For years, we have been hearing African leaders calling for "African solutions to African problems." And for many more years, we have been waiting to see our leaders rise to the occasion and demonstrate strong leadership to resolve the many conflicts that plague our continent.
Today, we are starting to see results. African leaders recently took their boldest steps yet to confront one of the most persistent and deadly conflicts: Sudan.
Sudan: a history of conflict
Sudan's postindependence history is marked by internal conflict, including the long civil war between north and south, conflict in eastern Sudan, and more recently, violence in Darfur. Despite widespread protests and condemnation, the world community has been unable to prevent the deaths of more than 300,000, the displacement of 2.5 million, and untold sexual violence against Darfurians in the past several years.
Meanwhile, violence in south Sudan is intensifying, with several thousand dead and hundreds of thousands forced to flee their homes in 2009. This situation shows that Sudan's problems are national, rather than isolated, regional conflicts.
While other international efforts have failed to resolve conflict there, the African Union is poised for a breakthrough.
Last year, it commissioned the African Union High-Level Panel on Darfur (AUPD). The result was a special report released in October that provides a road map for achieving a political resolution to not only conflict in Darfur, but also to the historically recognized root causes of conflict in Sudan, including in south Sudan.
The panel was commissioned just prior to the official indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir by the International Criminal Court (ICC). The panel was led by former South African President Thabo Mbeki, who was a chief architect of dismantling the apartheid regime in his own country. It also included former African heads of state, ministers, and prominent Sudan specialists.
An unprecedented process
Unprecedented in any previous attempt to address conflict in Sudan, Mr. Mbeki and his team carried out four trips to Sudan within six months. They did not limit their interactions to diplomats. They met with people from across the country, listening to voices that had previously been shut out.
This inclusive and consultative process means that the recommendations of the Sudanese people themselves formed the basis for the Mbeki report. Previous inquiries and mediators failed to achieve this crucial level of credibility with the Sudanese.
Contrary to what some critics expected, the panel did not set out to help President Bashir find a way out of the ICC indictment. Instead, it stressed the importance of justice and reconciliation in Darfur, and proposed a combination of mechanisms to repair the damaged relations between Darfurians and the central government. Suggestions include a hybrid court to address gross impunity and implicit support for the ICC to try "last resort" cases.
Further, the report emphasizes the need to combat impunity for crimes of sexual violence. It recognizes the shortcomings of prosecuting such crimes and the critical importance of addressing these limitations, not only for successfully combating impunity, but for building the confidence of the thousands of Darfurian victims of sexual violence.
This is yet another milestone in the report.
Women: vital to peace talks
Crucially, the panel understood that a sustainable peace and authentic justice cannot be built on the backs of men alone; women must be equal partners in the process. Its recommendations highlight the need for Sudanese women to be at the forefront of all conflict-resolution processes, in Darfur and across Sudan.
All too often, women are excluded from formal peace negotiations. The historic Security Council Resolution 1325 mandates women's full participation in conflict resolution, but their appointment to the process can slide into mere tokenism. Research and experience demonstrates that women's involvement at the peace table leads to broader inclusion of issues aside from security and power, and that women are able to build bridges between disparate groups.
The Mbeki report is right on track in recognizing the value of women in building peace. In fact, to ensure that women are empowered as real peace partners, the panel is pushing for women to make up at least 30 percent of teams in the ongoing negotiations in Qatar.
Mbeki and his esteemed colleagues deserve recognition for their tremendous leadership and innovation. Their report is a genuine attempt at African solutions for the Darfur problem in particular and conflict within Sudan more broadly. The report reiterates that the conflict in Darfur cannot be resolved in isolation and that the root causes remain the same for what could potentially destabilize the east and south of Sudan again.
A time to act
African leaders are now gathering at the African Union summit that got under way yesterday in Ethiopia. They will usher in 2010 as the year for "peace and security" in Africa. African leaders must seize this moment to put pressure on the government of Sudan to embrace the Mbeki report – and work in partnership with the African Union and the Sudanese people to push the recommendations forward. The timing is even more critical, because Darfur negotiations are set to resume this week in Qatar.
I appeal to Africa's leaders to continue their support for the Mbeki report recommendations and provide the moral and financial support to the high level panel to make the recommendations a reality for the people of Sudan.
Additionally, I call on Sudan's international peace and development partners, including the United States and the European Union, to support and complement the work of Mbeki and his colleagues to ensure a coherent and coordinated approach. The people of Sudan are counting on them.
• Wangari Maathai is the 2004 Nobel peace laureate and founding board member of the Nobel Women's Initiative. In 2008, she visited south Sudan, Darfuri camps in eastern Chad, as well as Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to meet with African Union officials on the Sudan crisis.