African business, politics and lifestyle
A journalist’s guide to covering Sudan politics
Sudan’s opposition is often criticized for being unable to unite. And on Thursday night they didn’t disappoint.
The chaotic scenes after a meeting to discuss whether to boycott Sudan’s upcoming elections left most reporters dazed and confused, especially those who were new to politics in Africa’s largest country.
Here is a short guide of how to cover Sudanese politics (or not):
Rule #1: Never make plans around a press conference:
When they say the meeting is at 1900, it inevitably starts at 2100. Much of a foreign correspondent’s time is spent waiting around for meetings which begin hours late, take hours to finish and are followed by a press conference which lasts almost as long.
Unfortunately a journalist’s biggest fear is to miss the story — so we have to arrive on time – just in case.
Sometimes that works against us. Some colleagues actually missed a plane taking them to a political party campaign in Darfur because they were too early.
Having been told to be there at 0430, they arrived to an empty airport with security guards telling them there was no such plane leaving to any such place. After dozens of calls to party officials went unanswered, they left disappointed at 0600. Of course the politicians turned up at 0700 and the plane then left for Darfur.
Rule #2: Always leave the scrum to the cameramen:
At Thursday night’s long awaited opposition party alliance meeting hundreds of journalists were waiting for a highly anticipated decision on whether to announce a full boycott or not.
When the organizers brought out the podium for the press conference, a rush of cameramen anxious to place their mikes sparked loud arguments and a scrum akin to a rugby match.
Politicians in the meeting came out to mediate between security and the reporters, a mission which took an hour of shouting and shoving.
While you want to be close to the front of the melee to be able to ask a question, sometimes it’s just better to sit at the back, find the nearest speaker and record from there, grabbing the official for your question on the way out.
I got the news before those in the fracas by grabbing political leaders tiptoeing out behind the mass of pushing reporters. Or so I thought…
Rule #3: Always cross check your information, even when you’re talking to the most senior politicians:
I thought I had a scoop when I caught an ageing leader from a major political party sneaking out the back of the meeting.
This party was the first to announce their full boycott earlier that day and were hoping to convince the rest of the opposition to join them.
Me: “So did anyone join you in your boycott?”
Party leader: “Boycott? We are participating.”
Me (scratching my head): “But I thought you announced earlier today you were boycotting?”
Leader: “Us? No we are participating!”
Me: “But you are the (Name Withheld) Party right?”
Leader: “Yes – who said we are boycotting?”
Me: “One of your senior members.”
Leader: “That’s very strange.”
Bewildered, I run back as the press conference was issuing its final statement.
Five minutes later party delegates call me back saying their esteemed leader, over 70 years old, wanted to give me a statement.
“We are boycotting,” he said, flanked by his senior party members.
And I breathe a sigh of relief.
Rule #4: Always wait for the end of the statement before sending the news alert.
On Thursday the aptly named: “National Consensus” read out its final statement to hundreds of waiting journalists and supporters.
“We agreed the following: We reject and boycott these piecemeal and corrupt elections!” greeted by cheers from the crowd.
Excited, I immediately reached for my phone to type the alert, anxious to be the first to broadcast the news, but not quite believing they had agreed. My doubts made me hang on.
Paragraph three: “There are some parties who agreed to participate in the elections…to be able to document the violations and fraud.”
I delete my news alert from my phone.
Paragraph four: “There are other parties who have still not decided their position and will meet to decide within 24 hours.”
Groans from the audience and I put my phone away to run back after the elderly party leader.
5: Even when you confirm the news, it can all change.
After the final statement, panic ensued as journalists clamoured to find out which party was doing what, especially the larger ones like the Umma party, the Democratic Unionist Party and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).
Five different officials from inside the meeting including one from the party confirmed the DUP had told their colleagues they would support a full boycott. Confidently I go with the news.
However by 0200 am, news trickles in saying the party had made a second statement, contradicting their first one. They would meet the following day to decide their “final” position. Sigh…
The famous saying: “They agreed to disagree” is one of the few phrases which work both in English and Arabic. I can’t think of a more apt way to describe the chaos of covering politics here.