African business, politics and lifestyle
One step forward, a few steps back
One of the few positives of Sudan’s elections, dubbed to be the first open vote in 24 years but marred by opposition boycotts and accusations of fraud, was a tiny opening of democratic freedom in Africa’s largest country.
Direct press censorship was lifted from Sudan’s papers and opposition politicians were given an albeit limited platform to address the population through state media.
Still, it seemed for the biggest international observer missions, such as the Carter Center and the European Union, the best they could say about the elections was 1): That they happened and 2): That people were not killing each other for once in this nation devastated by decades of multiple civil wars. (At least not because of the vote anyway).
They all agreed that the crack of democracy opened during the polls must be allowed to continue. And more progressive members of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s ruling party agreed. Presidential Adviser Ghazi Salaheddin told me he did not think they could go back on the democratic gains.
But it seems just one month after the vote, Sudan is sliding back to its old ways.
In Darfur, where Bashir is accused by the International Criminal Court of war crimes and crimes against humanity, the Sudanese army took control of West Darfur’s Jabel Moun – which has been a key rebel stronghold pretty much since the conflict began in 2003.
It’s an impressive range of hills making it an ideal base to defend against attack. It’s also an area where the U.N.-African Union peacekeeping mission (UNAMID) has enjoyed little access because of almost constant military clashes and bombing.
The army said it killed 108 soldiers from the insurgent Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), which the rebels deny. JEM, largely boxed in by a Chadian-Sudanese rapprochement and complaining of constant aerial bombardment, redeployed many troops from Jabel Moun leaving them stretched too thin and allowing the army to take advantage.
JEM’s ”mobile units” as they call them also clashed with the army in North and South Darfur as they edged towards the oil-producing South Kordofan state.
The lull in Darfur’s fighting during the elections did not last long.
And then a late-night raid on Saturday on Bashir’s former close ally turned bitter enemy Islamist Hassan al-Turabi’s home, arresting him, closing his opposition party’s paper, seizing its assets and detaining three of its senior editors.
A myriad of reasons were given by different NCP and security officials for his arrest ranging from unspecified “security reasons” to accusing him of helping JEM, to his al-Rai al-Shaab paper publishing articles damaging to national security.
Editors-in-chiefs of newspapers were “invited” for a meeting at the headquarters of the feared intelligence services on Monday. Many journalists worry what happened to Turabi’s paper was a less than veiled warning of what could happen if they did not self censor.
The Ajras al-Huriya paper is a shining example of what can happen if they don’t toe the line. It says it has five court cases pending against it (three raised by the intelligence services) for publishing false news among other charges, which could result in up to six months in jail for the acting editor-in-chief.
The paper is pretty much the mouthpiece of the former southern rebel turned NCP partner in government after a landmark 2005 peace deal, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). So no midnight raids on them – just long, drawn out legal battles.
Whatever happens, many of Sudan’s independent dailies, already heavily dependent on government company advertising for the bulk of their revenue, are likely to write cautiously from now on.
In the south, which will vote on whether to become Africa’s newest nation state in just eight months, one journalist was arrested for 13 days after trying to take pictures of electoral violence in the oil-rich Unity state. Another said he was detained and beaten by southern security forces, even though he had an i.d. card saying he worked for the SPLM, which dominates the region’s semi-autonomous government.
A senior general revolted and is threatening a main town after he accused the SPLM of fraud in the southern elections. George Athor said he mutinied after authorities ordered his arrest and that he has wide support, although there is little that can be independently confirmed in the remote, swampy Jonglei state.
He had said he wanted to negotiate but that attacks by south Sudan’s army, sent to surround his troops, have left little room for talks.
There’s still time to salvage the political scene in the north and south ahead of the southern referendum on secession which, if mishandled, could destabilise the entire Horn of Africa.
The SPLM could engage those who left the party to stand as independents in the elections like renegade Athor, not exclude them.
And the NCP can release ailing Turabi and the journalists and follow fair and transparent legal proceedings against those it feels have erred. Darfur’s peace talks can restart, the army can stop its bombardment and JEM can halt its redeployment.
But that would require high-level pressure from the international community who, despite two massive U.N.-funded peacekeeping missions in the country, have shown little ability to engage effectively in the war-torn country.
I had written a blog “one step forward, how many back? a month ago. I hope this isn’t the final answer.