Tuesday, 30 June 2009

From the diary of an exhausted opposition

Today is the 20'th anniversary of the 30'th June coup that brought Omer al-Bashir and Co to power. I still remember in the early 90s when the National Democratic Alliance - a coalition of oppostion parties - was organising in Omdurman how much disbelief was in the air, particularly after the summary execution of the 28 officers (proposedly pro-Ba'ath) who had the guts to stage a counter-coup and eventually met their fate at the hands of the late Vice President Zubeir Mohamed Salih, who later died in a plane crash in the vicinity of Nasser, and the security chief of the time Nafie Ali Nafie, still alive and kicking as ever.
The general assumption of the political class at the time was that the NIF coup will not survive a few months, at the maximum a year. This perception survived into the mid-90's. In 1995, I was a freshman in Khartoum University at the time, the student movement in cooperation with opposition parties operating in clandestine organised a series of demonstrations, that came to be known as the "1995 Uprising" in the urban resistance mythology of Khartoum. At the time the sensation was "freedom around the corner", even more so when news of scattered military gains of the NDA, in particular Abdel Aziz Khalid's Sudanese National Alliance began to reach Khartoum. Later on we came to understand how inconsequential the whole attempt at military action via Eritrea and into Northern Sudan was. In essence, the more military action raged in the border regions the more political resistance in the North lost ground, and to a greater degree surrendered to the hope of a victorious NDA liberating Khartoum through a military campaign. This particular false wish was to prove deadly to political recruitment and initiative inside the country - al-dakhil in NDA jargon. The weaving of hopeful expectations became the political act per se, and nothing else.
Reflecting back, it is amazing how much time and energy was spent tending to the injured pride of Khartoum's elite, and how little on political activism in the positive sense of the word. At the core of this misguided approach was the political imagination that a reversal of developments and a return to the zero hour of the coup, was the objective to attain, a perception that still prevails in some circles of the "opposition". Well, history has proven the futility of return, Ingaz simply survived all that fuss with the virtue of perserverence on one hand, and the ages old tactic of divide and rule combined with a mastery of perpetual procrastination on the other. The ruthlessness and violence of the regime need not be mentioned in this regard. It is difficult but necessary to state that the Northern opposition simply failed to recover from the trauma it suffered in the first years of Ingaz. The legacy of those years of terror has had a much deeper effect on our collective psyche than we wish to admit, as individuals and as institutions. The victim status that we came to accept lingers as ever ridding us of the urgency of agency and the creativity of subjective action. Comparing the demonstrations and activism of 1995 - 1996 with the throttled politcal initiatives of today we were then free in a sense we are surely not today. At least we had the nerve to break the rules and embrace dissent. Today dissent is tricky, not primarily because of the security grip, that is a secondary cause, but because of the exhaustion of our common political imagination. In the greater number of instances the political opposition in Khartoum simply has no idea "what is to be done?" A salient example is the response to Ocampo's arrest warrant. Irrespective of the judicial integrity of the process, and the wider political repercussions. In Khartoum the opposition paradoxically responded expressing fears of "constitutional vacuum". At the time when in anti-war protest we were tearing down life sized pictures on metal sheets of NIF martyrs in Southern Sudan from University Avenue (Sharia al-Jama'a to those familiar with street signs in Khartoum) it was exactly such vacuum that we were looking for. It comes then as no surprise that the gut response of the opposition to all political issues is let us organise a national conference for that. It is admirable to see so much willingness for debate, but in its reverse side this generosity signals how little in terms of programme or plan is on the table.

The image captures sentiments of the four opposition leaders from left to right Ali Mahmoud Hassanien, Deputy Chairman of the Democratic Unionis Party (DUP), Mohammed Ibrahim Nugud, Secretary of the Sudanese Communist Party, Hassan Abdallah al-Turabi, Chairman of the Popular Congress Party (PCP) and al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, Chairman of the Umma Party, brought together in a meeting with Jan Pronk at a Khartoum hotel in June 2006.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

What is it with foreign intervention? (3)

In an angry response to Scott Gration's new diagnosis of the current situation in Darfur as non-genocide/consequence of genocide SLM/A Paris-based leaded Abdel Wahid fired back with the claim that the Darfur conflict constitutes an on-going genocide expressing his disppaointment at such high profile back tracking from the US Administration on a question it had raced to name with the G word.
Irrespective of the accuracy of the diagnostic dilemma it is interesting to see how these claims play out in the internal politics of the region. Talking to the AU Panel an IDP chief in Zalingei, Adam Boush, insisted on the case that the conflict is one between Darfur and Khartoum, with an interpretation of history that set the onset in 1874, the overthrow of the Fur Sultanate by the aspiring Zubeir Pasha Rahama. In the same line the IDP representative denied the existence of inter-communal conflict in Darfur and pulled the argument through to demand self-determiantion for Darfur. The IDP representative went further to voice diasappointment and anger at AU and UNAMID, and followed on with the statement: "We are the victims, and we do not object to American soldiers coming to protect us". An account of the encounter is posted by Alex de Waal http://blogs.ssrc.org/darfur/2009/06/23/it-went-well-we-told-them-the-au-panel-in-zalingei/.
Another spokesperson of the IDPs, Hussein Abu Sharati, expressed similar anger at Gration's remarks homing on the genocide claim in relation to land. For him the essence of the Darfur conflict is land: "The militias are engaged in this genocide because the government had promised them our fertile land that they are now occupying illegally after changing its features." …"So what we want is our land not any other land because what Gration is saying is exactly what the government is trying to implement: settle the IDPs in other places while their lands are given to the pro-government militias and we will never accept this issue."
As such the two intersecting planes of the Darfur conflict are demonstrably in play: the insurgency-counterinsurgency and the civil war, and in both land is the essential contention for the communities involved.
Mbeki's response to the call for American soldiers was the following “You can make this demand for American or European forces to replace UNAMID. It will not happen. We should not operate on the basis of a dream that is not going to be realized.” I think it is a bad dream. Actually, how did we get here at all?

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

What is it with foreign intervention? (2)

In a piece of news from Reuters today http://www.reuters.com/article/homepageCrisis/idUSHEA243369._CH_.2400 it was announced that the attendees of the Washington conference on Sudan will list amongst others China's Sudan envoy Liu Guijin and representatives of the countries and bodies that witnessed the signing of the CPA including the United Nations, the Arab League, Britain, Italy and Egypt.
Remarkably absent are the Sudanese in continuation of the conflict resolution logic that exhausts the Sudanese dilemma in the binary configuration of South (African Christian/Animist) versus North (Arab Moslem). A logic that seems to resist both factual evidence on the ground and a burgeoning discourse in Sudan and in critical Western academia, however it remains the guiding principle of political action on Sudan, more so on the part of the two adversaries/partners of the CPA, and as such it has never faded away from media reporting on the country.
One reason for this is that it serves to a great degree the interests of the two hegemons of the country, NCP in the North and SPLM in the South, as justifier for power and as a battle cry. And it serves in parallel as a simple paradigm of action for foreign interests involved in the Sudan looking for a quick pragmatic fix that maintains a centre of authority, or for that matters two centres of authority, to address.
The cost of this trade-off here is this bizarre situation were coalition partners in a government that goes by the name of "National Unity" cross the wide ocean to negotiate on matters of "national" concern in a foreign capital with mediation from all over the world but not from their own country. To fantasise the reality of this one would have to suppose a situation where the Tories and Labour, be they in ruling coalition, flying off to Harare to settle their disputes with Mugabe as mediator!
It is noteworthy that the NCP delegation in Washington was supposed to be headed by Vice President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, a man Western powers consider since signing of the CPA a person to do business with. Now, in light of the not so insignificant distrust between Taha and Bashir he was put off the job and the Machakos chief negotiator Ghazi Salah Eldin was installed in his place. In angry response Taha announced his intention to perform the pious procedures of umra in Mecca and boarded a plane accompanied by his family to Turkey, his regular refuge and planning hub in times of crisis. Talking to Islamists from the Turabi faction their initial comment was Khartoum is not big enough for both Ali Osman and Ghazi, like a pair of pistons if one goes up the other goes down. Considering Ghazi's announced position regarding the CPA Bashir is looking for a "new deal", one that reflects his survival of Ocampo's aborted charge and the refractioning of SPLM post-Garang. He is on the offensive this time.

Friday, 19 June 2009

What is it with foreign intervention? (1)

Whenever I talk to international activists/officials involved in Sudanese affairs the question they raise almost instinctively is “what can the international community do for Sudan?”, rephrased “what is the role of the international community?”
I guess the question, repeated so much yet not satisfactorily answered, must be inherently false, and it is in the nature of false question to provoke the hottest of debates, whilst answers to it are rendered irrelevant by the sheer momentum of events. I will try in the following to briefly articulate the Sudanese responses to the question and highlight the backdrop of each.
The National Congress Party (NCP) committed polemically to a stance of national sovereignty will ultimately go down in Sudanese history as the regime that witnessed and tolerated the widest foreign intervention, military and otherwise, in Sudanese affairs, paradoxical as this may seem. Today Sudan is a carrier of a massive contingent of UN troops, much larger than the forces once required for its conquest and subjugation in the late 19th and early 20th century. Yet this presence is still not sufficient to maintain peace and order!
In political terms Sudanese peace (dis)agreements are an itinerary of foreign travel: Frankfurt, Geneva, Naivasha, Cairo, N’djamena, Abuja, Asmara, Sirte, Doha...etc. A number of great powers employ an official for full time high level engagement with the Sudan with the title “Special Envoy”: e.g. the American, the Chinese, the Russian, and the Canadian at some time. It is no secret that Khartoum goes through great pains to reconcile with its foreign “adversaries” compared to its dismal disregard to “indigenous” dissent. For that matter, meetings between the rulers of Khartoum and foreign envoys or officials define the rules of the game much more than internal political debates, unless these evolve into open warfare.
The latest demonstration of this pattern are the tripartite talks between the two partners of the Government of National Unity (GoNU), NCP and SPLM, and the US Administration, with Scott Gration, the current Special US Envoy to Sudan, as senior mediator; a political process that should have been well served within the Sudanese domain, with involvement of other political parties, something Sudanese debates refers to with the idiom of a “constitutional conference” to coordinate and refine peace agreements and foresee their implementation. An idea both partners of the GoNU continue to refuse or undermine by staging parallel tracks of political theatre, the Kenana Forum (NCP) and the Juba Conference (SPLM), however they jointly welcomed the idea of US mediation in preparation for an international conference on Sudan to convene in Washington next Tuesday.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Unity is (im)possible

On the question of the unity of Northern and Southern Sudan the usual arguments tend to concentrate on possible economic gains or geo-strategic concerns, in essence arguments of hegemony which do little to satisfy the cries for justice in a continuing history of conflict. On that note alone the call for an independent Southern Sudan is sure to succeed.
As a corrective the search for unity is a political (im)possibility, and only as such does it constitute politics proper, not an administrative excercise but an exercise in imagination.
Sources for such imagination are available, since the history of Northern and Southern Sudan is, yes, a history of war, but also a history of creative existence, in the sense that it might well serve as the concrete basis for the general quest for citizenship in a post-colonial order such as the Sudanese.
I quote an example from Kamal El Gizouli's article this week in al Akhbar daily: the celebrations at Rufa'a (North) of Sheikh Lutfi's Secondary School, a school that has since its foundation in 1948 welcomed students from Southern Sudan free of charge, particulary those displaced by the civil war. Among the graduates of the school are prominent figures in the SPLM today including the current Minister of Health in the Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS), the Minister of Education in Jonglei State and the Minister of Local Government at the national level, in addition to nearly 800 professionals of different specialisations. For more than 25 years (1985-2009) the headmaster of the school has been a Southern Sudanese teacher, Garang Aliu Ajang. To this date Sheikh Lutfi's Seconday has graduated 1300 students from Southern Sudan, without making any fuss about it.
In recognition of the man who established the school, Sheikh Mohamed Abdalla Lutfi, and of the people of Rufa'a who have continuously provided rent-free lodging, an old tradition of learning in rural Sudan, for students from the South, GoSS is considering naming one of the streets in its capital Juba after Shiekh Lutfi. Moreover GoSS has pledged to establish a similar school in the South for both Northern and Southern students.

The image is a recent photograph of Sheikh Lutfi's Seconday School in Rufa'a.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

The death of a friend

Yesterday, a friend and a colleague of mine, died in Geneina (West Darfur), a community physician in his late thirties working for the World Health Organisation, he was on a job trip to the troubled region. He died, possibly of a heart attack, whilst lecturing in a workshop. Apparently he suffered severe chest pain, sat down for a second to regain his composure and died trying to do just that.
Imad is a father of a two year old daughter and his wife is six months pregnant.

We spent the larger part of this day waiting for his body to arrive in Khartoum airport carried by a military plane from El Fasher.

Other than a community physician Imad was a political activist since student days, a member of the Communist Party of Sudan, as I am, and a talented organiser.

A professional community physician he had no place in the health bureaucracy of Sudan because of his political affiliation. His body had to be flown in from Gineina on a military plane, something he would have detested and refused alive, and that through mediation that involved a military officer from his neighbourhood in Khartoum. His body was kept awaiting the flight in a military hospital.

As expected, he was not fond of religions, however carrying his body to his grave cries of Allahu Akbar set the scene, and we, his friends, could find no appropriate words of condolence. The last words before his grave were the usual religious jargon. Moreover in the place of mourning a bearded preacher found his prey, and started warning all those present of their imminent death and the need to satisfy Allah before that day. To my ears, I could hear a tone of scorn and spite, since his political opinions and world views were no secret.

On the other hand, his mother in law, a lady in her sixties could not stop crying out his virtues, alternative as they were. Usually those would include piety and religious zeal, but she recognised his kindness, his friendliness, his love of his daughter and his wife, and his generosity.

Imad believed in a country that would carry all its citizens, including himself and his small family, he did not live to see that happen. I will not suppose that I would do that either.

The man in front on the image associated is the late Dr Imad El Amin. I pay him my respects.

Why blog?

It is no mystery in Sudanese circles, including sympathisers and friends, that press censorship practically curtails serious public debate, even more so that we are approaching elections next February 2010 and a referendum on the future of Southern Sudan 2011. However the internet has remained relatively free of effective state censorship till now. They do try to block a site or another from time to time with little success.

So, I thought I could write a few notes on the status of this country and its peoples before it possibly ceases to exist as a single polity in consequence of the upcoming referendum in Southern Sudan, and more gravely as a result of the overwhelming political havoc.

I also chose to write in English because I do otherwise write in Arabic and run an Arabic speaking blog to publish a column that never manages to make it in the paper version of the newspaper Midan (midanphoenix.blogspot.com), and because it seems my type of political arguments rarely feature in the English speaking debates on Sudan, and simple because the fate of Sudan is being largely determined currently in the capitals of the Empire and not within its borders, and the Empire, in essence, only recognises its own language.
Creative Commons Licence
This work by Magdi El Gizouli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.