A donors' conference composed mainly of Islamic countries has pledged some $850 million in reconstruction aid to help ease the suffering for the people of Sudan’s war-ravaged Darfur region. But don’t expect that this money will mean a quick end to the seven-year-long conflict.
The conference in Cairo – led by Egypt and Turkey and attended by other representatives of the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference – comes just a month after a significant peace agreement was signed by the Sudanese government of President Omar Al-Bashir and one of Darfur’s largest rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). It was brokered by the government of Qatar.
The United Nations estimates that 300,000 Darfuris have been killed in the conflict, and up to 2.5 million more have been displaced from their homes. The conflict began in 2003, when local people took up arms to protest the neglect of their region by the Sudanese government in Khartoum.
Khartoum responded by arming nomadic Arab tribes to fight the rebels as a kind of proxy army. The resulting death toll has led the International Criminal Court to charge Sudanese President Bashir with crimes against humanity.
The Egyptian hosts for the Darfur donors' conference hailed the donations made thus far, and promised that more would be forthcoming.
"Since the beginning of the crisis in Darfur, the basic issue has been one of development, which has taken on political, tribal, and social dimensions," said Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit at the conclusion of the conference. “We are convinced that the key is to improve development and raise the standard of living for the Darfur citizen."
How substantial is the latest peace deal?
But experts on the Darfur issue point out that the current peace deal with JEM follows a pattern of other peace agreements, notably with Minni Minawi, the leader of a faction of the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA), in a deal signed in 2005.
Mr. Minawi, who attended the conference in Cairo, is now a member of the Khartoum government, but is largely isolated from his political base in Darfur and overshadowed by other rebel groups such as the Islamist-based JEM and the larger SLA faction of Abdul Wahid, whose group maintains a base in the Darfuri region of Jebel Marra.
Mr. Wahid currently runs his SLA faction from exile in France, and refuses to join talks with Khartoum.
“The donations put the cart well ahead of the horse,” says John Prendergast, director of the Enough Project, an antigenocide group that lobbies the US Congress on the Darfur issue. “There is no peace in Darfur yet. There are no agreements around dealing with the ongoing sources of insecurity or the original causes of war.”
“These paper pledges could end up exacerbating the demographic changes that the government's ethnic cleansing campaigns produced,” says Mr. Prendergast, noting that millions of Darfuris continue to live in displacement camps, and money spent in Darfur now may just end up rewarding the perpetrators. “Pouring money into this environment is a recipe for ongoing instability and is no substitute for the more serious political engagement necessary for lasting peace and security rooted in a measure of justice that the Darfur people have clearly been denied.”
New political terrain
While it may be too soon to declare peace in Darfur, it is clear that the political terrain has changed dramatically.
Sudan has recently set aside differences with its longtime rival, Chad, which many of the Darfur rebel groups – and especially JEM – have made their base of operations.
Diplomatic sources say that Chad has essentially told JEM that it is no longer welcome, and that it would no longer receive arms and logistical support from the Chadian government to carry out attacks against Sudan.
The French government, too, has been increasing pressure on SLA leader Abdul Wahid to enter the peace process.
And the Sudanese government, for its part, is hoping to put the Darfur issue behind it, as it takes on what it regards as a much larger issue: the upcoming Sudanese parliamentary elections this spring, and the following referendum of 2011, when the southern and largely Christian half of Sudan may decide to secede, taking much of the country’s oil wealth with it.