African Leaders Debate Continuing Sudan Mission
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African leaders met over the weekend in Banjul, the capital of Gambia, for their twice-yearly summit. Among the key issues discussed was peacekeeping on the African continent.
NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton covered the summit and sent this report.
(Soundbite of Gambian children singing)
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON reporting:
Gambian children serenaded African leaders as they filed in and out of the conference center outside Banjul. But often, business of the day at the well-attended and busy African Union summit was anything but uplifting.
Continental conflicts were again top of the agenda. Among them, a fresh crisis in Somalia, the continuing violence in Sudan's Darfur region, and no war - but no peace, either - in Ivory Coast. And yet the continent and its partners ceaselessly call for African solutions to African problems. Is this possible?
Nigeria's President, Olusegun Obasanjo, has dispatched a contingent to Sudan's Darfur region as part of an African Union peacekeeping initiative, to try to end three years of violence there.
President OLUSEGUN OBASANJO (President of Nigeria): We have always said to the world that we have the men, but we don't have the resources. And if the world wants us to keep peace on behalf of the world, it will provide the mandate, it should be able to provide us the funds and we will do the job. It's as simple as that.
QUIST-ARCTON: But is it that simple? United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan had individual talks with many African leaders at the Banjul summit, particularly those whose countries are in crisis. And the question of African Union troops in Sudan's Darfur region was raised again. The peacekeepers are overstretched and woefully under-funded. Now, they've been asked to stay on for an extra three months, to the end of the year.
The United Nations is ready to take over a fully-fledged peacekeeping operation. But despite signing a peace accord with the main Darfur rebel group, the Sudanese President Omar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir has vowed never to allow U.N. troops into Darfur, saying it would be a foreign occupation force.
In response to a question from NPR at a news conference, Kofi Annan said he still hoped to be able to convince President Bashir to change his mind.
Mr. KOFI ANNAN (United Nations Secretary General): President Bashir has said what you indicated he said. But you know, in the world of politics, things change. We hear never, forever, and yet, it does come around. And so, I'm still expecting that in time there will a U.N. peacekeeping force deployed to Darfur.
QUIST-ARCTON: So, is this a case of brinkmanship by the Sudanese president, and in return for what? Kofi Annan's response.
Mr. ANNAN: I'm not sure if its brinkmanship. We are dealing with a leader who may have genuine difficulties and genuine reasons for the position he's taken, and it is my responsibility to explain to him why they will need the assistance of the international community. And I think we had a constructive conversation this morning and we're going to build on that.
QUIST-ARCTON: So, it appears that trying to find money to fund African Union peacekeeping initiatives is just one of the problems for the continent. Persuasive and subtle diplomacy is also needed to convince reluctant leaders to allow foreign troops onto their sovereign territory.
Meanwhile, vulnerable African civilians remain the chief casualties as fighting and violence continue. But African leaders also say praise, where praise is due, for efforts being made trying to keep the continental peace.
Jean Ping is the foreign minister of Gabon, in Central Africa, which has military officers in Darfur and troops in other African hotspots. Gabon is also sending soldiers to the Democratic Republic of Congo, to ensure security for the scheduled elections in the DRC at the end of the month. The Gabonese minister spoke in a noisy summit conference corridor.
Mr. JEAN PING (Gabon Foreign Minister): The majority of conflicts in Africa, have been solved by the Africans themselves. By the Africans. By themselves alone. But we need support. And, it is not an easy solution. What is important is that we are moving forward.
Mr. SAID DJINNIT (Commissioner for Peace and Security, African Union): My name is Said Djinnit. I am the Commissioner for Peace and Security of the African Union.
QUIST-ARCTON: Now when the African Union came into being, the idea was that one of the most important things was that it would end conflicts on the continent. Take any region in Africa. For example, the horn of Africa. Sudan; the Darfur conflict, three years in; Somalia. With the problems with the African Union force in Darfur, now the African Union is talking about sending troops to Somalia. Can it?
Mr. DJINNIT: And when the UN is not in a position to do something, Africa is left with no other options than to look at what can be done at the level of Africa. That's the case in Somalia. The UN went there and they left.
So now the region in Africa is looking at what can be done at the level of Africa.
QUIST-ARCTON: And Sudan's Darfur conflict is seen very much as the test case for African peacekeeping on the continent. The jury is still out on its overall performance. But with only 7,000 troops and a weak mandate covering a huge region the size of France, the African Union Force has had monumental problems trying to monitor a much violated ceasefire in Darfur, keep the peace and protect millions of civilians.
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Banjul.
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