Khartoum's streets are lined with the flickering faces of smiling men whose smiles have now been ripped and bruised. Before everyone pulled out, this election was being fought at the photocopiers. It was a visual fight, a papery race to the ballot. These are just some of the faces inhabiting the walls and streets of Khartoum this month...
Saturday, 10 April 2010
"HEY HEY HEY!"
"Stop the car, there is a khawajia chasing us!"
"Why stop the car if she's after us? She looks mean!"
"Just stop the freaking car!"
The car stops.
Breathless, the words surface in my mouth, salty dry words that have been baked to a crisp by the chase.
"I.... want.... a.... poster."
"You want a poster?"
"An Omar Bashir poster?"
Eyes roll up and down like extremely dubious yo-yos. Clearly I am not your typical NCP customer, but then who isn't these days? Even the mother of my Coptic landlady seems to love the cha cha man. "He good" she says to me, "strong!"
I try to get into character, "Yes, I want an Omar Bashir poster!" I forcibly silence the reason in my brain to spit out the words, "I have chased you down half of Africa Road, haven't I?"
"You like Bashir?" Narrowed faces almost poking at me. The reason's getting rowdy. Pipe down, I command! My eyes twitch. "A big time fan?"
"More or less", I concede, not explaining less is the operative word.
"Very well then."
They hand them over.
I have been collecting campaign posters from speeding vehicles, snapping inconspicuously at the road side and doing my damn well best to acquire political items of clothing- it began with a rather convincing Salva Kir hat, then an Umma waistcoast, now a beautiful SPLM t-shirt. But it's all a little sobering. I have done all of this for a non-election.
Last Sunday I went to the Rashid Diab arts centre to listen to a seminar about the elections. One of the speakers urged the foreign monitors to accept this election, unlike he said, Iran and Palestine. He got lots of cheers. A real crowd pleaser. But it's kind of hard to accept an election that none of the other parties accept (or didn't accept before they were bribed... but that is just a rumour!)
For those unfamiliar with Sudan's current election, it's important to think of it as a gift. A gift of legitimacy from the opposition parties to the ruling regime. He is clearly going to win the thing. He has all the state's resources to use at his disposal. He has twenty years of power under his belt, systematically destroying all opposition, kicking out and silencing intellectuals and monopolizing the media. He is also credited for bringing peace to the South, oil from the ground and stability to the country as a whole. Elections are in his interest. A gift. A democratic crown (probably made by Chinese workers)!
The gift is part of a Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the North and the South, and as such, it comes with strings. Some of these strings are public: when it comes to the election- an abrogation of the emergency laws, an independent election commission, limitations on campaign spending and widening of press freedoms. There are also lots of rumors about backroom dealing: hidden strings. It seems a little puzzling that the opposition parties waited until one week before the elections to announce their boycotts. You have to speculate that they have been negotiating with the ruling party: we will take part in this "show" if you meet our demands. Some say that the SPLM and the other parties had an agreement to cooperate with one another and when the SPLM pulled out (possibly by request from the NCP in return for a smooth referendum next year) the others withdrew angrily. Did the NCP manipulate the Juba Alliance in order to bring about this collapse? Did they underestimate the other parties' tenacity? The latest rumour is that the DUP has been paid millions of pounds to re-enter the election (certainly their posters have shot up dramatically these past couple days). Whether this offer was also extended to the Umma party, we can only speculate. Was the bribe not big enough? Did they resist on the basis of principles or do they have other tricks up their sleeves?
At first I was really angry at the other parties. Regimes aren't removed overnight. They take multiple elections. They take dilution. They take time. Whatever his image in the Western media, Omar Bashir is an extremely popular man- especially in Khartoum. And the other parties can't expect anything else. For me, this election was the first step of many. Of course the NCP was going to win, but the idea was to get people going.
From a Khartoum perspective, Sudan is booming. Roads are being built, parks and public spaces are being transformed, development projects have been jump-started all over the place over the past year (some say as a form of election campaign). And most importantly, people are scared of change. This is not surprising. Omar Bashir is all about stability. The last democratic period in Sudan was a time of great economic crisis, shortages in basic supplies, war and mass exodus of Sudanese professionals and experts abroad. Most of the people I have asked about the elections believe that Sadiq ElMahdi and his democracy failed to pull Sudan out of trouble. Whether it is fair to compare a three year term with a twenty year term is beside the point. Better the devil you know than the devil you don't.
What this election has really drummed into me is the idea that democracy does not begin and end with elections. Democracy is about a relationship between a state and its people. This is something Justin Willis spoke about in his lecture on the history of Sudanese elections last year. I wish the opposition parties had listened. For a real democracy to blossom, there has to be expectations. Demands! Promises extended and votes as contracts! Democracy is not supposed to be about loyalty, about charisma per se, but about interests, policies, development. This is not the situation in Sudan and has not been the case in past elections. Probably the most surprising thing about Omar Bashir's success is his popularity among those hardluck souls who don't have any wasta. The other week I met a taxi drivers with a PhD in Engineering who said he will still vote for Bashir. When I ask, "Why? You have a PhD and you're driving a taxi! Clearly not a good economy, not a good system!" He explained that he is better than the others. "They don't want change, they just want power." There are SO many people like this. Maybe they don't all have PhDs, but a vast number of the unemployed and semi-employed are university graduates who are dissatisfied with the labour market. If you can't convince these people to vote for you, then you aren't trying hard enough. It's really that simple.
This sentiment was echoed by a University of Khartoum professor, Atta El Battahani. He mused that perhaps the only party that really wants to change the system is the SPLM. The others just want to take over what the NCP has built. Many Northerners feel that the SPLM is a party of the South. After the referendum, they will be irrelevant and it would be foolish to squander your vote on a party that will soon be gone. When I went to the SPLM offices this week to interview someone about government employment, I was surprised about the number of Northerners in the office. It was kind of lovely: a snapshot of a new Sudan, Southerners and Northerners drinking tea together beneath a line of framed photographers of the late John Garang. Mash'allah! But without the philosopher-king, the SPLM doesn't seem to garner wide scale support in the North.
I have a lot of sympathy for the other parties. They are up against a mountain but at the same time, they could have done better. They could have made this election about issues, about the economy, about education, about jobs! There are so many frustrations simmering. They have really wasted an amazing opportunity to change the language of democracy away from loyalty and towards a discussion of the reality on the ground. There is so much opportunity in this country- oil, agriculture, universities galore and many of its problems (like the mismatch between education and employment) are due to terrible mismanagement, an amazing lack of coordination among government ministries and a complete lack of responsibility on the part of officials. I was completely stunned when the Minister of Labour told me it was not his responsibility to look at the career prospects of Sudanese graduates- that was the job of the Ministry of Higher Education. This government could be doing so much MUCH better- even leaving aside any discussion of Darfur. I have been saying all along that I don't really care which party wins, as long as they raise the expectations of the population, as long as they make government accountable. That is what democracy should bring: accountability. That is the whole bloody point, isn't it?
Instead it seems this election has brought the opposite: legitimacy without justification and we are all to blame. Obviously the NCP is to blame. They have manipulated the election and undermined the unity of the other parties. The other parties failed to change the language of democracy and make the "wasta-less" realize that change is possible. Of course they are scared, but people can be made to be brave! The international community is to blame for pushing and pushing without remembering the true purpose to begin with: to bring accountability. Those who understand Sudanese politics best- and I believe Atta and Justin are among them- have been recommending for this election to be postponed for months. It was clear that the country was not ready.
I hope that we all learn from this experience for next time and I do believe there will be a next time. Voter education should not just be about the mechanics of choosing, but about making demands and searching for solutions. A campaign should be a time of great discussion, a focus on national problems and a cacophony of suggestions. The international community is so obsessed with the mechanics of elections: the ballot papers, the finance, the posters, the journalists, the monitoring, but what about the issues? What about that relationship between people and candidate? How can we re-formulate interventions and programs that seek to promote democracy towards accountability? That is the lesson we should learn from this election, I believe.
I am still happy there will be an election. For one of my best friends here, this will be the first time he has ever participated in an election. It should be a time of celebration. In some ways, he is lucky. He wants to vote for an independent. He can still mark his "x" where he chooses. It is a fine thing to vote and we need to celebrate!
We shall see what the week ahead brings. What kind of celebrations are in order.