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"Asking The Right Questions About Darfur", Part X, Exclusive Q & A With John Prendergast, Special Adviser To The President, International Crisis Group (ICG)


While he certainly does not receive much public or media attention, behind-the-scenes, John Prendergast is one of a handful of the most influential advisers on African issues impacting the thinking of international governments, Members of the United States Congress, and journalists and editors in the media.

John Prendergast is a Special Adviser to the President at the International Crisis Group (ICG). Prior to joining ICG, he was a Special Advisor to the U.S. State Department focusing on conflict resolution in Africa. He also was Director of African Affairs at the National Security Council.

Mr. Prendergast has also worked for a variety of think tanks, UN agencies and NGOs in Africa and on African issues, including the U.S. Institute of Peace, Human Rights Watch, and UNICEF. He has written six books on Africa, including ICG’s latest book on Sudan, God, Oil & Country: Changing the Logic of War in Sudan, and he is published widely on U.S. foreign policy.

John Prendergast recently spoke with BlackElectorate.com Publisher, Cedric Muhammad, about the crisis in Darfur as part of the website's multi-part investigative interview series, "Asking The Right Questions About Darfur, Sudan"

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Cedric Muhammad: First of all, I just wanted to say that I think you all have written (regardless of your conclusions)very clearly worded analyses of the situation. So I just wanted to commend you on that. Some of what is out there – and I have gone through a lot of it - on this subject, is unintelligible and reads like hieroglyphics.

John Prendergast: (laughter) That is pretty funny. Thank you my friend.

Cedric Muhammad: For the record, do you all officially depict this as genocide? Do you believe that is what is taking place?

John Prendergast: I will give you the short answer now and will tell you where you can find the long answer. The long answer is at AllAfrica.com. They did a long interview with me about this whole question because it is really complicated. It goes into the legal issues, the practical, political issues. But in very specific terms, my own view is that it does meet the legal definition of genocide according to the convention, however that is not my organization’s view. My organization’s view is that it may well be genocide, but there needs to be further evidence provided on the issue of intent, and secondly, there needs to be all of the court proceedings, (associated with investigating the guilt or innocence of individualsand alleged perpetrators).

Cedric Muhammad: The way you all have described it and the way it is generally accepted, the Sudanese government acted in response to the uprising of two armed political opposition groups – the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA). So my question is primarily – and I do know you have referred to marginalization as a factor in your reports - what provoked them (the rebel groups) to rise up? And do you know if they have a sponsor or not?

John Prendergast: Yeah, the provocation was in part, self-defense - in response to the efforts by the Arab militias to attack agricultural communities in order to drive people off of land that they wanted to have greater access to, for pastoral reasons. This led the non-Arab communities in question to increasingly organize an armed organization to repel the incursions that were being made by the Arab militias in those areas. And so, on the first instance there was a self-defense element to it. Secondly, indeed, the political marginalization and economic disenfranchisement that people feel around the country, is perhaps, most deeply felt – outside of Southern Sudan – in Darfur. And so, people there really objected to the way the state was structured and how the power was centralized in the hands of a few people. And those were the two inflammatory reasons for the actual armed actions that were undertaken starting in February 2003 (by the rebel groups).

Cedric Muhammad: And do you have any indication or any evidence that there is a sponsor – domestically or foreign – of the JEM and SLA?

John Prendergast: I think that there has been some support at times from the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), at times from Eritrea, and at times from Chadian military sources.

Cedric Muhammad : Ok, and that is more so an outgrowth of their internal politics, as well as the region’s?

John Prendergast:: Yeah.

Cedric Muhammad: The reason why I bring that up is because I have not really seen too much of that (subject covered in the media) but I am just curious about it, since it is pretty much accepted (in the public and media) that the Sudanese are the sponsors of the Janjaweed. But then there does exist a ceasefire agreement where people are calling for the disarmament of all of these groups fighting (not just the Janjaweed) – are you, and should others be a little more vocal in the removal of armed support, from the rebels, provided by these external forces, or is it not that big of a factor?

John Prendergast: Well, I think that if we did that we would remove one of the only avenues for people who are victims in this thing, to have any kind of chance at self-defense. And what you, and all of us, want to be careful with is equating the Janjaweed with the rebels, as if they are the ones to be disarmed. The rebels are fighting the government, the government used the Janjaweed to attack these people. The Janjaweed are the ones that need to be disarmed in the first instance, and then as part of a larger ceasefire and disarmament agreement, then the government and the rebels can start to work on their bilateral problems. So I would not advocate that. It is already too late. The one thing that the UN Security Council Resolution (# 1556) did was establish an arms embargo of the rebels and Janjaweed as if they are equal. It was just a pathetic resolution that equated them and left the government off of the hook.

Cedric Muhammad: The one dynamic of the Darfur situation that I don’t think people have paid adequate attention to is mainly the tribal dynamic. When people talk about the SLA and JEM they don’t do so with a recognition of how (much their tribal and ethnic base of support) crosses over into a country like Chad. So I wanted to know how does ICG look at the problem of solving tribal and ethnic disputes that go across borders, and how do you think that eventually leads to bringing peace into Darfur?

John Prendergast: Well, the Sudan government’s agenda has been to try to transform what is now a rebellion against the government (due to) political and economic marginalization of the people of Darfur, into a inter-tribal and ethnic conflict, which then appears to be localized and thus, not directly the responsibility of the government of Sudan, as a result. And I think this has been partly successful because the government’s siding with one side – the Janjaweed militias, which are just a small segment of the Arab community in Darfur – they have basically thrown gasoline on a little fire that had already started because of environmental and economic factors, and have made this into a much greater ethnic problem than it was before. They have done the same thing in the South (of Sudan). They have done the same thing in the East (of Sudan). They have done the same thing in the central part of the country, in the Nuba mountains. And by the way it is the oldest trick in the book. How many times have we heard ‘divide and conquer’? That is exactly what they are trying to do. They are trying to set Arab and non-Arab communities against each other so that they will not fight against the government but rather fight locally. And I think it would be a misdiagnosis of the problem to identify this as a tribal or ethnic problem in Darfur. We have to remember the reason why there is conflict there and focus on it. So, to answer your question there are two steps that have to occur. First, there has to be a negotiation between the government and the rebels to address the power and wealth-sharing questions. But then, secondly, and more to the point of what you are asking, there needs to be a broader conference of community leaders, civic associations, political parties, and other groups that are part and parcel of the Darfur political dynamic who would then involve themselves in a process of conflict resolution and reconciliation that would go on alot longer than any peace talks – to address issues like coexistence, compensation and use of pastoral land and farm land - all of these basic questions that will determine whether or not people will ever be able to live together again in Darfur. So I think there is a very compelling case for doing this kind of reconciliation work but it can’t be done in isolation of the larger political and economic dynamic that is driving the rebellion and civil war in Darfur

Cedric Muhammad: There is a writer named Uwe Friesecke, for Executive Intelligence Review (EIR), who has explored some of these tribal and ethnic dynamics beyond Sudan’s borders as they relate to the problem in Darfur. He wrote in a recent article ("Western Powers Seek Sudan Disintegration", August 6, Executive Intelligence Review, EIR), "For example in 1990, Idriss Déby prepared his military coup in Ndjamena - which made him President of Chad - from Darfur, because he is a member of the Zaghawa people, who live in Darfur and Chad. In response to the Zaghawa usurping power in Chad, others fled from Chad to Darfur and started forming militias against the majority Zaghawa. This is one of the beginnings of the Janjawid militias." Is that an accurate characterization?


John Prendergast: Yeah, I mean part of the origin of the Janjaweed are certainly these guys who come across the border - trained in Libya - with many, if not most, coming from Chad. But there are Arabs from a number of locations who have now found a home in Sudan (in Darfur). It is a lucrative home because they are able to steal camels and cattle, which is basically what these guys do. They are racketeers. They are mafia. And now they have had the backing of the government for over a year and a half, which basically allowed them total impunity to go on a wild asset-stripping spree which has now made them wealthy beyond their wildest imaginations. So whether they still retain their ideological lens, I have no idea – if they are still as racist as they always were – but the important thing is that they have achieved a great deal of wealth generation at the expense of the non-Arab people in Darfur.

Cedric Muhammad: So in that sense is there any justification, so to speak, that members of the Janjaweed are part of a marginalized people in their former setting in Chad? And that in effect they were driven out by the new leadership (Idriss Déby’s administration)?

John Prendergast: Well, because they were involved in trying to overthrow a government, yeah they were driven out (laughter). There is a continuing issue that is sparked in large measure by Muammar Khadaffi’s expansionist aims in the 1970s and 1980s. He wanted to create what he called ‘an Arab belt’. Those are his words I am not making this up. You can go and look at his speeches. He wanted to create an Arab belt across (the continent) and he funded and armed these groups to go and attack governments all over the place. And you reap what you so. These people went on with the game and they lost and so now they are trying to regain what they lost. And in the process they are enriching themselves.

Cedric Muhammad: When we spoke with Adotei Akwei, from Amnesty International, we discussed a section in their report on rape, where there are about three paragraphs that dealt with them identifying rape in the rebel-controlled areas etc...so we talked about that. And (he) readily admits that they weren’t able to explore that thoroughly and that they would have to go back. But he mentioned that you and Samantha Power to the best of his knowledge – you all were the only ones who really got in there (rebel-controlled areas) and got a good look. And so I just wanted to ask you what did you see in the rebel controlled areas and without letting out secrets how were you able to get in there when others weren’t?

John Prendergast: Well, we wanted to go and we wanted to make sure that we went without (the help of) any armed groups. We wanted to go independently. You can’t do that on the government side. I can’t get a visa from them anyway so it is a moot question. But (we wanted) to go into the areas that are not controlled by the government but are controlled to some degree by the rebels - we basically were able to move around large stretches of Darfur without any authority stopping us. There are large ungoverned areas and large expanses of desert interspersed with various villages and communities where you can learn a lot without running into too much trouble, although there is trouble lurking around everywhere, if you are not careful. But I think it is just a matter of determination.

Cedric Muhammad: Finally, did you see Eric Reeves’ recent op-ed in the Washington Post, "Regime Change in Sudan", Monday, August 23, 2004 ?

John Prendergast: Yeah.

Cedric Muhammad: OK. He’s calling for regime change in Sudan, and many people know he has written extensively on the issue in Amnesty International’s magazine. I wanted to know do you think that the government in Khartoum is illegitimate, and, in what you and ICG are advocating, are they (essential) parties (or principals) in a peace process, or is that a conditional (role or dynamic)?

John Prendergast: The word ‘illegitimate’ is difficult because they are a government that is recognized by the United Nations so what individual people like myself or Eric think is irrelevant to international law. So what has to happen then is that we have to see if the Government of Sudan has abdicated its responsibilities so dramatically, in terms of protection of its own people; or that it has turned its guns on its own people, and thus loses the confidence of governments around the world that it is a legitimate actor and does have a legitimate monopoly on force within the country. Then what do we do? The only problem I have with the regime change advocates is that it is not a realistic option right now. There is no interest in that level of confrontation with the regime from any corner. But, that is OK, they can keep advocating and pushing it and keep the focus on the idea that this regime is incorrigible, but I would rather deal with what we should do now. And life-saving, famine-preventing and civilian-protecting actions now, are what I would rather focus on, (the things) that would have an immediate impact and that can lay the ground for a longer-term transformation in Sudan. I think that if we increased the pressure on the Sudan government they would in fact – against their will, and not as the result of a change of heart – as a matter of pragmatism and as a matter of survival, cooperate in a peace process that allows the slow and steady transformation of the situation there. But again, the prerequisite is more pressure and it doesn’t appear that the international community has the stomach for that right now.


Cedric Muhammad Thank You John.

John Prendergast: You got it Cedric.

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Part I: Exclusive Q & A With Professor Sean O'Fahey

Part II : Exclusive Q & A With Joe Madison, President, Sudan Campaign

Part III: Exclusive Q & A With Karen Kwiatkowski, Lt. Col. United States Air Force (ret.)

Part IV: Exclusive Q & A With Salih Booker, Executive Director, Africa Action

Part V : Exclusive Q & A With Dr. Kwame Akonor, Founder, African Development Institute

Part VI: Exclusive Q & A With Georgette Gagnon and Leslie Lefkow, Africa Division, Human Rights Watch

Part VII: Part VII, Exclusive Q & A With Bill Fletcher, Jr., President, TransAfrica

Part VIII: Exclusive Q & A With Adotei Akwei, Senior Advocacy Director For Africa, Amnesty International

Part IX:
Exclusive Q & A With Melvin P. Foote, Chief Executive Officer, Constituency For Africa


Wednesday, September 1, 2004

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