Bashir has won: a view from Nuba

pict0002.jpgPerhaps one of the most intriguing sights that you are likely to encounter if you visit El Obeid is the twin towers of the Islamic Cultural Centre, looming over the solitary spire of the Catholic Cathedral, which is on the opposite side of the road. In many other societies, such a juxtaposition might be seen as progressive – a symbollic gesture that those from quite separate faiths can happily live alongside one another. But in somewhere like El Obeid, just shy of the Nuba Mountains, one might be tempted to wonder whether it is more a sign of one faith sticking two fingers up at the other.

The Catholic Cathedral was built in 1971; the Islamic Cultural Centre just five years ago.

We popped in to see Father Philmon Kuku in the hope that he could enlighten us as to what the situation is like in the region.

Rather surprisingly, he painted a much rosier picture of inter-religious co-existence than we had been expecting. “We have seen no harrassment in being able to pray freely,” he said. “We find no clash of faiths here.”

He admitted that in the past there had been more problems and that there were still problems – but he put the blame for failures in the region at the feet of both Christians and Muslims. He also spoke a little about Abyei, which, lying someway to the south, is slap bang in the middle of disputed territory between the two sides. But he stressed that the situation in Abyei appears much worse than it is, “since it is being used for political purposes”.

The other week, I visited All Saints Cathedral in Amarat, noted for its lively Southern Sudanese services. Every Sunday, throughout the day, services are held in local tribal languages of Nuer, Dinka, Nuba and Zande (plus English and Arabic). And very cheery the services are too – with lots of clapping and dancing and vibrant colours. No sign of anything being taboo or restricted – this is a far cry from the 1980s, when the cathedral was confiscated by the Sudanese government, ostensibly because it was involved in a covert attempt to try and overthrow the government.

The truth of the matter is tha, over the past five years, things in Sudan have become markedly freer. Now one can look at this in two ways. One can either smile contentedly at the conscientious progress that has been made towards greater harmony in the country. Or one can, as I am about to do, take the cynic’s view: that these changes, whilst laudable, have come about simply because nothing really matters any more.

In the 1990s, shortly after Bashir came to power, there was much to be done to consolidate his powerbase. There were the rebels in the South to contend with – after many fiercely-fought battles, the most esteemed leader of this rebel movement (John Garang) has been killed and the rebels brought into the government and, though there may be some murmurings of discontent in the ranks, they are more or less playing ball. The rebels in the west, with links to those in the south, were also starting to cause a bit of a headache – so, 2003, start taking military action in Darfur, much to the repulsion of the international community. Things are much calmer now, and the rebel factions are severly split with no real powerbase, so Bashir can take a relaxed step backwards and over the reigns to the barely-functioning UNAMID forces. The DUP party is a problem? Rip out their economic powerbase in Northern Khartoum by under-investing in industries there. Ever wondered why Bahri is so derelict these days? Well, that is why.

And then there is Nuba – perhaps not as marginalised as other areas of the country, but still, according to the people that live there, a little neglected. But the fighting has stopped – that is the main thing – and things feel much freer in the area. I was able to travel up to Kadoogli with no problems and though I saw some of the after-effects of the war (people missing limbs or missing their sanity) I found the town very welcoming and very friendly. I doubt that I’d have been able to travel east, though, without some difficulty – this is the heartland of the SPLM. But they are not likely to start causing trouble any time soon. They’re on the government’s side now.

Not that any of this is necessarily bad. One could argue the democracy line: that any country should have a choice in who governs it. Or one could argue the humanitarian line: that the priority for any country should be an end to human suffering.

Sudan is in a much better shape than it has been in years and it seems to me that this is because the man at the top knows he can’t lose.

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One Response to “Bashir has won: a view from Nuba”

  1. Amal Says:

    Hey Blake,

    You have some great posts and I enjoy reading the impressions foreign journalist have of Sudan.
    Its funny to see how confusing the country is, people’s thoughts and impression seem to be constantly changing, nothing is as it appears in Sudan!

    The point you made in this post is spot on, its also quite depressing. Its as if Sudanese people are stuck in this trap, what happens if the government is to be changed? What if the Islamist lose the coming election? Should we put up with the government forever just for the sake of stability?

    BTW, sorry for all the trouble you have been going through. I guess that is what happens when you live in a country governed by lunatics such as Sudan!

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