<<previous  |  index  |  next>>

Darfur and the African Union

The continued deployment of African Union troops into Darfur in 2005 unquestionably saved lives. However, the belated decision by the A.U.—a new, still poorly equipped organization—to allow Western countries to provide logistical and other support meant that many lives that could have been saved were lost.  The contingent of seven thousand A.U. troops and civilian police that by October had finally been deployed in Darfur was not nearly large enough to create the conditions of security needed for some two million forcibly displaced people to return home safely. 

Much of the continued violence in Darfur was due to the Sudanese government, most notably its refusal to disarm, demobilize, and end the impunity with which its proxy militia, the “Janjaweed,” operates in Darfur. The Sudanese government also placed many obstacles in the path of the A.U. force, such as refusing for months to allow the A.U. to import armored personnel carriers for the protection of its troops and civilians.  However, the A.U. itself must share part of the blame. Its interpretation of its mandate was anemic—it showed too little willingness to move aggressively when necessary to protect people.  By insisting on handling Darfur itself, moreover—a wish that the international community, preoccupied elsewhere, was all too willing to grant—the A.U. relieved more powerful governments of any immediate pressure to deploy their own troops.

The U.S., Canadian, and European governments played supportive roles in Darfur.  Officials spoke repeatedly about the continuing killing and rape and sent emissaries regularly to Khartoum and Darfur, but preoccupation with Iraq and Afghanistan made the contribution of U.S., E.U., or NATO troops a political non-starter.  As a result, Western governments and the international community as a whole left Darfur in the hands of A.U. troops and failed to take the opportunity to forcefully implement the newly endorsed international “responsibility to protect” civilians at grave risk.  By year’s end, there was still no prospect that the forcibly displaced residents of Darfur would be able to return home safely and that “ethnic cleansing” would be reversed. 

If the A.U. cannot quickly field the substantially larger force needed to uphold a full protective mandate and to make possible the safe return of displaced people, the international community has a duty to send in troops to reinforce the A.U. military and civilian presence, if necessary under a U.N. flag.  Meanwhile, the international community must put intense pressure on the Sudanese government to permit a larger force, if necessary involving non-African troops, and to stop obstructing the protective work of those forces that are deployed.  In a troubling sign, the African Union itself defused that pressure by helping to block a vote in November at the U.N. General Assembly that would have condemned Sudan for its continuing responsibility for atrocities in Darfur. 

At this writing, the African Union was facing a substantial additional challenge with respect to Darfur: its next scheduled summit was to be held in January 2006 in Khartoum, with Sudan seeking the A.U. presidency. If Sudan’s President El Bashir indeed were to lead the A.U., its mission in Darfur would face unsustainable contradictions, and civilians in Darfur would be at greater risk than at any time since the A.U. first deployed there. Allowing a murderous government such as Sudan’s to lead the A.U. would make a travesty of the A.U.’s stated commitments to human rights and undermine the credibility it needs to work effectively throughout the continent. 

In creating the African Union, African nations compare favorably with nations in regions such as Asia and the Middle East that continue to lack any comparable multilateral mechanism for addressing conflict and promoting human rights.  At the same time, the A.U. continues to suffer from the cronyism and lack of principle that plagued its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity.  The A.U. made modest interventions in Burundi, Togo, Zimbabwe, and the DRC in 2005.  Initially acting effectively in Togo, the A..U., and especially Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, condemned a coup in February and threatened to impose sanctions when Faure Gnassingbe tried to have himself installed as president upon his father’s death without an election.  However, when elections were held some two months later, the A.U. failed to condemn well documented intimidation, violence, and massive vote-rigging. 

The A.U., supported by a United Nations peacekeeping force, facilitated a significant improvement in Burundi, where a vicious civil war has substantially waned.  On the other hand, the A.U. has managed only to dispatch emissaries to President Mugabe of Zimbabwe, without putting meaningful pressure on him, even as, beginning in May, he ordered the politically motivated destruction of thousands of homes in urban shantytowns, creating a humanitarian crisis.  In the DRC, the A.U. has spoken of addressing the politically sensitive issue of foreign combatants in the country but has yet to act.  In the Ivory Coast, the A.U. has downplayed issues of justice and accountability that are likely to prove essential to a lasting peace.  Meanwhile, certain powerful leaders, such as Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, escaped A.U. pressure altogether, even as he, unwilling to accept opposition gains in the country’s first contested elections in May, led the police to kill scores of demonstrators and arrest thousands of opposition supporters.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>January 2006