Hibiscus with Ginger

Leave a comment

Academics and US Foreign Policy

Recently, Nicholas Kristof published a piece complaining about the role of academics, their relevance in the public sphere, and their accessibility. Plenty of scholars have responded, either arguing that academics are accessible (just look at all the blogs!) or pointing to the economic systems that encourage them to write for an exclusive audience. One of the best responses I’ve read was by Daniel Drezner, a political scientist who points to the differences in incentives: in order to succeed, academics must make new arguments and be “cutting edge” while to be relevant for policy makers and the general public, they must express a general academic consensus. As a result, academic insights are more often sidelined in policy discussions where they would be quite useful.

This dynamic was achingly apparent a couple of weeks ago when the US House of Representatives assembled a subcommittee hearing on US policy towards Sudan and South Sudan. The stated goal was to begin creating a unified policy towards both Sudan and South Sudan, a goal justified in that the politics of the two countries will remained inextricably linked for the foreseeable future.

Understanding the links between Sudan and South Sudan seems like a good thing, but the discussion and the recommendations made were marred by cringe-worthy analysis of Sudan that ultimately obscured the challenges facing the countries and the abilities of the US to affect them. This was most apparent in the testimony of Walid Phares, who characterized Sudan’s government is a “jihadist regime” at war with five regions that it denies ethnic rights with an Arab supremacist ideology.

It wasn’t entirely clear what “jihadist” meant in this context—I assume he meant that the regime has an ideology linked to political Islam, but given that the term wasn’t contextualized, it’s hard to say. One can certainly agree that that the governing political party in Sudan is Islamist and has used religious conservatism in both its domestic and foreign policies in different ways. At the same time, that ideology isn’t why other parts of the country are marginalized (they were marginalized by other regimes that were less religiously oriented), nor is the government the sole Islamist organization in the country. I kept wondering when Phares would acknowledge that four of the five regions he pointed to were predominantly Muslim—or that one of the rebel groups in Darfur is also Islamist.

His characterization was also frustrating in how it conflated religion and ethnicity. Yes, there’s racism in Sudan (both on a personal and institutional level), but most of the ethnic discrimination that takes place in Sudan is connected to the way authoritarianism and power structures function. Most power comes through patronage networks—to gain access to resources (a job, government papers, etc), your way is much easier if you have a connection, and even easier still if that connection is prestigious. When someone gets a job with some power, whether it be political, economic, or social, he or she will be expected to take care of others within his or her networks. Patronage on the individual level then carries over to the national level; resources get allocated to central areas, where those in power are located.

Political parties make up one crucial aspect of this sort of patronage, but it isn’t exclusively political—people also take care of their extended families and friends using the same resources. For example, one is most likely to get a job or get promoted if part of the “right” political party, but one might also get the position if part of the “right” family or if one has a good friend in the department. These personal connections are described as wasta, and they function alongside political patronage to give greater opportunities to people from certain areas with certain pre-existing connections.

What are the implications for this sort of governance? At its core, this sort of system encourages corruption, since such networks actively hinder transparent government practices. It also promotes regional marginalization and institutionalized racism. Most “non-Arab” groups are geographically located in regions away from the central areas, and thus, have fewer connections that they can draw upon when making claims upon the state. Ethnic minorities (including the Nuba, Beja, and Fur) often have the least access to resources and do live in the most marginalized areas of the country, quite a long way from Khartoum.

Still, it would be a mistake to focus exclusively on an “Arab” vs. “African” divide—Arab groups living outside of the central areas are often marginalized as well. Even government-supported groups (whether “African” or “Arab”) often face poverty and a lack of infrastructural support in many parts of the country.

Discussions of the political dynamics in South Sudan, on the other hand, were almost non-existent at this hearing. There was much talk of South Sudanese leaders being long friends to the US, but very little discussion of what prompted the fighting in the first place. At one point, one of the panelists makes a comment that the “space for civil society has decreased,” without giving any explanation of how or why. Many have remarked upon the ways that the SPLM used the Comprehensive Peace Agreement to not only gain independence, but also to cement power, marginalizing other political parties. It’s in this context that journalists have been restricted and civil society has been hindered by the government, a government that is often using methods that the northern government used in the past. Those dynamics really should have been discussed more explicitly, since they are related not only to issues of democracy in the region, but also to the fighting that began in December.

Ignoring the political dynamics of South Sudan while painting an inaccurate portrait of the politics of Sudan helps to further an outdated and oversimplified narrative in which South Sudan is the “good guy,” persecuted by the villainous Sudan. One can recognize that people in South Sudan had (and have) legitimate political grievances without valorizing political leaders, many of whom have mixed motives and make questionable decisions.

Most importantly, such analysis makes it almost impossible for the US to craft coherent policy towards Sudan and South Sudan. Some of the suggestions given in the hearing make sense, but there are real trade-offs that weren’t discussed. Democracy promotion programs will likely hinder diplomatic efforts, as will discussions of justice and accountability. At the same time, all of these strategies may well be important in different circumstances and in different regions. Priorities must be balanced depending on the political and economic circumstances at play at any given moment, but that is only possible if policy makers keep in mind not only the different levels of influence in Sudan and South Sudan but also the underlying political phenomena that both countries are dealing with right now.

Overall, it was disappointing (although not surprising) that no academic voices were present to give perspective into these dynamics. It isn’t “cutting edge” or innovative to describe how corruption and authoritarianism function in a state, but understanding these things should be a prerequisite to any formulation of policy towards these countries.


Digital Divides

Over the past few weeks, Sudanese activists, both in Sudan and abroad, have launched a campaign to lift US digital sanctions on Sudan. Beginning a few weeks ago, their facebook page states that they hope to:

“introduce the impact of the US sanctions that started in 1997 on the Sudanese society and to start an open conversation with those who are interested in the issue around the world specially from Sudan and US.”

The issue of access to technology in Sudan has been a big one for some time. Helena Puig Larrauri, who works with ICT technology and peacebuilding in Sudan among other places wrote last year on how sanctions have limited civil society in Sudan even as the number of groups using technology has grown. One example of this dynamic playing out is Nafeer, a youth initiative that organized to deliver aid to families affected by the flooding in August. While Nafeer used technology in innovative ways, mapping areas affected, they were also hindered by the sanctions, which prevented them from receiving donations from Sudanese living abroad via their paypal account.

A report from the New America Foundation discusses digital sanctions in greater detail, comparing the ones in place for Sudan to those for other countries and commenting that while in some ways the regulations are more “basic” they are also less defined. This means that often, it’s unclear what is permitted or not permitted, making it difficult for companies and websites to decide what users in Sudan should be able to access. For example, one can use and access standard google products, including gmail, in Sudan, but google apps are blocked. The only attempt to reform these restrictions happened in 2010, and implementation has been quite slow.

All of this, of course, has a huge effect on those studying technology in Sudan. As the campaign notes, sanctions interfere with students’ abilities to enroll in online classes, register for international conferences, and train on software used in the rest of the world.  For a sense of the extent of this issue, check out this video:

Some activists have voiced concern that these restrictions provide valuable limitations and that loosening the sanctions will lead to increased abilities on the part of the government, particularly regarding surveillance and mapping software. This concern is merited—it is important to limit knowledge and power in the hands of the government. At the same time, the policy in place is vague and difficult to enforce. If, as many have noted, Sudanese activists have been able to work around sanctions to a certain extent, one can assume that the Sudanese government, with greater monetary resources and roughly the same skill sets, has also been able to bypass the sanctions in certain respects.

One thing I have been struck by, watching this discussion play out, is how we are talking about the opportunities of a very limited segment of society. Digital sanctions very clearly limit the abilities and prospects of educated Sudanese youth who are training on outdated software and seeking to compete globally. They also limit the prospects of activist groups who attempt to use technology in new ways to address problems society faces on a daily basis or who seek funding from the Sudanese diaspora.

It’s less apparent but just as important to note that sanctions limit access to knowledge for those with only very limited use of the internet. The skills that the technologically literate use to bypass digital restrictions are not apparent to the casual user, and many in Sudan use the internet (or specific programs) on a more limited basis than they would otherwise because of restrictions.

I remember going into work the day after google changed its policy regarding apps being accessible in Sudan. For the first few hours, we were unable to access our work email accounts; however, but mid-afternoon, we had all learned how to use VPNs and the day continued as normal. In contrast, plenty of internet cafes that I’ve sat in have an outdated version of Skype, or (more frustratingly) an icon of skype followed by a dialogue box stating that it could not install properly on the computer.

For someone whose access to the internet comes less regularly—whether because he or she does not own a computer, because the computer is shared, or because he or she accesses the internet primarily on a smart phone, smaller difficulties become more imposing. This means that the casual internet user will be less likely to reach out or gain new skills, relegating the internet to the role of entertainment exclusively. While more and more Sudanese people are using the internet, it is not clear that they can do as much as they’d like on it. How many people attempt to communicate in a certain way or seek out a certain type of information only to give up?

There has to be a way to acknowledge restrictions while making it easier for students, activists, and the average Sudanese citizen to get information. Otherwise the policy will hinder the government in the short term but will leave the power balance between the state and society the same in the long term, with society falling behind globally in the meanwhile.


On staying calm

Salam wa marhab likum – I am Safira, the second tea lady  behind Hibiscus With Ginger. I am barely emerging from a haboob of work, which explains my absence over the past couple of weeks. Yet here I am with a blend that calls for balance and calm, intended for all those in Khartoum who, while making History, are doing their best to keep us informed.


On Monday, September 23rd, I received this one-word Facebook message from my former fixer, who has in-depth knowledge of activist groups and politics in Khartoum. Later, I got similar messages from other Sudanese friends, and my Twitter feed displayed odd bits of news about marches condemning yet another presidential speech. The next day, expatriates took to Facebook and began speaking of significant protests.

At first, I read these statements with skepticism: over the six months I spent freelancing in Sudan, I was “informed” of imminent revolution about as many times as I have eaten fuul. Between over-enthusiastic sources whose claims are systematically disproved, citizen-journalists who don’t cross-check their data and activists who seem to have a hyperbolic view of the slightest event, not to mention politicians who saw me as a convenient PI officer, keeping calm when the grapevine cried wolf quickly became my golden rule.

Now, your former stringer is back in Europe, a very frustrated outside observer of the largest (and bloodiest) protests since 1989. Could this be, at last, the “revolution” activists and opposition leaders kept auguring, and that until now seemed only wishful thinking?

Getting reliable information about Sudan from the outside is hazardous, to say the least. And while this partly has to do with the international media’s lack of interest in Sudan, much of the confusion stems from the contradictory information that pervades social media.

Censorship means that most updates leak via Facebook, Twitter and word-of-mouth – and, because of punctual Internet blackouts widely imputed to the government, even this is limited. On September 25th, for instance, local journalists told me the Security services (NISS) ordered newspapers not to mention the police’s use of force against civilians. In reaction, Al-Jareeda, Al-Qarar and Al-Ayaam decided not to go to print. The next day’s edition of Al-Sudaani (a paper usually seen as relatively uncontroversial vis-à-vis the regime) was confiscated by NISS. Confiscations and intimidations were already common in Sudan, but the press has been suffering even greater pressure since the revolts broke out on Monday. The international media has had more leeway to cover the events, but even they are subject to restrictions. Foreign correspondents have always had to tread carefully – the three last Bloomberg journalists were expulsed from the country, the most recent one only two months ago. This type of intimidation will only worsen as the protests go on: today, September 28th, the government ordered the closure of Al-Arabiya channel’s office in Khartoum. The Sudanese minister of Information, Ahmed Bilal, had recently accused the international media of encouraging the revolts in Sudan.

Social media is already proving to be the richest source for information about what is happening on the ground. However, with rumors and unconfirmed facts fusing from one Twitter account to another, understanding exactly what is happening in Khartoum is proving mind-numbingly difficult. Several sources in Sudan are kind enough to send me updates, but among them even local journalists sometimes present hearsay as fact, only to deny it later. Yesterday, a Sudanese friend with excellent access to activist youth groups (and herself a strong advocate of objective reporting) sent me photographs allegedly taken during the protests. Among them, I recognized a picture I had seen months ago, when a 17-year-old Um Dum resident was killed by the police during the protests that shook the town in April. Among the nebula of photographs on Twitter, Facebook and Flickr, almost none has a caption specifying the date it was taken.

Many social media users are expressing their exasperation with some of the media coverage. One woman told me “Al-Jazeera has become a shameful channel” which spreads “lies”, and had particularly strong words against its (alleged) mention of “armed thugs” taking advantage of the unrest to gratuitously spread havoc, “when Al-Jazeera knows perfectly they are members of NISS”. Several other Khartoumites voiced the same concerns. I have not watched Al-Jazeera today, and the question here is not to criticize any media outlet. (The government does employ and arm an informal militia, the Rabbata, made up of civilians and undercover NISS officers to perpetrate crimes without endorsing responsibility.) In any case, the lack of trust many Sudanese people seem to have in mainstream news outlets encourages them to rely quasi-exclusively on word-of-mouth, which is often taken for granted.

Though it is difficult for the media, or anyone for that matter, to get the story straight – mostly because the “story”, given the context, fluctuates from one minute to the next – local activists and witnesses must equally be careful to share only verified information.

After six days of unrest, many are those who have friends in prison or in one of NISS’s informal detention centers. Some have family members who were injured and friends who were killed. My fixer described the atmosphere as “a crazy thing… Fear, hope, worry, anxiety, joy, sadness, determination.” Another friend, speaking about what she considered unbalanced reporting, said “seeing people get shot in front of you means you’re less ready to be understanding.” The current effervescence and tragic turn of events obviously do not favor cool-headedness and fact checking. Nevertheless, though putting in question news channels’ editorial lines is anyone’s right, it is crucial that all parties – activists, journalists, observers and social media users alike – exercise the same prudence they demand of other reporters.

1 Comment

On Activists and Audiences

Last week, when I was tracking down a link for my last post, I came across this critique of high profile Sudan activists by a Sudanese blogger. This was largely in response to the discussion which occurred a few months ago centering around Alex De Waal’s piece on international activism. I found this section most relevant:

They are not interested in “us”, viz. those who they haven’t met “in a Workshop organized by the UN” prior to this event or had a discussion with “in the office of Yasir Arman” after that event.

They are not interested in informing us, not in convincing us, not in winning us, not even in using us

The issue addressed is one of audience and orientation—who and what are these activists advocating for? The author, I’d say, is correct that the orientation of most of these posts and discussions are aimed at an international audience, seeking to influence Western governments and negotiations by pressuring the political elite in and outside of Sudan. To that end, they want to be read by “experts,” not the average Sudanese person, or even Sudanese civil society activists.

The blogger’s audience is limited by the language in which she writes as well as her medium, since the internet isn’t easily accessible to everyone in Sudan. At the same time, her post underscores for me the gaps that exist throughout every society and the ways these divides are reflected online. What language do you write in? What subjects? Who feels like they should read you? Who do you want to speak to?

It isn’t that there’s a single “right” answer for these questions. But the issue of audience is worth considering, particularly when one is writing on a particular country or region. Who you are trying to reach and who you claim to represent matter. For the record, this blog is written with an international audience in mind, but it also wishes to be read and considered by Sudanese people—or at least those who read English and frequent the internet. One voice shouldn’t dominate an issue—it might give some insight into a situation, but it can’t monopolize all knowledge.