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African Union Playing an Important Role in Darfur’s Humanitarian Crisis - 2004-08-27

The situation continues to deteriorate in western Sudan more than 18-months after a rebel uprising provoked a harsh government response. Despite a U.N. Security Council resolution calling on Khartoum to halt attacks on civilians and disarm government-backed militias by August 30 or face sanctions, human rights groups report that brutal attacks on civilians by the Janjaweed militia continue unabated. With the U.N. reluctant to intervene directly in Sudan, the African Union has taken the initiative by sending monitors to the Darfur. However, as VOA’s Serena Parker reports, some analysts say the A.U. involvement is too little, too late.

More than a million people have fled the fighting in Darfur and tens of thousands have been killed. Refugees are crowded into squalid camps along the border with Chad where hunger and disease are the norm. Recently, the World Health Organization reported three cases of polio in Darfur and there are fears of an outbreak in the region.

In the face of unbearable suffering the African Union has acted. It brokered an April cease-fire between the government and rebels and its monitors on the ground have reported in detail on the frequent violations.

Rwanda and Nigeria have contributed 300 peacekeeping troops to Darfur to guard the A.U. monitors, and both countries have offered to send thousands more to protect the local civilians. Currently, the African Union is hosting peace talks in Abuja, Nigeria, between the two sides.

According to John Prendergast, a special adviser at the International Crisis Group, the A.U. has pushed on despite open hostility and stonewalling from the regime in Khartoum. “They are facing a pretty steep mountain to climb, the A.U. is, in brokering these talks,” he says. “But it’s important that they’re holding them, and it’s important that they’re trying to get the process underway. So I think the A.U. has been working very hard during these last couple of months to demonstrate that the organization is a viable one.”

In 1999, the African Union rose from the ashes of the Organization of African Unity in an attempt to foster unity and solidarity among African states, promote development and protect national sovereignty. The crisis in Darfur presents a serious challenge to the organization. Will it be able to recognize the rights of a sovereign nation and protect those of ordinary Africans?

Ebere Onwudiwe, director of the Center for African Studies and professor of government at Central State University in Ohio, isn’t sure. “I think it’s a real test for the African Union, but I do not think they will be able to balance those rights in favor of the African individual,” he says. “Because the A.U. is still a bit more like its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, on this issue. They always put the territorial integrity and sovereignty of member states before the rights of the individuals.”

Professor Onwudiwe says other factors also limit a more robust intervention by the A.U. “Even if it wanted to now, the A.U. does not have the means to force Sudan to change its ways,” he says. “It has placed only about 300 soldiers from Rwanda and Nigeria, and these for the limited function of protecting A.U. monitors. We should also not underestimate the latent racial divide between Arabs and black African members on this issue that involves Arab and black African Muslims. This may not allow the type of common voice and purpose that can bend the will of the government of Sudan.”

Many in Africa have long feared that A.U. members would split along racial or religious lines, given the complex history of the continent. Some have suggested the African Union enlist the help of the Arab League, of which Sudan is also a member, to put pressure on Khartoum to halt the violence.

But George Ayittey, president of the Free Africa Foundation in Washington, says that won’t work. “The Arab League has galvanized support for the Sudanese government and has said that the Arabs will not tolerate any foreign intervention in Sudan,” he says. “And this is rather unfortunate because the complexity of the situation in Sudan indicates that this is not only an Arab and African issue but also a struggle over resources and a struggle over political power, all of which has been sort of melded into one complex issue.”

According to Mr. Ayittey, it’s not enough for the African Union to hold peace talks or report on cease-fire violations. To maintain any credibility, he says the A.U. should threaten Sudan with sanctions if it refuses to halt attacks on civilians and disarm the Arab militias. “In Africa we keep talking and talking and talking. There’s no action and the A.U. is an epitome of this particular type of policies,” he says.

Given the U.N. reluctance to challenge Khartoum and insist it disarm the Janjaweed, the limited efforts by the African Union may be Darfur’s best hope.