On Friday, April 9th, Omar Al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, touched down by plane in Darfur. Al-Bashir is the only serving head-of-state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes that he allegedly committed in Central Africa. He claims the warm welcome he received upon landing is proof that he has done no wrong and that he is a popular leader.
However, most other countries and the International Criminal Court say otherwise. Conflict in Darfur began in 2003 and has yet to stop. It began with the armed rebellions of the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement against the central Sudanese government. The agricultural peoples from various African ethnicities, such as the Fur, for whom the region is named, felt as if the Arab-centric government was ignoring them and that violence committed by nomadic Arab groups was going unchecked. The rebellion was met with harsh military action, including bombings and the deployment of the camel-mounted Janjaweed, who terrorized civilians, killing over 400,000 people and displacing 2.5 million.
The purpose of this trip to Darfur was to campaign ahead of the referendum, held April 11th to 13th, over forming one single Darfur region as opposed to remaining five separate states. If they were to unite as one state, they would have more sway in the central Khartoum government. Al-Bashir went to fanatic rallies, with huge crowds waving Sudanese flags or holding his portrait. There was song and dance and a promise by Al-Bashir of peace in the troubled region. The ongoing conflict was entirely ignored and declared over by Al-Bashir, who now wants to focus on developing Darfur after all these years of strife.
The United States has had rocky relations with Sudan. From 1996 to 2002, the U.S. Embassy closed operations in Sudan following Sudan’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993 for its support and/or harboring of radical organizations, namely Al-Qaeda and Hamas. In 1997, economic sanctions were placed on Sudan for their human rights violations, efforts to destabilize their neighbors’ governments, and support of terrorist organizations. In 2007, more sanctions were introduced as a result of the Sudanese government’s continuous lack of interest in ending the conflict in Darfur. U.S. policy today continues to focus on ending the egregious human rights violations of the Sudanese government, stabilizing the political situation of the country, and ensuring that Sudan does not find itself becoming a safe haven for terrorist organizations again.
Essentially, al-Bashir’s trip to Darfur was a public relations stunt executed in an attempt to improve Al-Bashir’s reputation and the Sudanese government’s standing internationally. This is made even clearer by the fact that a BBC reporter was allowed to accompany the president and even interview him. Usually reporters are barred from investigating the situation in Darfur, but Thomas Fessy of the BBC was invited to join Al-Bashir. Fessy was not allowed to visit any of the many refugee camps in the region and was only shown the massive cheering crowds of loyal citizens. He was reassured again and again by Al-Bashir that he has the situation in Darfur under control and that the international presence of U.N. peacekeepers and aid organizations is unnecessary and intrusive. The United States should not, and will not, buy into this narrative for even a second. To attain justice and peace in Darfur and in Sudan as a whole, the sanctions and international pressure on Sudan and Al-Bashir must continue.