Darfur Peace Accord A Battle of Its Own
Rebels Balked, Bickered in Grueling Talks

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 9, 2006

As the midnight deadline approached last Thursday in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick finally lost patience. After three days of intensive talks, the leader of the largest Darfur rebel faction, Minni Minnawi, had earlier that evening privately pledged to Zoellick to support a peace agreement. Now he announced he opposed it, in full view of African leaders and international mediators at the presidential villa.

"I'm disappointed in you. I expect people to keep their word," Zoellick icily told Minnawi, according to observers. "I can be a very good friend, but I am a fearsome enemy."

Seventeen hours later, after an all-night negotiating session, much wavering and learning his younger brother had been killed in Darfur, Minnawi finally succumbed to the pressure exerted by Zoellick, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and other international officials. He signed the peace agreement, which President Bush hailed yesterday as "the beginnings of hope for the people of Darfur."

But the agreement -- which seeks to end a conflict in Sudan's Darfur region that has left as many as 450,000 dead and more than 2 million homeless -- repeatedly teetered on the edge of failure, participants in the talks said. Two rebel groups rejected the take-it-or-leave-it deal crafted by Zoellick and other officials, and not until the moment that Minnawi signed was it clear there would be a deal.

"I was swinging one minute to the next thinking all was lost," said Alex de Waal, a consultant to the African Union (AU) mediating the talks.

The story behind the roller-coaster negotiations reveals the tenuous nature of the pact. Indeed, angry demonstrators rioted yesterday during the visit of a senior U.N. official to one camp for displaced Sudanese, hacking one person to death. Bush announced yesterday a push to win U.N. support for an expanded peacekeeping force and pledged more humanitarian assistance to bolster the chances other rebels will accept it.

For two years, the African Union had mediated inconclusive talks between the Sudanese government and rebel groups, but last month, with the encouragement of the United States, it produced a draft peace agreement that sought to split the difference. On April 30, the government accepted the draft, but the rebels rejected it. Zoellick, British development minister Hilary Benn and other international officials flew to Abuja to win rebel support, though the prospects appeared dim. Cameron Hume, the experienced U.S. chargé d'affaires in Khartoum, told Zoellick the odds of success were in the single digits.

The conflict broke out in early 2003 when two African rebel groups attacked police stations and military outposts in Darfur. The United Nations and human rights groups accuse the Arab-led central government of supporting the militiamen, called the Janjaweed, to crush the rebellion. The peace deal sought to come up with a process for dismantling the Janjaweed and then disarming the rebels -- and how to divide wealth and political power between the central government and the rebels. To address rebel concerns, Zoellick took the lead on enhancing the security proposals while Benn handled power and wealth-sharing.

Zoellick, in an interview yesterday, said he decided to come up with two packages of amendments that would alter the AU peace agreement to address the rebels' concerns, but that neither side would be able to alter the amendments. The idea was to force the parties to stop bargaining and instead say yes or no.

The negotiators worked in a decrepit hotel prone to power shortages, forcing work to be conducted by the light of cellphones and Blackberries. The signing ceremony was delayed when an electrical fire was started after officials tried to print out the agreement using two printers at once. Rumors abounded, including allegations that Libya was bribing rebels not to sign, prompting Obasanjo to confront the Libyan envoy to the talks and demand an explanation from the flustered diplomat.

The two key rebel leaders were Minnawi and Abdel Wahid al-Nur, leader of another faction. Participants said the rebels had trouble identifying their key demands, frequently stating the same positions over and over. Another complication was that the AU text provided the prospect of a powerful regional leader for Darfur, which increased the competition between the two as the potential importance of that position became apparent.

"They would give us a long list of demands and say all of these are my priorities," said Pekka Haavisto, the European Union representative. "We'd say, 'Please choose one or two issues.' They could never do that."

To win support, Zoellick gave each rebel leader -- and Lt. Gen Omar Hassan Bashir, Sudan's president -- an individually tailored letter from President Bush. The letter from Bush to Bashir held out the prospect of improved bilateral relations if peace was achieved in Sudan. Zoellick also gave Minnawi a private letter promising that U.S. troops would be dispatched to count the number of rebel soldiers as part of a plan to fold the rebels into the Sudanese army and police forces.

In the final hours, Obasanjo played a pivotal role, participants said. Though not a tall man, he has an imposing presence, and he repeatedly pressed the rebels to accept the amendments crafted by Zoellick and Benn. "Obasanjo knew how to cajole, bully and flatter," de Waal said.

De Waal saw Obasanjo thrust his fist in the face of Nur, yelling "you let me down, and you betrayed me," and then grab him by the collar and drag him into another room for a tongue-lashing. During the signing ceremony, Obasanjo demanded Nur leave the room if he had no plans to sign the document.

Participants in the talks said they tried to convince Minnawi that he had to make the transition from the battlefield to fighting on the political plain. For a rebel leader, "it is easy to say no," Benn said. "It takes a lot of courage to say yes."

The talks were adjourned at 5:30 a.m. Friday so Minnawi could consult with some of his commanders. When he returned at 9:15 a.m., Obasanjo demanded, "What have you got for me?" A drawn and exhausted Minnawi replied that he accepted the document with reservations, participants said. Obasanjo replied that such concerns could be handled during the implementation talks.

During the delays in producing the signing document, Minnawi learned his brother had been killed. Minnawi wondered if the government had done it -- or if angry colleagues were sending a message. Obasanjo kept up the pressure, saying maybe it would not have happened if he had signed the deal two days earlier.

The Sudanese government suddenly wanted to fly Bashir to the ceremony, but Obasanjo would not risk any delays. He pulled a banana off the table, peeled it, split it in two and rubbed both parts in the dirt, saying that in Nigeria if you give a monkey a banana it will do that so you do not take the banana back.

"This is my banana, and I'm not letting you take it back," he told the Sudanese envoy.

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