By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
EL FASHER, Sudan -- The volatility of this East African nation -- from the Darfur conflict to the threat of renewed civil war in the south -- is becoming a test of how President Obama will reconcile a policy of engagement with earlier statements blasting a government he said had "offended the standards of our common humanity."
Top administration officials are scheduled to meet Tuesday to discuss a major review of the United States' Sudan policy. But even as that document is being finalized, U.S. diplomacy has remained mostly in the hands of Obama's special envoy to Sudan, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration, who is pushing toward normalized relations with the only country in the world led by a president indicted on war-crimes charges.
Although Gration describes the approach as pragmatic and driven by a sense of urgency, his critics here and in the United States say it is dangerously, perhaps willfully, naive. During a recent five-day trip to Sudan, Gration heard from southern officials, displaced Darfurians, rebels and others who complained uniformly that he is being manipulated by government officials who talk peace even as they undermine it.
Still, at the end of the visit, Gration maintained a strikingly different perspective. He had seen signs of goodwill from the government of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, he said, and viewed many of the complaints as understandable yet knee-jerk reactions to a government he trusts is ready to change.
"We've got to think about giving out cookies," said Gration, who was appointed in March. "Kids, countries -- they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement."
Gration's approach has supporters, including Eltyeb Hag Ateya, a Sudanese professor and critic of Bashir's ruling party. He said Gration is "completely different" from previous envoys, who succeeded only in alienating the people who hold the levers of power in Sudan.
Gration's detractors say his approach is based on a misunderstanding of how Bashir's ruling party works. John Prendergast, co-chairman of the Enough Project, a human rights group advocating tougher, multilateral sanctions against Sudan, said Bashir and his top advisers respond only to pressure. "They do not respond to nice guys coming over and saying, 'We have to be a good guest,' " he said. "They eat these people for dinner."
Adam Mudawi, a Sudanese human rights activist who has seen envoys come and go, put it more bluntly: "In six months, he'll find out," he said. "They are liars."
But in interviews during the trip, Gration said that Sudanese government officials have not lied to him. He spoke of new realities in Darfur, where a brutal government campaign has given way to banditry and fighting among rebel factions and tribes. Although many say the government has orchestrated the chaos, Gration spread the blame. Rebels have turned into criminal gangs and have not unified for peace talks, he said. And many displaced Darfurians are dealing with "psychological stuff" that is leading to unhelpful mistrust of the government, he said.
Gration said that in his view, the ruling party deserves credit lately for allowing some foreign aid groups to return after Bashir expelled others following his March indictment by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes in Darfur. Gration said economic sanctions, first imposed in 1997, have thwarted development that would help marginalized parts of Sudan.
And as distasteful as it may seem, he said, engaging the ruling party is the only way to get a settlement in Darfur and to avert a potentially devastating war ahead of the semiautonomous southern region's 2011 vote on independence.
Ghazi Salahuddin, a close Bashir adviser, praised Gration for "trying to be evenhanded." During a stop in El Fasher, capital of North Darfur state, Gration was greeted like a rock star by hundreds of cheering Bashir supporters in a conference hall plastered with posters of Bashir and Obama, poorly photo-shopped together.
Elsewhere during the trip, the reception was less festive.
In southern Sudan's capital of Juba, the region's president, Salva Kiir Mayardit, told Gration he is concerned that the envoy's approach is emboldening the ruling party to dictate unfavorable terms for the south's secession vote, such as demanding 75 percent turnout. Southerners have repeatedly accused the government of arming militias to create chaos ahead of the vote, and tribal violence has killed 2,000 people in the south this year.
But in his meeting with Kiir, Gration backed the ruling party's argument, saying it had legitimate concerns about the referendum. Gration urged southerners to trust the government that waged a brutal war against them for 20 years.
"It is the other side that can build trust," Kiir countered during a news conference. "How will you trust that person that was killing you yesterday?"
In the western region of Darfur, leaders from several camps of displaced people told Gration that security has not improved. Ahmed Ali Osman said 22 camp leaders had been arrested recently for resisting a government plan to tax a market inside a camp. Hawa Abdallah Mohamed said there is still "rape and intimidation and different types of harassment by pro-government armed elements."
And as Musa Tohlil addressed Gration, he wore a yellow patch over one eye, saying he could not look at the envoy with both of them.
"We have a concern about you, sir, that you will go to Bashir and ask him what to do," he said.
Tohlil and others accused Gration of backing a government plan to force displaced Darfurians to return home, where many fear they will be attacked again. Leaders see the plan as a government attempt to erase the Darfur problem and destroy the rebels' political base.
Gration, a son of missionaries who spent most of his childhood in Africa, agreed that security must improve, and he strongly denied backing forced returns. Then, as he said many times during the trip, he urged people to focus on preparing for an eventual return home that he said would be made voluntarily and "with dignity."
"We can't change injustices and atrocities that happened in previous years," he said, as the leaders took notes. "But we can change things for your children."
Near El Fasher, Gration delivered his message to a group of women in the Abu Shouk camp. It has been transformed into a sprawl of straw-roofed huts and brick walls since the start of the conflict, which some experts estimate has killed as many as 400,000 people and left 1.7 million displaced.
"We've been receiving visits from senior officials from the U.S.," a frustrated Majda al Faki Adam told Gration. "But we don't feel the impact of those visits."
Later, Gration met with aid workers, who told him the government was still delaying their permits and access to the camps.
"I thought that problem was fixed," Gration said to the group, citing a deal he had struck with the government in Khartoum.
"It wasn't," said an aid worker.
Others complained about kidnappings in government-controlled areas, suggesting that the government was responsible.
But when Gration was asked whether he thought the ruling party was serious about security, he responded that he was hopeful.
On the last day of his trip, Gration flew in a helicopter to a rebel base and sat with the men in the shade of mango and guava trees. The rebels explained how the government was now backing a certain rebel faction in order to defeat another, more powerful one.
Gration asked who was providing the support. The rebels told him but added that such distinctions were unimportant.
"In all cases, it's the government," a rebel leader said.
Later, Gration said he did not necessarily see some nefarious government plot behind all the complaints he had heard. Maybe, for instance, the permit issues the aid workers raised represented a "disconnect" between Khartoum and low-level bureaucrats. Maybe the militias receiving arms in the south were getting them from some rogue government official.
"Up to now, the efforts I've seen make me say, 'Yes, I'm willing to take a risk that I'll be betrayed,' " Gration said. "And if that trust is violated, then I believe pressure should come."