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Abuja Talks Show Ray of Hope for Darfur Despite Slow Progress

The African Union (AU)-sponsored talks held in Abuja to end a 20-month-old crisis in Sudan's Darfur, after a series of tough discussions, appear a hard nut to crack, but a ray of hope for peace in the troubled region still remains. 

The talks opened Monday in the Nigerian capital, but progress has been slow with both the Sudanese government and the rebel groups there vacillating on issues, especially on the sensitive security arrangement.


This seems like a repeat of the first round of peace talks, which ran between Aug. 23 and Sept. 17 but ended in a deadlock when both sides disagreed over the signing of a humanitarian protocol with the rebel groups insisting that they would not endorse the document until the security issue was resolved.


Indeed, no sooner had the second round began that both sides came up with different agendas.


While the AU and the government delegation wanted the completion and signing of the humanitarian protocol, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), one of the two rebel groups in Darfur, stood against that, opting to rather discuss the political issue.


"We believe that the problem in Darfur is mainly political and so the political issue must take the front burner," said Ahmed Tugod, spokesman for the JEM.


The Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), the other rebel group in the region, had a different idea as to how to begin the renewed talks.


Its spokesman, Mahgoup Hussain, said that his group was not going to enter into any negotiations unless the security issue was thrashed and a protocol signed.


Amid the disagreement, some degree of enthusiasm from both the government and the rebel groups still points to the fact that it might not be too long before they could reach meeting points.


AU mediators, who hope to solve the Darfur crisis by Africans themselves, use a middle level solution to iron out their differences.


As a result, a committee has been set up to handle the security matter, while plenary talks Friday began on the political issue involving power and wealth sharing.


It is believed that they should now have better positions to set pace for forging ahead since a one-month postponement after the collapse of the first round has afforded them the opportunity to consult with their respective headquarters.


But reported attacks do some damage. Both sides continually traded blames over who was responsible for the violations of a ceasefire agreement signed in N'djamena, capital of Chad, in April.


One such attack was the alleged bombing Wednesday of some villages at Katial in western Darfur where 14 people were allegedly killed.


On Friday, Hussain, the SLM spokesman, accused government troops and the Janjaweed of the attack, warning "if things continue like this, there is no way we are going to stay in Abuja to talk about peace."


The Sudanese government immediately rejected the claims and rather blamed the rebel groups. The Janjaweed was believed to be responsible for killings and looting in Darfur. The government has distanced itself from it.


It was such sporadic attacks making nonsense of the ceasefire agreement that made the rebel SLM do a U-turn later in the day, this time calling for urgent discussions and completion of the protocol on security to curb the incessant attacks.


The security issue when signed is expected to tackle the thorny issue of disarmament, the cause of the collapse of the first round of peace talks.


Nevertheless, analysts believe that disarming the rebel groups is next to impossible as they have a deep distrust of the Sudanese government and insist that the Janjaweed militia should be disarmed first.


The rebel groups also asked for a no-fly-zone in Darfur and more peacekeepers beyond the 3,320 AU soldiers set to arrive there by Nov. 30.


Therefore, some kind of compromise must be made between them. Perhaps, it is necessary to drastically increase the presence of AU peacekeepers.


Now, the focus of the talks is shifted to the political issue, another thorny matter seen as key to resolving the Darfur conflict, which has caused thousands of deaths since February 2003 when the rebel groups took up arms to fight the horse-mounted Janjaweed militia.


Under the political agenda, the rebel groups are calling for power and wealth sharing, a return of the over one million displaced by the war and their rehabilitation.


The Sudanese government on its part says it is ready for power and wealth sharing as such was not new to it.


"We have a power sharing arrangement under the Sudanese federal structure that we have been developing since 1994," said Ibrahim Mohammed Ibrahim, spokesman for the government delegation.


"Under this arrangement, all regions are allowed their autonomy and can have their self government. So what they are asking for might not any new to the government of Sudan."


But in Friday's morning session, the rebel groups brought forward a new demand in their 18-point declaration of principles, saying "the transitional and permanent constitution of Sudan should be based on the separation of political affairs and religious affairs."


This was immediately rejected by government delegates, and once more, opened up a new potentially dangerous rift between the two sides.


According to El-Ghassim Wane, a top AU official, the declaration of principles was being discussed by the mediators.


"We shall continue to discuss with them to get a better understanding of their concerns. After some time, we shall get back to them with some proposals," he said.


Both the above problems are hard nuts to crack, but it's clear that both sides have to move forward.


"The Sudanese people, the African continent and the international community are looking to Abuja. Something has to be done," said Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail on Thursday in Abuja after meeting with his Nigerian counterpart Bola Adeniji.


Most importantly, the United Nations is waiting for the outcome of the ongoing talks. It has threatened to slap sanctions on the country's vital oil industry with a known 700 million barrels of oil reserves.


Sudan has become an oil exporter since 1999. Although its current production capacity is a mere 250,000 barrels per day, it still presents as an inviting potential oil supplier to the world market.


"The Sudanese government especially is aware that the UN is only waiting for the outcome of the Abuja talks before descending on the country," said Kola Olu, a Nigerian journalist covering the talks.


"I believe they all know what is at stake. The whole world has its eyes on Abuja and the groups cannot afford to disappoint again," he said.


"So whichever way they look at it, there is no way out seeking common grounds."


With the present scenario, the days ahead shall no doubt prove important for the future of Darfur, and of course, Sudan. 


(Xinhua News Agency October 31, 2004)

Sudan Ready to Sign Protocol on Darfur Crisis
African Union to Finalize Security Protocol on Darfur Crisis
Peace Talks for Sudan's Darfur Region Restart in Nigeria
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