolution could be used as model in other such disputed power-sharing situations.

“Annan focused first on halting the killing because ‘nobody could say I am not for stopping violence.’ He listened to calls for ‘reruns, recounts,’ but knew ‘bad decisions get people killed.’ He endured harangues from Martha Karua, the justice minister, who said she was ‘breathless’ at how Annan was ‘encouraging violence and lack of respect for the rule of law’ by demanding power sharing with Odinga. Kibaki’s team kept saying, ‘We won it fair and square,’ as Odinga’s countered, ‘You stole it fair and square.’ Kibaki, a Kikuyu, talked of ‘accommodating’ the opposition; Odinga, a Luo, bridled. If pushed, he would form ‘an alternative government.’ ‘It took a while to convince them that there was no way either side could run the country without the other, that it was a perfect political gridlock,’ Annan told me. He got a German official to explain grand coalitions. He got Jakaya Kikwete, the Tanzanian leader, to talk about how presidents and prime ministers work together. He was helped by President George W. Bush declaring during his recent African visit that ‘there ought to be a power sharing agreement.’ Kibaki’s foreign minister retorted that Kenya would not be ‘given conditions by foreign states’ — the old anti-imperialist thing. But this was international intervention of another kind. The pressure cornered Kibaki. He ceded, empowering Odinga as a prime minister with authority anchored by constitutional change. ‘When we talk of intervention, people think of the military,’ Annan said. ‘But under R2P, force is a last resort. Political and diplomatic intervention is the first mechanism. And I think we’ve seen a successful example of its application.’ Some will quibble over technicalities, but Kenya kindled the somnolent spirit of R2P.”

Kenya is blessed with breathtaking animal preserves and warm beaches. It relies heavily on its tourist trade and that sector has suffered mightily since the presidential election. Hopefully, Annan’s peaceful resolution of the political crisis will hold — though it’s off to a slow start. I’m not as sanguine as Cohen, but I’m crossing my fingers. As for Sudan, without China’s help (it holds the purse strings) there will be no resolution beyond more killing and suffering.

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