A day after a Cabinet briefing this week had expressed its satisfaction with the SA National Defence Force’s (SANDF) continental peace support operations, President Jacob Zuma announced the summary termination of the country’s involvement with the hybrid AU/UN mission in Darfur, Sudan.
A short statement issued by the Presidency noted that members of the SANDF were employed in Darfur in 2008 as part of the AU/UN hybrid operation in Darfur (UNAMID).
“The termination will take effect from April 1, 2016,” the statement said.
A day earlier, Telecommunications and Post Services Minister Siyabonga Cwele, speaking on behalf of Cabinet’s International Co-operation, Trade and Security Cluster, told a media briefing the national defence force continues to participate in the UN peace support operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Operation Mistral), and the UN/AU hybrid peace support operation in Sudan (Operation Cordite) with over 2 000 soldiers deployed.
Ahead of the Presidential announcement the South African permanent mission to the UN apparently informed the UN departments of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) and Field Support (DFS) via a note the country would be withdrawing its deployed infantry battalion “in lieu of” the scheduled forthcoming rotation.
The SANDF’s Operation Cordite started in July 2004 with the deployment of staff officers and observers to Darfur in Sudan in support of the AU Mission in Sudan (AMIS). Not too long afterwards South Africa was asked to deploy addition observers and staff officers to supplement then existing Sudan deployments but this ended when AMIS was terminated on December 31, 2007, to become the first hybrid AU/UN mission on January 1, 2008, called UNAMID. Early that year the UN requested South Africa to increase its contingent to a standard UN infantry battalion.
Deputy Defence Minister at that time, Thabang Makwetla, said “challenges regarding the infrastructure in the mission area made it impossible for the SANDF to comply.”
In November 2008 the SANDF component of UNAMID was increased to around the 800 mark, a figure that has remained constant since then.
Last year President Jacob Zuma, as commander-in-chief of the SANDF, extended the South African deployment in Darfur by 12 months. Keeping the 850 soldiers in Sudan until March 31 was estimated to cost R369,079,895 for the 12 months.
South African troops have seen several incidences of combat in Darfur, and have lost a number of soldiers in the process. On 27 September last year an 8 South African Infantry Battalion soldier was killed in an ambush in Darfur while escorting a UNAMID logistics convoy. The attack came just on a month after a similar attack by a rebel group on another UNAMID convoy in the same area.
Some of the incidences in Sudan include an attack on 11 April 2010 when four South African UN Police personnel were abducted and two vehicles stolen. They were released sixteen days later. An attack on a UNAMID patrol in North Darfur on 12 November 2012 killed one South African; an attack on a UNAMID patrol on 17 October 2012 killed one South African in North Darfur; and an attack on a South African UNAMID patrol in North Darfur on 29 October 2014 injured three. The ambush was on a section dispatched from the South African battalion base to collect water.
Last year the SANDF announced that a platoon of soldiers from 8 South African Infantry Battalion would be cited for gallantry after being accosted by heavily armed militia in Darfur on 18 August. They were ambushed by rebels but refused to surrender their weapons and vehicles.
Defence expert Helmoed Romer Heitman was quoted by the African News Agency as saying that the SANDF is overstretched in financial and logistical terms, and has too few troops to deploy to the Democratic Republic of Congo and on South Africa’s borders. “By any reasonable standard those add up to 14 or more infantry battalions and we have only 13 including the parachute battalion that is supposed to be the reserve,” he said.
Other conflicts such as in Burundi, the Central African Republic and South Sudan may need attention as well.
The Darfur conflict has killed up to 300 000 people and displaced 2.6 million, the United Nations estimates, since fighting began in 2003. Critics accuse government forces and their militia allies of pursuing genocide in Darfur. The government denies that and says it has no links to the militias. Darfuris are a constant presence in the ranks of the more than 1 million refugees and migrants who spilled into Europe last year, mostly to escape war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.
While violence in the western Sudanese region has ebbed over the past decade, the insurgency continues. The Khartoum government has escalated attacks on rebel groups in the past year.
Relations between Sudan and UNAMID have never been good but have deteriorated in recent years. In 2014 Khartoum ordered UNAMID out of Sudan after it began investigating an alleged mass rape by Sudanese soldiers in Darfur. The government denies any wrongdoing by either its army or allied militia. Last year the government of Sudan refused to release rations and other essential supplies for international peacekeepers in Darfur.
One of the biggest problems facing UNAMID has been the joint nature of the force – the African Union and the United Nations together. “The hybrid mission experiment has proven to be an abysmal failure,” a UN Security Council ambassador told Reuters last year. Meanwhile, U.N. officials say, the council’s interest in Darfur has waned as more high-profile conflicts like Syria and Iraq take priority.