Can Darfur's disparate rebels unite?

Fighting between rebels could complicate fresh peace talks, which begin Sunday in Libya.

Just a year or two ago, Sudanese militant leaders Al-Hadi Adam Agabeldour and Sadiq Ali Shaibo would have considered each other enemies. They belonged to different militias, and their ethnic groups – Arab and Zaghawa, respectively – were fighting on opposite sides of the war in Sudan's troubled Darfur region.

But today, they have united to fight the Sudanese government in Khartoum for its neglect and destruction of Darfur.

"The government only used us like guns, like tools, and when they were finished with us, they threw us down," says Mr. Agabeldour, spokesman for the Arab-led militant group United Revolutionary Force/Front in neighboring Chad. "But we are the new generation of Arabs, and we have joined with other militant groups. If we decide to go to war, we go together. If we decide to go for peace, we go together."

Sadiq Ali Shaibo, a top leader within the National Movement for Rehabilitation and Development, says that the only way the people of Darfur will get anything positive from this crushing four-year conflict that has killed more than 200,000 people and displaced more than 2.5 million is if militant groups unify against Sudan's government. "We want all the movements of Darfur to have one voice. If we are all one voice, we will be stronger."

Such talk of unity, with peace talks scheduled to begin in Tripoli, Libya, starting Sunday, is well received here and could be the first step toward a political solution of the Darfur conflict. Perhaps the most significant aspect is the decision of many Sudanese Arabs – including members of the pro-government janjaweed militias – to switch sides to fight alongside Darfuri rebels, a step that weakens Khartoum's last major base of support in the troubled region.

Yet analysts say that militant groups are still far from unity in any real sense of choosing leaders or common goals, or in designing a common path forward – giving Khartoum the advantage in the conflict.

"This is a group that makes the Somalis look well organized," says Alex De Waal, an expert at the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard University. "They have a sentimental attachment to the idea of unity. But the fact of the matter is, they can't get it together. Every military commander is a power unto himself. They don't have the political infrastructure, finances, experience in organization, in discipline, and a sense of what is required to have an overall political front."

A renewal of fighting after the rainy season ends in September is therefore a strong likelihood, Mr. De Waal says. "The tangible results of this for the people of Darfur is that any political settlement remains a long way away."

If the international community appears frustrated, it is because previous efforts at unifying rebels have borne little fruit. The Darfur Peace Agreement of 2006, hammered out in lengthy and expensive talks in Abuja, Nigeria, brought only one of the three main rebel groups to peace with Khartoum – the Sudanese Liberation Movement (SLM) of Minni Minawi.

Since those talks, many members of that group have split into factions and the number of Darfur rebel movements has proliferated to 18. Lacking leadership, discipline, and financing, these new groups are now blamed for a spate of robberies, carjackings, and kidnappings that have halted many relief operations .

The UN's chief envoy on Darfur, Jan Eliasson, told reporters this week that the upcoming talks in Tripoli were "the moment of truth for the parties to the conflict to see whether they are really ready to discuss peace in Darfur and not to continue the conflict."

Mr. Eliasson admitted that the international community is "getting tired of paying" some $700 million for humanitarian aid in Darfur and eastern Chad, when funds could be better spent on development projects that "make life better for the people of Darfur."

Some rebels seem to sense that time is running out. "I have given seven months of my life trying to unify the Darfur rebel groups, and I have failed," says Col. Jabbar Mahamat Hasabal, a former Sudanese Army colonel who defected to the rebel side last year after being released by Khartoum from jail for suspicion of rebel sympathies. He now leads the military wing of the SLM National Group.

"But most of the leaders of the political movements are villagers," he says, sitting in his grass hut near Abéché. "They have no education, no comprehension of Sudan as a country, no idea how to create a common program with other groups. They only know how to fight against something, not for something."

Idriss Haroon Abdullah, a high-ranking member of the militant Sudan Federal Democratic Alliance in Abéché, admits that there are vast differences among his group, which favors a secular Western-style democracy, and a group like the Justice and Equality Movement, which would impose Islamic sharia law over Darfur.

"We can even sit down with the people who backed the janjaweed," he says. "If they have done something wrong and they have accepted punishment for it, then we can forgive and mobilize together." But even with the intervention of Chad's President Idriss Deby and diplomatic efforts by Egypt, Libya, and Eritrea, unity has proved elusive. "Until this date, nobody has come forward," he says. "I don't know why."

Bashir Ali, a logistics commander for the militant group, SLM Unity Branch, remains hopeful that rebel groups will be able to unify, but he's not interested in peace talks with Khartoum.

"We are going to struggle until the collapse of the government of Khartoum," he says, as a dozen SLM soldiers nod. "Any peace has to be accepted from the highest person down to the lowest soldier."

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