Civil Society Now: Darfuris Gather in Doha

   •    November 16, 2009

This article was originally published by Save Darfur/United to End Genocide.

This week, the African Union/United Nations Chief Mediator Djibril Bassolé will begin consultations with 150 Darfuri civil society representatives in Doha, Qatar. Rather than focusing on this important gathering though, the media over the weekend strangely focused on the postponement of negotiations between the Sudanese government and the Darfuri rebels.

Those following the process closely knew for weeks that Bassolé and the Qataris were intending to use the remaining weeks of November to consult with Darfuri civil society and the rebel movements – and were not planning to launch direct talks between the rebels and Sudanese government until December. So this was not really news. A government-leaning Sudanese newspaper, Al Rai Al Aam, on November 9 even ran a story entitled, “Resumption of the Doha negotiations in December.”

What the media has fundamentally missed is that the gathering of Darfuri civil society is critical to a successful peace process. The voices and concerns of these local leaders who have not taken up arms merit attention from the press and support from the international community. The most important question that journalists should be asking is whether the Sudanese government this time will allow all Darfuri leaders to leave Sudan and travel to the meetings. Despite all of its recent rhetoric about being ready for peace talks, in May of this year, the government obstructed “the safe passage of Darfurian delegates from Sudan” to the Mandate Darfur conference organized by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. At the time the organizers wrote:

“Despite numerous attempts at engagement with the Sudanese government, including sending a delegation to Khartoum and inviting senior figures to address the conference, we were greatly disappointed that Sudanese security services harassed our delegates, confiscated passports and threatened the conference coordinators in Sudan. Ultimately, the government has refused to grant exit visas to the delegates making it impossible for the conference to proceed.”

A second important question to ask is whether the 150 delegates will be representative of the diverse nature of Darfuri society. That is, will there be the necessary ethnic, geographic, and gender balance and will IDPs and traditional leaders be represented? Many Darfuris remember the hand-picked civil society “representatives” that the government sent to the Abuja peace talks in Nigeria in 2006. The Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) has already complained (article in Arabic) about the current list of invitees and delivered to the mediators their own list.

Drawing lessons from Abuja, the Save Darfur Coalition has consistently called for the broadening of the peace process in order to create a sense of ownership among Darfuris. In our submission to the African Union Panel on Darfur, we wrote:

“Limited formal means have existed to date for civil society to contribute to the peace process. The previous practice of giving seats at the table to almost any combatant has had the perverse effect of encouraging the factionalization of armed groups and giving armed groups a greater say in determining the future of Darfur than their unarmed counterparts. To date, the concerns of disaffected Arab tribes in Darfur have also been excluded from the formal peace process because of the focus on only bringing officially recognized rebel movements to the talks. A vigorous process of consultation with Darfurian civil society, including tribal leaders (including Arab tribes), will ensure the talks are truly representative and limit the ability of individual rebel leaders to put their personal ambitions ahead of a broadly acceptable agreement. With such a process in place, individual leaders will abstain from the process at their political peril.”

We then recommended a strong mechanism, like Mandate Darfur, to enhance civil society representation and engagement. We also highlighted the important work conducted by the Institute for Inclusive Security and Femmes Africa Solidarité to promote the role of women at the negotiating table. These channels must now be set up to gain the necessary support within Darfur for any final agreement. Otherwise, a deal reached in Doha – like the one reached in Abuja – could be dead on arrival. The active involvement of civil society leaders could also help isolate any Darfuri rebel leaders who may try to spoil the peace process because of personal or political ambitions.

In sum, it is good news that the chief mediator has made holding these civil society sessions a priority in advance of the formal negotiations. With that said, we must look out for reports that the government has blocked participants. The mediators should also ensure that the gathered group is sufficiently representative – or, if not, that the leaders have concrete plans to fill any significant ethnic, geographic or gender gaps. Hopefully, these consultations will help build a Darfuri consensus on the substantive issues on the table and, equally important, result in a formal channel for civil society to contribute to the negotiations when they may resume in December.

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