In what is fast turning into a war of ultimatums, the AU mediators and their international backers have decided to bulldoze through the Darfur peace process against apparent foot-dragging by the parties.

 

A series of deadlines was put last month for the parties concerned to sign the peace proposals drawn up by the AU.

 

When the government agreed to sign by the first deadline of April 30, pressure was shifted in the direction of the rebels. But Khartoum was not let off the hook.

 

On May 15, the Security Council passed a resolution supporting the peace deal and giving Khartoum an ultimatum: allow the UN advance team to visit Darfur within seven days to conduct surveys in preparation for the deployment of UN peace keepers or else. However, the international mediators still have a fight on their hands.

 

The agreement allows the rebel movements to nominate one person for the position a "senior assistant to the president" and that of governor of one of Darfur’s three states.

The rebels were not happy with that, they were incensed because the deal did not install a vice-president from Darfur. They also wanted a guarantee for their full control over the region, which they also insisted should be reunified.

The determination of other countries to force a deal may be also related to the recent threats made by Osama bin Laden to shift his al-Qaeda operations to Sudan, and Darfur in particular.

They also wanted the Sudanese government to commit to full individual compensation for war victims, rather than just setting up a fund for this purpose.

 

Pressure shift

However, strong pressure was put on the rebels to sign the deal worked out by the African Union mediators and their American and European partners.

 

An international team led by Robert Zoellick, the US deputy secretary of state, and Hilary Benn, Britain's international development minister, arrived in Abuja as the deadline was drawing closer and arms were being twisted.

 

Alpha Omar Kunari, head of the AU commission, and Denis Sassou-Nguesso, AU chairman and president of Congo, were among some African and international key players who put a pressure on the rebels to sign.

 

This stance appeared to mark a shift in the attitude of foreign powers, which had been seen as sympathetic to the rebel cause and antagonistic to the government. However, this view might be based on a misunderstanding.

 

Many countries have indeed been very hostile to the government, and some parties (the US and some human rights groups) even accuse it of presiding over genocide in Darfur, allegedly by backing the nomadic Janjawid militias accused of instigating mass killing against Darfur's Africans.

 

Spoiling the celebration

This antagonism does not necessarily translate into sympathy to the rebel cause. Some observers were dismayed by the timing of the rebellion, which spoilt for many the intended celebration of the ending to Africa’s longest-running civil war in 2004.

 

They were also critical of the rebels' tactics, and regarded many of their demands as unrealistic and even a threat to the so-called Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which ended the war in the south.

 

These misgivings were overshadowed by the international outcry over the government’s disproportionate reaction to the rebellion by arming and unleashing of Janjawid, which added fuel to the intra-Darfur civil war.

 

The government of Khartoum not only abdicated its responsibility by taking sides in a civil conflict instead of working to resolve it, but also joined in and took part in gross abuses, and that became the focus of international dismay. The rebels were also accused of committing atrocities, but they have benefited politically from the low international standing of the government. However, their endless squabbling and indifference to their people's suffering is beginning to grate.

 

Left out

A serious gap that might bring the Abuja agreement to a total collapse is that a key party in Darfur's troubles has been ignored: nomadic Arabs.

 

The root of the problem is the simmering conflict between nomad "Arabs" and settler "Africans". This has not been addressed.

The Arabs were left out of the peace negotiations, and no serious attempts were made to address the continuing tensions.

 

The government of Khartoum ... abdicated its responsibility by taking sides in a civil conflict instead of working to resolve it.

Some promises were made to encourage intra-Darfur dialogue, and to address the concerns of the nomads. But this is hardly enough. Much more needs to be done if a real and lasting peace is to come to Darfur.

 

The determination of other countries to force a deal may be related to the recent threats made by Osama bin Laden to shift his al-Qaeda operations to Sudan, and Darfur in particular where he urged his sympathisers in a message broadcast last month to prepare to attack foreign troops.

 

Al-Qaeda factor

Bin Laden's threats may not be that serious, since Darfur and the south are not widely accessible to his Arab fighters, given that they would be very conspicuous with their light skin compared with those live in those black African regions.

 

Neighbouring states would also be wary of any such foreign presence. Of course bin Laden could use African sympathisers as he did in the Nairobi bombings and elsewhere. But the US and its allies were taking no chances and they did not want to risk another Iraq or Afghanistan. That is why they engaged in what amounted to a "hostile takeover" of the peace process and indicated the determination to bring the conflict to an end.

 

Darfur rebels were at first unanimous in rejecting the deal in spite of an ultimatum to sign, and the extension of the deadline for a few days, and in spite of the very heavy (and some argued, heavy-handed) pressure brought on them to agree to the deal.

 

A serious gap that might bring the Abuja agreement to a total collapse is the ignoring of a key party in darfur ordeal, nomadic Arabs.

Eventually, the main rebel faction, the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA), led by Minni Arko Minawi, and one splinter group of a rival faction caved in.

 

The two other factions adamantly refused to join unless their demands for the deal to be renegotiated were accepted. They were given until May 15 to sign or face sanctions. The deadline was extended by a day, and then until the end of the month.

 

Accordingly, the deal has in fact heightened the tensions. This is mainly because of the bewildering intricacies of Darfur ethnic politics.

 

Abstained parties

One of the main commanders who refused to sign, Abdul Wahid Nur, belongs to the Fur ethnicity, the largest ethnic grouping after whom the region was named (Darfur in Arabic means the home of Fur). He had been head of the SLA before being ousted by Minnawi last year.

 

The other commander, Khalil Ibrahim, leader of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), comes from the same Zaghawa ethnic group from which Minnawi hails, but his group is often accused of having close links with the Islamist Popular Congress Party of Hassan Turabi.

 

The reluctance of Nur to sign threatens to create new intra-Darfur frictions that do not bode well for peace. That was the reason behind the big pressure put on Nur to sign, and some incentives, including some face-saving declarations, are being considered to bring him on board.

 

No similar effort is being made to woo JEM leaders, although leaving them out could be a serious mistake. The threats of international sanctions and the fact that the agreement now has UN approval would force most to sign by the end of the month.

 

While this is certainly a positive development, especially with regards to resolving the humanitarian crisis, some big problems remain.

 

Dr Abdelwahab El-Affendi is a Senior Research Fellow and Coordinator of the Islam and Democracy Programme at the Centre for the Study for Democracy, University of Westminster, London.

The opinions expressed here are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position or have the endorsement of Aljazeera.