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An African struggle

In 2003 I knew little about what or even where Darfur was. Then I met Abdelbagi Jibril, a Darfurian human rights advocate. ‘Bagi’, as we now fondly call him, is a quiet man, almost shy. Yet the agony of what was being done to his home weighed too much on him. He tried to tell whoever had ears, but no-one seemed to listen.

At a meeting of the Africa Commission in The Gambia, Bagi explained that a place in Sudan was being utterly ignored; yet very serious human rights violations were being committed. Did he mean Southern Sudan, I wondered, where a civil war had been raging for 20 years?

No, he said. There was another place, called Darfur. And it was bleeding. He talked of hundreds systematically murdered, thousands forced to flee, properties stolen and homes razed to the ground. He spoke of young girls being gang raped and of men and boys maimed. The clincher, though, was that this was a Government-sponsored campaign.

Rwanda rerun

Bagi’s story touched a nerve with me. As a reporter covering the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the similarities brought my past experiences flooding back.

It was in April 1994 that Rwanda fell apart. In Darfur it was April 2003. I remembered the dead bodies that littered the paths, hill tops, gardens and rivers in Rwanda, and the militias called _Interahamwe_ that killed and raped with no remorse.

After Rwanda came a period of reflection. Ashamed of its inaction as a million people were being slaughtered, the world swore ‘never again’. Was history now repeating itself?

When Darfur exploded it was just as ferocious – only it did not capture the same media attention. There were few pictures of the dead, no images of the thousands of malnourished children. The Sudanese Government kept a tight lid on Darfur in an apparent attempt to fool the world. But as we say in Africa: ‘Blood smells far and wide.’

That is why a group of African human rights advocates decided to put Darfur where it needed to be; on everyone’s lips. We founded The Darfur Consortium, a campaign born out of a deep conviction that the international response had been utterly inadequate, and that a coalition of Africa-focused organizations might be able to get some much-needed political movement.

As we began the campaign, different players’ engagement with the conflict was fragmented, polarized and deeply politicized. Left-wing conspiracy theories were playing into the hands of the Sudanese Government: the conflict was exaggerated, they suggested; it was an economic war, and the West’s real interest was in Sudan’s vast oil and mineral riches. In post 9/11 geopolitics, the US and Britain were in the dock over their true agendas.

On the other hand, China and Russia remained cagey, and the Arab world empathized openly with Khartoum. They saw Sudan – a ‘brotherly Arab country’ – as fighting an insurrection that was supported by the West.

This highly charged political climate was obscuring the realities on the ground and jeopardizing an effective international response. For example, in late 2004 the US accused the Government of Sudan of the crime of genocide after conducting an investigation among Darfurian refugees in Chad. But quick and explicit rejection of this charge by both the African Union (AU) and the Arab League gave the unhelpful impression that the assessment was politically motivated and thus not to be taken seriously.

Pan-African campaigning

From the start we acknowledged the complexity of the Darfur conflict: it is misleading to describe it as pitting ‘Arabs’ against ‘Black Africans’ or as simply arising from tension between pastoralists and farmers. There is a deep-rooted discrimination and marginalization at the heart of the crisis.

We worked closely with Darfurian and Sudanese activists to ensure a credible basis on which we could speak, while avoiding antagonistic, overly politicized and simplistic positions. And as a pan-African coalition we were uniquely able to bring together Arab North African and sub-Saharan African perspectives.

The Sudanese Government kept a tight lid on Darfur. But as we say in Africa: ‘Blood smells far and wide’

We decided to root our case in existing international humanitarian law. Our initial focus was on the role the AU needed to play. Established in 2001, it was a new organization, a reconfiguration of the old Organization of African Unity (OAU). It seemed more progressive, less inhibited by the political interference that had made the work of the OAU difficult. The protection of human rights had been made an organizational objective, and the right to intervene in ‘grave circumstances, namely war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity’ was enshrined in its constitution. As the AU was playing a leading role in the Darfur crisis, brokering the political negotiations and deploying ceasefire monitoring troops on the ground, clearly African civil society had an opportunity to make a vital contribution.

However, the Consortium’s mix of member organizations – some of them international – meant we could also reach non-African hearts. By March 2005 the Consortium was simultaneously conducting a sustained campaign at the UN Security Council in New York, monitoring the shifting AU position from Abuja and Addis Ababa, pressing the Arab League summit in Algiers and undertaking advocacy with governments and missions in Geneva, London, Khartoum and Cairo.

Glimmers of success

Our first major achievement was to get Darfur referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the prosecution of individuals. Here, the Consortium’s ‘African’ identity opened many doors. We encountered a lot of opposition to the ICC, with alternative ‘African solutions’ being touted in preference to ‘international’ approaches. The Consortium argued that the ICC was both an international _and_ an African court – and that the people of Darfur deserved justice on the basis of our common humanity. Our voices were heard and ICC proceedings were launched in March 2005.

As the carnage continued, the Government in Khartoum announced it would be celebrating 50 years of independence in 2006. It was the right occasion, they reasoned, for Sudan to chair the AU. This was being treated by other African countries as an almost foregone conclusion! Working with progressive African leaders we waged a campaign to oppose the move.

We wrote letters asking African Heads of State to examine carefully the role and function of the AU. It was tasked with vital peace-brokering and peace-keeping responsibilities in Darfur. How would a Sudanese Presidency impact on its credibility and effectiveness as guardian of peace and security on the continent? Many were persuaded, and Sudan was denied the post.

Undeterred, in January 2007 Sudan was _again_ seeking the AU Presidency and we had to repeat our campaign, given that nothing much had changed in Darfur – indeed the conflict had worsened. The Heads of State listened and passed the AU leadership to Ghana.

Our campaigning is having an impact, in part because it brings to the fore ordinary African voices that are usually left unheard. In September 2006 we participated in the first global ‘Day For Darfur’ with events in Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Africa and Senegal. They ranged from candlelit vigils in remembrance of the victims, film shows, street protests, petitions to Sudanese embassies, even talk shows. Law-makers, journalists, toddlers, religious leaders, the elderly, schoolchildren, artists and activists graced these events. Many were addressed by leading Africans, including Desmond Tutu and Wole Soyinka. As a direct result, more political leaders began to voice concerns about the plight of Darfurians. After the second Day for Darfur in December 2006, one African country actually increased its troop contribution to the region.

We continue to make progress. In February 2007 the ICC named names and called for two Sudanese men to be arrested for crimes against humanity. Although at present they are being shielded by Khartoum we continue to push for them to be held to account. We hope this will deter more violence. And, under the leadership of Dr Salim Ahmed Salim, former Secretary General of the OAU, there is the chance that a more inclusive Darfur Peace Agreement might be in the offing.

Learning the hard way

The struggle to bring peace to Darfur is proving as rugged as the conflict itself. Members of the Consortium have been arrested and threatened. Some still live under the shadow of fear for their personal safety. But bringing justice to those who have a right to it is more urgent now than ever.

For many, Darfur has been a barometer of how well (or poorly) the AU is functioning. I think it has done what it’s capable of. But it has moved slowly, and its 7,000-strong peacekeeping force is ill-equipped, ill-funded, does not have the required mandate to protect civilians and is too small. At a political level, the AU-convened ceasefire negotiations and peace agreement have yielded nothing.

The AU needs to learn from its Darfur experience and be better prepared to act quickly and decisively. That said, with Darfur’s bloodshed now spreading to Chad and the Central African Republic, this is not just an African affair: the UN _must_ get more involved.

This long, hard, frustrating campaign has thrown up the usual dilemmas we face in Africa. But I do believe indifference and sitting on the fence while crimes are committed can be a thing of the past on this continent. Working with African leaders and institutions has taught me a lesson: that tact, knowledge and ability abound. Beneath the gloomy pictures presented of our continent, there is hope. It only has to be well nurtured from within.

*Dismas Nkunda* is a journalist and human rights activist. He is the Founder and Co-Director of International Refugee Rights Initiative and Chair of the Darfur Consortium.

New Internationalist issue 401 magazine cover This article is from the June 2007 issue of New Internationalist.
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