Page last updated at 16:57 GMT, Monday, 17 September 2007 17:57 UK

Darfur's peacekeeper: Africa's toughest job?

By Orla Guerin
BBC News, Darfur

General Agwai
The general will command 26,000 soldiers and police

If General Martin Luther Agwai's name is not yet familiar, it will be soon.

He has been given one of the toughest jobs in Africa, and perhaps the most thankless: Commander of the new combined United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force for Darfur.

General Agwai will lead the biggest peacekeeping operation in the world with 20,000 troops and 6,000 police under his command.

The general told BBC News that building a peacekeeping force of that size from scratch would take time, and he warned against high expectations, saying without peace his troops would be in a "in a very uncomfortable position".

The former head of Nigeria's armed forces is courteous and softly-spoken.

He told me his military heroes are General George Patton and General Ariel Sharon.

Asked if his new job is a poisoned chalice, his response is characteristically low-key.

"When I was accepting this job I did it with all sincerity," he said, "believing that somebody has to do the job and if somebody has to do it, why not me."

Scorched earth

The general is spending a lot of time in the air - it is the only way to get around his new territory.

We joined him on board a small UN helicopter for a tour of AU bases in south Darfur.

There is often a tendency in the international community to forget working for the core mission
TT, Araia, Pretoria

The general kept a watch on the terrain below - an endless stretch of parched earth, the size of France.

Next month, the first of the peacekeepers are due to arrive in this harsh environment.

Gen Agwai is well aware of the high expectations, in the international community, and in the camps - where some of the dispossessed are counting down the days to the arrival of the blue helmets.

But he has a message for all those who wait - do not expect too much too soon.

"I'm worried because of high expectation," he told me.

"People will expect us by tomorrow to do something, without knowing that on the ground not much has changed. And I can't see anything changing much even up to the end of this year."

African Union soldiers in Darfur (file pic)
African Union troops in Darfur have a limited mandate

"Many people are basing their judgement on the resolution which has given us 20,000 men. But you don't have anything on the ground."

General Agwai is concerned about managing the expectations of people who do not know the landscape of Darfur.

He refers, diplomatically, to "those who haven't had the opportunity of visiting here."

We land at a remote base, hemmed in by desert.

The general's first problem is how to get the troops into places like this - with no roads, no airport and no water supplies.

"We may be forced to deploy where we don't want to, because of the issue of water," he says.

Peacekeepers, not peace-makers

At the base there's a reception committee of tribal elders in flowing white robes, and rebel fighters in camouflage.

When they meet the general, one demand keeps coming up - security. But in the absence of a peace deal, that won't be in the general's gift.

We are not here to conquer anybody... we are not here to impose peace
General Martin Luther Agwai

His soldiers will be able to use force to save lives - unlike the current African Union observers - but according to the general, they are not coming to Darfur to fight for peace.

"We are not here to conquer anybody," he says.

"We are not here to compel any peace. We are here to work with the Sudanese people - both the government and the parties to assist them to find peace. We are not here to impose peace. We are not here to fight anybody."

In the forthcoming months, General Agwai may need to juggle the roles of mediator, diplomat and military commander.

He will be walking an unknown path - leading a 'hybrid' force, though no one seems quite sure just how hybrid it will be.

It will take a year or more before the peacekeeping mission reaches full strength.

And the Sudanese government could create obstacles, as it has done in the past.

In the words of a senior diplomat in the region: "the Sudanese have a way of getting around things".

Taming the rebels

But some in the AU mission here believe the biggest problem will be the rebels, not the government in Khartoum.

SLM: Minni Minnawi's faction signed 2006 peace deal
SLM: Abdul Wahid Mohammad Ahmed al-Nur's faction rejected peace deal
Jem: Khalil Ibrahim, one of the first rebel groups, rejected deal
Rebel negotiator: Suleiman Jamous
SLM Unity: Abdallah Yehia
UFLD: recently formed umbrella group including SLM commanders
Other breakaway SLM commanders: Mahjoub Hussein, Jar el-Neby and Suleiman Marajan
There are estimated to be more than 13 rebel factions in Darfur

At last count there were about a dozen rebel groups in Darfur, all trying to call the shots.

Before leaving the base, General Agwai met some of the weary AU observers, whose operation has all but ground to a standstill.

Many feel they have been made scapegoats - left waiting for equipment and support, and sometimes even for their salaries.

The new peacekeeping force could also be handicapped - if the international community does not keep its word.

Enough troops have been promised - from Africa and elsewhere. But Western nations are not rushing in with military hardware.

So far not a single attack helicopter has been offered.

The general says he is an optimist and believes a workable peace agreement can be reached, but he admits to a few sleepless nights already.

Rightly or wrongly, if there are no improvement in Darfur, he'll be someone to blame.

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