Mission Impossible

Who’d want to be in General Martin Agwai’s boots? As commander of the African Union force in Darfur he has had to preside over a mission lacking money, guns and morale. Last month 10 of his men died in a rebel attack on an AU base in Haskanita. And on January 1 he takes over the new AU-UN hybrid force, which has no helicopters and few extra soldiers so far. Yet expectations are high. Many in Darfur’s camps are expecting an influx of well-trained American and European soldiers and an end to the violence that has blighted their lives. At the moment General Agwai is in a no-win situation. Here’s my piece in today’s Times, and below is the full transcript of the interview.

AU soldier on patrol in Abu Shouk camp, El Fasher, northern Darfur

HOW WOULD YOU CHARACTERISE THE CURRENT STATE OF SECURITY IN DARFUR?

Generally things are volatile and a lot of unpredictable things happen here in Darfur. I have looked at the past record and have also spoken to some of the former actors, a force commander and principal staff that have worked here in the past, and it is clear that judging from the past there is nothing happening here just now that is extraordinarily different. When there is a major conference or major peace talks people are jockeying for position and trying to get a position of strength to help them negotiate. I think this is the same thing repeating itself in Darfur because of the Libyan talks.

There has been an increase in incidents of insecurity, there has been an increase in clashes – whether inter-ethnic or inter-movement – there has been an increase in them.

DO YOU HAVE ANY MORE INFORMATION ABOUT WHO WAS BEHIND THE ATTACK ON THE AMIS BASE IN HASKANITA?

We are working on it and the AU and UN have a joint investigation panel that is working on it now. So I will want to give them a free hand to carry out their investigation so that we can see real evidence of who was behind this attack. Once everything is confirmed I am sure the AU and the UN will go public.

It is clear to me which are the organisations that were operating in the general area of Haskanita before the attack, and that is where we are focusing our investigation.

DO YOU MEAN SPLINTER GROUPS OF SLA-UNITY AND JEM?

Yes. At that time it was SLA-Unity and JEM that were in Haskanita. And you may recall that there were skirmishes between them and government forces so that is where our investigations started.

WHY HAS AMIS BECOME A TARGET FOR SOME OF THE REBEL ORGANISATIONS?

You have to understand expectations of what Amis is here for. There are those in the print and electronic media who believe that Amis is here to provide protection to civilians and to everybody. There are those who are here that believe every time there is any attack Amis has to intervene to stop the attacks, by any of these groups against the other.

Because of that, depending on who you are talking with and what their conception is, their reaction… for example some of the civilians after they have been attacked, if we haven’t been able to stop it, and we haven’t dealt with their attackers then they turn against us.

The media should help us and we should be at the forefront in being clear what our mandate is, what we are here in Darfur to do and not what people expect us to do.

ARE YOU CONCERNED THAT EXPECTATIONS WILL BE TOO HIGH FOR THE HYBRID FORCE?

I definitely feel so and have raised it once or twice, not to expect too much from the hybrid force. My satisfaction on this is that we can have the hybrid force and if we have the capacity and the capability that the hybrid force is supposed to come with, then things will be much better. The force will be able to move more. And also if we have a comprehensive peace agreement then that will be a good starting point for the force to do what it is expected to do.

But without a new peace deal, even with the force numbers we are bring in to Darfur, it will still be a big task because you cannot keep peace if there is no peace deal.

HOW LONG WILL IT BE BEFORE WE SEE THE FULL HYBRID FORCE ON THE GROUND?

There is no-one that can answer that question. We don’t even know which are the countries that are going to be troop contributors. Some of the capabilities are not in place, such as the air assets. There is not a country in the world that has volunteered to provide us with military aviation. So you can now see why I think it is difficult. Until we have those offers, we can work on timelines of when they will be delivered, when they will be operating.

WHAT HAPPENS ON JAN 1 WHEN THE HYBRID FORCE TAKES OVER? WHAT WILL CHANGE ON THE GROUND?

I hope there will be changes on the ground and the force level I hope will be different with two additional battalions – one from Nigeria that has completely arrived but not with all their equipment then, and an additional battalion from Rwanda. These two battalions will be the only additional thing we are going to have, that I can guarantee, by Dec 31.

HAVE THE US AND UK DONE ENOUGH TO BACK UP THEIR DIPLOMACY WITH OFFERS OF PERSONNEL AND EQUIPMENT?

It is difficult for me to say because I am the end user. Who gives what, in what composition and in what numbers, whether this is a contribution of funds or equipment or other things, I am not always in a position to know. I can not give you figures or say yes or no. But I believe from pronouncements and efforts by DPK, I would say that they are backing up their words with actions.

WHAT DOES THE SUCCESS OF UNAMID COME DOWN TO? WHAT STILL HAS TO BE DONE FOR UNAMID TO SUCCEED?

I think first and foremost there should be peace. There should be a peace agreement. That would be the first thing, because the mandate of Unamid is peacekeeping meaning that there needs to be a peace agreement to be kept.

Second, if all the planning and the agreements on 20,000 troops, 6,000 police, and the equipment are met, then I would see Unamid succeeding. But anything outside that will create a lot of challenges for Unamid.

SO HOW CONCERNED ARE YOU BY THE LACK OF HELICOPTERS OFFERED SO FAR?

“Definitely one has to be concerned because the terrain here, the lack of roads and so on, means we have to rely on air transport. When you don’t have air access, even if you have all these forces, to move them becomes a problem. And if you have a crisis, like we had in Haskanita, then you have a problem with reinforcements. From our nearest base to Haskanita, it normally takes four hours by road. If you are under threat it might take 5 or 6 hours to send reinforcements. It is impossible. During the rains it is entirely impossible.

We to a very large extent we depend on air transport for flexibility and to reach remote areas. I hope the right numbers of troops, equipment and the right capabilities are introduced to the mission because then our chances of success are much, much greater.

If they are not then we will be bogged down by the same problems that we face today.

HAS THE GOVERNMENT OF SUDAN HAMPERED PREPARATIONS FOR UNAMID, BY FOR EXAMPLE FAILING TO FIND LAND FOR AN HQ IN NYALA?

It is sometimes difficult. I’ll be honest with you, I sometimes do become frustrated. But I also understand that the agreement by the international community requires the consent of the host nation. And every country in the world has its own national interest and its own security concerns. So sometimes, if you look at it from that angle, you can appreciate some of the concerns that Khartoum and the Sudanese government has.

If there is more dialogue and more discussion between all the parties concerned – the UN, AU and the host government – as we have in the past, then we will see progress. Land was a major issue a couple of weeks back, but now I think it has been resolved. So I believe that with more dialogue we can achieve more.


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