Tag Archives: Darfur

Celebrities in Africa

First things first. Elizabeth McGovern, the Downton Abbey actress, sounds a thoroughly likable decent woman. But why oh why has she allowed herself to get mixed up in this kind of nonsense? A piece I missed from before Christmas paints in toe-curling detail what it is like to be a celebrity on the do-gooder trail, in this case on the road to Sierra Leone…

“We have to break in our new celebrities slowly,” confides Sarah Wilson, a World Vision representative who is chaperoning McGovern on the trip. “There will be lots of breaks so she doesn’t get overloaded.”

Perhaps not slowly enough. In the piece we learn:

  1. McGovern is not sure of the difference between Dakar and Darfur
  2. World Vision forgot to mention to her that they were a Christian organisation when signing her up – an “oversight” they said
  3. The charity paid £28,000 to McGovern’s vanity project band to help them record and tour
  4. McGovern doesn’t much like Woody Allen

I have some favourite celebrity in Africa stories – Clooney’s diarrhoea in Darfur and the soap actress who had to abandon a trip when it emerged The News of the World was about to splash her sex life all over the front pages. They have all now been trumped.

hat tip – @texasinafrica

Reporting Syria and future emergencies

Jess Hill has an interesting post over at The Global Mail, discussing how opposition activists in Syria are distorting the information fed to journalists…

But it’s not the information — it’s someinformation. Syrian activists are not journalists — they’re activists. They’re risking their lives to get their story out, and many pursue a specific agenda: to convince the international community to intervene and arm the opposition.

Of course, it will come as little shock to most journalists that activists are prepared to twist the truth to serve their agenda. That’s the deal. I interview you and get a story, while you get a chance to promote your message. That’s why most journalists are professional cynics. Why is this person telling me this? What do they gain? What are other people saying? Whose side are they on?

This much is obvious and is no great surprise.

But the real issue of course is that it is so difficult for journalists to get in and close up to the truth. Those that have done – again as Hill points out with the help and guidance of opposition activists – will still be bombarded with propaganda, but at least there is a chance of seeing, smelling and tasting things first hand. Most have to make do with reporting from outside and that’s what makes it so hard to judge…

In the short term at least, journalists have little choice but to continue to rely on activists for much of their information. The challenge for the media, however, is to go beyond the heroes versus villains narrative that’s developed over the past year, and to interrogate some harder truths.

Why, after a year of horrific violence, do significant number of Syrians still support the regime, or at least the status quo? Why, after so long, have there still been no major defections from the government? And who are the armed opposition groups known as the Free Syrian Army?

Regular readers of this blog will know where I’m about to go…

Now does this sound familiar? It sounds to me much like coverage of the Darfur conflict as it unfolded. Journalists prevented from entry relying on a small collection of opposition voices, rebel commanders who know what they want and articulate it via satphones. In the case of Sudan, the cause was taken up by a lobby with a very definite interventionist agenda, fuelled by dissidents outside the country.

So the point I want to make is that ultimately this is the way coverage of humanitarian crises is going. Famine and conflict do not occur in liberal democracies. They occur in oppressive regimes that want to keep journalists out. Next year it could be North Korea.

Journalists will increasingly be reporting by remote control. That should not be an excuse for failing to question the source of information. That’s the job. And just because our sources are battling an undeniably BAD MAN, we shouldn’t assume they are telling the truth or take anything for granted. And that goes for Oxfam, Human Rights Watch and George Clooney too.

The Drones Club

Could drones – currently used by the CIA for targeted assassinations (just don’t call them that, especially as they often seem untargeted) – be used for good? Andrew Stobo Sniderman and Mark Hanis, co-founders of the Genocide Intervention Network, seem to think so…

Imagine if we could watch in high definition with a bird’s-eye view. A drone would let us count demonstrators, gun barrels and pools of blood. And the evidence could be broadcast for a global audience, including diplomats at the United Nations and prosecutors at the International Criminal Court.

In some ways it is not so very different to what George Clooney is already doing with his Satellite Sentinel Project. And it is not the first time it has been tried with drones. Sam Bell once tried to buy a drone in his hols to fly over Darfur…

The executives offered an old, low-end, limited- range UAV for $5 million. That was still, as Bell puts it, “a bit out of our price range,” but he thought it might be worth splurging–until he and fellow anti-genocide crusader Mark Hanis ran their potential purchase by an expert.

Oh, so Hanis has form. And has already been told once it was bonkers.

Anyway, this time he reckons he has the arguments licked with an interesting mix of good intentions and an appeal to everyone’s favourite freedom fighter…

This sounds a lot like surveillance, and it would be. It would violate Syrian airspace, and perhaps a number of Syrian and international laws. It isn’t the kind of thing nongovernmental organizations usually do. But it is very different from what governments and armies do. Yes, we (like them) have an agenda, but ours is transparent: human rights. We have a duty, recognized internationally, to monitor governments that massacre their own people in large numbers. Human rights organizations have always done this. Why not get drones to assist the good work?

Well, here’s one reason. A black and white, name em and shame em approach to human rights isn’t the only show in town. Lots of organisations have taken a different stand to ensure they retain access to people hurt or imprisoned. You might want to check with the Red Cross and see how they feel about this. But if your aim is to escalate a conflict and ensure aid agencies are prevented from entering, then this is exactly the right course to follow. And then what about the legal status of invading a country’s airspace?

It may be illegal in the Syrian government’s eyes, but supporting Nelson Mandela in South Africa was deemed illegal during the apartheid era. To fly over Syria’s territory may violate official norms of international relations, but governments do this when they support opposition groups with weapons, money or intelligence, as NATO countries did recently in Libya. In any event, violations of Syrian sovereignty would be the direct consequence of the Syrian state’s brutality, not the imperialism of outsiders.

Of course in Libya there was also the small matter of UN resolution. But anyway, what’s the harm when you mean well?

Sudan Election Stuff

Quick round up of Sudan election relatedish things…

Polling Day and A Complex Election – Hafiz Mohammed on how there’s simply not enough hours in the day to fill in the dastardly complex ballot papers

When is an election boycott not an election boycott? When it takes place in Sudan

Rigged Elections in Darfur and the Consequences of a Probable NCP Victory in Sudan – The International Crisis Group’s verdict

SUDAN VOTES MUSIC HOPES Trailer – it aint Things Can Only Get Better, thankfully

Sudan’s election: Let those people go – “despite all these flaws, it is to be hoped that it will go ahead. If it does, the outside world should hold its nose and accept the result. For the election could lead to progress on one front in a country that is pitifully short of the stuff: it could result in a peaceful division of Sudan between north and south.”

wars aren’t pointless – Texas in Africa sums up debate over Geoffrey Gettleman’s Forever Wars argument. I’m with Gettleman

Bashir and the ICC

My opinion piece is running in The Daily Telegraph today. It is a round-up of the thesis in my book but also points out, with an election days away for which Bashir is a shoo-in, how the international campaign has backfired. This is likely to be the most contentious claim…

Then, last year, the campaign won its second big victory, when the ICC issued a warrant for the arrest of Bashir on war crimes charges. But that, too, is backfiring. Before he was indicted, Bashir told regional leaders and his confidantes that he was ready to step down: after 20 years in office, he was ready for a holiday, and retirement to a smart new villa in the north of Khartoum. Now, fearing arrest by a new regime, he has promised his inner circle that he will fight on. He is not a man to bow to pressure – nor is he the monster of popular imagination. He is certainly a war criminal, but he has shown that he can be pragmatic, as when he signed a ceasefire with rebels in the south in 2005.

I’ve been sitting on this for a while and have debated it several times with different Darfur watchers. It came from three different sources, including Bashir’s inner circle and, second-hand, via a head of state. It may be that he was never going to step down. It is impossible to know exactly what would have happened in different circumstances. However, the sources I spoke to are rock solid on this and I believe it’s another example of how going to the International Criminal Court was a mistake. Bashir has no choice now but to fight on.

Centrifugal Forces in Sudan

Debate about potential delay to Sudanese elections continues, with some opposition parties wanting the ballot postponed to ensure a fairer process. Hassan al-Turabi’s centrifugal forces, though, are a valid concern and less than perfect elections may be the best we can hope for.

But should we settle for that? One of my colleagues in Nairobi used to say it was racist to adopt a different set of standards in Africa. Why have one standard for the UK, say, and another for Sudan? It’s a fair point. The difference is that the UK is unlikely to pull itself apart if elections are postponed.

Bits and bobs

Here’s some stuff on Sudan and Darfur that I’ve been reading recently…

In DarfurWinter Miller travelled to Chad with Nick Kristof and used the trip as the basis for a play. Anyone going to see it? I’d love to. Have an African play idea myself that is destined to remain forever just an idea

Terror train turns the corner at last – I’m becoming obsessed with stories about trains. Expect to see me filing plenty from Pakistan. And nice to see good news in Sudan (although it might be an election gimmick)

Hollywood Politics – a response to a review of my book, in which I am described as a “so-called intellectual”. Chuffed to bits

Feared Uganda rebel chief not in Darfur: Sudan army – it is fair to say that everyone who has weighed in on the Where’s Kony Question has an, erm, difficult relationship with the truth. I don’t know what I believe any more

Sudan electionnaire – handy guide to which party best represents you in the Sudanese elections. I come out as split between Umma Reform and Renewal, the SPLM and one other that I’ve forgotten (hat tip to Texas in Africa)

Eight Myths About Darfur

Rebels of the Justice and Equality Movement in North Darfur

Rebels of the Justice and Equality Movement in North Darfur

Despite my best efforts, there is still plenty of guff being written about Sudan and Darfur. Some is written through simple ignorance. Never has so much been written about a place by so many people who have never been there. At the same time, there are lots of campaigners who should know better. For anyone thinking about writing Darfur in the next weeks as we approach important elections, here is my simple guide to some myths and realities about the place:

  1. Darfur is the size of Texas or France - A far better comparison is Spain (or Turkmenistan, if you want to be really pedantic)
  2. The conflict in Darfur is between Muslims and Christians – It is not. They are pretty much all Muslims
  3. The conflict is  about oil – Nope. There is no oil in Darfur
  4. The Arabs are the bad guys – While some Arab militias have joined the Janjaweed, most Arabs stayed out of the conflict altogether but have still wound up as victims
  5. The rebels are the good guys – It would be nice if they were. But Africa is full of rebels who seized power only to repeat the abuses of the regimes they replaced. In Darfur, they use child soldiers, hijack aid and have been one of the barriers to peace
  6. Foreign Arabs have settled in villages vacated by persecuted tribes – There are plenty of reports, but little evidence. In some cases the Arabs have been described as foreign because hundreds of years ago their ancestors arrived from other countries. But today they are Darfuris
  7. The Arabs are light-skinned – it is nigh-on impossible to identify many people calling themselves Arab simply by skin colour. Some come from “African tribes” and adopt the name Arab to reflect their nomadic status. All Darfuris are black and African
  8. President Omar al-Bashir is a crazy, genocidal monster – he is a war criminal, yes, but he has pursued a clever – and at times pragmatic – strategy to hold on to power. That is how we should deal with him

Save Darfur Goes to Darfur

Jerry Fowler, the soon-to-depart head of the Save Darfur Coalition, thinks I have been unfair to his campaign. His point is that I have misrepresented its case and have based my criticism on things they used to say, years ago. All of which strikes me as a little unfair when his press releases carry the following message…

About Save Darfur Coalition: The Save Darfur Coalition – an alliance of more than 180 faith-based, advocacy and human rights organizations – raises public awareness about the ongoing genocide in Darfur and mobilizes a unified response to the atrocities that threaten the lives of people throughout the Darfur region.

Anyone who has been to Darfur knows this is arrant nonsense. There are lots of bad things going on, but I have seen no evidence of an “ongoing genocide”. Even “atrocities” seems to misrepresent the prosaic, daily drip-drip-drip of death. The good news is that Jerry Fowler has now actually been to Darfur and, erm, this is what he found…

…an uneasy situation – “neither peace, nor war,” we heard a number of times. From IDPs we consistently heard expressions of fear and a pervading sense of insecurity. Clashes between the government and rebels are happening in some areas, but such organized fighting is not widespread. Nor is there systematic violence against civilians. But neither is there a sense of stability, security or peace. Quite simply, nothing is resolved. And a large portion of the civilian population remains extremely vulnerable.

Guess what? Things are quite so clear as they seem from thousands of miles away. Not even “systematic violence against civilians”. Over at Brains Like a Shoe, Sean Brooks has a similar revelation…

For now, I can say that having visited Khartoum, the three capitals of Darfur and Juba, one cannot help but be struck by the depth of complexity to the immediate crises and issues at hand.

So does this mean an end to the apocalyptic, over-simplified language favoured by the self-appointed saviours of Darfur that has done so much to prevent progress? Let’s hope so. And maybe they’ll be more receptive to the argument I make in Saving Darfur. Anyway, I for one will be watching to see how Save Darfur’s position develops.

Learn From My Mistakes

The Crilly roadshow has rolled into London for various stuff connected with the launch of my book. It’s going to be a fun experience but also a little odd. As a text journalist the most hi-tech I get tends to be my mobile phone. Today, I’ll be getting to grips with powerpoint ready for a talk tomorrow to journalism students at City University. Another odd experience – it wil be my first time in a college of journalism. I hope I’m not struck down by lightning.

Anyway, the talk I’ll be doing will be based on a blog post I did a while back entitled How to Operate in Sudan. These are my golden rules:

  • Always allow about double the time you would normally for pretty much anything
  • Always use a trusted fixer and pay them ridiculous sums if it means they will dump their current client for you
  • Never assume you will come away with the stories that you originally planned to write. They will mostly fall through, but you will probably get something better anyway
  • Don’t expect anyone to answer a coldcall. A text message first goes a long way
  • Don’t bear an uncanny resemblance to the previous BBC stringer who got kicked out
  • Never attempt sarcasm with the good people from the Humanitarian Aid Commission. Particularly when denying you work for the BBC. Particularly at airports in Darfur. You will find yourself frogmarched off the plane while startled passengers look on (according to a good friend)
  • Never, never – not under any circumstances, ever – point out to a government official that Allah probably has better things to do with his time than oversee the scheduling of interviews or production of travel permits (as said friend once did when told for the umpteenth time his travel permit would be ready tomorrow, insh’Allah – God willing). That is poor behaviour on many levels