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New Darfur Peacekeeping Chief to Join Doha Peace Process

The head of the joint African Union/United Nations mission in Darfur is heading to the Qatari capital, Doha to join international efforts to broker a peace deal between Sudan's government and Darfuri rebels. The Doha talks appear to be picking up momentum as the Darfur peacekeeping mission UNAMID expands its role in the political arena.

Newly-appointed UNAMID Chief Ibrahim Gambari says with Sudan's elections looming, a peace agreement between the government and Darfur rebels is urgently needed. "Time is not on our side. Elections are coming in April, referendum next year. And these are national issues because Darfur cannot be addressed in isolation from the rest of Sudan. We have to pay attention to it, and this puts pressure for the need to conclude a peace agreement first," he said.

With that in mind, Gambari, a former Nigerian foreign minister and veteran UN diplomat is shifting UNAMID's priority from peacekeeping to peacemaking.

He told VOA he will leave for Doha in the next few days to throw his full diplomatic weight behind peace talks led by the joint UN/African Union mediator Djibril Bassole. He says his focus will be on listening to the concerns of the various rebel factions. "The step I intend to take, one is to go to Doha to signal personally my support and that of UNAMID for the peace process, to support Bassole, but also to complete my consultations. So far my consultations have been with government officials of Sudan, now I need to touch base from the rebel movement and hear from them what would promote an early conclusion of the peace process and lead it to agreement," he said.

The recent dispatch of Gambari and another top UN diplomat, Haile Menkerios to Sudan signals Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's commitment to make the country among his highest priorities.

Doha has become the focal point for the efforts by a host of mediators to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough on Sudan. President Obama's envoy Scott Gration is involved, along with mediators from such places as Qatar, Libya, and the European Union. Former South African President Thabo Mbeki is also helping in his capacity as chairman of the AU High Level Panel on Darfur. Gambari says he hopes to synchronize the diplomatic process. "I have proposed, and there's a kind of consensus, to have a retreat of all special envoys, representing their countries or the EU, and to strategize, how do we synchronize our efforts to support the number one priority, which is the early conclusion of a ceasefire and a peace agreement. I'm moving fast," he said.

There have been reports of disagreements between High level panel chairman Mbeki and the joint AU/UN mediator Bassole. But Gambari says he is confident the involvement of so many senior African diplomats can make a difference. "The objectives of the Mbeki panel, the objectives of Bassole, the objectives of UNAMID is peace and stability in Sudan, Darfur, in the context of the country as a whole, so it's a partnership. By some coincidence, all of us happen to be Africans, and I'm committed to try to make it work," he said.

With the election day looming, negotiators are facing tight time constraints. A Sudanese government representative was quoted as saying an agreement must be in place by the third week of March to have any effect on the April 11 vote.

U.S. President Barack Obama this week said he was not sure whether engaging Sudan on Darfur would meet U.S. policy goals. Answering questions through the You Tube internet site, Mr. Obama linked a political settlement to the return of three million Darfuris displaced by the war.

News reports say Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir visited Doha Thursday. He was said to have met the Emir of Qatar to express appreciation for that country's sponsorship of the peace process.