Sunday, 8 March 2009

The symbolism of a broken toe: the ICC, Omar Bashir and the Sudanese elections

I have spent most of the past weekend locked inside.

Not exactly locked, I mean no one came over and physically ripped the key out of my hand and inserted it into the keyhole. Rather it was strongly encouraged for all khawajas in Khartoum to stay inside this week. Why?

The ICC issued an arrest warrant for the Sudanese President, Omar Bashir of war crimes and crimes against humanity (but not genocide). What does this mean? (apart from the fact that I got involved in an indoor football match that very nearly cost me a toe!) It means that they think they have enough evidence to prosecute him. They say they have over 30 witnesses who can directly link him to atrocities in Darfur. 

Are they right? I am going to be a little bit controversial here and say who cares...

What I think matters more is what this ruling means to the forthcoming Sudanese election and the internal politics of the nation more generally. 

I am not saying that what happens in Darfur doesn't matter on a humanitarian level. Of course, that matters. Millions of people will be affected by this court ruling (though perhaps not in a positive way, given the exile of 10 of the bigger international NGOs operating in Sudan). But if there is to be any sort of solution to the problem of Darfur it has to come from internal pressures. On the whole, Sudanese people are very very nice. They are just as frustrated with their own government as you or I (they have to deal with them every day!). If foreigners want to make change, they have to do it with the cooperation and participation of the Sudanese citizenry.

Almost every Sudanese person I know does not like the ICC.  Their typical response is "I am against the policies of this government, but this is not the way you change things. Why doesn't the ICC prosecute Bush and Israel? There are plenty of war criminals. Why us?" Most feel ashamed and offended that an external power is trying to interfere in the internal politics of their country. Others say "Well, Omar Bashir is the best of the worst. He is the one that brought peace in the South and he has transformed the economy in recent years. He is not perfect, but he brings stability." This is also a fair point. Some of the other "big men" in the government aren't any better (and could be quite a bit worse) than Omar Bashir. Removing him from office could create great instability for the country and leave a dangerous power vacuum.

Personally, I am divided whether or not I support the ICC's attempts. I have many friends that work in Darfur and I know that the situation is not improving. The political negotiations seem to go nowhere and there is a dire lack of trust among all those at the table. I can see why Luis Ocampo has taken it this far. He is desperate for some kind of solution.  We all are. But is the ICC going about it in the right way? I am not convinced. This ruling seems to have made Omar Bashir more popular than before.

Last Tuesday, I took a bus from downtown Khartoum to Amarat. I was happily working on an Arabic short story, asking the man next to me for vocabulary and generally ignoring the chaos of bus life. Suddenly, the radio jumped in volume. I heard an angry booming voice. The man next to me asked another passenger, "The president?" He nodded. My ears pricked up. 

I didn't get all of it, but what I did get was perfect PR, classic political machinations. Omar Bashir was giving his speech at the site of the new (and biggest to date) Merowe Dam. He was cutting the ribbon on a hydro-electric project that will provide electricity to thousands of people. He added that several other big scale projects are in the works and promised to cut energy prices by 25-30%. It was a carnival of excitement. He told Ocampo that he could "eat it" (almost Bart Simpson like in his eloquence. You got to smirk). He also said that Sudan was "a proud people, a people that do not accept insults, do not accept humiliation". That is how the ICC ruling has been portrayed; as an insult to the Sudanese people. 

What Will Happen Next?

Last week, a Khartoum taxi driver was arrested for painting the words "Ocampo is coming!" (the contemporary Boogie man of Sudan) on the back of his amjad. 

This is very unlikely. The street parade last Wednesday confirmed that most people in Khartoum either support Bashir or are too scared to speak their mind. They will not hand him over. Only the pizza man who delivered the pizza to the four famished khawajas hiding inside my flat thought that "he should go to the court and defend himself". Advertisements in all the papers and all the buildings proclaim "We are with you Bashir" (granted that lots of these are government owned). It seems like this ruling has made him more popular (at least publicly). I am sure it is very different in the West and the South (but do these areas matter politically to the state?)

So the question remains, what does this all mean for the election?

I was lucky enough to attend a lecture last week by Justin Willis from Durham University. He gave a presentation on Sudan's former elections. 

I am going to massively paraphrase now (apologies): Elections are not just about people choosing their leader; they are also about people becoming individual citizens and participants in a democracy. Free and fair elections are trophies to be held up by proud nations. However, in Sudan this "individual" ideal has not always been so forthcoming. 

All past Sudanese elections have been held in a hurry because of political conditions. While in some ways, they were quite successful in terms of participation and enthusiasm in Khartoum and its surrounding areas, the South and the West did not get the same experience. To them, the elections were just more of the same- in order to vote in some cases, you literally had to know the person manning the booth. In some places, chiefs provided the list of voters and so instead of individual registration, it was more about membership in a particular kinship/tribal group. Justin Willis conceded that even in Khartoum, people tended to vote along tribal/hometown lines. Crucially, every elected government has not lasted. Military coups have come along and there has been little popular resistance. People might have voted for them, but when it comes down to it, they don't love them enough to defend them.

What Willis stressed most strongly is that elections need an enormous amount of preparation. The last election was in 1986. This means that no-one under the age of 40 has ever participated in a national election (some will have participated in university or union elections). A tremendous amount of public education will therefore be required in order to make sure people are aware of the process. Preparation is EVERYTHING. 

There are many reasons why this election will be different. First of all, it is the first time that voting will take place on one single day. It is scheduled to be held during the summer, which will make registration and polling exceedingly difficult in Southern Sudan (due to the weather). For the first time, ballot counting will also take place on site, as to reduce the potential for ballot-box stuffing. All of these factors will make this election extremely tricky to pull off. On the other hand, it means that there will be less chance of malpractice.

Crucially, this election will take place in a very different political climate. Traditionally, the Umma and NUP/DUP parties have dominated. One audience member complained "They don't even have policies. They just depend on loyalty" (which prompted Justin Willis to counter "Well, that is partly the electorate's fault for voting them in!). I think I could say the same about British or American parties too! This time, there are other (more powerful) contenders on the scene. The NIF and the SPLM/A. Where will people bestow their loyalty? or will this election be more about policies and solutions?

So many Sudanese friends say that the political corridors need to be cleaned out but there is no Sudanese Obamba hanging around at the moment. To a certain extent, the path to political power dictates what types of candidates you can be expected to get and in Sudan, that path is the military. Will this election bring any kind of change? I don't know but I certainly hope so. 

If the outside world wants to influence the Sudanese government's actions in Darfur, then it should focus on this election. PREPARATION, PREPARATION, PREPARATION! How can the outside world help encourage excitement and participation in this election?

And for those within Sudan, everyone needs to get excited about this election. If we can learn anything from the American election, it's the importance of enfranchising the disenfranchised. There are a hell of a lot of them in Sudan. 

I believe in political change. It may be slow and arduous... but eventually change comes. And sometimes, the slower the change, the more stable and appropriate the change will be. 

I really don't know if this ruling is pushing change in the right direction. 

About the only positive effect that the ICC court ruling might have (and I am really trying to see the glass half full here) is the seemingly stupid response of the government to exile ten of the biggest NGOs in the country. 

At first I though, "Darfur is going to be ****ed now." My heart quite literally sunk out of my chest. Catastrophe. But then when I spoke to some NGO friends who are being forced to leave, I realised that it was not just Darfur that is going to suffer because of this move. These NGOs work in all parts of the country. If they pull out and their programs temporarily stop, what will local people think of the government in Port Sudan, Northern Sudan, the Nuba Mountains and wherever else these organizations work? Will they be able to make the connection between lack of programs and the State's policies? Maybe this will make the government less popular....and maybe this is the silver lining? (but in the meantime, the people of Darfur are going to be suffering a lot for this little glimmer of silver)! I don't think my heart will ever quite climb back in place...

That is my two cents (or two piastres).


1 comment:

  1. A good overview. I agree with the central thrust of your argument. The ICC ruling is certainly a dreadful move - certain to make things worse in the country. It has derailed the whole election process, and made it much harder to hold free-and-fair elections in the country.

    As you say, the NGOs going may not necessarily be a bad thing. If they pull out, then finally the government might have to face the fact that it should do something about its country's problems itself. For too long, NGOs in Sudan have acted as comfortable buffer for the government. When things go wrong, they step in...

    All the best - keep up the blog! Blake