Darfur: A Defining Moment for African Leaders

George Haley, Chinua Akukwe and Sidi Jammeh, October 13, 2004

A Sudanese woman at a refugee camp in Sudan's Darfur region

A Sudanese woman at a refugee camp in Sudan's Darfur region, Sept. 16, 2004. (Photo: Cris Bouroncle/AFP-Getty Images)

As the ethnic based tragedy in Darfur, Western Sudan, continues to unfold despite a flurry of international and regional activities, the capacity of African leaders to prevent and manage avoidable conflicts is coming under close scrutiny.

Black African Muslims of Darfur have reportedly come under systematic bloody attacks by their Arab brethren. The United Nations estimates that up to 50,000 African Muslims of Darfur have died in the hands of an Arab militia known as Janjaweed reportedly backed by the government of Sudan. More than a million Muslim Africans are now in refugee camps in Western Sudan and the neighboring country of Chad. This tragedy comes at a time when African leaders have developed a credible continental development strategy (the New Partnership for Africa's Development, NEPAD) and also repositioned its umbrella political organization, the African Union, to focus on good governance, economic prosperity, peace and political stability.

However, the Darfur tragedy has the capacity to undo this new vision of Africa where people of all ethnic nationalities and religious beliefs are working together to tackle the major problems of poverty and disease prevalent in many parts of this great continent. The fact that even a common religious belief could not spare Africans of Darfur from targeted killings and displacement from their ancient lands is even more troubling. It suggests a deep-rooted belief that ethnic cleansing could become a viable means of settling political, economic and cultural differences.

Domestic and international print electronic media have published eyewitness accounts of the staggering suffering inflicted on the Africans of Darfur. The latest report to the United Nations Security Council on October 5, 2004, by the Secretary General's envoy to Sudan indicate that the government of Sudan over the past month has stood watch while violence continued unabated in Western Darfur. Teachers and other educated elite have faced targeted attacks. Despite international relief efforts, life in refugee camps remains grim and desperate. Young nursing mothers in refugee camps are not sure whether they can breastfeed their infants because of hunger and malnutrition. Outbreaks of communicable diseases are common.

The latest effort to broker peace in Sudan at Abuja, Nigeria between the Sudanese government and rebel movements representing black Africans of Darfur under the auspices of the current chairman of the African Union, President Obasanjo of Nigeria, ended without much progress. The United Nations’ deadline for the government of Sudan to take action in Darfur expired on August 30, 2004, without any consequences for the government. According to media reports, the Janjaweed militia continues to roam free, with a license to kill and maim.

We believe that to end ethnic-based killings in Darfur and prevent further suffering of black Muslims, African leaders and the African Union must show strong leadership and resolve in bringing the government of Sudan to order. Until now, African leaders and the African Union have shied away from directly confronting a government that is widely believed to be enforcing a deliberate policy of forcibly expelling its own citizens from their ancestral lands, repossessing such lands, and possibly, settling them with other more acceptable ethnic populations.

African leaders and the African Union are yet to hold the government of Sudan accountable for a potential genocide unfolding within its borders. The United States’ Secretary of State, Colin Powell declared the ongoing tragedy in Darfur as genocide. It is important for the African Union to conduct its own investigation as soon as possible.

We do not believe that a continental policy of appeasement or business as usual in the United Nations will end a deliberate policy of targeted killings and forced movements of people from ancestral lands by a sitting government. We are yet to see any verifiable signs that the government of Sudan is ending its deadly policy in Darfur. Even the much-trumpeted intention to send a large contingent of 3,500 African peacekeepers to save lives in Darfur has stalled. Nigeria and Rwanda have reportedly sent about 300 peacekeepers to guard African Union monitors in Darfur.

Today, if we strip all diplomatic posturing in Africa and at the United Nations, black Africans of Darfur are not assured of any protection from death and destruction. More important, black Africans of Darfur are yet to receive protection from other African governments and institutions. Without mincing words, African leaders have not led on this issue.

What to do? First, the African Union should immediately send a large peacekeeping force to Darfur. A large peace keeping contingent will save lives and prevent conditions that could lead to further outbreak of communicable diseases. An immediate deployment should not depend on the acquiescence of the Sudanese government. It should also not be predicated on any possible United Nations sanctions or further action from Western governments.

Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt, as leading proponents of the new vision for Africa and with strong armies, should contribute well-armed troops that can protect lives and stare down any armed force in Sudan intent on continued killing of innocent women and children. It would be a defining moment for the African Union to act first without waiting for the United Nations or Western governments. African leaders should be prepared to do whatever it takes to stamp out the roots of ethnic cleansing or genocide in the continent. African leaders of the past such as Kenneth Kaunda and Julius Nyerere despite leading poor countries stood firm and made incalculable sacrifices to fight the Apartheid regime of South Africa and provide safe heavens for fledgling political independence movements in Zimbabwe and Namibia.

Second, Western nations should immediately provide financial and logistics support for the African peace keeping force in Darfur. The United States should lead in this effort with significant technical and logistic support. If the United States believes that genocide is ongoing in Darfur, then it has a special responsibility to assist African leaders and help end the pain and suffering of the people of Darfur. Britain as the former colonial power in Sudan should provide significant support to the African peace keeping force. The prime minister of Britain is well known for his concern for Africa. We are encouraged by Tony Blair’s recent visit to Sudan and the reported fruitful discussion with the leadership of Sudan. However, what the Africans of Darfur need is an end to targeted killings and expulsion, and justice for those that planned and perpetrated these attacks.

Third, the African Union should launch an investigation to determine if genocide is occurring in Darfur, identify those behind the policy and practice of genocide, delineate the role of the Sudanese government in the crisis, and determine the real masterminds of the Janjaweed militia. The African Union should act immediately on receipt of these findings by taking unusual steps to deal with the perpetrators and supporters of the tragedy in Darfur.

The recent appointment of a five member United Nations tribunal to investigate claims of genocide is a welcome development. However, it does not waive the responsibility of the African Union to conduct its own investigations, to move swiftly to punish perpetrators, and to ensure that acts of ethnic cleansing and genocide are never official or unofficial government policies anywhere in Africa.

Finally, African leaders should develop a verifiable and enforceable mechanism for preventing and managing ethnic cleansing in the continent. A major section of this mechanism should deal with justice for the victims. A comprehensive mechanism should also establish specific repercussions for the planners and perpetrators of ethnic cleansing or genocide anywhere in Africa.

The Darfur tragedy is the perfect opportunity for African leaders to lead. As the international community unites in its condemnation of the unfolding tragedy in Darfur, African leaders should know they have support of all individuals, institutions and governments that are committed to the sacredness of human rights and the sanctity of human lives. African leaders should know that the international community will support their efforts to enforce the inalienable right of citizens to participate in the political and economic development of their countries.

We cannot allow a situation where the color of one's skin is the sole determinant of whether you will die violently or be forcibly ejected from your ancestral land. If the tragedy of Darfur were treated as a "normal" crisis or a "misunderstanding" between ethnic groups, then the enemies of Africa's renaissance who do not believe in freedom of expression, political pluralism or economic prosperity would have the upper hand. Darfur could be a powerful metaphor of Africa's capacity to stare down evil thoughts, to stop murderous actions, and to deal decisively with the planners and perpetrators of orchestrated violence. The ball is in the court of African leaders and the African Union. Failure is an unthinkable option.

Honorable George Haley is a former United States ambassador to Gambia, his ancestral country. Chinua Akukwe is a member of the board of directors of the Constituency for Africa, Washington, D.C., and a former vice chairman of the National Council for International Health now known as the Global Health Council. Sidi Jammeh is the former chair of the Africa Society, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

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