Sudan conflict has not disappeared – just the headlines
THERE was always something different about Darfur. This was not another messy African war, its origins lost in a mist of ethnicity, sepia-tinged colonial politics and modern day struggles for resources.
Darfur was easy to understand. It was a genocide: a conflict that had good guys and bad guys.
The bad guys were very bad. An Islamist regime in Khartoum that once hosted Bin Laden had unleashed the fearsome Janjaweed against a simple farming people in a scorched earth campaign against rebels.
Within months, millions of people were corralled in aid camps and up to 200,000 died in wave after wave of ethnic cleansing. Six years after the world woke up to the slaughter, however, things look very different and Darfur is in danger of becoming just another forgotten war.
Six months ago I slipped across the Chadian border into Darfur with a column of rebels to see for myself how things have changed. Commanders from the Justice and Equality Movement showed me their latest prize – a government base in the long-abandoned town of Kornoi, captured a few days earlier in a brief gun battle.
The rebels had met little resistance. The government soldiers mostly turned and ran.
Only one man had died. His body lay rotting in a ditch as I was shown the rifles, mortars and uniforms left behind in the chaotic retreat. A few days after my tour, the government returned in force. This time it was the rebels' turn to run without a fight.
And that's what the Darfur conflict looks like today. A series of feints and thrusts. An exchange of territory, to be reversed at a later date.
Neither side makes a breakthrough. Neither side suffers a catastrophic defeat.
But the conflict has not gone away. The slaughter of the early years may have ebbed, but millions of survivors still live in cramped aid camps.
Tribal tensions, within and between Arab groups, are a constant source of bloodshed, banditry is rife and aid workers are being targeted for kidnap.
The joint African Union and United Nations peacekeeping force endured a bloody 2009, losing five Rwandan soldiers in a single weekend in December.
Where once Darfur was different, today it is achingly familiar. Complex, miserable and messy. Africa is not short of similar conflicts that grumble on, unresolved and out of sight.
We cannot afford to let Sudan go the same way in 2010. The next 12 months are crucial for the whole country. Twice voters will go to the polls in make-or-break moments with the potential to cement slow-running reforms or tip Africa's biggest nation into the abyss.
Elections are due in April. At best, they are an opportunity to ease Khartoum along the path of reform, strengthening opposition parties and forcing President Omar al-Bashir to ease his grip on power. At worst, his National Congress Party (NCP) could rig the vote and use the spurious electoral legitimacy for a fresh round of repression.
Already observers have expressed concern about an incomplete registration process. Opposition parties complain about a census they say overstates the size of pro-NCP populations.
With four months to go, there is plenty of work to be done in preparing the ground for free elections.
The next test comes in January 2011, when Southern Sudan must decide on independence. This referendum is the final step in a peace deal signed in January 2005, ending a decades old civil war that dwarfs Darfur in casualties.
Southerners will almost certainly vote in favour of breaking away. With an autonomous administration already riddled with corruption and split by tribal rivalries, the danger is the south will begin life as a failed state. A disputed referendum could plunge north and south into a new war.
Yet all is not lost. International pressure holds the key to success of both ballots. Many thought a peace deal between north and south was impossible before it was signed. That needed intense pressure from the US. So too the deployment of peacekeeping forces in Darfur.
In the same way, a legislative overhaul, a cessation of hostilities in Darfur and reform in the south to enable the two votes to proceed could be achieved so long as the international community does not give up on Sudan.
For six years an astonishing coalition of celebrities, politicians and ordinary activists has kept Sudan in the headlines.
That has all changed in the past few months as the straightforward conflict has been revealed as another African quagmire – just when international focus and pressure is needed more than ever.
Now is not the time to forget about Sudan.
• Rob Crilly reported for The Scotsman from Africa from 2004 to 2008. His new book, Saving Darfur, is due to be published by Reportage Press in February.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 19 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: West