Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Yarmouk complex: Sudan in the world

Sudan’s Military Industry Corporation (MIC), established according to its website in 1993, has as its motto the phrase ‘for peace we gather all our effort’. The phrase mocks the fact that the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) which grew out of the Egyptian-clad and British-disciplined Sudan Defence Force (SDF) has been consumed throughout its history in battling insurgencies within the country’s territories. Ghazi Suleiman, once a regime-critical human rights lawyer and today a loud enthusiast for President Bashir, did not mince words in spelling out the esprit de corps of the SAF officer class with reference to the envies and passions of his own social milieu, the educated effendis of the professions. An innocent-looking TV presenter asked Ghazi over Eid whether there was anything he regretted during his rather dramatic life of political zigzags. Ghazi, priding in his frankness, said he regretted the decision to enter the law faculty of Khartoum University instead of joining the army. Had I been an officer, he said, I would have surely managed to pull off a coup and realise my dream of becoming the country’s president, the uncontested Bringi (number one). 
Ghazi’s fantasy is shared by many an effendi, officers and civilians alike. In an address to the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) on 5 September this year Mubarak al-Fadil al-Mahdi effectively invited his interlocutors to back a coup plot against President Bashir, justified as is the habit with the necessity to facilitate the leap to democracy. “The army could be the conduit for transition, as happened previously in Sudan, and recently in Egypt and Tunisia”, said Mubarak, another president hopeful whose political ambitions are perennially thwarted by the superior clout of his cousin and chairman of the National Umma Party Sadiq al-Mahdi. The perpetuation of Sudan’s civil wars stems in part from this investment in the power of guns to short-circuit political struggle. Combine Ghazi’s officers and Mubarak’s marketing strategy and you arrive at the elemental features of effendi political projects, shared by the rulers and their contenders: self-referential with little regard to the people to be ‘saved’, ‘liberated’, ‘delivered’…etcetera, and extraverted, whereby external anchor is sought to compensate for the deficiency in domestic legitimacy. 
With that in mind it might have been cheaper for Israel to solicit the cooperation of the security-military establishment in Khartoum rather than bomb the Yarmouk complex, in particular that a history of joint ventures is not lacking. Jaafar Nimayri, Sudan’s president between 1969 and 1985 and President Bashir’s role model, partnered with Israel without as much as a whimper in Operation Moses which involved the air-lift of Ethiopian Jews or Falashas to Israel via Sudan in 1984. In recent years Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) evolved into a trusted subcontractor of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the ‘war on terror’, delivering “important, functional and correct” information in the words of a State Department official in 2005. President Bashir’s government, handed over Carlos the Jackal to the French with a price-tag attached, offered to ship off Osama bin Laden to the Saudis and then to the Americans, and transferred al-Qaeda suspects to the mercy of the CIA with little discretion. Israel was apparently compelled by domestic political concerns and wider geo-political constraints of its anti-Iranian zeal to strike at Khartoum rather than bargain. In that sense, Israel and Iran were text-messaging in missiles over Sudan’s territories, and Khartoum but a screen. 
President Bashir, the proverbial naked king, picked up the Palestinian wrap to cover up his exposed ‘defences’ in a televised meeting of the Council of Ministers the day after. Israel, he said, targeted Sudan because of its position against the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Nafie Ali Nafie, ran off with the mantra. Sudan will not be deterred by Israel’s aggression from supporting the Palestinian cause, he told a function of the ruling National Congress Party. The claim is to say the least hypocritical. The commitment of the ruling elite in Sudan to the Palestinian liberation struggle is as sincere as Ghazi Suleiman’s human rights antics, convertible if priced. Short of allies to support its counter-insurgency campaigns President Bashir’s government picked up weapons wherever it could find them, Iran being one provider. The bill, it seems, included space for Teheran’s military to operate in, much like the readiness of the government to rent off thousands of acres of agricultural land in the country to any foreign investor able to flash some cash. Ali Mazrui developed the concept of 'multiple-marginality' to define Sudan’s predicament, a notion that could well be employed to grasp its multiple-dependencies, and consequentially the promiscuous foreign policy of its effendi rulers. 

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Post-Bashir: the sheikhs and the officers

The Sudanese Islamic Movement (SIM) held a series of conferences at state and sectorial levels over the past few weeks in preparation for its awaited general convention in November. Ahead of the conferences the Movement announced a rule barring state governors from competing for the leadership of the organisation in their states. Only Osman Mohamed Yusif Kibir, the governor of North Darfur, distinguished himself by ‘accepting’ the nomination of the Movement’s Shura (Consultative) Council in his state, and was thus announced Secretary General of the SIM in North Darfur for a second term. As governor and chairman of the North Darfur chapter of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) Kibir unites in his person the three h’s in NCP/SIM jargon, the hakuma (government), the hizb (party) and the haraka (movement). An envious NCP official from the region told a press conference in Khartoum on Saturday that Kibir’s command of the three h’s amounted to “religious and moral corruption”. Hassan Bargo, in charge of the Chad file in the NCP during the height of the Darfur conflict i.e. a manager of Khartoum’s support to Chadian rebels, dismissed the SIM’s conferences as mere “window dressing”, and called on the leadership of the organisation to allow for a generational shift at the top in order to avert an ‘Arab Spring’ in Sudan. Hassan Osman Rizig, the Deputy Secretary General of the SIM, said Kibir will eventually be forced to choose between the hakuma and the haraka, and cannot enjoy the pleasure of the power polygamy. Whether Rizig can enforce the constitutional pedantry of the SIM high office in Khartoum on al-Fasher’s sultan is the wrong question I suppose. Rather the issue is whether the regime can afford a fracture of fragile power in al-Fasher between the three h’s. Like most Sudanese Kibir and Bargo find it hard to grasp the subtle difference between the NCP and the SIM since up the ladder only the jellabiyas change.
The clamour around the November conference nevertheless is not without substance. The incumbent Secretary General of the SIM, Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, also the First Vice President and the Deputy Chairman of the NCP, declared to the conference of the SIM women sector that he is not interested in another term at the helm of the Movement. Time has come for elders like himself, he said, to withdraw to advisory functions and allow a younger generation of leaders to manage the affairs of the SIM. Conveniently enough, the proposed constitution of the Movement sets a two terms limit for election to the office, an exact fit to Taha’s occupancy of the post. As Taha, the perennial deputy, announced his intent to slip out of the jellabiya of the SIM’s Emir unidentified sources in the NCP told in-house journalists that a consensus was emerging in the party to nominate Taha for presidential office in the 2015 elections, a proposal that the SIM’s second in command, Hassan Osman Rizig, did not deny. Rizig, cautious not to step on toes bigger than his, said the NCP general conference was the only platform where such a decision could be met. Meanwhile, Taha’s cheerleaders in the Khartoum press went on early campaign, popularizing the notion that the deputy’s moment has at last arrived; who else but the loyal Taha deserves the top jellabiya? The immediate drive for the succession stir is the open secret that President Bashir’s health is compromised. A spokesman of the Palace in Khartoum said the President had a throat surgery last August in Qatar but was in good health. “All rumours that his health is not good are baseless”, affirmed the spokesman without offering further details. Notably, the presidential uncle, al-Tayeb Mustafa, wrote in support of a Bashir exit in 2015. “It is in the interest of the President, after a quarter of a century of rule, to rest in dignity at the end of his current term, away from politics and its whirlwinds”, he concluded after listing the immediate duties requiring President Bashir’s attention: oversight of the implementation of the Addis Ababa agreements with South Sudan, securing Sudan’s borders and bringing an end to the rebellions in South Kordofan, the Blue Nile and Darfur, stabilisation of the political and economic situation in the country in preparation for a new era of good governance and peaceful transition of power. Well, judging by his 1989 coup statement President Bashir and Co had a quarter of a century to do the same.
The Taha cheerleaders, it seems, are consciously ignoring the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) establishment, the ‘old Sudan’ political party jealously guarding the throne. At President Bashir’s side two senior officers have survived the habubs of the NCP-SAF alliance safe from plane crashes and early retirement. These two gentlemen - Bakri Hassan Salih (Minister of Presidential Affairs) and Abd al-Rahim Mohamed Hussein (Minister of Defence) - are unlikely to surrender ultimate authority to the NCP/SIM bureaucracy without at least a fair bargain. If Taha and his captains find it difficult to discipline Mr Kibir into abiding by the SIM’s rules then the tanks at the SAF headquarters are surely not going to follow their command whatever the jellabiyas they happen to wear.

Monday, 8 October 2012

South Sudanese labour: refill the ‘kambo’

Sudan's major grain producers, the landowners of Gedaref, complained bitterly to the press this week of an acute shortage of labour and warned of yet another failed agricultural season. The local farmers’ union in the state reportedly lobbied the central government to sanction the employment of Ethiopian guest workers in order to save the season without much success. In Gezira and North Darfur the state authorities seconded school children on vacation for service in the fields, a desperate measure that fell short of demand. This year government failure has resulted in a self-inflicted drought on the two Niles; up to 85% of the cultivated area in the Gezira and al-Managil extension suffers from a shortage of water declared a parliamentary committee this week after three visits to the scheme. Why and how are questions that the controversial and eloquent Minister of Agriculture, Abd al-Haleem al-Mutaafi, has eluded in sessions of parliament as well as during an inspection ride where he was accompanied by a television crew eager to record his ‘frank exchange’ with angered farmers. 
The Gedaref landowners in particular are a formidable constituency. In 2010 they managed to force their favourite, Karamallah Abbas, on the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) as a candidate for the gubernatorial elections. Karmallah, the farmers’ union leader turned governor, soon became a reason for concern at party headquarters. He played his own game and challenged the dodgy arithmetic of financial allocations to the states, to be quelled out of office in May this year after a memorable clash with the Minister of Finance Ali Mahmoud Abd al-Rasool. The daily al-Tayar was banned from publication partially as a punishment for its enthusiastic coverage of Karamallah’s try at dissent. In a last interview he told Howeida Sir al-Khatim, the journalist who made his story news, that he might contemplate running on a National Umma Party (NUP) ticket considering his Ansar heritage. The election to fill the post, due after sixty days from its vacancy, is yet to take place. The National Elections Commission argued itself out of the constitutional inconvenience by blaming the bad weather as it were; once the rainy season ends and the crops are harvested, it pledged, the vote will be held. In his interview Karamalla said he feared becoming a second Malik Agar, a governor at large, a stunt that obviously did not play in his favour. 
There are two immediate reasons for the shortage in labour this season. The first, said the Secretary General of the Gedaref Farmers’ Union Abd al-Majid Ali al-Tom, is the loss of South Sudanese labour as a consequence of secession. The South Sudanese in (north) Sudan, congruent with a long history of exploitation extending back to the time when slavery constituted the dominant relation of production in Sudanese agriculture, provided a large chunk of the ultra-cheap labour force on which the profitability of agricultural production in Sudan’s technology-poor and labour-intensive fields relied. The sugar plantations of Kenana, al-Jineid and Sennar, their recent ambitious follow-up in the White Nile State, the grain fields of Gedaref, and the chronically dysfunctional Gezira Scheme all depend on a nominally seasonal supply of labour drawn from migrant populations, predominantly from the Sudanese war zones. The qualification seasonal however refers only to the terms of employment; the people in question, the ‘jango’ in colloquial tongue, are established ‘squatters’ albeit denied the title and inhabit the notorious ‘kambos’ (sg. kambo) of Sudan’s agricultural belt, the makeshift settlements that twin the villages and towns of the riverain heartland as shadow doubles, excluded from service provision but resources for sustained police extortion, targets for the occasional punitive raid, and theatres of pleasure on the cheap. The talented novelist Abd al-Aziz Baraka Sakin injected the kambo into the imagination of the Khartoum intelligentsia with his masterpiece ‘al-Jango, nails of the land’ and a collection of short stories titled ‘A woman from ‘Kambo Kadees’. Both works have been banned by the responsible authorities despite the fact that the novel earned its author the 2010 ‘Tayeb Salih Prize’ offered by the independent Abd al-Karim Mirghani Cultural Centre but circulate in a digitalised samizdat format. 
Apart from the romanticisation around revolutionary promise the kambo and its inhabitants attracted no further interrogation from the Khartoum crowd, exception being to my knowledge the 1982 PhD thesis of Tayseer Mohamed Ali ‘The Cultivation of Hunger: Towards the Political Economy of Agricultural Development in Sudan’. Tayseer formed a duo with the ‘Free Officer’ Abd al-Aziz Khaled in the early 1990s and established the Sudan National Alliance/Sudan Alliance Forces with an outlook to invest the ‘jango’ with a political-military mission. The Alliance registered minor military gains along Sudan’s eastern borders but eventually withered away after the two fell out in a dull repeat of a common scenario in Sudan’s elite politics i.e. the intellectual versus the military officer. Abd al-Aziz eventually returned to Khartoum after a presidential pardon while Tayseer established permanent base in Asmara. The jango were abandoned. 
A second reason for the dearth in agricultural labour this season is Sudan’s artisan ‘gold rush’. The Ministry of Mining reported this past month that the quest for gold kept an estimated five hundred thousand people busy spread over eighty locations around the country, many of whom are likely to be escapees from the penury of agricultural labour. With this background in mind, I suggest, it is possible to explain in part the willingness of the ‘rational’ NCP high priests to invite the South Sudanese back into the rump Sudan with the ‘four freedoms’ ensured, rephrased the freedom to sell their muscle power, conveniently this time around as ‘brothers’ with no citizens’ claims to burden the exchange. 

Monday, 1 October 2012

Hobsbawm died

A giant died today, the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm (1917- 2012). I am ever indebted to the late Mohamed Ibrahim Nugud; he introduced me to the works of this master.
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This work by Magdi El Gizouli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.