Sudan is back on the front pages. Since the past few days, I can hear, here and there, people saying: ‘Amazing, George Clooney has been arrested!‘ or ‘George Clooney was in handcuffs in Washington today!‘. Then I asked: ‘Do you know why he has been arrested?‘ The replies were: ‘It was at a protest outside some embassy…’ or ‘I don’t care, watch the video to see him handcuffed!‘. This publicity stunt worked very well but I’m not sure the reasons that motivated it spread beyond the Atlantic Ocean…
Although I can’t deny this media strategy worked before. Five years ago in Tall oaks from little acorns grow, I wrote: ‘Most of the people I know only discovered the crisis in Darfur in late 2006 early 2007 when George Clooney came back from Sudan’. I added: ‘Kinda confusing an actor known to be ‘the world’s sexiest man’ and a man who ‘used to be the next president of the United States of America’ [Al Gore] are the ones bringing these situations in the spotlight. I am not saying they are not legitimate or that they don’t believe in the cause they defend, they are absolutely right to use their fame the way they do. I am just saying that sometimes the gap between the glamour of the style and the hardness of the substance in the field can be baffling...’
Last week, I watched the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing on the crisis in Sudan. I was watching it with a group of people: activists, Sudanese from the diaspora and ‘ordinary people’ curious to know what the Senate had to say about the plight of the people from the Nuba Mountains, South Kordofan, the Blue Nile and Abyei. As the hearing progressed, people were starting to talk. Even if we didn’t have the same point of view, most of the people in the room thought the hearing was interesting and we were all deeply moved by the four-minute video highlighting attacks on civilians in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains. After the hearing, we spent two more hours discussing about the hearing. An enriching discussion as usual.
One word came out all the time: diplomacy. Princeton Lyman, Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan clearly said at the hearing: ‘There is no military solution to this problem’. Daniel Solomon once tweeted: ‘The deployment of a large military force to secure a humanitarian corridor in the middle of a conflict zone could endanger civilians even more […] An increased diplomacy outreach to regional, international actors that have leverage with the Sudanese (AU, AL) should still be privileged’. I also think diplomacy is the key, as I wrote last month: In Sudan, Seeing Echoes of Darfur. And still waiting for diplomacy. Unfortunately, we have to deal with Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the first national leader to be indicted by the International Criminal Court and charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.
And I think this ambiguous situation is central to the many critics I read and hear. Al-Bashir’s divide and rule strategy has been a winning strategy for decades. In my post from 2008: Darfur: a World Wide Role Playing Game, I asked if we should simplify a given situation the same way we leave out parameters to simplify the form of an equation in mathematics. This oversimplification helps to quickly spread a message among the masses and to bring a short-term awareness but by avoiding some parameters, by dismissing what might be the core of the problem, removing ‘la substantifique moëlle‘ could doom any effort of grasping to failure. And this is what the discussion I had after the hearing was about and it was confirmed by what I later read on Twitter. I do my best to illustrate the topic, I don’t necessarily endorse everyone’s opinion but I always appreciate to get a wider perspective.
Let’s start with Clooney’s arrest. Mo Elzubeir (@elzubeir) suggested to Moez Ali (@his_moezness) to ‘hijack #FreeClooney with #Sudan info you want people to know. It’s an opportunity‘. Maha El-Sanosi (@MimzicalMimz) made the same suggestion: ‘Dear Sudanese tweeps, PLEASE FLOOD #FreeClooney with incidents of human rights violations & all the issues of #Sudan you can think of!‘ She added: ‘He out of all people should know that in #Sudan we are arrested, beaten, tortured, abducted & held incommunicado on a regular basis‘. Moez Ali tweeted: ‘#FreeClooney Sudan is under sanctions from the US which is hurting the ppl and not the gov‘; ‘Clooney is ignorant of the real reasons behind the conflicts in #Sudan. We dont want celebrity pity, we want professional coverage‘; ‘It’s sad that the only media attention #Sudan gets is when a celebrity gets arrested. #FreeClooney’. They are right, there is violence against civilian populations, the situation is really bad in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, South Kordofan, the Blue Nile and Abyei but also everywhere else in the country. Western media coverage of Sudan can sometimes be incomplete even if they’re not meant to be.
Maha El-Sanosi said that in Sudan, [people] are arrested, beaten, tortured, abducted and held incommunicado on a regular basis. It is a reality Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry mentioned: ‘In the last year, Bashir has waged war on his own people in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, he’s arrested student protesters, and he has rejected viable solutions to outstanding issues in favor of aerial bombardment and bellicose rhetoric’. It was last month Sudanese police raided dormitories at the University of Khartoum, arresting hundreds of students. Radio Dabanga but also Sudan Tribune among many other websites, mention on a daily basis what in happening in Sudan. Salma Elwardany (@S_Elwardany) just tweeted: ‘#Sudan security forces arrested five teachers for demanding better pay, scrap Islamic instruction from curriculum, free education’. We all, if not the populace at least the ones concerned about Sudan, know what is happening in the country. Unlike Moez Ali , I don’t think ‘Clooney is ignorant of the real reasons behind the conflicts in #Sudan’, neither him nor Kerry lives in a bubble, but I agree with Moez Ali when he says ‘It’s sad that the only media attention #Sudan gets is when a celebrity gets arrested. #FreeClooney’. So yes, it’s a publicity stunt (Enough Project tweeted: ‘Find out why #Clooney was willing to get arrested for #Sudan: http://bit.ly/xrHFAt’) but once again, it brought Sudan (back) on the front pages.
Amir Ahmad Nasr (@SudaneseThinker) tweeted: ‘Dear #Clooney, erm thx 4 ur well-meaning #Sudan advocacy. For real. Jz wish u’d read this &stop Nazifying Northerners‘. In his article, Amir Ahmad Nasr mentions how ‘Under him [al-Bashir] the country has witnessed a series of unjust policies and murderous practices. He has shut down newspapers critical of government actions. Many of the government’s critics were tortured in what came to be called Ghost Houses. In 1990, 28 dissenting military officers were executed after a mock trial. Corruption has spread’. He adds: ‘One must not overlook the suffering happening elsewhere in Sudan, such as in the north and in the heart of Khartoum. Let us not forget the January 2005 massacre of the Beja youth by government security forces in the Red Sea city of Port Sudan, in which more than 20 peaceful Beja protesters – including women and children – were reportedly shot dead and hundreds were arrested.’ True stories but what happened in Darfur, the killings currently happening in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains draw more attention because we are not talking about 28 dissenting military officers executed after a mock trial or about more than 20 peaceful Beja protesters reportedly shot dead but hundred of thousands. A death is a death, no comparison here of course, but the scale is so different you can’t blame activists, journalists and public opinion for focussing more on these deadly situations… One doesn’t exclude the other.
And this is one of the other ambiguous situation: whether you appreciate the media buzz created by Clooney’s arrest or not, it is needed to shine a spotlight on Sudan. It is also the most effective action to make ordinary citizens aware and they are the ones who massively call their representatives to take action. More effective than any of the ‘professional coverage‘ Moez Ali is asking for, to the great despair of some journalists. And yes, we are very, very far away from the so-called diplomacy approach, the one we hope could help Sudan to get rid of the ‘increasingly paranoid dictatorship‘ Amir Ahmad Nasr tweeted about. The situation inside the country is dire, dangerous. Whether you’re against the involvement of international actors in Sudan or not, we all hope for a regime-change and many wonder why Sudan is yet to see an Arab spring. Elfadil Ibrahim gives some clues in this article: ‘The state has not only become a major employer, with around 4 million employees, but its growth has robbed the civil society of the fervour it once had. The trade unions, civil service and professional bodies that played leading roles in Sudan’s previous revolutions, seem fatigued and uninterested in pushing for anything that may prolong and exacerbate instability. In addition, not only are the masses disorganised, but the desire for a revolution is often tempered by extreme prudence in a nation ravaged by a decade of civil war, and currently witnessing insurgencies in Darfur and more recently in the “New South”‘.
I would like to come back at al-Bashir’s divide and rule strategy. There would be hundreds of examples illustrating the devastating strategy, in the aforementioned article, Amir Ahmad Nasr mentions ‘divisive policy of tribalism’: ‘The Southerners, the Darfurians, the Nuba of Southern Kordofan and the Ingessana of the Blue Nile, have often been at the receiving end of al-Bashir and his entourage’s brutality. They have been one of the greatest victims of his regime’s abuse of religion and divisive policy of tribalism.’ Whether or not al-Bashir initiates a politics of war, or encourages internecine resentments among the tribes, religions, the rule still applies and he benefits from it. The latest example is the tensions between Umma & opposition parties over regime change in Sudan. For now the opposition seems too weak and fragmented to pose a serious threat to al-Bashir but a strong united opposition and a well developed civil society are the best set for an internal, peaceful change. Maybe the late John Garang and his vision should not be forgotten and inspire more people.
Back to the hearing to conclude. I sent the link to the video of the hearing to Dalia Haj-Omar (@daloya) as I was curious to know her opinion about it and she said: ‘The #SudanHearing was engaging. Recommendation to pressure Qataris, Saudi & Chinese was spot on. Let’s see if that happens #Sudan‘. China is indeed among the countries to put pressure on. In a dispute with Sudan over crude-transportation fees, South Sudan is shutting down more than 900 oil wells after accusing neighbouring Sudan of stealing its oil; China invested $20-billion in South Sudan oil infrastructure from which it is now getting nothing. Like said during the hearing, this could be used as leverage. But this shut down is not without consequences for both populations of Sudan and South Sudan. In Sudan, inflation hit 19 percent in January and according to Bloomberg, South Sudan has cut spending by 26 percent a month after it shut down oil production… Once again, let’s hope diplomacy will work before the economic crisis becomes critical for both countries. Last week al-Bashir announced that he would travel to Juba for the first time since independence to meet with South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir. Maybe it’s time to work together, for the sake of the people of both countries. Eventually.