Hibiscus with Ginger

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Well that was anticlimactic

Since Carter visited Sudan last week, the press has spoken of “Bashir’s surprise,” a set of changes Bashir promised to announce that presumably would include some sort of government reform and an increase in civic freedoms. After days of hype, Bashir finally spoke last night, delivering a speech that one assumes was meant to announce whatever changes were planned. Here’s a few online takes on what happened:

text of president's speechexplaining the president's speech

The left-hand picture is titled “The text of the President’s Speech.” The right hand picture is formatted like a religious book (for giving background and commentary on the Quran), and the title roughly translates to “Explaining Bashir’s Speech.”

The whole thing was quite a let-down, even by the standards of Sudanese political announcements. There was some vague talk of peace and inclusivity, with no mention of many of Sudan’s conflict areas. Sadiq al Mahdi, the head of the Umma party, and Hassan al Turabi, the head of the People’s Congress Party, attended (and given Turabi’s presence and his invitation to the US, he and his political party may well be reconciling with Bashir’s National Congress Party).  It’s telling that this happened on the same day that the Minister of Justice stated that there would be no investigation into the deaths of those killed during the protests in September. There was barely a pretence that this was anything but posturing.

Possibly the only thing significant that has come out of all this is a set of internet memes. Check out the hashtags #مفاجاة_البشير and #Bashirspeech if you want to get a sense of the response online. On one hand, no one seriously thought that Bashir would step down or enact wide-sweeping government reform. At the same time, the meeting with Carter and the long wait for an announcement made it seem like something would be announced.

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Sudan Independent Film Festival

Today is the final day of the Sudan Independent Film Festival, which has been taking place in Khartoum for the past week. Getting positive coverage on Arabic news stations as well as among Sudanese bloggers, it seems to have been a great success, and I’m completely bummed that I’m not there to attend.

A variety of young Sudanese directors were able to display their films alongside directors based in Egypt, Kenya, Ethiopia, and the US (these are the trailers for some of the international films screened–many of the Sudanese directors did not have trailers for their films).

This sort of event is important for several reasons. On one hand, it’s a great venue for Sudanese young people to get out and see interesting cinema coming from Sudan and neighboring countries. More often than not, young people watch movies on television, and those are mostly American, Egyptian, and Indian movies that appeal to mass audiences. Venues where one can see films meant to be more challenging are MUCH harder to find.

Just as important, it’s a great way for Sudanese directors to show their creations in Sudan, rather than gearing their work to exclusively to outside audiences. Young people in Sudan should get to see what’s being created in their own country, something that doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should.

Tonight’s final screening is Hussein Sharif’s “The Dislocation of Amber,” a short film that you can watch below. If you’re in Khartoum, go tonight to close out the festival!


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More Displaced in Darfur

A few days ago, I came across this article that noted:

“The total number of internally displaced people has increased to almost two million, with an estimated 400,000 people having been forced to flee new outbreaks of conflict last year”

On one hand, this should not come as a massive surprise, and it speaks to the failures of the Doha Peace Agreement. Not only was the agreement only signed by two (relatively small) rebel groups, but implementation has been quite slow, with problems reported regularly. Of course, war was not the only conflict that affected Darfur in the past year—conflict related to newly created gold mines and intertribal violence have also played made life difficult for residents of Darfur.

Things have changed; two years ago, the narrative adhered to by government bodies and the UN was that Darfur was increasingly stable and that refugees and IDPs were returning home. That was controversial even then, but if anything, this should be a lesson. Before anyone should be sent home, the root problems of these conflicts needs to be addressed. How many of those who returned have had to leave again?

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Cultural Scene in Khartoum

It was great to read this interview with Mamoun Eltilib, a Sudanese writer and an editor at the Citizen, one of the English newspapers in Khartoum. Eltilib speaks on a whole range of topics, including his work with the Work Culture Group, which organizes regular lectures and a monthly book fair, as well as the literary, cultural, and political atmosphere in Khartoum today. He makes a particularly apt statement regarding the role of education in Sudan:

“One of the problems is that they destroyed both languages—English and the Arabic language itself. They Arabized the system, they changed it to Arabic, the universities, the schools, everything. But even with Arabic, when they teach the language, they teach it in a way that makes you start to hate the language itself. Because it’s becoming a very… violent kind of language.

They shut down all the libraries in the universities and in the schools. You can no longer read literature. When we came up, there were no libraries in the schools.”

The rest of the interview is just as good—you get a sense not only of the limitations but also the character of life. Check it out!

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Watching South Sudan

Man, it’s been a while. Somehow, during all the time I’ve been away, war broke out in South Sudan. Family and friends have emailed me pretty much from the beginning asking me what my opinion is on what’s happening there, but the truth of the matter is that I don’t really feel like I have a lot of insight on the conflict itself—there’s plenty of people who’ve written smarter things about it than I can. Still, it’s the elephant in the room, and it feels tone deaf to not start out with some thoughts on what’s happening, so here’s a sort of overview.

It started as a power struggle between Salva Kiir and Reik Machar, and that power struggle has remained significant, even as the fighting expanded. Whether this started due to an attempted coup or due to increased power grabs by Salva Kiir is less important than the fact that both parties are seeking power and have been preparing for such a confrontation in some fashion for quite a while.

At the same time, the history of ethnic violence (most notably the Dinka-Nuer war in the 90s) meant that many were concerned that the fighting would become ethnically-based, a concern that has materialized, though not as early as some made it out. A piece by Andreas Hirblinger and Sara de Simone outlines some of the history and the ways that both sides denied tribalism while still using tribe to mobilize. It’s clear that both sides have killed people on the basis of ethnicity alone, and that this violence has gotten worse as the fighting has progressed.

The UN Human Rights Researcher Ivan Simonovic notes that Bentiu and Bor have been almost completely destroyed. OCHA now estimates that 468,000 people have been displaced within South Sudan, with approximately 80,000 or so refugees in neighboring countries, half of which have gone to Uganda (bordered by the Central African Republic, Sudan, and the DRC, they don’t really have a lot of choices).

The whole conflict has pretty scary regional implications, not only due to the mass movement of people. As Aly Verjee explains, it makes sense that the Sudanese government support the SPLM and Salva Kiir, since they have an economic stake in South Sudan remaining stable, at least enough so as to secure oil flow. Uganda too has supported the SPLM, sending troops to support the government, presumably to avoid further instability on the border. A cease-fire was just signed in Addis Ababa, though there’s no word yet as to how successful it will be.

What’s less discussed so far is what role this conflict will play with Sudan’s rebel groups. JEM and the SPLA-N have been particularly active under the banner of the SRF in South Kordofan, Darfur, and even North Kordofan sometimes. Given the historic connections between the SPM and the SPLM-N, it seems likely that the group will be impacted—they clearly have personal relationships even if the amount of support the SPLA gives to the SPLA-N is less since South Sudan stabilized its relationship with Sudan.

JEM has already been accused of involvement in South Sudan, fighting on the side of the SPLA in Unity state, although it denies any activity in South Sudan and claims neutrality. JEM has a history of working with the SPLA, at least before the South Sudanese government’s relations with Sudan improved, so it makes sense that those connections might carry over. At the same time, it seems like a bit of a risk for JEM to pick a side in the fighting, should it continue; their neutrality seems a lot safer. It also seems ironic that armed rebel groups and the Sudanese government would all back the South Sudanese government in this conflict.

So we’ve been left watching as negotiations have continued. The Rift Valley Institute had a conference recently that discussed some possibilities for change or improvement, where Jok Madut Jok emphasized the need to address the root causes of the conflict rather than just focusing on an end to the fighting. Hopefully this ceasefire holds and the country can move on and address some of the issues that started this violence in the first place.

In the meantime, I’m just left thinking over and over that all the leaders involved in this conflict are extraordinarily selfish. The fighting will continue until political agreements are signed, while society has been massively disrupted again. Thoughts go out to all those suffering, with a sincere hope that it ends soon.

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Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia

We seem to have disappeared for the past few weeks—largely because we got a bit more involved with schoolwork. At the same time, events in Sudan and South Sudan have continued politically and economically in largely the same way they’ve been going. In South Sudan, it turns out that Salva Kiir did in fact dissolve SPLM governing structures, a move that has caused a lot of criticism and will likely foster splits in the SPLM long-term. In Sudan, economic problems (including the availability and price of bread) have been pretty bad, and war has continued in South Kordofan.

One thing that has been in the news a lot throughout this month, with implications for much of East Africa, is the status of migrants in Saudi Arabia. In early November, Saudi Arabia began a crackdown on migrant labor, arresting and attempting to deport migrants whose current employers were not their sponsors on their immigration documents. This crackdown is part of a “Saudisation” campaign that seeks to increase the number of Saudis in the national workforce by making it more difficult for migrants to stay in the country.

In addition to kicking out undocumented workers, the Saudi government is seeking to deport workers whose visa sponsor is no longer their employer. This means that if a migrant has switched jobs but was unable to update his or her paperwork (whether because the new employer was unwilling to pay the money to be the new sponsor or because he or she had serious problems with the previous employer), he or she will no longer be able to stay in the country.

During the past six months, many have sought to leave the country because they are unable to update their paperwork. In mid-November, when police began to arrest people to begin deportations, resistance to the police prompted serious fighting, injuring many and killing several. Most of those attacked were Ethiopian, although at least some were Sudanese.

The Ethiopian diaspora has responded quite strongly to this violence, with protests around the world at Saudi Embassies, even though the Ethiopian government has prevented people in Ethiopia from demonstrating. At the same time, these deportations do not just affect Ethiopian communities—almost 12,000 Sudanese migrants will be deported this month, with many more likely to follow.

So why haven’t other communities protested to the same extent and why has most of the violence been concentrated in African communities? It’s not entirely clear. Threats of violence are present for all communities facing deportation. Racism might explain why police began the crackdown in African neighborhoods (rather than South Asian neighborhoods—many South Asians are being deported now as well), but that doesn’t explain why Ethiopian communities have drawn more attention to this issue.

Both Sudan and Ethiopia make a significant amount of money off of remittances from communities living in Saudi Arabia. Still, I wonder if the communities are slightly different. Sudanese migrants would have greater knowledge of and access to resources since they were educated in Arabic and thus are likely to be able to communicate with authorities better. While many Sudanese immigrants to Saudi Arabia work as laborers, others work as doctors and teachers, and this might have influenced Saudi authorities’ perceptions of the community (although plenty of Sudanese friends have commented that they experience racism in Saudi Arabia as well).

Of course, it might be something else entirely—the number of migrants, the political salience of this issue in the home country (it certainly seems like the Ethiopian diaspora is paying more attention than other communities), the willingness of migrants to protest, their relationship with their home countries… It also may be that Ethiopian migrants are just treated worse than other groups.

Regardless, this mass deportation will be quite important for Saudi Arabia as well as for all sending countries. In the past four months, nearly a million migrants have left Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi government projects that it will deport another million in the next year. Certainly more migrants will come later, if immigration policy slackens again, but for now, many economies will be affected, and many communities will gain and (and lose) members they were not expecting. This will have an impact on the lives and livelihoods of many, long after the protests have died down.

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Parties! (but not the fun kind)

There’s been a lot of politicking and political squabbling in Sudan these days. It all began after the crackdown, with Attabani and others in the NCP formally asking Bashir to reinstate the lifted fuel subsidies. This squabbling eventually led to the new split in the NCP, which Magdi al Gizouli talks about in greater detail.

More recently, however, there’s been even more action. The Democratic Unionist Party (led by Mirghani and closely associated with the Khatmiyya, a traditional religious sect) formally left the NCP governing coalition. They’ve been threatening for some time, but this marks an end to whatever coalitions the NCP forged during the period the CPA (Comprehensive Peace Agreement) and the elimination of any pretence that the regime is seeking out consensus.

Most likely, it’s a further symptom of the crackdown. As we’ve already seen, internal dissent is tolerated even less now than it has been in the past. What are the long term implications of this? It’s not really clear. After all, the Umma party (another political party with a sectarian support-base and a large following) has been in the opposition for quite some time, but has avoided taking a strong stance against the regime.

Meanwhile, crazy stuff seems to be happening in South Sudanese politics. On Friday, Salva Kiir announced that he was dissolving all the governing structures of his party, the SPLM. Then, two days ago, Michael Lueth, the South Sudan Information Minister came forward to explain that Salva Kiir was misunderstood—that these structures need to be dissolved and changed, but that they would continue until they were replaced. I am less confident assessing South Sudanese politics, but it seems like Kiir’s backers (at least the influential ones) may have stepped in to reign in his statement. Most South Sudan observers have noted that the SPLM has been marked by a lack of structure, with personalities taking the lead, and this sort of incident seems in some ways like an example of such personalized rule.

Are the Northern parties much different? There is certainly an aspect of personalized rule to them, as evidenced by the current standoff with the NCP and the longstanding leadership of Mirghani in the DUP and Sadiq al Mahdi in the Umma Party. What seems most different is that these parties have been around for a lot longer and that many of them draw upon already existing power structures (the Khatmiyya in the case of the DUP and the Ansar in the case of the Umma party)

In both countries, it doesn’t seem like the parties are particularly welcoming of dissent or new ideas. South Sudan’s political wrangling include Salva Kiir’s removal of Riek Machar as vice president in July. In the North, the parties are quite old and they don’t really reach out to young leaders. In a great piece discussing Sudanese opposition groups, Akshaya Kumar argues against Alex De Waal’s assessment of the protest movements in Sudan by pointing to the New Dawn Charter and the Sudan Change Forces statement as examples of opposition groups creating precise plans for what can happen should the current regime be ousted. This point is definitely true, but what’s striking is that the opposition groups that signed on to these agreements were largely the traditional opposition groups—none of which are led by the younger generation that Kumar focuses on throughout the rest of her piece.

Khalid Medani, writing at MERIP, points out that these groups largely view themselves as mediators or “coordinating mechanisms” between the younger generation and the traditional political parties. This view seems pretty persuasive—they have been quite active, as both Medani and Kumar note, in mobilizing youth of a certain economic class with international connections and technological skills. At the same time, they don’t really work with any of the political parties, and they haven’t even been acknowledged by them to a large extent. If they are going to play a role in the future, it will be important for them to be acknowledged by more traditional power structures in some fashion, or they will need to bypass traditional power structures entirely—something they do not yet have the mobilizing power to do.

Clearly it’s a time of political shuffling. I’m not convinced, though, that it’s at time of actual political change, even of the more gradual sort. This is a shame—both countries face enough problems that new ideas would be great.