In Sudan, where African Union mediators, Hollywood stars, and even the pope have failed to secure a lasting peace, South Africa's retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his group of retired statesmen, The Elders, are stepping in.
It is the first of what will be many peace missions by the new group, which includes Nobel laureates former South African President Nelson Mandela and former US president Jimmy Carter. On the current Sudan mission, Mr. Mandela's wife, Graça Machel; Mr. Carter; former UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi; and Mr. Tutu are visiting both government and rebel leaders to discuss solutions to the conflict in Darfur.
Sending an elder statesman, with no political stake in the outcome, to seek a peaceful solution is a proven conflict-resolution tool. Retired Sen. George Mitchell, for example, was instrumental in bringing peace to Northern Ireland. And if one elder statesman has an edge, will a bevy of them ensure success?
It's too soon to say. But this group of elders comes armed with plenty of mediation experience. In 1995, Mandela played a key role in resolving the civil conflict in Burundi. In 1989, Carter managed to bring a pause in fighting between Eritrea and Ethiopia, although the peace deal has since fallen apart. Carter won his Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for "untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts."
The group is wisely, analysts say, already tamping down expectations and indicating they're in it for the long haul.
"I think this is more than just a victory lap," says Francis Kornegay, a senior political analyst at the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg. "It's probably part of a longer-running process of conflict resolution and mediation. It's an effort to get as much international diplomatic and political leverage on the situation as possible."
The Elders' visit comes three weeks before fresh UN-sponsored Darfur peace talks in Libya, and observers hope the group's global status and negotiating experience will give the process a much-needed boost.
"There is no doubt that the role of elders has always been a part of African politics, and not just in Africa; it's a global phenomenon," says David Monyae, a history professor at Witswatersrand University in Johannesburg. "They bring a continuity and experience and a credibility that, especially in a conflict-torn country, would be of good use and quite welcome."
In the past, Africans have tended to respect elders, but for decades now it's the young men who have been fighting, and for whom guns, not experience, are the means of power.
The question now is whether elder statesmen such as Tutu, Mandela, Carter, and others can gain traction in a conflict that has resisted efforts from Chinese, European, and Arab mediators thus far.
The Elders already have one victory of sorts, a promise by the Sudanese government in Khartoum to pay $300 million in compensation ($200 million of it from China) to help rebuild Darfur after the war. And Carter said President Omar al-Bashir was also willing to have international observers at planned elections in 2009.
Yet, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, speaking to reporters on arrival in Khartoum, said he realized that lasting peace would not come easily. "The Elders do not want to raise anyone's hopes during this visit," he said.
Some African experts argue that some conflicts just don't yield to mediation, no matter how gray the hair of the mediator.
"Look, there are a lot of myths about Africa and the role of elders, but the fact is that when you talk about Africa, it is a tremendously diverse place, with a myriad of cultures," says Steven Friedman, a senior researcher at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, in Johannesburg. " It is not one culture or tradition throughout."
"It's not that international players aren't taken seriously here," adds Mr. Friedman. "But there are plenty of people [in Sudan] who are concerned about looking good in the eyes of the international community, and they pull the wool over the public eyes. To get a slice of power, people can be adept at portraying themselves as lovers of freedom."
In any event, some combatants in Sudan's Darfur region don't seem interested in conflict resolution just yet, Mr. Friedman adds, a fact made clear by the recent attack by Darfur rebels that killed 10 peacekeepers of the African Union last week.
The latest violent attacks threaten to undermine the presence of foreign peacekeepers – and the activities of international aid groups.
Rebel attacks complicate peace
Just a few days after the attack on African Union peacekeeping troops, reportedly carried out by a branch of the Sudan Liberation Army rebel group, rebel leaders now say that they expect more such attacks on the AU, because of their inability or unwillingness to do their job, which is keeping the peace.
Rebels blame the 7,000 member African Union force (mostly from Nigeria) for a flawed peace deal signed last year by the government and one rebel faction, which was brokered by the AU.
Commander Ibrahim Abdullah Al "Hello," who controls the northern Darfur town of En Siro for one branch of the Sudan Liberation Army, says he does not know who was responsible for the attack on AU troops in Haskanita.
But he says that the numerous rebel factions are united in their hatred of the AU force.
"All the soldiers of the rebel movement are ashamed now to co-operate with the African Union," he says. "The AU came to look after the cease-fire and report to the international community but they have been unable to stop the big incidents carried out by the government and the janjaweed."
Rebels losing faith in African Union
Not only are they failing to do their job, he says, but there is a suspicion that they are too close to Khartoum.
"It seems very easy for the government to push the AU around and that makes us view them as the enemy," he says.
Previous attacks on AU forces have involved carjackings, which is one way the rebels obtain vehicles.
Such is the animosity for the AU that most aid agencies refuse to allow the officers on to their premises for fear of attracting rebel hostility.