May 17, 2006, New York Times

Obstacles Test African Force in Grim Darfur

MENAWASHEI, Sudan, May 13 - Maj. Essodina Kadangha was in hot pursuit of a band of Arab militiamen robbing villagers on their way to market.

"Stop! Stop! Stop!" shouted Major Kadangha, a Togolese Army officer, straining to be heard from the roof of the armored personnel carrier hurtling through the desert. "You missed the turn!"

If only he could have communicated with the Nigerian driver of the Canadian personnel carrier. Their donated radios worked on different frequencies, leaving them unable to hear or talk to each other. The militia, known as the janjaweed, got away that day, as they have almost every day in the brutal conflict that has racked Darfur.

Such are the trials of the African Union force struggling to quell the violence in this desolate region, where at least 200,000 people have died and more than two million have been driven from their homes.

Since its deployment in 2004 to monitor a much violated cease-fire, the 7,000-member force has been hamstrung by inadequate equipment, a smattering of troops that translates to about one soldier for every 28 square miles and, above all, a very limited mandate that often prevents it from engaging the combatants and stopping the bloodshed.

[The United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a resolution on May 16 calling for strict observance of a shaky new peace agreement between the government and the biggest rebel faction, and also ordered speeded-up plans for a United Nations peacekeeping force. Many diplomats argue it should be at least twice as large as the African Union's.

[But even if the Khartoum government agrees to having United Nation peacekeepers on its soil, the best estimate of when troops could be deployed is the end of September. Until then, the African Union force is about the only thing standing between success and failure of the new peace deal.]

"We have to build our African Union force on the ground," Jan Egeland, the United Nations' top aid official, said last week after visiting Darfur. The region is teetering on a knife edge between long-awaited peace and still greater chaos, he said, and the critical player will be the African Union.

"That is our hope," Mr. Egeland said. "That is really the difference now between the good and the bad scenario."

The all-night arm-twisting by top African and Western diplomats to reach a peace agreement on May 5 could be for naught if the African Union force fails to provide security in the weeks and months ahead. Such sensitive issues as the disarmament of pro-government janjaweed militias, scheduled to be complete by October, will take place under the auspices of the African Union, a force ill-equipped to handle its current, limited mandate, never mind potentially explosive new duties.

Five days spent on patrol with African Union troops in Darfur demonstrated the commitment of the African Union forces, but also the deep limitations on them.

Loathed by many of the people it is supposed to protect and by those it is supposed to monitor, the African Mission in Sudan, known by its acronym AMIS, so far has demonstrated that it has little power to change the violent dynamics on the ground.

"As the security situation steadily worsens, AMIS's credibility in Darfur as a military and civilian protection force is at an all-time low," said a report released in March by the International Crisis Group, a research organization that seeks to reduce violent conflict. "The belligerents show little respect, continuously challenging it without meeting a strong response."

Col. Muraina Raji, the commander of about 800 troops based in Nyala, the capital of Southern Darfur, said peacekeeping here is possible, but not with the resources he now has at his disposal.

"If they had given us the resources, we could do this," he said. "My sector is very big but I have only one battalion. "If I had three battalions, I would be fine."

As it is, his officers just make do with what they have.

Armed only with a thick notebook, Major Kadangha, the Togolese military observer who has been here for 10 months, marched into the Southern Darfur village of Menawashei to assess the security situation. He has been here many times before, and the story is always the same - Arab bandits on camels and horseback attacking non-Arab villages. Sometimes they only steal; sometimes they rape and kill. That day he received a grim report of both.

Major Kadangha listened and carefully took notes as villagers described the vicious attack by Arab militia on camels last Thursday. The militia killed one woman, shot six others and raped 15, witnesses said.

The village sheik, Omar Muhammad Abakar, was not happy to see the major.

"I don't want to talk to you," he said. "I have given you so many reports, but you did nothing. Many rape cases were reported and you conduct many patrols. But you have done nothing."

That is something Major Kadangha hears every day. He takes dozens of reports and sends them to the cease-fire commission, made up of representatives of the warring factions, but nothing ever happens to the violators.

Taking reports and making patrols is nearly all the African Union is mandated to do. Since arriving in 2004, the African Union force has been here to monitor - but not enforce - the cease-fire agreement signed between the rebels and the government that year in Ndjamena, Chad's capital.

The circumscribed role was a compromise with Sudan's government, which denies that ethnic cleansing or genocide, as the Bush administration has called the killing here, is taking place. Instead, the government has consistently said the Darfur crisis is an internal tribal conflict that it should handle without outside interference.

Hobbled by its inability to use force in many cases, the African Union force has been derided as ineffective in the West and by the people it is charged with protecting. Since the new peace agreement was signed, violent uprisings against the African Union have taken place at the vast camps for refugees across Darfur, with several people being killed.

Because of financial problems, the African Union soldiers are paid irregularly; many have not received their pay in two or three months. Yet their work is difficult - they patrol under a punishing sun from morning till night, each with just a small bottle of water to drink and no food.

Darfur is often described as being roughly the size of France or Texas, though neither comparison quite captures the enormity of the place. Both Texas and France are laced with highways and telephone lines that make moving and talking across long distances simple.

Darfur's nearly 200,000 square miles are vast and forbidding, crossed by just one major paved road. Going a few dozen miles can be a dusty, bumpy half-day affair. A journey of 75 miles or more usually requires an overnight trip.

The African Union force is small enough that, spread out, each soldier would oversee an area larger than Manhattan. By contrast, tiny Liberia, which is slightly less than one-quarter the size of Darfur and has a population half of Darfur's six million, has a United Nations peacekeeping force of 15,000 troops.

The African Union has just 25 helicopters, which it is required to keep at local airports controlled by Sudanese authorities. The airports close at night, so African Union officials cannot easily use their aircraft after dark. The Canadian government donated the choppers, but pays for only 1,000 hours a month, so time in the air must be closely rationed, officers here said.

The African Union's shortcomings have turned off donors, leaving the mission in a money crunch. Its poor performance is in part caused by lack of money, but its financial backers have insisted that the force do better before increasing their support, so the mission has struggled to cobble together money to keep going in 2006.

The Bush administration asked for $50 million to shore up the force in 2005, but Congress declined to approve the money. The European Union in December gave 70 million euros, or $90 million, but said it would provide no more after its confidence in the force was shattered when four African Union soldiers from Nigeria and two contractors were killed in October.

The European Union relented, however, and last month gave another $50 million. Britain alone pledged $35 million in February. The United States is still awaiting passage of a supplemental spending bill to determine how much it will give.

The sudden flood of cash is intended to tide the force over until the United Nations can get here.

The African Union bears some of the blame for the mission's shortcomings. When its Peace and Security Council met in March, it rejected a recommendation that the force be scaled up to more than 12,000 soldiers, and instead focused on winning a peace deal in talks being held in Nigeria.

Now that there is a signed peace deal, even though it is a partial one that includes just one of the three main rebel factions fighting here, the African Union must somehow manage the volatile situation if and until the United Nations arrives. "We are here, and ready to do our best," said Colonel Raji, the Nyala-based commander. "We only need the world to come and support us to make it through."
Joel Brinkley contributed reporting from Washington for this article, and Warren Hoge from the United Nations.