The French government will seek to put a Gallic stamp on efforts to resolve the conflict in Darfur on Monday when it hosts a hurriedly arranged meeting of foreign ministers and officials.
But rather than helping Sudan’s bloody and beleaguered western region, the move risks exacerbating the confusion already created by a proliferation of disjointed political initiatives, say analysts and some diplomats.
A motley group of foreign governments, international bodies and non-governmental organisations have been seeking to advance a political resolution to the conflict in Darfur, initially by encouraging its fragmented rebel groups to unify their positions.
Yet due partly to a lack of co-ordination, their efforts have come to little in recent months. Instead, the violence in Darfur, which has killed 200,000, is becoming more intractable. Aerial bombardments and battles between Arab militia and rebels are now compounded by inter-rebel fighting, raids across the Chad-Sudan border and banditry.
“People can go peace conference shopping,” says David Triesman, the UK’s Africa minister. “It does seem to be very important that there is an operation and everybody tries to stick to it. Otherwise people dance around and try to take advantage…It goes on forever and in the end you don’t get a result.”
In April, the International Crisis Group said the cacophony of voices and initiatives was diffusing international pressure, enabling some of Sudan’s neighbours to act as “spoilers”, and causing rebels to prevaricate.
That plays into the hands of the Sudanese regime. It has fomented division among rebel factions, thought to number between nine and 14, because it does not want them to coalesce into a unified political force ahead of national elections due in 2009.
What Monday’s Paris meeting can do to make things better remains in doubt. The Khartoum government was not invited, nor were any rebels, and nor were Eritrea, Chad and Libya, all influential Sudanese neighbours. It is also unclear whether the African Union will attend.
François Grignon, director of the ICG’s Africa programme, says: “If you look at the French initiative, if you are cynical, you could argue it was launched for the French agenda ahead of parliamentary elections.”
France’s foreign ministry says the country is not launching a “parallel process” but “enlarging” the existing one. But one Sudan analyst complains: “Nothing the French seem to be doing is joined up with anything else.”
France is merely the latest country to go out on a limb.
Diplomats and analysts blame the profusion of initiatives on a lack of leadership from the United Nations, which left a vacuum after Sudan expelled its special representative to the country and Kofi Annan stepped down as secretary-general at the end of last year.
“We need the UN and the African Union to take the lead, but they’re not quite doing that,” says one diplomat in Khartoum. “They need to outline where others can help and reject those they don’t need. The problem is they’ve invited support from everyone and said yes to everything.”
Others say an excessive focus on getting Khartoum to agree to a UN/AU peacekeeping force has diverted attention from the need for reconciliation.
Jan Eliasson, the UN special envoy to Darfur, who is based in Sweden, says: “Now we really have to work on the basic issues. Peacekeeping is fine but there has to be a peace to keep. There has to be a heavy emphasis on the political track.”
He says the many initiatives can be contained by the Tripoli Consensus, forged in April, under which all parties agreed to co-ordinate their activities with the UN and AU.
But diplomats say that will not happen until the envoys of both organisations – Mr Eliasson and Salim Ahmed Salim – articulate a clear strategy. A road map they laid out this month was criticised for being both vague and over-optimistic: it envisages invitations to peace negotiations between the rebels and Khartoum being sent out in August.
Part of the difficulty is that rebels are divided not so much by their demands – there is broad agreement on compensation, wealth-sharing, power-sharing and security – but by bitter personal and ethnic rivalries. “It boils down to internal power struggles and little thought is given to the plight of the population of Darfur,” says another diplomat in Khartoum.
Mr Eliasson says it is also vital to listen to Darfur’s tribal leaders and its civilians, including the 2.5m people forced from their homes by the conflict. A failure to do so was one reason why last year’s Darfur peace agreement became so shambolic, attracting the signature of just one rebel faction and triggering a splintering of the rest that has made the search for peace so much harder.
Additional reporting by Mark Solomons
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