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The politics of peace

The war in Darfur may be over, but that is not the end of Sudan’s troubles

Darfur is no longer in intense conflict, despite what some American campaigners would like you to believe. The situation in that troubled region is in fact a sideshow to a much bigger event in Sudan, namely the referendum in the southern part of the country, tabled for January 2011, on whether Sudan will remain united.

Partitioning a state is a risky business, no­where more so than Sudan. After 50 years of on-off civil war, the depth of distrust and animosity between northern and South Sudan is such that the great majority of southerners want to take their chance with independence. But with a host of unresolved issues, ranging from an undemarcated border to the millions of southern Sudanese resident in the north, it is likely that any split will be not just acrimonious, but disorderly and violent. Both sides have used the past four years - in effect a truce, not a true peace - to buy weapons and reorganise their respective armed forces.

Neighbouring countries are worried about a resurgent conflict involving the young, desperately fragile state of South Sudan and an embittered north, driven towards political Islam, in a war that drags in other nations along an Arab-black African fault line which threatens to split the continent. The US special envoy for Sudan, General Scott Gration, sees it as his task to avoid this disaster.

Before the current instability, southern Sudan was already in trouble partly of its own making, partly not. When a truce finally came with the comprehensive peace agreement of 2005, the region had experienced virtually no development in half a century and faced a legacy of destruction and division, much of it manipulated by successive governments in Khartoum. It also had the curse of oil - 90 per cent of the revenue of the autonomous government of South Sudan comes from petroleum.

Sharing in the oil bonanza was one reason that the rebels of the southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement were keen to sign the peace agreement, but the transformation from guerrillas to government has yet to be fully accomplished. Vast sums of oil income remain unaccounted for and last year's crash in oil prices cut the government's income by 70 per cent. The seizing up of the financial system led to salaries for more than 200,000 men on the army payroll being paid late or not at all, contributing in turn to an upsurge in banditry.

If a new north-south war starts, peace talks, international pressure for humanitarian aid and a new mandate for the UN peacekeepers in South Sudan will all be necessary. What is needed now is a political process that builds enough trust between sides for the northern and southern Sudanese to make common decisions about their future. Whether as one nation or two, they will still be neighbours.

Designer activists

There is not much time left to grapple with these huge challenges, but the conditions are propitious. The Darfur crisis in western Sudan, which has taken up so much time, energy and resources, is stabilising. After war broke out in 2003, rebel groups were defeated in a counter-insurgency in which tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the space of two years and which unleashed a humanitarian crisis. Now, however, armed conflict has subsided substantially. There is a huge legacy of displacement and destruction to overcome, but with the UN-African Union Mission in Darfur (Unamid) increasingly effective and most areas stable, the opportunities for progress are strong.

In August, General Martin Luther Agwai, the outgoing Unamid force commander, confirmed this when he said: "As of today, I would not say there is a war going on in Darfur." He continued: "If war is a conflict whereby today you attack and then go back home and stay [for] three, four, five months and come back . . . then there is a war in Darfur. But if that is not the definition, then there is no war as of now in Darfur . . . I think the real thing now is to speed up the political process."

Agwai is an experienced military officer with strong personal morality. He has served in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and rose to become chief of defence staff in the Nigerian army. He sees the file on every violent incident reported in Darfur, and his staff compile the numbers killed in violence in the still-troubled region. In July the figure was 40; in August it was 50. The numbers are probably an undercount, but by only a margin. Agwai's emphasis on the need for a political process fits with the movements of Sudan's civil society organisations and political parties, which are working to prise open the political space in advance of next year's general elections, the first multiparty contest since 1986. They welcome the decrease in violence - and the increase in their leverage - and have no illusions about their brutal government, seeing their best hope in step-by-step dismantling of its monopoly on power.

International campaigns, particularly in the US, claim that they want the same things as the Sudanese - peace and democracy. The Save Darfur Coalition and the Enough project, which calls for robust US action to end genocide, have built up a head of steam. At its best, this movement - which includes an extraordinary array of film stars, private philanthropists and a new breed of "designer activists" - provides awareness about wars and mass atrocities in faraway lands, but, at its worst, it can become a pulpit for latter-day philanthropic imperialism.

John Prendergast of Enough condemned Agwai's words: "The perception . . . that if it is not getting worse . . . it [must be] getting better is something that takes the wind out of the sails of international action." While the Unamid commander imagined peace negotiations in which the various Sudanese parties would sit around a table and make compromises, Prendergast wants a show of US power.

A more nuanced approach came from Donald Steinberg of the International Crisis Group, who feared that a statement of success might harm political support for Unamid: "We saw such difficulty in drawing up the mission . . . it's still not where it should be . . . Premature declarations from prominent officials might undermine existing political support for Unamid and other peacekeeping and aid efforts." This is an odd argument - that demonstrating the success of a peacekeeping mission undermines it. The implication of this is that there can be success only when "we" decide there is success.

The atrocity story

The sort of liberal internationalism that the Save Darfur campaign represents - a legacy of the neocon moral fervour engendered by the Bush administration - conflicts with the other hallowed liberal principle emphasised by President Barack Obama, which insists that a nation should be able to determine its future free from foreign diktat. Sudan needs a judicious balance between the two approaches. But it has become clear that the Save Darfur Coalition, with its campaign for Obama to "end the genocide", can handle only the atrocity story, not the politics of peace. This is shamelessly misleading about what is happening in Darfur.

It is a form of dishonesty that has a wider import, too. It turns Sudanese politics into a high-stakes international game of bluff, feeding the Khartoum government's paranoia that it faces an American regime-change agenda and fuelling the rebels' readiness to persevere in order to get that intervention. If the Save Darfur campaign succeeds, the political failure of Sudan will become a US-owned problem in the heart of Africa. This is what Gration most wants to avoid - while his domestic adversaries seem intent on bringing it about. "Saving Darfur" risks losing Sudan.

Most likely, however, political realism will succeed and the human rights fundamentalists will snarl at the heels of the Obama administration, barking "betrayal". But should the activists get their way, the limits of humanitarian imperialism in dealing with complex political problems will have to be relearned, painfully.

Alex de Waal is the co-author, with Julie Flint, of "Darfur: a New History of a Long War"
(Zed Books, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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