As the killing in Darfur continues, the question arises once more: why can no one stop it?
· Illustration by Gary Panter
Sudan is Africa’s largest country, spanning 2.5 million square kilometres. It encompasses the dunes of the Sahara and the banks of the Nile, and has an estimated population of 35 million, two-thirds of whom live in the predominantly Muslim North. The less populous central and southern regions of the country possess generous oil reserves, and, in theory at least, Sudan should be quite wealthy. Instead, it has been devastated by civil war for all but ten years since gaining independence from joint British-Egyptian rule in 1956. Since 1983, the war has killed more than 2 million people in the impoverished South, and displaced another 4 million.
Hoffman landed in Khartoum without any specific authority from either the Sudanese government or the southern rebels to broker a peace deal, but he did have a place to start. Six months earlier, in December 1999, Jimmy Carter had helped the enemy states of Sudan and Uganda reach a peace agreement, signed in Nairobi, that was widely seen as an important step to ending the Sudanese conflict. The most important provision of the agreement called on both countries to stop supporting each other’s rebel armies. Uganda had been supporting the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (spla), the southern rebel group that was waging the insurgency against the North, and Sudan had been backing and hosting Joseph Kony’s lra, which was fighting in northern Uganda.
Shortly after the deal was signed, however, the lra had aggressively attacked northern Uganda. The Nairobi Agreement was in danger of falling apart, and Hoffman knew why: the two rebel armies weren’t at the talks. “You always strive to get all the stakeholders to the table,” he later told me. “You don’t want someone who was left out to try to torpedo it. You better bring in the rats and the nasties to see if you can co-opt them.” Six months after the Nairobi Agreement had been signed, he would have to start all over again.
He flew to Kampala, Uganda, to make sure that President Museveni was still on board. Sitting under a shade tree on the expansive lawns around his palace, Museveni told Hoffman that the Sudanese government had designs on Islamizing Africa. He said he would never cease offering moral support, at least, to his persecuted African brothers in southern Sudan. But he reiterated the terms of the Nairobi Agreement: if Sudan stopped supporting the lra, he’d stop backing the spla.
The next day, Hoffman flew to Khartoum to meet with the Sudanese president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who said that his government wanted a strong and united Sudan, not one carved up into pieces. Hoffman felt that al-Bashir wanted peace but he understood that Sudan’s internal politics were complicated, and believed that al-Bashir was accommodating hard-line Islamists in his government who would not accede political control of the South lightly. With al-Bashir handcuffed and the South seeking nothing short of self-determination, the situation was stalemated.
Hoffman decided to step back from the Sudan conflict. He flew to Juba for his seemingly successful meeting with Kony at Nsitu Camp, then spent months trying to get the lra to negotiate with the Ugandan government. He took extraordinary measures to keep Kony involved in the process. At one point, after the lra leader had stopped responding to his entreaties, Hoffman dispatched secret messengers to his bush camp with a satellite phone rigged to dial only Hoffman’s number. lra commanders got hold of the phone and called him repeatedly, begging for peace talks. When it became clear that Kony himself would not respond, Hoffman went back to work on Sudan.
He spent nearly two years trying to get the spla and al-Bashir’s government to talk, but each time a breakthrough seemed at hand, something went wrong. The main parties simply would not get together. The United Nations was no help, as it had become preoccupied first with Afghanistan and then with Iraq, and Hoffman encountered nothing but resistance when he tried to get the economic and military leverage of the US government behind the peace process. In early 2002, he concluded that one of the biggest roadblocks to peace was the United States—specifically, the long and influential arm of the Christian Right.
When George W. Bush became president in 2001, most observers expected him to continue Bill Clinton’s policy of belligerence toward Sudan. But Bush surprised many by ordering a Sudan policy review in his first month in office. A vocal lobby effort quickly began, with different parties vying to influence the review before it concluded in July of that year. Certain groups, particularly those associated with the Christian Right, opposed the negotiations. In some cases, Hoffman says, hawkish lobbyists were asking the Bush White House to “bomb the piss out of Khartoum.” But Bush appeared to favour engagement, and on September 6 he appointed former Senator John Danforth as special envoy for peace in Sudan.
Five days later, the World Trade Center towers came crashing down, and the idea that Sudan, the incubating ground for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, was a pariah nation that needed to be confronted took on new resonance. Hoffman and Carter redoubled their efforts to get Washington committed to the peace process. In spring 2002, Carter set up a meeting in North Carolina between Hoffman and the Reverend Franklin Graham, head of the international charity Samaritan’s Purse, and son of Reverend Billy Graham. The younger Graham was arguably the most powerful voice of the American Christian Right and was known to have President Bush’s ear. Hoffman hoped to convince him that Bush should work for peace with Sudan’s existing government. It would be a tough sell. Graham had strong personal feelings about the Sudanese conflict because government forces had bombed near a Samaritan’s Purse hospital in the South. He had also argued before the US Senate in 2000 that the world had a moral obligation to overthrow al-Bashir’s regime. “We see burned-out villages, mutilated bodies, families torn apart, and religious persecution equal to that of the Holocaust,” he said. “The government of Sudan has purposely targeted the Christians and minorities of other faiths.”
To Hoffman, Graham’s analysis was simplistic. In truth, both the government and the southern rebels were guilty of gross human-rights abuses. It was a dirty, hateful war, focused primarily on power and oil, with abuses on both sides (and in fact, the vast majority of southern victims were animists, not Christians).