Alex de Waal explains how peace processes work in the political “marketplace”. In complex conflicts involving multiple armed actors, diverse forms of violence and a breakdown in central political authority, much of politics functions through patronage. De Waal explains how external actors failed to navigate the political order in Darfur, where violence has been used not to achieve military victory but to raise actors’ status in a patronage hierarchy. International peacebuilders have not taken account of the micro-dynamics of the conflict and, as a result, peace initiatives have been unable to adjust to changing characteristics of violence, or to engage authentic sources of representation. An African Union initiative based on thorough local consultation succeeded in developing a much more accurate diagnosis of the conflict and a convincing and inclusive way to resolve it, but nobody has been prepared to back it.