"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


the war is over, long live the war

Before departing his post last week, UNAMID commander General Martin Luther Agwai caused a bit of a stir by declaring the war between the Sudanese government and Darfur's JEM rebel group to be over and that the main problems there are now political. Critics were quick to counter his statement by pointing out that even UNAMID still can't access parts of Darfur, that the Sudanese government can restart tensions at any time with little effort, and that there's the small matter of 26 rebel factions that all still have their own agendas in peace negotiations.

Rob Crilly, who has more experience in Darfur than just about any other Western journalist, has a nice summary of the reasons Agwai might be right. As he points out, the reaction to Agwai's comments by some in the Save Darfur movement and its related lobby groups was off-base:
"The man who has spent the past two years trying to protect the camps and keeping a lid on banditry was actually saying Darfur was still mired in a humanitarian emergency, but that the insecurity was no longer the sort of genocide or military conflict that people like [John] Norris [Executive Director of the Enough Project] like to imagine."
And therein lies the problem. Crilly goes on to note that the problem with viewing Darfur as a genocide and a war means that the automatic response is to formulate military solutions to the problem. Which, as he notes, generally don't solve humanitarian crises:
"The crisis in Sudan's western region is humanitarian, needing humanitarian not military solutions. As General Agwai's analysis makes clear, banditry, water and local issues need to be tackled if Darfur is to find security. He has not missed the point."
I've been intrigued for awhile by the international community's eagerness to declare the status of major wars and humanitarian crises as "over" or "transitional." The DRC, you'll remember, is technically a post-conflict situation, in that we now live in an era when the peace settlement from the 1998-2002 war still keeps the old rebel groups and government from fighting one another by giving their leaders equal opportunity to steal from government coffers.

The problem with that peace deal was its failure to take into account the myriad of local-level conflicts and actors that still drive violence in the region today. Thus, while it's not accurate to say that there is full-scale war in the eastern Congo at the moment, it's also inaccurate to pretend that it's a post-conflict situation, as the families of the 1200 Congolese people who die every day from war-related causes would surely tell you. The Congo crisis exists as something less than a full-scale war and something more than a humanitarian crisis.

(I could also note that most of the international response to what is very much a military and governance-based crisis in the DRC has instead been political and humanitarian. Those are necessary elements to any solution to the DRC crisis, but we won't see peace there until a military problem is met by an adequately-resourced military response.)

Despite some efforts to pair them as similar due to the use of rape as a weapon of war, the presence of land disputes at the heart of the conflicts, and the massive refugee/IDP crises, the DRC and Darfur are very different crises. The role of the central government and its interaction with local rebels is completely different in the two countries.

But this debate over whether the war is "over" in Darfur does make for a nice parallel with the Congo case. The Darfur war is over in the same sense that the Congo war ended in 2002. Does that mean that the local issues at the center of the conflict are solved, that civilians won't still be attacked, that the refugee crisis will end in the foreseeable future, or that al Bashir will realize the error of his ways and turn himself over to the ICC for prosecution on a bright Sunday morning in Khartoum?

Of course not. Beyond understanding that an humanitarian crisis requires an humanitarian response, perhaps the next most important lesson we can take away from this semantic kerfluffle is the need for more nuance in our understanding of how conflicts progress. We need to understand as an international community that the difference between what makes a war "over" or "ending" is often far from clear. There are plenty of in-between states in which humanitarian crises and conflicts can exist. Acknowledging that fact in no way diminishes the importance of recognizing the suffering of victims or the severity of crimes committed by the perpetrators. But doing so just might help us to figure out solutions that would work.


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