The Sudanese Government is about to sign a peace treaty with Darfur’s largest opposition group the Justice Equality Movement (Jem). Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir arrived in Doha, Qatar to sign a ceasefire and "framework" deal, listing agreements to be fleshed out in further negotiation, with Jem leader Khalil Ibrahim. The deal follows a preliminary framework agreement which both parties signed in Ndjamena in Chad. According to a French draft of the document seen by Reuters the deal involves Jem members taking positions in the Sudanese Government. It also includes humanitarian issues, Internally Displaced Persons, wealth and power sharing, and release of Darfuri war prisoners. (photo of Jem fighter by Gallo/Getty)
If the deal holds it will be a major breakthrough in one of the world’s most intractable conflicts of the 21st century. Over 300,000 people have died in genocidal fighting and almost three million people displaced with both parties guilty of war crimes. The Sudanese Government has inflicted the most casualties with its superior firepower and its co-opting of Janjaweed militias. However the deal with Jem does not guarantee the bloodshed will stop.
There are two other major groups in Darfur not covered by the agreement: Abdelwahid Sudan Liberation Army (mainly composed of Fur tribespeople) and Minni Minnawi Sudan Liberation Army (Zahawa people). The Minnawi faction signed a separate deal with Khartoum in 2006 however the hardline Abdelwahid faction has yet to come to terms with al-Bashir’s administration.
But Jem is by far the largest of the anti Khartoum forces in Darfur. Its leaders claim they have as many as 35,000 well-armed fighters in the region. The group was founded in 2000 following the publication of The Black Book: Imbalance of Power and Wealth in the Sudan. Jem members say northern Sudanese Arabs are disproportionately represented within the Khartoum government and political elite, leaving southern Africans and western Arabs disenfranchised and impoverished.
Two years ago Jem fighters launched the first rebel attack on the Sudanese capital itself. They intended to topple the government and were only defeated once they had already reached the outskirts of Omdurman, near Khartoum. Omar al-Bashir, Sudan's president was sufficiently unnerved by the attack to instigate peace talks with Jem. On the weekend he cancelled death sentences handed out to more than 100 men accused of taking part in the Khartoum attack and promised to free 30 percent of them "immediately".
He will be hoping that an agreement will come in time for elections in April - the country's first multiparty elections in 24 years. He is also facing a referendum next year on independence for South Sudan. However the Sudan Tribune is reporting that Egypt is asking the two major partners in Sudan’s national unity government to delay both the elections and the referendum until the North-South disputed items are resolved and there is a peaceful settlement in Darfur. It is unlikely Khartoum will agree to these demands but the Tribune says Jem may make it a pre-condition of the Doha signing.
The other tricky issue for al-Bashir is how it will affect his status at the International Criminal Court. The ICC chief prosecutor issued a warrant for al-Bashir’s arrest in 2009 on crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity. However the court ruled the Sudanese president could not be prosecuted for genocide, saying the prosecutor failed to reasonably prove al-Bashir had genocidal intent. Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo appealed the ruling and earlier this month the ICC's appeals chamber ordered the court to reconsider its decision to omit genocide from al-Bashir's list of charges, saying the initial ruling had been affected by "an error of law" for setting the threshold of evidence too high. This means the court's pre-trial judges will have to rule again on the matter.