Last stand in Sudan?

The African Union is saving lives and preventing atrocities in Darfur, but it needs help to reduce the violence and better protect civilians.

On any given day, hundreds of women in displaced persons camps throughout Darfur can be seen nervously waiting for African Union (AU) troops before venturing outside to collect firewood for cooking. “I would not go out of the camp if there weren’t patrols by the African Union,” said one displaced woman in Western Darfur. She feared rape by heavily armed Arab militias, known as the Janjaweed, who often surround and then attack the camps with the support of Sudan’s military forces.

The African Union–not even four years old and badly underfunded, underequipped, and undermanned–has been struggling in Darfur to alleviate what has been called the world’s “worst humanitarian disaster.” Since the conflict in Sudan began in 2003, an estimated 180,000 to 300,000 people have been killed and 2 million displaced. Protecting the 3.5 million people considered by the United Nations to be at risk–half of the population of Darfur–has become a test case for African peacekeeping.

In its struggle to prevent atrocities, the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) has had many small successes and has proven innovative in its methods. Despite serious handicaps, AMIS has saved lives and prevented even worse catastrophes for many internally displaced persons (IDPs). But the African Union faces crises of its own. With a weak mandate and near-empty coffers, AMIS is itself struggling to survive.

The AU’s intervention in Darfur is a first for the organization, which replaced the 39-year-old Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 2002. The OAU was notorious for refusing to interfere in the “internal affairs” of member states, taking no action to prevent genocide in Rwanda or the brutal acts of Idi Amin in Uganda. By contrast, the AU is constitutionally structured to be able to collectively intervene in a member state to combat “war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.” (The AU is the world’s only regional or international organization that explicitly recognizes the right to intervene in a member state on humanitarian and human rights grounds.) As explained by Salim A. Salim, AU special envoy for Darfur and former OAU secretary-general, the AU was established to ensure that Africa would deal more decisively with African conflicts, a step necessary in part because international partners were unreliable. “It has not been easy to involve our Western partners in active peacekeeping in our continent,” Salim said during a July 2005 presentation at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Western support is pivotal to the AU’s capacity to achieve its mission. And Western nations have provided financial backing, airlift capacity, equipment, training, logistical support, and have assigned officers to help the AU improve its planning and command capabilities. But they have not sent troops, and financial aid has not always been forthcoming. (In December 2005, the U.S. Congress rejected a bill to renew $50 million in aid for Darfur, despite personal pleas from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.) And both African and Western governments have lined up behind the slogan “African solutions for African problems,” using it as an excuse to avoid direct Western involvement in Darfur.

Yet the AU has acknowledged that it needs help. At a meeting of its Peace and Security Council, the AU released a communiqué on January 12 expressing “its support, in principle, to a transition from AMIS to a U.N. operation, within the framework of the partnership between the AU and the United Nations.”

The United Nations appears open to the possibility. Speaking on the same day, after a meeting of the U.N. Security Council, Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated that AMIS was in danger of running out of money by the end of March. “Obviously, the international community cannot allow that situation to go unaddressed, and in all likelihood will have to look at other options, including possibly the U.N. working with the African Union to address the situation,” Annan said.

What happens next in Dafur will have reverberations for decades. “We stand or fall in Darfur,” Baba Gana Kingibe, AU special representative to Darfur, told IRIN, the U.N. news agency (June 8, 2005). “If we fail here, nobody is going to look to the African Union for a solution to other conflicts on the continent.”


Darfur would challenge the most seasoned, best-trained, and well-equipped peacekeepers. The AU has too few troops and not nearly enough aircraft or vehicles to cover such a vast and harsh expanse. It lacks solid intelligence, mobility, flexibility, good communications equipment, fuel–even food on occasion. “We didn’t even have maps,” Kingibe said about the early days of the operation.

Yet for the hundreds of thousands of women, men, and children crammed into squalid IDP camps scattered throughout Darfur, the AU is their only protection. A regional organization composed of 53 African nations, the AU has progressively enlarged its role in Darfur. In 2003, it brokered a cease-fire between the government of Sudan and rebel groups, dispatching about 60 unarmed observers to monitor the agreement. As the cease-fire faltered and violence increased, the AU sent more observers–this time with armed protection. When attacks against the civilian population accelerated, the AU dispatched soldiers and police to provide limited security, especially for the people huddled in camps. By mid-2005, it announced it would double its force.

Today, there are close to 7,000 AU troops and police in the region. But troop levels are still too small to protect civilians in Darfur, an area the size of France with poor roads and rudimentary communications, water, and power systems. There are about twice as many humanitarian workers on the ground as there are troops. Many military experts believe the AU needs at least 20,000 troops in Darfur to be effective; Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, the U.N. force commander in Rwanda during that nation’s genocide, insisted in February 2005 that it should be a mission force of 44,000 NATO-quality troops.

An awkward combination of a purely passive cease-fire-monitoring mission and a restricted peacekeeping operation, AMIS’s mandate leaves troops nearly powerless, without the authority to disarm attackers or to robustly protect civilians. When authorized to protect civilians, the mandate says AMIS forces must be “in the immediate vicinity” with sufficient “resources and capability,” and this even comes with the qualification “that the protection of the civilian population is the responsibility of the Government of Sudan.”

But the Sudanese government, which is the perpetrator of many of the attacks, cannot be relied on to protect Darfurians. (That Sudan, with its poor human rights record, hosted the AU’s January summit–and therefore by tradition could have been conferred the presidency of the AU for one year–set off a wave of protest from African human rights groups. “We seriously believe such an action will deeply undermine and erode the credibility of the AU,” the groups said in a January 16 open letter. After much debate, on January 24, African leaders decided that President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville would chair the AU.) A grave flaw in AMIS was that the mission was planned on the assumption that the government of Sudan would comply with the cease-fire, yet this “has not been borne out,” as the AU chairperson of the Commission on the Situation in Darfur delicately put it.

Sudan has, in fact, done all it could to thwart the AU mission. Although it agreed to the AU presence, it did so under pressure, invoking the “African solutions for African problems” mantra to prevent a stronger international intervention. Because the AU’s Peace and Security Council did not want to be too confrontational, it made sure the intervention had the consent of the government. As a result, AU patrols regularly include members of the Sudanese military. This constrains the AU’s effectiveness–one can imagine how terrified Darfurians, whose villages have just been attacked by the Sudanese army and its allied militias, might not want to talk to an investigating patrol that includes representatives of the attacking groups.

The AU’s task would be daunting even with a stronger mandate and more troops. The conflict in Darfur has pitted well-armed forces of the Sudanese government and their allies in the Janjaweed against African rebel groups from the Fur, Masselit, and Zaghawa tribes.

The immediate grievance of the black African tribes was that the government was siding with Arab herdsmen who, after severe drought in the 1980s, were increasingly encroaching upon the tribes’ farmlands. Darfur’s black African tribes are Muslim, as are the Arab nomads; the groups have intermingled over the centuries through internal migration and intermarriage. But the ideology of Arab supremacy introduced by Omar al-Bashir’s regime in 1989, and encouraged by Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, served to polarize the communities and to spark an “African versus Arab” armed struggle over land and resources.

More fundamentally, black African tribes in western Sudan resented the central government’s neglect of their area. With oil beginning to enrich Sudan, the tribes wanted a larger share of the national budget. They saw the Arab-dominated government enter into power- and wealth-sharing agreements with black African tribes in southern Sudan after a 20-year civil war, and they demanded the same parity. In short, they saw that violence had worked in the south. When the government failed to respond to their demands, armed rebel groups formed–the Justice and Equality Movement followed the creation of the Sudanese Liberation Movement/Army, which in February 2003 attacked government troops stationed at the El Fasher Airport in Northern Darfur.

The government’s response to the Darfur rebels was overwhelming. Its troops and helicopters, joined by Arab militias that it armed and financed, attacked farms and villages indiscriminately, killing tens of thousands of civilians from the rebels’ tribes, though very few rebels were killed. Thousands of women and girls were raped or suffered other sexual violence, and more than 2 million people had to flee their homes. The government and militias stole crops and livestock, burned homes, and poisoned wells to impede Darfurians’ return.

By February 2005, around 75 percent of all villages in Darfur had been burned down, and most of the settled population driven out. Prime farmland, seeds, and farming equipment were seized, and the farmers lost 50-90 percent of their livestock. A document ostensibly originating from the Sudanese government (though forgery is a possibility) that was seized from a Janjaweed official ordered militia commanders and security officers to “change the demography of Darfur and make it void of African tribes,” according to New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof (February 23, 2005). In September 2005, Arab militias began to directly attack people inside the camps in retaliation for rebel attacks on the Janjaweed.

Armed banditry and robbery have become rampant, making it difficult for the AU to protect even its own troops. In October 2005, the AMIS force suffered its first casualties–four soldiers and two civilian drivers were murdered in an ambush. “We are like sitting ducks,” an army captain from Zambia told the Washington Post, saying he hoped for armored personnel carriers and more ammunition (November 11, 2005). Another ambush in January killed a Senegalese soldier and injured 10 other AU troops.

Rebel forces, too, have committed serious human rights violations. Most often they have attacked the Sudanese military or looted humanitarian aid from passing convoys. But in late 2005, rebels started raiding Arab nomads and their communities, burning them down and stealing their livestock, even though many Arabs do not support the Janjaweed. Factionalism within the rebel groups, which have poor command and control structures, has led to what the United Nations described in its August 2005 monthly report on Darfur as “predatory warlordism and criminal behavior.” Schisms within the rebel groups have also made negotiations to end the conflict–conducted by the AU in Abuja, Nigeria–more difficult. The seventh round of negotiations, which began November 28, 2005, and are ongoing, have made little if any progress toward a resolution.


Though there is vast room for improvement, AMIS’s work has been invaluable. Many AU soldiers have shown a spirit and commitment that have given confidence to Darfurians–like the women who now feel safe enough to venture out for firewood–and proved a big surprise to the Sudanese government.

For the Rwandan troops, who together with Nigerians form the backbone of AU forces, it was unacceptable to watch civilians be attacked. Genocide had been committed in their country 10 years earlier, and they remember how U.N. troops–also with a restricted mandate and small numbers–failed to stop the three-month-long slaughter of nearly 800,000 people. Before his troops departed for AMIS, Rwandan President Paul Kagame even announced: “Our forces will not stand by and watch innocent civilians being hacked to death like the case was here in Rwanda in 1994” (Associated Press, August 17, 2004). As might be expected, the Sudanese foreign minister retorted that civilian protection should be the responsibility of Sudan. But Rwandan soldiers on the ground echoed the sentiment of their president. “Every night you go to sleep thinking, ‘I could do more,'” Lt. Eugene Ruzianda told the Washington Post (September 28, 2004).

In interviews with AU troops, displaced people, and humanitarian and human rights officers over a seven-month period in 2005, coauthor of this article William G. O’Neill found that despite shortfalls in troop levels, serious lack of equipment, and its restrictive mandate, AMIS has important achievements to its credit. Among its more innovative practices are:

Preventive deployments. After attacks on the town of Labado in Southern Darfur in late 2004, the AU commander decided, at serious risk to his troops, to deploy soldiers there in January 2005 to patrol and to observe government troops. The deployment deterred further attacks and led to the return of many residents, who started to repair their homes and rebuild their lives. The same thing happened in the nearby town of Muhajaria, where the AU overcame its mandate restrictions by claiming it was there to protect civilian contractors; in reality, it was deterring an expected attack on the town by government-controlled militias.

Temporary accompaniment. After a deadly rebel attack and a government counterattack in the town of Tawila in November 2004, nine AU military observers arrived to document the incidents. Despite being unarmed, they spent the night in the town and gave their unused food rations to local women. Although they had come only to record earlier events, their stay offered a short spell of security to the villagers.

Flexible patrolling. AU soldiers and police have tried to be visible to deter violence. A commander in Western Darfur, for example, said his troops conduct two or more patrols daily. There are several types of patrols. On “investigative patrols,” soldiers look into cease-fire violations; on “confidence-building patrols,” troops try to anticipate, and then prevent, attacks. “Negotiation patrols” involve mediating some conflict or crisis. For example, when Catholic Relief Services workers were taken hostage by rebels in late 2004, the AU sector commander hastened to the area, talked with rebel leaders, and secured the workers’ release. On “escort patrols,” soldiers accompany wood-gathering women outside of the camps, or humanitarian convoys delivering aid along treacherous roads. An AU soldier in El Fasher said, “It is important that we do these patrols. You can talk to the IDPs and find out what problems they face. They are a concrete way to help, and you feel like you are really contributing.” While there are no comprehensive statistics, all agree that AU patrols have deterred attacks against women and girls. With increased security, women in IDP camps have more freedom of mobility; the International Rescue Committee found that on the days of AU patrols, more than 800 women go out to gather wood.

Mediation and conflict resolution. AU troops often meet with leaders from the IDP camps to listen to their complaints and concerns. One of the most devastating consequences of the conflict has been the destruction of many traditional dispute resolution mechanisms that allowed for the peaceful solution to conflicts over water, land, livestock, grazing routes, and personal matters. AU soldiers often come from societies that have similar customs involving tribal elders, and they know the importance of reestablishing these procedures in the often tense, overcrowded, undersupplied camps. In one sector, the AU holds biweekly meetings with camp managers, U.N. agencies, and women leaders so they can assess the patrols’ effectiveness and schedule future patrols.

Advocating against child soldiers. Recruitment of child soldiers has a sorry history in the south of Sudan, and the situation in Darfur is no different. AU commanders know that the rebels recruit young boys, which is a cease-fire violation; it also violates the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of Children, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and its Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict–all treaties that Sudan has signed. Recruiting child soldiers is also a war crime under the statute of the International Criminal Court. To oppose this practice, in some sectors of Northern Darfur the AU and UNICEF have created an informal system to share information, identify recruitment hot spots, and then meet with authorities to request that they stop child recruitment and release any children who have already been recruited.


Darfur abounds with stories of AU soldiers who are willing to patrol, to be visible, and to try to deter violence. But it is also clear that the AU force is simply too small, and that it lacks the mobility, resources, and mandate to fully protect Darfurians. Only the international community can create a force with the requisite size, capabilities, and mandate to fully protect civilians, support the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and allow the safe return of refugees and IDPs.

There are three ways the international community could help. The first is to increase support to the AU so that it can grow to at least 20,000 troops and have the necessary logistics and mandate. Over the past year, Western countries have increased their support and helped airlift more AU troops into Darfur. A May 2005 donors’ conference pledged $300 million to the AU, but this figure is still more than $150 million short of the amount it would take to expand to only 7,700 soldiers, according to Said Djinnit, the AU Peace and Security Council commissioner. AMIS’s monthly operating budget is only $17 million, yet as Kofi Annan said plainly in January, “They need money; they need it quickly.”

If the AU cannot field a force capable of securing its mission, another option is for the United Nations to assume the responsibility and merge its peacekeeping mission in southern Sudan with the AU force. As Annan and the AU Peace and Security Council indicated, both parties are amenable to the idea. Such a union would give the troops in Darfur the mandate they need and allow the AU to draw on the deeper peacekeeping resources and experience of the United Nations, and non-Arab Muslim peacekeepers from Malaysia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Turkey would be welcome additions to the AU troops. Not only do soldiers from these nations already have extensive peacekeeping experience (much more so than most AU troops), but as Muslims who are not Arabs, they would find ready acceptance from the population. Some Arab AU peacekeepers–from Egypt, Tunisia, Mauritania, and Morocco–have reported difficulties because civilians suspect them of favoring the Sudanese government.

If the United Nations and AU cannot work out such a partnership, the only remaining solution would be for NATO or the European Union (EU) to send their own troops to reinforce AMIS. NATO and EU soldiers have the training, experience, and resources to plug the many holes in the AU’s operation. This option would face significant political obstacles, not least resistance from Khartoum–and from Washington, already overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet one of these three options must be chosen. AU leaders and member states have shown great courage in deploying forces in Darfur, and AMIS has demonstrated resourcefulness in trying to accomplish its mission–an effort that sets an important precedent. It would be tragic for those displaced in Darfur, and indeed for all of Africa, if the AU failed for lack of support from the rest of the world.


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