Darfuri Civil Society: Still Missing from the Table

"This step constitutes a strong and vital addition to efforts to bring peace in Darfur," declared Sudan's Second Vice President Ali Osman Taha in Doha yesterday, after signing a framework agreement with the Liberation and Justice Movement (LJM).  That may be true, but as I wrote last week, peace in Darfur remains a long way off.

In addition to doubting the sincerity of Taha and the Government of Sudan's commitment to the peace process, this new deal immediately faced opposition from the other rebel movements. A leader from the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) - which signed its own bilateral deal with the Government of Sudan - denounced the development:  "[The LJM] is not a real group with no presence on the ground or among the Darfuris."  Meanwhile Abdel Wahid al-Nur in Paris mocked the agreement as "merely [a] ceremonial one that lines up with all the others signed before."

Each of the movements claims to represent the people of Darfur, especially the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who have been most directly affected by the conflict.  It is noteworthy that the leader of the LJM has never held a gun, but instead is a former state minister nominated by rebel commanders to represent them at the negotiations.  With that said, the negotiations in Darfur continue to progress without the significant involvement of IDP and civil society leaders.

In my recent trip to Darfur, I heard repeatedly from camp leaders and other Darfuris that they feel inadequately represented in Doha. Some people were aware and supportive of the Doha Declaration signed by 170 leaders last November that outlined collective demands for the negotiations; however, many individuals had not heard of the document and/or felt alienated from the formal processes of the mediators to include these voices in the talks.

As such, upcoming meetings of civil society leaders in Doha should be regarded as equally important to the political maneuverings and deal makings of the constellation of rebel movements. As I heard from UNAMID staff in Darfur, one must address conflict resolution in Darfur from two layers: 1) a political deal between the Sudanese government and rebels; and 2) creating the groundwork among various Darfuri stakeholders to accept the peace agreement.

It is for this reason that UNAMID Civil Affairs and others initiatives have focused on empowering those Darfuris who do not carry weapons to stand up for the rights. Many believe that such support has injected confidence into civil society leaders.  If given security guarantees and political space, these leaders now feel more capable of representing their communities' concerns and interests with the Sudanese government and armed movements.
Rather than spending such a disproportionate amount of time chasing down rebel leaders and mediating their personal differences, the international community should focus more of their attention on listening to these emerging constituencies for peace within Darfur.  It is tribal and camp leaders, women's organizations, and Darfuri youth who could help put pressure on both the movements and Sudanese government to commitment to real negotiations - and, equally important, they will be the Darfuris instrumental in ensuring that any future peace agreement holds and serves as a basis for the rebuilding of Darfur.