Interview with Dr. Ibrahim Gambari

Since January 2010, Dr. Ibrahim Gambari has been the Joint Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the African Union and the United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID). He was interviewed at IPI on June 9th, 2011 by Francesco Mancini, Director of Research at the International Peace Institute.

Francesco Mancini (FM): Let’s first talk about the Arab Spring. A lot is happening north of Sudan, east of Sudan, and I wonder if you can comment on the impact of what is happening in the Arab world. If there is an impact, what impact is it having on the Darfur-Khartoum relationship?

Ibrahim Gambari (IG): First of all, I think there is an impact and it could be positive as well as negative. On the idea of change by popular demand, it is something infectious that respects no borders. Everybody glues their face to the television–the CNN factor. The idea that people can actually change government, particularly a government that they feel no longer reflects their aspirations, is very powerful . I don’t think any part of the world, particularly in Africa south of the Sahara, can be immune.

Now, having said that, on the positive side, you can see that those who have been in power for long could draw a conclusion that, perhaps, it may not be tenable to continue to remain in power for an indefinite time. We may have seen some of that registered in the decision by–although it is denied–President Bashir, even though he has just been elected to a fresh term, that his current term will be his last. And his party, the National Congress Party, is already saying that they are looking for a successor.

Now, however, on the situation in Sudan, you recall that in the next few weeks, on the 9th of July, there will be a new Republic of South Sudan breaking away from Sudan. Therefore, Sudan will lose about a quarter of its size and a third of its population. This will have political consequences. The opponents of the regime may seize upon this argument that the government has lost this part of Sudan. There may be a political price to be paid for that.

On Darfur, specifically, there are opportunities and challenges. On the plus side, some members of the Sudanese government will have to see how to handle Darfur differently. At least, we hope they will, so that by demonstrating statesmanship and making necessary compromises, the same thing that happened in terms of South Sudan will not happen to Darfur – that is, separation.

It is to be noted that thus far, there has been no demand for separation. There has been demand for a democratic transformation of Sudan, including on the part of two armed movements, the SLA-Abdul Wahid (SLA-AW) and the SLA Minni Minawi. The SLA Minni Minawi used to be part of the government in the arrangement that followed the last Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) signed in Abuja which is now almost defunct. The two movements met recently and said their goal is regime change in Khartoum. Now, if that is the case, there may be no incentive on the part of the Sudanese government to negotiate with the people who are saying that they are committed to its overthrow.

On the other hand, I think this is an opportunity for the armed movement to seize upon and to try to come together for peace–not for more war–and to make their demands on the government to address them in ways that Darfur will not follow the South of Sudan to separation. Whether that will happen or not, is yet to be seen.

FM: There is another issue within Sudan which is the Abyei issue. How is this impacting the dynamics in Darfur?

IG: First of all, I know that Abyei is under another international peacekeeping mission, UNMIS, United Nations Mission in Sudan, and I try to avoid commenting on someone else’s turf. But, having said that, I think it is fair to say that we are a sister mission. Although, unlike them, we are not mandated by the UN alone. We in UNAMID serve under the mandate of both the African Union and United Nations. We feel for UNMIS because they are now experiencing what we have been experiencing in Darfur for years.

For example, as a result of the recent clashes in Abyei, an estimated 90,000 people have been displaced. Now, in Darfur, we have had hundreds of thousands of people displaced, including 1.7 million who are now in IDP camps. During the last major conflict between the armed movements and the government in Khor Abeche in Darfur, an estimated 30,000 to 70,000 people have been displaced. So, we have experienced what is now happening as a result of this conflict. There were more fatalities between January and May – three times more fatalities – in South Sudan than currently in Darfur. Darfur seems to be a calmer place even though some of the ingredients of conflict are still very much there. We are watching it very closely. We hope that Abyei will be resolved peacefully. The African Union is working very closely with President Mbeki’s African Union high-level implementation panel and with the parties. I believe that an arrangement will probably be found which, if it does not solve the problem of Abyei, at least, it will minimize the opportunity for it to lead to the kind of fighting and displacements that we have witnessed recently.

FM: In this context, what do you think is UNAMID’s key value-added in bringing forward the Darfur Political Process and in following up on the Doha discussions?

IG: Three things. First, next to the government of Sudan, UNAMID has the largest presence all over Darfur. When we are fully deployed, and it will be soon, there will be 31,000 military, police, and civilian personnel. We are spread all over Darfur. We are the main eyes and the ears of the international community in Darfur. We do reporting on the human rights situation or violations of the same. We do reporting on the humanitarian situation and we draw attention to acts of impunity. Above all, we are there for the protection of the civilian population. That is our principal mandate along with the facilitation of the delivery of humanitarian assistance to those who need it.

But we are unique precisely because we are deployed all over Darfur and because we are on the ground. We have a unique value-added to promote a Darfur-based political process. Up until now, our role has been to identify, select, and transport civil society groups, IDPs, and refugees to Doha. We think that it is now time to move the center of gravity of the peace process from Doha to Darfur. Doha has gone as far as I think it will in the peace process. We in UNAMID are continuously on the ground. We can facilitate, identify participants, and promote the political process inside Darfur. For this we also need the cooperation of the Sudanese government. The government has to create an enabling environment whereby people can talk freely, organize freely, associate freely, and be able to talk without fear of retribution and without fear of arbitrary arrest. That is why we think being on the ground [is so important].

The other partner to lead this – by agreement of the African Union and the United Nations – is the African Union High-Level Panel led by President Mbeki. The fact of the matter is that the panel is not on the ground and has few staff. UNAMID is on the ground and has the staff and experience in organizing Darfur-Darfur consultations and dialogue. We think that that experience can help us do better in organizing a Darfur-based Political Process along with President Mbeki’s panel.

FM: Ultimately, do you see a window of opportunity there? Are you moderately optimistic about what can be done?

IG: For Darfur, it is very dangerous to make predictions. If it was a simple situation, it would have been solved a long time ago. On the contrary, it is a very complicated matter. However, it should be noted that from January to May of this year there were less conflict-related fatalities in Darfur than in South Sudan. The armed conflicts have lessened since end of last year, 2010 – especially the ones that have led to major fatalities and major displacement. So that is opening a window of opportunity and coupled with an enabling environment, perhaps we can go forward with this Darfur-based Political Process. But, as we speak, there is still no peace agreement. There is none. The only one on the books is the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) that was signed in Abuja in 2008 and is now almost defunct. There is only one signatory, Minni Minawi, and he seems to have walked away from it.

However, we are likely to get another peace agreement between the government of Sudan and the LJM (the Liberation and Justice Movement), but that will still not be a comprehensive peace agreement that has a buy-in by significant armed movements. Our hope, and the international community should be pressing harder, is that the movements that are holding out will join the peace process and do so for the people of Darfur. I am convinced, and this is the optimism, that if the people of Darfur were given a chance to express themselves freely and fairly, that this war has a chance of ending, because its continuation, with all its death and destruction, enjoys no support from the population.

FM: Thank you very much.