Washington yesterday evening sent its Deputy Secretary of State, Robert B Zoellick, off to the Nigerian capital to "try to assist the African Union mediation team find solutions to the remaining issues regarding a peace agreement for Darfur," according to the US government. Mr Zoellick was to help the AU in a last minute effort to "energise the Abuja peace negotiations."
In the Nigerian capital, the long-lasting Darfur peace negotiations finally saw some movement in late April, as the AU had given the parties a 30 April deadline to come to a conclusion. On Wednesday last week, a "comprehensive negotiating text" was presented by the AU, which after a few days found support from the Sudanese government and the pro-government Janjaweed militia.
On the other side of the table, however, the situation is more chaotic. The two Darfuri rebel groups opposing the Khartoum government - the Sudanese Liberation Movement (SLM) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) - find it difficult to agree among themselves and with the diplomatic efforts of the AU and the UN.
The agreement proposed by the AU indeed focuses on the re-establishment of peace and order, demilitarisation and reconciliation. The disarmament of the feared Janjaweed militia is the key point, while SLM and JEM rebels are to be offered their integration into Sudan's regular military forces.
The root causes behind the conflict - the lack of political and economic powers for the Darfuri population - is barely treated in the peace deal. Rebels had hoped for an ample autonomy for Darfur, giving real political power and locally based revenues to the vast western part of Sudan. Powers transferred to the three Darfuri provinces according to the peace deal however are limited.
The JEM has shown some interest in the AU peace proposal as its main aim had been to defend the Darfuri population against the ethnic cleansing campaign launched by the "Arab" Janjaweed militia. The SLM, on the other hand, told the AFP news agency that the AU peace deal "does not address our crucial concerns." The rebel group was basically fighting for an autonomous status for Darfur.
With the positive answer from Khartoum and protests from the two Darfuri rebel groups, the AU's peace proposal yesterday seemed doomed. Sudan's Vice President Osman Taha yesterday left Abuja, indicating Khartoum had said "yes" to the AU proposal as presented and would not tolerate changes. Also the SLM was negative to the two-day negotiating extension granted on Sunday, saying the AU proposal would not serve as a basis for further negotiations.
Neither the UN nor Western governments - which have shown more sympathy for the rebels than for the Khartoum government - yesterday wanted to accept the rebels' dismissal of the AU deal. Today, pressure was increasing on the SLM to accept the proposal with as few changes as possible.
"The situation in Darfur continues to be dire," UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan yesterday warned the Darfuri rebels. Pointing out that millions of civilians remain dependent for their survival on humanitarian assistance which is threatened by the continuing violence, he added: "The clear solution is for the parties to seize this historic opportunity to achieve peace and begin the task of recovery and reconstruction."
Washington even sent a larger delegation to Abuja, heaved by the Deputy Secretary of State. "All parties should make a concentrated effort to seize this opportunity for peace," the US State Department urged in a statement. While the Darfuri rebels were asked to "focus on the few key issues that stand in the way of reaching a settlement," the Sudanese government was urged "to send a senior representative back to Abuja to finalise the peace agreement."
Vice President Taha however remains in Khartoum. Meanwhile, several senior Sudanese negotiators remain in Abuja, opening a door to further talks if Mr Zoellick is able to convince the rebels through US pressure. Mr Taha's possible return to Abuja would indicate his success.
By staff writers