This is the fourth part of a five-part series.
The only bright spot on an otherwise depressing and disturbing trip was our meeting with troops from the African Union, or AU. The AU is a new and much-improved version of the old Organization of African Unity, a continental body established in the independence era. Significantly, the AU has established a Peace and Security Council that actually deliberates and takes action, and developed plans for an African Standby Force comprised of five regional brigades that, once established, can move swiftly to intervene or keep the peace in African trouble spots. The AU is as yet a young organization, and has yet to build the staff, organizational architecture and track record needed to meet the high expectations set for it by Africa's leaders. But it is off to a good start – AU troops intervened in Burundi last year, before other nations were ready or willing, and in June handed over to a U.N. peacekeeping mission. This year, they've taken on Sudan.
I confess to feeling some misplaced pride as we listened to African troops and senior AU officials describe their mission in Darfur. Headed by a Nigerian general, the AU Ceasefire Commission includes observers from Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal, military officials from neighboring Chad, a protection forced manned by Nigerian and Rwandan soldiers, and two outside technical advisers – one from the U.S. military, and a French soldier representing the European Union. In an arrangement that appears at first contradictory, the Ceasefire Commission also includes a representative of the Sudanese military as well as commanders from the rebel movements they are fighting.
Having spent 25 years working on African issues, I'm used to an attitude toward the continent that presumes that African governments are corrupt, feckless, or both; that African soldiers are looters and thieves; and that the continent's stated willingness to hold its political leaders accountable is, at best, the lofty rhetoric of governments clamoring to receive more foreign aid.
The AU mission to Sudan turns that attitude on its head.
While the rest of the world has contented itself with issuing harsh statements, providing relatively paltry amounts of humanitarian aid, and considering maybe, possibly, at some future date imposing some sort of ill-defined sanctions, the African Union has acted. In April, the AU's political leadership negotiated a broad ceasefire between the Sudanese government and two rebel movements, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). In May, AU staff worked out the technical modalities of the ceasefire. In June, the AU deployed its first batch of observers to Darfur. In August, the AU convened formal peace talks between the Sudanese government and rebels in Nigeria, launching what promises to be a lengthy, contentious and high-risk effort to find a political resolution to Darfur's war.
The AU's Ceasefire Commission is far too small to achieve even its limited mandate of monitoring the ceasefire, but its modus operandi makes good sense. From their dusty compound in Darfur's El Fasher town, the commission oversees six sectors, each with two monitoring teams. Upon the receipt of reported ceasefire violations, the teams – including non-Sudanese observers as well as the Sudanese protagonists in this war – deploy, investigate, and report. While they do make recommendations, they do not, and cannot, enforce compliance. But this small, narrowly-defined operation has far greater impact on the ground than do diplomatic demands issued from foreign capitals or indecisive deliberations in the U.N. Security Council. The commission's ability to verify incidents means that the AU can apply pressure based on facts, and the mere presence of AU troops on the ground also, in yet a small way, offers a potential deterrent to the warring parties as well as to the janjaweed.
The key is to expand the AU's mission so that it can achieve greater coverage of Darfur – which is roughly the size of France – and to ensure that the African troops can move quickly to the incident sites. But while the AU is receiving high praise from governments abroad, it is receiving little in the way of the material support necessary to ensure the success of its mission. The United States, for example, has provided only $3.2 million to the AU mission to Darfur – or less than what it takes us to spend in Iraq every 30 minutes.
It is likely that in the coming weeks and months the world's developed countries will point to the AU as the solution to the Darfur emergency, and they will be partially right. But public pledges of support for the AU cannot be used as an excuse to abdicate our own responsibility; nor can we responsibly ask that a fledgling organization bear the entire cost – and risk – of putting out the fire in Darfur.
Gayle Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, served as a special assistant to the president and senior director for African Affairs at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.