Remembering the truth about Sudan

It is interesting how different environments lead to different interpretations of the truth. When I lived in Khartoum, everything that the outside world was doing to resolve Sudan’s manifold problems seemed wrong. They just didn’t understand. Having spent the past month immersed in the world of American advocats and lobby organisations, the tragically twisted picture of what things are like in Sudan is compelling. But still wrong.

For a close follower of Sudanese affairs, it is almost impossible to ignore the voices in Washington clamouring for change in the country. I spent an interesting couple of hours with Jonathan Hutson, communications director of the well-funded and one would like to think well-meaning Enough Project, who took me through a compelling video that he was putting together. At the time, it was a work-in-progress; the finished product is here:

Whilst the problem is very real, it is not at all clear what to do about it. The line that is almost always trotted out by Washington’s powerful anti-Sudan lobby is: ‘Remove Bashir. After all, he is an indicted war criminal.” Simple. Job done. Crystal clear message that everyone can understand. Get the bad guy. Start talking about nomadic tribes versus pasturalists and people’s heads start drooping.

The problem is that removing Bashir does not solve the problem. It is also not clear to what extent he is still the problem in the country. There is good evidence that, ever since he took power, he has used historic tribal rivalries to shore up his own powerbase. But the fact that these tribal tensions exist? Surely that is also part of the problem.

Moreover, there is a very worrying trend happening in Sudan – and it has been going on, apparently unnoticed by the black-and-white get-Bashir lobby, for a rather long time.

Like any leader that has managed to hold on to power for more than two decades, Bashir is a wiley old coot. He will do anything to hold on to that power. it. He has spent the past year shifting around people within his own party, who were starting to look slightly threatening.

I’m not afraid to admit that I under-estimated Bashir’s sagacity. I made a little wager about a year ago that by the end of this year, Bashir would be gone. An embarrasing, though thankfully not very costly, error on my part. But seen with the eyes of the past, I don’t think my little wager was as outrageous as it might have seemed.

Bashir had lost South Sudan and thus the north’s principal source of oil wealth, leaving the northern economy in tatters (from which it has still not managed to recover0. At the same time, the Americans had diplomatically stabbed him in the back and not given him what he thought they would – though this was never written anywhere, there was a tacit understanding that, with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which led to north-south separation, the way could be paved for the lifting of sanctions. This has not happened yet. Not even close.

And many in his party blame him for this.

So what Bashir has successfully managed to do is push aside many of those close to him, and started drifting towards the more extremist elements within the country. Just as he did in the 1990s, when the Clinton administration was being such a royal pain in the proverbial.

The problem is that few among the lobbyists seem to be asking the question: what comes next? (Some of the more sobre organisations importantly are, though, and this will form the basis for a separate blog entry in the near future.)

This is a very important question.

Last night, I was at a conference organised by Wanda Aikin and Raymond Brown, two human rights lawyers I have quite a lot of respect for. They have been tirelessly fighting for the rights of victims around the world for many years and currently represent victims in the Darfur case. At this particular conference, they were launching their new Hope and Reparations Project (HARP) for Darfur.

Part of their presentation focused on the use of the word ‘genocide’. They argued that, from a legal point of view, a good case can be built that what is taking place in Darfur is indeed genocide. And yet still journalists and editors shy away from using the term, for fear of ‘crying wolf’.

I thrust up my hand afterwards and pointed out that the reason many journalists (myself included) might shy away from using the genocidal term is that it has some dark and sinister connotations that throw everything into a black-and-white silhoette of reality. I was more-or-less repeating this blog post that I wrote many years ago.

With the deft aplomb of an accomplished lawyer, Brown managed to duck my question whilst appearing to answer it – and I neglected to follow up with him at the cocktail reception afterwards.

The real problem with colouring everything in the stark shades of black-and-white is that people fail to understand the problem that is Sudan. And perhaps, until you have lived there and started interacting with the ordinary people that still call the place their home, you can’t really. There are a lot of able-bodied people in the government working for change. And there are a lot of sinister extremist elements working for the wrong kind of change.

Bashir is an intelligent pawn in a darkly disturbing game of chess. Removing a pawn, even if it has learned how to move sideways, does not necessarily bring about check mate. It could leave you exposed elsewhere.

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