Friday, January 25, 2008

Darfur's Best Hope

In a thoughtful piece in the Christian Science Monitor, Nathaniel Myers contends that, to end the crisis in Darfur, we must move to oust the Bashir government in Khartoum. In doing so, we should use the swearing in of a new special envoy for Sudan and a provision in the 2005 peace agreement to our advantage.

The United States and its allies on Darfur have long responded to Khartoum's obstructions with public complaints and reaffirmations of their commitment to the mission. Though well-intentioned, this approach has played into the (National Congress Party) NCP's hands. While American attention has been narrowly focused on the struggling peacekeeping mission, the NCP has been undercutting a potentially dramatic challenge to its rule - and with it, the greatest opportunity for lasting peace in Darfur. With the swearing in this month of a new special envoy for Sudan, Rich Williamson, it is time that America revisits its approach to Sudan – and recognizes that the peacekeeping mission should not be its exclusive focus.

As Mr. Bashir's latest provocation suggests, the problem in Darfur is one that ultimately cannot be resolved by peacekeepers. That's because its roots don't lie in local grievances or ethnic divisions – though both have fueled the fighting – but in the halls of power in Khartoum. The peacekeeping mission is urgently needed to improve immediate security, but lasting peace will come to Darfur and the rest of Sudan only when the country is led by a government genuinely committed to the cause. Remove the NCP from power and, as a senior UN official in Sudan told me recently, "the
problem in Darfur is over."

In most misgoverned nations, talk of such regime change would seem little more than a pipe dream – but remarkably, improbably, there exists in Sudan today a chance of revolution through the ballot box. Under the terms of an existing but neglected peace agreement, signed in 2005 to end the 21-year civil war between the Khartoum government and southern rebels, Sudan is obligated to hold a national election by July 2009. This peace deal, known as the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), also promised the south a referendum on independence in 2011. Next year's election is essentially the last chance to stave off what will otherwise be a resounding vote for southern secession, by showing southerners that they will be allowed to compete for national power in a unified, democratic Sudan…

To be sure, it is hard to be optimistic that Bashir will ever permit an election that threatens his grip on power. But any vote, however flawed, will challenge the entrenched political order and give the opposition a chance to organize. Its conduct also represents the only scenario through which Sudan might survive as a unified state past the south's likely secession vote in 2011. And despite provocations such as this latest appointment, recent history shows that even the NCP can be influenced by a sustained campaign of targeted international pressure: Recall its eventual acquiescence to the UN peacekeeping mission.

With its current focus on peacekeepers, the Bush administration risks allowing this critical election to become just another broken NCP promise. The peacekeeping mission in Darfur is surely important, but if the US wants to see long-term peace in Sudan, the new special envoy must place greater emphasis on the implementation of the CPA and the conduct of a free, fair, and potentially regime-shattering election next year.

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