Darfur wasn't genocide and Sudan is not a terrorist
Even MI6 and the CIA are frustrated by the attitude of
US neocons and the Christian right towards the
Jonathan Steele in Khartoum
Friday October 7, 2005
Question: when do Bush administration officials cuddle
up to leaders of states that the US describes as
sponsors of international terrorism? Answer: when they
are in Khartoum. I know because I saw it the other
day. It was in the garden of the headquarters of
Sudan's intelligence service, not far from the Nile.
Fairy lights twinkled on wires draped round palm
trees. African drummers played. Sadly, no alcohol was
served, but clearly there was something in the air.
Up stepped a senior CIA agent. In full view of the
assembled company, he gave General Salah Abdallah
Gosh, Sudan's intelligence boss, a bear hug. The
general responded by handing over a goody-bag, wrapped
in shiny green paper. Next up was a senior MI6
official, with the same effusive routine - hug,
hand-shake, bag of presents.
We were attending the closing dinner of a two-day
conference of African counter-terrorism officials, to
which the US and the UK were invited as observers. The
western spooks were less than happy to have the press
on hand, especially as their names were called out.
But loss of anonymity was a small price for the
excellent cooperation both agencies believe Sudan is
giving in the campaign to keep tabs on Somali, Saudi
and other Arab fundamentalists who pass through its
Pragmatic Britain has had polite relations with
Sudan's Islamist government since it took power in a
military coup in 1989. Ideological Washington has not.
Bill Clinton designated Sudan a terrorist state in
1993 and later slapped on trade sanctions, partly
under pressure from Congress and America's Christian
US officials have produced no proof that Sudan
finances, trains or harbours terrorists, and the Bush
people would probably lift the bans if they could. But
once on the terrorism-sponsor list, few countries
manage to get off. It is a rare case where the great
warrior on terror finds himself trapped by US
politicians even more extreme than himself.
Bush's Sudan policy contains other big contradictions.
As secretary of state last year, Colin Powell
described the conflict in the western region of Darfur
as "genocide". He had hesitated for months, because a
finding of genocide requires a state to take immediate
action to stop it. Yet what did the US do next?
Nothing, or at least no more than many other states,
including Britain, which did not want the genocide
label to be lightly used, and so devalued.
The US supported an armed African Union (AU) mission
to monitor a ceasefire and protect humanitarian
relief. It pressed for a peace deal. More reluctantly
than any other state, it supported an inquiry that
could lead to indictments of Sudanese leaders at the
international criminal court. But Washington's lack of
follow-through showed that, as with the terrorism
label, the genocide finding was a sop to the Christian
right and anti-Islamist neocons.
Coverage of Darfur has dwindled, but AU monitors, as
well as UN officials in Khartoum, report a marked
improvement since last year's campaign of rape and
killing left close to 200,000 dead and forced 2
million to flee. Janjaweed militias, usually backed by
the government in clashes with rebel groups, were
behind most of the atrocities.
Thriving on bad news - typical was Caroline
Moorehead's Letter from Darfur in the New York Review
of Books this summer - commentators who still write
about Darfur often thunder away without any sense of
time or context. In fact, the UN secretary general's
latest report to the security council points out that
the influx of 12,500 aid workers has "averted a
humanitarian catastrophe, with no major outbreaks of
disease or famine". Patrols by the hundreds of AU
monitors have reduced violence and other human-rights
The report attacks the government for not disarming
the Janjaweed or holding enough people accountable for
last year's atrocities, but it blames the rebels for
most of this year's abductions of civilians and
attacks on aid convoys.
In recent weeks there has been a turn for the worse. A
new chain of tit-for-tat violence is developing.
Janjaweed forces attacked a displaced people's camp in
western Darfur last week, an unprecedented assault on
a sanctuary in which at least 30 people died, and AU
monitors report that government helicopter gunships
were seen over the camp. This may have been
retaliation for a rebel seizure of a town a few days
To its credit, Washington has stepped up efforts to
get the anti-government rebels to stop blocking the
peace talks now under way in Abuja. As inter-ethnic
tensions among the rebels grow stronger, leaders of
the Zaghawa, the main fighters, are unwilling to
attend despite face-to-face pleas from US and UN
diplomats urging them to accept the model that ended
the much longer war between the government and the
Former southern rebels, who recently joined the
Islamists in Sudan's new government of national unity,
will soon go to Abuja for the first time, to act as
mediators if necessary. This is a big step forward. As
Riek Machar, the new vice-president of south Sudan
told me in Juba last week: "We believe we are the
people who can crack the issue of Darfur. We have
experience of negotiating a settlement with the group
governing in Khartoum. We will take that experience to
Abuja. The liberation movements have confidence in
Even if peace were agreed, implementation would be
rocky. The north-south deal has made a poor start. The
Arab-led former ruling party denied its new southern
partners any of Sudan's key ministries; this will not
encourage the Darfurians. UN analysts believe
peace-building in Darfur will be harder than in the
south. "Destruction progressed over 20 years in the
south, and it wasn't mainly done by locals. It was
done by the Sudanese army and militias from outside.
In Darfur you've had dozens of ethnic groups clashing
... Some won, some lost, and it has been very quick.
Bitterness and hatred are still raw," said one
Grim though it has been, this was not genocide or
classic ethnic cleansing. Many of the displaced moved
to camps a few kilometres from their homes.
Professionals and intellectuals were not targeted, as
in Rwanda. Darfur was, and is, the outgrowth of a
struggle between farmers and nomads rather than a
Balkan-style fight for the same piece of land. Finding
a solution is not helped by turning the violence into
a battle of good versus evil or launching another