15 October 2007

If Darfur was such a priority, why does it have to wait two months for serious negotiations to start? If there was little chance of handling it, why did the Secretary General repeatedly announce that it was his priority? If there was a serious attempt to arrange an acceptable settlement, why designate clueless tired or retired diplomats whose main task is to masquerade as envoys rather than remain on the spot to sort out the intricate options?

In early September Mr. Ban made a media-covered trip to Sudan, including Darfur. He met whoever was presented to him as representative of whatever groupings. The regional governor, rebels, factional petitioners -- anyone with a plight competed for his attention. Under the glare of world television, he promised those destitute people in that desolate area that he will take action to alleviate their plight. Everyone applauded. At least, it was a better outcome than his predecessor's tragic / comic media visit when he was left "to sort things out" under a forsaken desert tree.

There were two more perceived improvements. Mr. Ban obtained the release of Suleiman Jamus, a local notable in the hope that he will play a decisive role in peaceful negotiations; and the involvement of Sudan's neighbours in the process. Unfortunately, Jamus proved to be isolated or at least not as well-connected as originally perceived. When his group attacked and killed African peacekeepers in their tents, he was the last to know (and the first to apologize)! Neighbours like Lybia and Tchad took their time, obviously seeking a bargain for their helping hand. Governments are not humanitarian societies. Neither Ghaddafi nor Habre nor anyone else in that down-to-earth bazaar will be getting seriously involved without a hint of a political reward.

The clueless "envoys" overlooked another nearby capital with influence -- Eritrea -- which felt left out. It always suspected African envoy Salem Salem of being pro-Ethiopia, where the Tanzanian had lived for years as Secretary General of OAU. They also suspect Jan Eliasson of being an extension of Kofi Annan, whom they also suspected of tilting to Addis Ababa, host of his first U.N. job. Pissed off and capable of trouble, the Eritrean leadership wanted to demonstrate who's the real player in that deadly theatre.

While Eliasson's persistent effort seems to have made some headway with all parties, including competitive rebel groups, the real drawback lies with Salem Salem, who carries lots of African baggage. You either like him, or hate him -- very much. Clearly, he has very few fans in that neighbourhood. Nigerian soldiers paid the price. It is certainly not the fault of the U.N. or its diligent Secretary General. The problem is in lack of solid advice and practical action. The problem is in taking the right steps but giving the wrong signals. When Ban Ki-moon went to Darfur, everyone applauded. When he pressured the Sudan government, sought neighbouring parties' support, encouraged camp dwellers to hold on -- everyone wished him a swift accomplishment. But then when he announced, while there, the designation of the ineffective Ashref Qazi as Special Envoy in Sudan, it all looked like a cynical black joke. More disturbing was the date set for starting the serious settlement talks -- end October. Where every day carries a new surprise, two months is a long, long time.

By then, while the U.N. is trying to solve the problems of Darfur in Sudan's WEST, A NEW FRONT COULD OPEN in the SOUTH. Just wait and see.