Thursday, 31 March 2022

Sudan’s rulers: “The people are suffering”

A slightly edited version of this piece was published on Middle East Eye

Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, Sudan’s second in command and for all practical purposes’ effective ruler, told a press conference at the Khartoum airport upon his return from a long visit to Moscow on 2 March 2022 that Sudan’s embassies abroad have not received any funding for the past eighteen months. The 46 years old Dagalo, dressed in a statesman’s fine suit and reading glasses between nose and hand, was exasperated by the terrible state of affairs under his rule, a situation he is finding harder and harder to manage. “The people are tired, the people are suffering, the people have reached a hopeless stage,” he told his audience. “We are a disgrace in the world, our students are stranded, our embassies have stopped working.”
More than four months have passed since the 25 October 2021 military coup that cut short Sudan’s once praised transitional period, a unique model in civilian-military partnership in the words of the former transitional prime minister Abdalla Hamdok. The former UN official was initially placed under house arrest, reinstated as prime minister under the terms of short-lived arrangement with the coup leaders a month later, resigned in January 2022 and is since believed to be in Dubai
Sudan’s recent coup is also unique in its own way, a co-habitation of military officers, militiamen, security officers and former rebels with no formal structure to bind them together or publicly identifiable decision-making process to mediate their conflicting interests. When Dagalo left Khartoum for Moscow on 23 February rumour had it that General Abd Al Fattah Al Burhan, the formal first in command and head of state, complained to Egyptian officials of the manoeuvring of his deputy and expressed concerns that Dagalo was plotting to overthrow him with the aid of foreign parties. A few days earlier Dagalo and his brother were warmly received by the UAE’s strongman Mohamed bin Zayed. The day his deputy flew to Moscow Al Burhan toured the Shajara military camp south of the capital Khartoum stressing that the army would only hand over power to a transparently elected government or on condition of a national consensus between all stakeholders. 
Manufacturing such consensus is the chosen department of Volker Perthes, head of the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS). This special mission was established by resolution of the UN Security Council in June 2020 with the stated aims of sorting out the country. UNITAMS was supposed to help the political transition and achieve all good things: progress towards democratic governance, protection and promotion of human rights, sustainable peace, mobilisation of economic and development assistance, coordination of human assistance and so on and so forth. 
During the short duration of the ‘model civilian-military partnership’ the mission was content with a rather low-key performance, mostly in the background. Its chief, Volker Perthes, has however a passion for the public eye and makes a point of speaking in Arabic and offering a continuous education of sorts in state-building. He called for instance in a long speech to the press on 16 June 2021 for timely implementation of the August 2020 Juba peace deals and deplored the chronic delay in the formation of the transitional parliament and the stalled reform of the security sector stressing the importance of the formation of a unified national army that abides by the constitution. 
With the 25 October coup UNITAMS effectively lost its raison d'être and Volker Perthes had to invent one as it were. He assumed the role of mediator at large, becoming over night the most engaged ‘politician’ in the country. The UNITAMS chief launched a series of ‘consultations on the political process in Sudan’ and invited political actors of all stripes and types barring the former ruling National Congress Party (NCP) to visit his headquarters in Khartoum and express their hearts desires. 
The 36 pages summary report of the Perthes consultations has just been made public. A statement released on 28 February 2022 said it represents a summary of “the opinions and areas of convergence and divergence heard by the mission during 110 consultation meetings with over 800 participants, one third of them women – from various parts of Sudan, as well as those contained in over 80 written submissions.” One immediate lesson from the Perthes consultations is the terribly narrow composition of the political class as such considering an estimated total population of over 46 million people. 
The report, to no surprise, is indeed a wish list. The outcomes, highlighted in boxes, are well phrased appeals to an imagined status quo ante that are hard to dispute in principle, essentially performative utterances in an objective void: demands for stopping the killing of protestors, lifting the state of emergency and guarantee of accountability; agreement on the need to modify the effectively defunct 2019 Constitutional Document; abhorrence at the dominant role of the military in political life; speculations about the size, mandate and composition of a future sovereignty council and cabinet of ministers; agreement on the urgency of forming a future transitional legislative council; complaints about the delays in implementation of the Juba peace deals; agreement on the need to create a unified professional non-partisan army; recognition of the fundamental link between women’s freedoms and democracy; agreement on the urgent need for accountability for past crimes and a process of transitional justice; need for a constitution-writing process and free and fair elections in a suitable environment with international guarantees; and a continuous role for the international community in support of Sudan’s transition. 
Based on the above the Perthes report suggested the following procedural approach: prioritisation of critical steps, inclusivity and national ownership, comprehensive solutions, and effective facilitation and accompaniment. What these items actually mean is anybody’s guess but their tenor is clinical rather than political, picked out of a management handbook. What the Perthes report fails to see or does not want to see are the brute facts of power. As these consultations proceeded, more than 80 mostly young women and men were killed on Khartoum’s streets in a routine of regular demonstrations against military rule.
In another space and time, the space of humble homes and the time of daily life, hunger is biting into every third belly in the country. 14.3 million people require humanitarian assistance including 10.9 million people who are food insecure. The scale of food insecurity in humanitarian jargon ranges from uncertainty regarding the ability to obtain food through poor food quality and skipping meals to having nothing to eat for a day. An average food basket consumes up to 70% of a household’s total expenditure. One out of three children is stunted, too short for age, as a consequence of malnutrition. The government, unable to fund its own embassies, has resorted to a blanket increase of taxes and dues including on health care, medicines, cooking gas and telecommunications besides the abolition of fuel, electricity and bread subsidies applauded by international donors. The 2022 budget aims at a 145% increase in tax revenues and a 140% increase in revenue from commodities and services, effectively snatching the little available food from hungry mouths. 
Sudan relies in feeding its cities considerably on Russian wheat. Just this January, Sudan, Egypt and Iran received together two thirds of Russia’s wheat exports. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, together the two countries account for 29% of the global exports of wheat, is likely to translate into supply disruptions, higher wheat prices and greater hunger in Khartoum’s shanties. Dagalo, the merchant, believes he can endure the harsh months ahead by auctioning off Sudan’s coastline to his Russian hosts or higher bidders. Perthes with his report concluded might be looking for a promotion.

Thursday, 17 March 2022

‘Everything is bearable if you have bread’

Letters from Isohe: Life on the edge in a school in South Sudan
Elizabeth Hodgkin 2022
City of Words, London

Southern Sudan featured prominently as an item of exotic fascination in the mental world of literati from Sudan’s Nile Valley. The fantasy proved persistent even in the works of the small minority who had an immediate experience of southern Sudan as teachers or clerks or government officials of some sort, or may be particularly so. Mohamed Al Mahdi Al Majzoub (ca. 1919-1982), one of Sudan’s most gifted poets, voiced this sentiment in elegant verse. He found refuge from the suffocating censure of patriarchal heritage and religious obligations in a southern Sudan that appeared to him in 1954 as a welcoming theatre of passion, promiscuous mores, drink, dance, nudity and desire. 

The South satisfied me, what do I care
For those who condemn the naked and blame
They loved life and I mingled heeding passion not reason 
Were I a negro, a fiddle in hand
One step straight and the next asway 
Around my loins a belt of lavender
Stringed cowries decorate my brow
I drink marisa in the taverns 
And guffaw uncensured, nor do I blame
Free, uninhibited by Quraish, dignified pedigree or Tameem. 
What is heaven other than caprice contented 
And what is hell other than desire denied? 

Mohamed Al Mahdi Al Majzoub is a graduate of Gordon College and descendant of the grand Majzoub family of al-Damer with roots in Sudan’s heroic age. The family of religious scholars and sheikh-patrons counts amongst its modern heroes the late Abdalla Al Tayeb Al Majzoub (1921-2003), linguist and professor of Arabic literature. The religious order established by Mohamed Al Mahdi’s ancestors dates back to Hamad ibn Muhammad Al Majzoub Al Kabir (Sr.) (1693-1776). Hamad combined religious virtue and secular prowess to become an able mediator in the squabbles of local lords. Under the authority of the Majzoub family al-Damer evolved into a major educational centre and eventually a city-state in the early eighteenth century until its destruction by Mohamed Ali’s army following the murder of Ismail Pasha in Shendi.
Hamad’s grandson, Mohamed Al Majzoub Al Saghyir (Jr.), fled to Mecca where he was initiated into the teachings of Ahmed ibn Idris. When he returned to Sawakin he established an order of his own that attracted amongst others Ali Digna, the uncle of the prominent Mahdist commander Osman Digna. Al Majzoub Jr. eventually made it back to al-Damer where he died in 1833. The order he had established in Sawakin flourished under the guidance of Sheikh Al Tahir Al Majzoub. 
The dominant religious order in eastern Sudan was however the Khatmiyya, also a Sudanised offshoot of the teachings of Ahmed ibn Idris. The Khatmiyya lords did not share in the history of prosecution to which Sheikh Al Tahir Al Majzoub was an immediate heir. They preached obedience to the ruler of the day and proved reliable partners to the Turkish-Egyptian government throughout the Mahdist rebellion and thereafter to the invading British. Sheikh Al Tahir Al Majzoub drew different conclusions from the teachings of Ahmed ibn Idris. When Osman Digna arrived in Sawakin as envoy of the Mahdi, Sheikh Al Tahir Al Majzoub eagerly submitted to the Mahdist call. He became Osman Digna’s second in command and died in battle as did many of his family. 
Mohamed Al Mahdi Al Majzoub was acutely aware of this overwhelming record of tragic glory. His attempt to reconcile religious tradition and the trappings of modernity led him to sympathise with ideals and beliefs of Mahmud Mohamed Taha, at least in their early anti-colonial incarnation. Al Majzoub was not at home in doctrine though and a tension between the two poles of tradition and modernity permeates his verse as well as his strained grammatical constructions to those who can appreciate his Arabic composition. The poem continues: 

Inform the sheikhs on my behalf:
I am a sinner, judged by their rosaries
Raised in piety as a lad
Whose prospects permitted an accursed character
Fetters I left behind to my father for others
My restraints now are troubles and experiences 

Mohamed Al Mahdi effendi nursed his gloom and the deadlock of his accountant existence in idle habits. He rebelled by smoking, a major prohibition in the Mahdist behavioural code that equates to recanting the faith since it was such a distinctive habit of the colonisers. Mohamed Al Mahdi Al Majzoub said of himself that as a rustic schoolboy from al-Damer he was firmly convinced that smokers were infidels. By way of poetic conclusion, Al Majzoub’s recourse is eventually to the exercises of the self. 

I suckle at the cigarette, a female
It moans in my hand and dozes
The remainder of a distant star that I glimpse
At my side, ashes its clouds
I flick it to awaken 
And it slumbers as the ill from fatigue
What do I gain but futility?
The breeze more charitable to its dust than my foot. 

The merry southerner might have ignited Al Majzoub’s imagination but she never featured as a partner in communication, as someone who speaks. The southerner remained a zol sakit. Zol is northern Sudanese Arabic for person, sakit literally means silent but is deployed to suggest worthless, ‘unmündig’ or often ‘barred’. South Sudan is today an independent country and the fetters of Khartoum’s sovereignty that tied it to the people of Mohamed Al Mahdi effendi were cut in a bloody civil war that metamorphosed into multiple conflicts, a status of permanent war in South Sudan and the entrenchment of the rural militia as the technology of rule in the rump northern Sudan all the way up to Gordon’s presidential palace on the bank of the Blue Nile. Certain emirs of the Mahdiyya, Sudan’s 19th century insurrection against Turkish-Egyptian occupation, would probably recognise themselves in the persons of some of the country’s new rulers. 
Elizabeth Hodgkin self-deployed as a teacher in Isohe of eastern Equatoria in the independent South Sudan at the gentle age of seventy. She had been a teacher before between 1964 and 1967 in Kasama Girls’ Secondary School in the newly independent Zambia. Today, Kasama Girls’ is associated with the Confucius Institute, the cultural arm of the Chinese government abroad, and offers Chinese language classes at junior and secondary levels. The heady days of emancipation from colonialism are long gone but history has certain twists to it that simulate a return. Mr. Li Dong teaches Chinese at Kasama, says the school’s webpage. “Chinese as a teaching subject has four periods in a week per class”. In comparison, St Augustine Secondary School where Elizabeth Hodgkin was a teacher between February 2012 and December 2013 is stuck in another era, an English-speaking one in any case. 
The geopolitical moment of South Sudan’s independence is obliquely gleanable from Hodgkins’s twelve letters from Isohe but in no measure defines their time. Instead, the letters derive from the ordinary timelessness of upbringing, education, drunken rage, marital violence, theft, belief, worship, illness and above all the abiding need for food and the many functions of feasts. Hodgkin’s pupils are either hungry or threatened by hunger and a good portion of their efforts is dedicated to overcoming this most taxing of all needs. Elizabeth Hodgkin narrates the efforts of school pupils to achieve ‘food security’ for this term and then the next. A reader from riverine northern Sudan like myself would recognise in these tactics of a Catholic school in Equatoria the age-old strategics of a khalwa (indigenous Quranic schools) which doubles as an agricultural labour camp. Only in that light does the school newspaper headline “Uprooting Groundnuts was Started Two Weeks ago in Isohe Boma” make sense.
Elizabeth Hodgkin’s attentive eye is keen on contradictions and plucks their configurations in the everyday without flourish or exasperation reaching out tenderly for the hard rock of the materialist basis. Many fragments of her letters are concerned with physical violence in the community, in the school, physical violence as a structuring feature of social life in a small village cuddled by the Imatong mountains close to South Sudan’s border with Uganda. 
While she was in Isohe a former seminarian, inebriated, beat his wife into a status of coma and held vigil next to her bed threatening medical staff that he would kill them and kill himself if they did not save her. “November and December are generally violent months. Perhaps it is because there is less agricultural work to do. There is less money about and attacking trucks carrying goods on the road becomes tempting,” she then proceeds to explain. “A truck was shot at on the road from Uganda and the Senior Threes, doing school certificate next year, are worried that the Ugandan teachers will leave.” Without much ado the market shines its tooth through the thick niqab of violence, ching-a-ling! 
Elizabeth Hodgkin is a careful materialist. She listens to Isohians explain the ethnic write out of violence, tribal animosity between the Logir and Dongotono peoples. The head teacher, a Dongotono, claims that the Logir unlike the Dongotono like stealing and killing. The Logir were falsely accused of plundering the property of a member of parliament, the Catholic sister who relaunched the primary school in Isohe, a Logir, clarified. One student, a Dongotono, punched his teacher, also a Dongotono, distant relative, and former child soldier. A girl was beaten up by two boys, her relatives, as others watched. Another girl was kicked by a boy, again a relative. Elizabeth Hodgkin listened to the library prefect say he thinks that these incidents start with food. “Either prefects give large helpings and it runs out, angering people or they give small helpings and the complaint is of tribalism or favouritism.” This explainer from Isohe would work far and wide beyond eastern Equatoria. 
The author was vexed by the ubiquity of corporal punishment in school and demonstrated her case by reading the relevant clause of the transitional constitution of South Sudan to a teacher. Article 21 of the interim constitution of Southern Sudan enacted before independence under the Interim Government of Southern Sudan states: “Every child has the right…to be free from corporal punishment and cruel and inhuman treatment by any person including parents, school administrations and other institutions…”. Elizabeth Hodgkin reasons that the article was inserted by “wimpish” foreign human rights advisers. Her strategy was to boycott beatings and walk away but not make waves about it. 
She also does not make waves about the creativity of her interlocutors in refashioning English, and even elevates ‘drunkardness’, minted in southern Sudan, to describe a superior level of intoxication, a step beyond drunkenness en route to alcoholism. Drunk men fall to their death from cassia trees on parish grounds in Isohe. It is then perfectly reasonable that alcoholism deserves a staging a system in language. Arabic, the language of alcohol prohibition, prides several thick volumes dedicated to the lexical savour of alcohol and its visitations. A story on the culture pages of the BBC website from 2017 said English has 3000 words for being drunk.
My eponym Majd Al Din Abu Tahir Mohamed ibn Yagoub Al Fairuzabadi (1329-1414), the Persian lexicographer of Arabic and compiler of Arabic’s oldest dictionary Al Qamous Al Muhit, still in use today, penned a four hundred pages book to this end with the inviting title ‘The Amicable Companion on the Appellations of Vintage Spirits’. Al Fairuzabadi’s lexicon, devotional poetry, interpretations of the Quran and Sufi compositions had made it to Sudan through Sufi orders. My late paternal grandfather, a grain merchant, slave-owner and sheikh of the Tijaniyya tareeqa, found the name fitting for his newborn grandson. A visitor to the zawiyas of the Qadiriyya and the Tijaniyya, or a nerdy youtube searcher, can still today listen to Al Fairuzabadi’s clunky poem ‘Provisions for the Hereafter’ performed by teary chanters to a mesmerised audience in places like Um Dubban. 
Mohamed Al Mahdi Al Majzoub, alas, could not see through the fog of the booze he found so beguiling in southern Sudan, he was preoccupied with his ancestors. Elizabeth Hodgkin on the other hand watched and listened and talked and wrote a record of her time in South Sudan that is alive with people, conversations, events and concerns of world-historical significance as seen from the vantage point of Isohe.
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This work by Magdi El Gizouli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.