Hibiscus with Ginger


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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.


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What Happens When You Ignore a Region

This week, Human Rights Watch released a report on human trafficking and torture in East Sudan and in Egypt, focusing on Eritrean refugees. Since 2004, over 130,000 Eritreans have registered as refugees in Sudan, with even more entering without documentation. Of these, many move quickly, facing poor conditions in refugee camps as well as fears that they might be sent back to Eritrea, where they would face extremely harsh penalties (including execution) for dodging military service or leaving without an exit visa. While some move to Khartoum, others travel through illegal channels to Libya and Egypt with the goal of getting to Europe and Israel.

This sort of migration is extremely dangerous. The report details one particular risk: traffickers, rather than bringing people to Egypt or Israel, will abduct them instead and demand ransoms from their families. Not everyone they abduct is trying to go to Israel either; indeed, there have been reports of people kidnapped just outside of the refugee camps themselves.

It makes sense that HRW would hold the Sudanese and Egyptian governments accountable for this. Governments are legally responsible for crimes that occur in their country when they make no effort to stop them from occurring. In this case, local officials (both in Sudan and Egypt) even collude with traffickers— which just shows how little attention the governments are paying. These abuses are the result of a larger system—that people are moving in a region almost completely ignored by governments, and as a result, others are able to take advantage.

Most of the discussion of trafficking focuses on Eritreans, who are fleeing from a government that imposes very heavy demands on the population in terms of compulsive military service (and also limits the media and cracks down on all forms of dissent in extreme ways). At the same time, Ethiopians and Somalis also travel along similar routes, with many stopping in Sudan before traveling elsewhere. In Khartoum, one only has to go to neighborhoods like Al Daym to see vibrant Ethiopian and Eritrean communities. These communities are integrated in the local economy, with migrants working as house cleaners, waiters, and tea servers (among other professions). At the same time, many do so with the intention of leaving after having saved enough money.

When people try to move, they draw on resources and interact with groups that cross borders, including relatives and extended networks already residing in Sudan and Egypt. They also work with groups that operate in these areas outside of government control. As mentioned briefly in the HRW report and elaborated on by a UNHCR publication, the Rashaida, a nomadic tribe with roots in Saudi Arabia that lives both in Sudan and Eritrea are active in moving trafficking people both to Sudan from Eritrea and from Sudan to Egypt.

Rashaida traffickers are able to operate likes this because of their isolation. In Sudan, they have very little contact with the government or the rest of Sudanese society—they rarely socialize with outsiders, and they’re regarded with suspicion by others in the East. Local officials are reluctant to interfere in their activities because they don’t know the community well and are intimidated by the possibility of violence (since the Rashaida also participate in smuggling arms in the region). They gained some political representation as a result of the Eastern Sudan Peace Agreement in 2006, but not all portions of the agreement have been implemented. Development of the region has been extremely slow, to the extent that there’s concern that conflict might reoccur (although without the support of Eritrea, such violence will likely not be a threat to the regime). Whatever development has occurred has not fundamentally changed their status in society or their relationship to local authorities.

These dynamics have begun to change (to some extent) in the past year. In July, the Sudanese cabinet endorsed a law to specifically outlaw human trafficking, and this law was debated by parliament in December. Additionally, the government has prosecuted fourteen cases of human trafficking, which, while small, is more than has occurred in the past. It’s clear that this is becoming less of a taboo subject, and that the government, at least on the national level, is more willing to acknowledge and address the issue.

Too often in Sudan, marginalization and poverty are only discussed when they lead to mass violence. The problem with this is that other pervasive and damaging social phenomena can continue without real discussion. This sort of movement and the crime it inspires should be seen as the result of massive neglect, not only of refugees but also of the East as a whole.


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What We Talk About When We Talk State Oppression

This weekend, news outlets have reported that the International Committee of the Red Cross was ordered by the Sudanese government to suspend its activities. This isn’t the first time that an international (or national) organization has had its activities suspended, and it’s worth looking at what we’re talking about when this sort of thing happens and what the implications are.

To begin with, the Sudanese government chooses to stop events and restrict institutions in different ways. When TedX Khartoum was shut down last year, it happened at the last minute and involved National Security turning off power in the room in order to urge people to leave. The Khatim Adlan Center for Enlightenment (a Sudanese NGO devoted to the development of civil society) was closed by an official letter revoking its authorization to work, which was delivered in person by officials who demanded that activities end immediately. In all cases, it’s clear the government can choose more and less confrontational ways of restricting activities, depending on how visible it wants to be as well as where in the government the decision originates.

In the case of the ICRC, the decision came from the Humanitarian Affairs Commission, a government agency focused primarily on “monitoring” and restricting NGO activities. In order to operate in Sudan, all NGOs and societies have to be registered, most of them registered through HAC (although some have had success registering through other government ministries depending on their activities). In order to maintain registration, HAC presents conditions and demands information, usually related to money expenditures, employment records, and plans for future activities.  This  not only slows down the process of starting and carrying out projects, but also allows the government to stop projects it dislikes through deliberate delays in approvals. HAC’s requirements shift depending on the political environment, and it has been the case that certain activities that used to be acceptable suddenly are unacceptable or suddenly require more bureaucratic oversight.

It looks like the suspension of ICRC’s activities comes from one of those changes in policies. In this case, it seems that HAC is attempting to insist that ICRC work primarily through its national partner, the Sudanese Red Crescent Society (rather than operating independently, as it does now and does in all other countries). This sort of restriction is along the lines of regulations HAC has attempted to impose in the past couple of years, most notably in Kassala, where the government stopped seven international NGOs from operating, eventually allowing some of them to operate exclusively through national partners. While the government justifies this sort of policy as promoting the capacity of national organizations, it also gives the government greater control of both money and activities, allowing HAC to stop or hinder NGO policies that are not to their political advantage while promoting activities that they view as in their interest.

Another thing it’s worth looking at in all of this is when and why organizations, national and international, choose to publicize these restrictions. Not all do, since publicity has both advantages and drawbacks. Many local NGOs choose to keep quiet when their activities are suspended or their events are closed in the hope that they will not be “politicized” and will be able to open again quickly. For this reason, we have no idea how many programs are delayed or events canceled due to government restrictions. When an organization chooses to announce that something was suspended, they are seeking to pressure the government to reevaluate its position due to public outcry. In this case, the hope seems to be that international attention will emphasize that government independence is the norm for the ICRC internationally.

Here’s hoping it works. They do good work in Sudan, and it would be a shame if the government impedes it for too long.


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Sudanese Music!

Before I went to Sudan for the first time, a friend who had lived there before told me to look up the music to get a sense of the country. That advice is something I think of to this day—at the time, I found it hard to orient myself on the music traditions, and I didn’t really understand how important that advice really was. Since then, I’ve heard certain songs quoted in casual conversations, with lyrics used as the names for youth initiatives or shops. “Do you know —-?” is a question I get on a regular basis. It’s clear that music, as in many places, is incredibly influential and that there’s a whole range out there, from very traditional songs to current-day musicians.

What’s stuck out for me, however, is the way that certain musicians in Sudan have been very important, whether through their work, their political stances, or a combination of the both, with their work reproduced for multiple generations of listeners. Many of those musicians were famous in the late 60s and the 70s, though I’m sure there are some from earlier.

As a result, (and in an attempt to better educate myself), I’m going to post about older Sudanese musicians on a semi regular basis. I will need help though. Sudanese readers: who do you listen to? Who does your parents listen to? Post in the comments or email me.

In the meantime, I will leave you with a song by Mohamed Wardi.


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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.


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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!