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Last Updated: 11/28/2014
The slow peace process in Darfur: A call to turn to the local
Rose Mutayiza

Peace in whatever way it is perceived has remained both an aspiration and challenge in post-war international order. The combined effect of this struggle has led to constant engagement with and search for durable solutions to conflicts wherever they occur. Despite international interventions attempting to address the conflict in Darfur, and the humanitarian needs it has generated, peace remains elusive. In this article, Rose Mutayiza addresses the challenges that continue to frustrate the peace process and suggests more space be given for local voices and initiatives.The argument of this paper is that the challenges of peace in Darfur though not new, reflect to a considerable degree, institutional and normative faultiness inherent in contemporary neoliberal approaches to peacebuilding.


Since the eruption of the conflict in Darfur in 2003, there has been an enormous strain on the lives of people especially vulnerable groups such as women and children. According to estimates by the United Nations[1], the Darfur conflict resulted in the death of more than 200,000 and displacement of at least 2 million people. A significant part of the atrocities and displacement took place in 2003 and 2004 when the conflict was at its peak. The human cost of the conflict galvanized some degree of international action, which culminated in the formation of three international peace missions between 2004 and 2007. The United Nations-African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), is the most recent of these missions and represents the biggest international peace mission in the world. In addition, hundreds of international non-governmental organisations have flooded into Darfur in the past decade with activities ranging from humanitarian aid delivery to facilitation of the peace process.

In collaboration with the Intergovernmental Agency for Development (IGAD), third party states, such as Qatar, have taken strides by funding several rounds of peace talks which have paved the way for the adoption of the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (DDPD). Yet, despite these international engagements with the crisis in Darfur, the search for peace remains a major challenge with conditions in Darfur scarcely better than what they were prior to the influx of international agencies into its territory. In fact, the conflict has mutated so deeply and communities in Darfur so fragmented that peace has become a very distant reality. While the reasons for the continued prolongation of the conflict are many, there are core challenges which hamper the realization of peace in Darfur. In what follows, an attempt is made to disentangle these challenges.

Darfur: An Indictment of neoliberal peacebuilding

Peace studies as a discipline and vocation is relatively recent with the scholarship of the Norwegian anthropologist, Johan Galtung, shaping much of its early ontological and epistemological strands in the 1960s and 70s.[2] In subsequent years, the eruption of civil wars in large parts of postcolonial Africa opened up new estuaries of research most of which were framed around the particular problems of postcolonial societies. The leaning towards postcolonial conditions implied that emerging theories on peacebuilding were conceptualized largely in northern institutions, yet with an almost unmistakable focus on states and communities in the global south. The influence of northern institutions also means that mediation policies, cultural mindsets and peacebuilding approaches have been overwhelming shaped by Western ideas, philosophies and other orientations.[3] What this means is that approaches to peace, though largely shaped by neoliberal values and concepts, possess a certain feature of universalism which tends to limit inputs from non-European societies. The use of universalism as a departure point is always bound to produce false outcomes. As Edwin notes,

We generally assume that we know, from…observation, what is universally human. But a little scrutiny will show that such conclusions are based only on experience with one culture, our own. We assume that what is familiar, unless obviously shaped by special conditions, is universal.[4]

In the context of Darfur, the influx of international agencies has provided the space and platform through which both the dominance and faultlinesfault lines of neoliberal peacebuilding approaches are manifested. In addition to hosting the biggest UN mission in the world, Darfur has been inundated with prescriptions on what ought to be done to achieve peace. For the most part, these have been almost always prescriptions shaped and defined by approaches that rely on western Western values and cultural mindsets. Their continuous imposition in Darfur shows, thus far, there is neither the foresight nor the intention to recognize that such approaches have failed. A fundamental challenge is that in the absence of a recognition for the need to try other non-neoliberal alternatives to peace, there is very little hope for a peaceful Darfur.

The failure to visualize other possible alternatives in Darfur is not an accident. This is not due to the effective dominance of neoliberal peacebuilding, but that this approach is embedded in our thinking that alternatives hardly register. Boaventura de Sousa Santos, the a Portuguese sociologist, has drawn attention to implications of the dominance of neoliberal peacebuilding. He argues that in light of the challenges faced by societies such as Darfur, the “critical task ahead cannot be limited to generating alternatives,” but that it also requires “an alternative thinking of alternatives.”[5] The mutation of the Darfur conflict and its prolongation despite the continuous adoption of neoliberal approaches, illustrate that an alternative is not only required, but long overdue. The challenge remains though, that in the absence of a recognition of the need to look for other alternatives, Darfur will continue to be represent an indictment on neoliberal peacebuilding.

Contending constituencies of peace

Postcolonial conflicts, especially the protracted one in Darfur, have the a tendency to be used as experimentation of theories. Conflicts generally coincide with an expansion or influx of international organizations in countries of concern. Without the conflict, these organizations may not exist in these regions. While several organizations have strictly defined mandates, they also tend to experiment theories of conflict resolution but by doing so they inadvertently engage in competition amongst each other. In circumstances where local communities are deprived of the capacity to be active part of peace processes, the danger is always a rise in competing claims to what peace must and should entail. In fact it is plausible to suggest that in some instance, the challenge is not so much the absence of a road map to peace, but that available road maps often project or are representations of competing, contradictory, and personal claims to peace. David Keen captures this challenge aptly:

Whose peace are we talking about? Peace on what terms? Peace in whose interests? And peace negotiated by which individuals or groups? In one sense, everybody wants peace; it is just that they want their own version of peace.[6]

The questions raised by Keen have been echoed by Emmanuel Hansen in a volume on African perspectives on peace and development.[7] In setting out the theme of the volume, Hansen underscores the universality of the notion of peace, but emphasizes that perspectives on its realization are very diverse. In Darfur, the conflict has itself become a vehicle through which groups and factions are created and reincarnated. When the conflict began in 2003, the Government of Sudan was engaged in battle with only two armed opposition groups. By 2010, these groups had gone through cycles of mutations with over a dozen splinter groups emerging out of them. Such a trend, which is not unique to the Darfur conflict, has been interpreted by scholars as a natural course in a civil war from which groups are formed and regenerated solely for extractive purposes. This is particularly the case in situations where natural resources provide a magnet for competition amongst groups. A careful study of the time frame which has seen the most number of armed groups formed tends to coincide with the rush for control of gold mines.

In a major study on civil wars, Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler have offered perspectives on both the causalities of conflicts and the underlining motivations for the formation of rebel groups. They argue that although political and social grievances have been associated with conflicts, their finding suggest that “economic variables, which could proxy some grievances but are perhaps more obviously related to the viability of rebellion, provide considerably more explanatory power.”[8] Their conclusion is that “the grievances that motivate rebels may be substantially disconnected from the large social concerns of inequality, political rights, and ethnic or religious identity.”[9]The complexity of the Darfur conflict and the lack of interest by many of the groups to positively align with the peace process, perhaps lends some credence to the theory advanced by Collier and Hoeffler. When combined with the operating political factors such as lack of will from key players to move towards peace, then the challenge for Darfur becomes even more visible. With the slow pace of the Darfur Peace Process, some of the armed groups would probably perceive the situation with opportunism.

Conclusion: The Turn to the Local

Critiques on the dominance of neoliberal peacebuilding have become increasingly visible. This surge may well be associated with the perception that the implication of not actively searching for alternatives may be huge. Abou Jeng has, for instance, suggested that “the implication for the dominance of contemporary approaches to conflicts has been that the advancement of alternative non-European approaches has been either circumscribed to irrelevance or considered incongruent with the institutional and normative configuration of the international [order].”[10] Santos similarly argues that such a dominance makes the epistemological groundings of peacebuilding rather impoverished, simply because “there are practical alternatives to the current status quo of which, however, we rarely take notice, simply because such alternatives are not visible or credible to our ways of thinking.”[11] This has led Roger Mac Ginty and Oliver Richmond to conclude that conflict resolution “is often restricted to the margins of orthodox dominated peace building thinking and practice.”[12]

These perspectives tend to consolidate claims that the failure of the dominant neoliberal approaches are not only related to their thin impact in conflict situations especially in Africa, but that by their appropriation of universalism, they have it made it difficult for local alternatives. In recent years, scholars have called for the “turn to the local” as a possible alternative. Roger Mac Ginty and Oliver Richmond have made important contributions in this regard. They argue that knowledge and values that have underpinned peacebuilding theories and approaches remain anchored on Western values, cultures and mindset.[13]Accordingly, they call for the “decolonization of knowledge about peace making and peace building.”[14]The importance of this shift is that while neoliberal peace views the local “as a near empty space, willingly subservient to Northern models and interests,” the turn to the local categorizes the local as a critical element in peacebuilding.[15]The rise of the local shows perhaps, that what was uncritically viewed as dominant and universal seems no longer ideal as a departure point. In the context of Darfur, where the local has undergone considerable desecration due to the prolongation of the conflict, a major challenge would be to restore the relevance and capabilities of the local without polluting it with the baggage of neoliberal approaches.

[1] The United Nations and Darfur: Fact Sheet, July 2007; Source:;

[2]See Johan Galtung, (1967) Theories of Peace: A Synthetic Approach to Peace Thinking (Oslo: International Peace Research Institute).

[3]Sousa Santos, J. A. Nunes and M. P.Meneses, ‘Introduction: Opening Up the Canon ofKnowledge and Recognition of Difference’ in B. Sousa Santos (ed.), Another Knowledge is Possible: Beyond Northern Epistemologies (London: Verso, 2008), p. xxxv

[4]Burrows, Flower in My Ear: Arts and Ethos on Ifaluk Atoll (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1963), p. 421.

[5]Sousa Santos, ‘Beyond Abyssal Thinking: From Global Lines to Ecologies of Knowledges,’Review, XXX(1) (2007), 45–89 at 63.

[6]Keen, ‘War and Peace: What’s the Difference?’ in A. Adebajo and C. L. Sriram (eds.),Managing Armed Conflicts in the 21st Century (London: Frank Cass, 2001), p. 18.

[7]Hansen (ed.), Africa: Perspectives on Peace and Development (London: Zed Books, 1987).

[8]Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler, “Greed and Grievance in Civil War,” Oxford Economic Papers 56 (2004) 563-595 at 563

[9]Ibid, p.589

[10]Abou Jeng, Peacebuilding in the African Union: Law, Philosophy and Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p.5

[11]S. Santos, ‘Epistemologies of the South: Reinventing Social Imagination’. Paper presented at the Staff-Student Seminar, School of Law, University of Warwick, 12 April 2010, 1–51 at 1, cited in Jeng, Peacebuilding

[12]Roger Mac Ginty and Oliver Richmond, “The Local Turn in Peace Building: A Critical Agenda for Peace,” Third World Quarterly (2013), 34:5, 763-783 at 764


[14]Mac Ginty and Richmond, “The Local Turn in Peace Building,” p.765

[15] Ibid, p.765

Rose Mutayiza has spent the last six years in Darfur where she works in the areas of gender and women's rights as well as human rights.