Why did Sudan make a deal with Darfur rebels?

Khartoum has agreed to swap prisoners and talk with Darfur insurgents.

New deal? Representatives of Sudan's government and the Justice and Equality Movement rebels from Darfur signed a 'confidence building agreement' Tuesday in Doha, Qatar.
Mohamed Nureldin Abdallh/Reuters
Wanted? A woman walked past posters in support of Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir last week. He could soon face an arrest warrant for war crimes from the International Criminal Court.

Sudan's government has inked a deal with the strongest, most active rebel group in Darfur.

Under the agreement, signed Tuesday in Doha, Qatar – neither a cease-fire nor a truce, but a "confidence-building agreement" – the Khartoum government and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) agree to exchange prisoners and to discuss ways to stop the fighting in Darfur.

The move could kick-start a long-dormant peace process.

"The government needs to make a big breakthrough to show the international community it is doing something for the resolution of the Darfur conflict," says Murtada al-Ghali, chief of the editorial department of Ajras al-Hurya, an independent newspaper in Khartoum, known for its critical views of the government.

It could also be a stalling tactic.

Coming just days before an anticipated decision by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to formally indict Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on war crimes charges, the agreement is seen by some as a bid to delay if not quash the charges altogether, and to indicate that the Arab world is sorting out the Darfur problem in its own way.

"This doesn't mean all that much at this stage, this is not a cease-fire, it's only a commitment to talk," says Alex De Waal, a Sudan expert at the Social Science Research Council in New York. "But both sides gain legitimacy by talking. What is in it for JEM? JEM is becoming recognized as the only negotiating partner on the rebel side."

Sudan aims to show it can negotiate

As for the government, Mr. De Waal says, "The ICC is hanging over them, and [chief ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno- Ocampo] says that the Sudanese government can't negotiate with Bashir at the head. So for them, this deal is to show that the Sudanese government can be a negotiating partner, and that the Ocampo approach is not the right way to do things."

Nearly 300,000 have been killed, and more than 2.2 million people have been displaced since the Darfur conflict began in 2003.

The conflict began as an armed protest by Sudanese citizens in the Darfur region against their government's long neglect of their region, but mutated into a bloody free-for-all – with pro-government Arab militias, called the janjaweed, attacking and burning entire villages of their African (but Muslim) neighbors.

The war has left both sides with bloody hands.

Darfur rebels have also committed atrocities, both against civilians and aid workers.

Some experts see the current peace talks in Doha, Qatar, as an attempt to stall the efforts of the International Criminal Court to indict, arrest, and try Mr. Bashir for letting loose the pro-government militias that committed most of the murders in Darfur.

Arrest warrant?

"This is throwing dust in people's eyes," says Richard Cornwell, a senior analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane, as Pretoria, South Africa, is now called. The Arab community, including Bashir's close allies, the Qatar government, may think that it can stall the decision of the ICC to indict Bashir for war crimes, Mr. Cornwell adds, "but that thing can't be stopped. You need to have the UN Security Council involved to stop that, and it has to be unanimous. Abstentions will not work."

Godfrey Musila, a senior researcher at the International Crimes in Africa program of the Institute for Security Studies agrees.

"There will be an arrest warrant, the only question is when and what crimes will be listed," says Mr. Musila. "But to the extent that the ICC arrest warrant may have a political effect on the ground, the judge may want to delay the decision to see what happens on the ground. Elections are coming in Sudan, and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement" signed in 2003 to end the 20-year civil war between Khartoum and southern rebels "could be in danger if Bashir is arrested."

The ICC also must protect its own sense of legitimacy in Africa, Mr. Musila adds. "The judges don't want to make a decision in vain, like in Uganda," he says. In 2005, the ICC issued arrest warrants for Joseph Kony, leader of the notorious Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, and four of his senior aides. Those arrest warrants were never carried out and mediators and war victims alike have blamed the ICC's arrest warrants for preventing potential peace deals in Uganda.

Mr. Kony has repeatedly made it clear that the ICC must scrap plans to prosecute him before he will sign any peace deal. His rebel army, responsible for tens of thousands of deaths in the past couple decades, is now fleeing a joint offensive in northern Congo, killing scores of civilians as it goes. That incursion has led to more than 900 deaths and displaced more than 1,330 civilians since it began nearly two months ago, according to the United Nations.

"The ICC does not want to hurt their image further," says Musila.

Previous peace deals broken

Khartoum has signed peace deals with Darfur rebels before, including a much-heralded Darfur Peace Agreement signed in 2006. But that agreement included only one relatively small faction of the Sudanese Liberation Army rebel group, headed by Minni Minawi.

The larger SLA faction, headed by Abdul Wahid – himself a member of the Darfur region's largest ethnic group, the Fur – has abstained from all talks with the government.

But this accord is significant in that it involves the Justice and Equality Movement, which is widely regarded as the strongest armed movement in Darfur. And while its leaders belong primarily to the ethnic Zaghawa group, JEM and its Islamist ideology have lately succeeded in broadening the Darfur conflict into the neighboring oil-rich Sudanese state of Kordofan.

A JEM attack in Omdurman, the sister city to the capital of Khartoum, showed both JEM's strength and the government's weakness.

Why JEM rebels made the deal now

"[JEM] made this deal, because they are militarily strong, and they want to replace Minni Minawi and to represent the people of Darfur, and they want to push Abdul Wahid aside as well," says Mr. Ghali. Although both sides now have reason to talk, Ghali says the current peace process will fail, both because of divisions within the Darfur rebels, and also because the government failed to bring their own pro-government Arab tribes into the peace talks.

"It will not work, because there will be a problem with the Arab community in Darfur," he says. "They will not be happy that they were neglected from these talks."

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