Tag Archives: Bashir

Stick to Basketball George

Sometimes, even I get sick of my own cyncism. Sometimes I make a deliberate effort to be more positive. I bite my tongue when a well-meaning gap year student tells me they’ll be digging latrines in Uganda, where manual labour is not in short supply. Or I applaud the notion of sending goats to a poor village, where they will help destroy the vegetation. And sometimes I say how wonderful it is that movie stars have decided to use their star power to help worthy causes.

And then something happens that just makes all my warm, woolly thoughts evapourate. Usually it is someone being pompous. And usually it is George Clooney…

“He’s very predictable. We know all the moves. If you play basketball with somebody three times, you know that they’ve got no left hand…. We know how Bashir acts. He helps arm one of the rebel groups that are in disagreement with other groups in the south and tries to foment violence to destabilize the government. That’s what he’s always done.”

Ah yes, George Clooney, who understands Sudan and Omar al-Bashir so well that in order to persuade the world to send peacekeepers (forgoing the prospect of a peace deal for at least two years) he either exaggerated or plain made up the possible death toll if they weren’t deployed. The peacekeepers didn’t arrive for a couple of years, and nothing like his 2.5m people died.

George Clooney, who is such an expert on Sudan, that he has repeatedly confused Darfur, Chad and South Sudan, and his visits there.

And when he finally did make it there, he was struck down with such severe diarrhoea he very nearly had to be flown out by an emergency helicopter. Nothing wrong with that of course – happens to the best of us – but getting your publicist to force Reuters to withdraw the story makes him look like a dilettante, using Sudan to burnish his image. Movie stars don’t get diarrhoea, presumably.

Anyway, the biggest problem is that Clooney emphatically does not understand Bashir. If he did, he would not have worked so hard to get Bashir indicted by the International Criminal Court or campaigned for peace keepers when the world should have concentrated on getting a peace deal.

He would have understood that criminalising Bashir would only provoke a bitter backlash and make it harder to remove him from power.

Had he understood Bashir better, then Sudan may well have had a different president by now. In 2008 Bashir was telling confidantes in the governing party and at least one other head of state that he was planning to retire. Now thanks to Clooney and his chums he is a wanted man – and still in power.

And it’s not just me who feels this way

Sometimes Bashir Knows What He’s Talking About

President Bashir arrives in El Geneina, West Darfur, 2008

Al Jazeera’s interview with President Omar al Bashir of Sudan just a couple of days before the South votes on secession is making headlines. In it he says that the South will face instability if it chooses independence from Khartoum

“The south suffers from many problems. It’s been at war since 1959. The south does not have the ability to provide for its citizens or create a state or authority.”

This will no doubt excite the pro-breakaway American meddlers, who have long seen independence for the South as the first step to regime change in the North. They will, ironically, accuse Bashir of interfering in the Southern vote. But what has he really said? Only exactly the same thing as any analyst who understands the place will tell you. Without support, cash and expertise the South is a failed state in waiting. Africa is littered with countries where rebel movements have taken power only to rule as if they were still in the bush: through centralisation, patronage and an iron fist.

Let’s hope the lessons of Ethopia, Eritrea and Uganda have been learned – just to cite a few countries in the region – and that South Sudan does not follow when it becomes the world’s newest country.

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.

TV Appearance

The peace deal signed between the Justice and Equality Movement and Khartoum on Tuesday gave me a chance to talk about my book on Al Jazeera. It’s always fun doing TV but I invariably come away remembering the things I should have said. Anyway, I think I made my point and great to be getting the word out.

Clooney And Me

There were three people who declined all requests for interviews for my book: President Omar al-Bashir, Musa Hilal and George Clooney. At least Hilal had the decency to decline my requests. The other two simply didn’t respond. If I had got the chance to ask Clooney a few questions, this is what I would have asked:

  • In a 2007 interview with Time you challenged “dumb pundits” who were concerned about the role of celebrity activists to a debate on Darfur. You had been there, you said, and met all the players. Had you been to Darfur by October 2007, or had you been to South Sudan and Chad?
  • The following year you did travel to Darfur. But was your trip cut short by diarrhoea? A Reuters story was pulled under pressure from your publicity people. And an aide on your trip told me he had put the diarrhoea story about in order to give you more time “under the radar”. So what’s the truth?
  • Do you regret campaigning so hard for the indictment of President Omar al-Bashir, given that it lead to the expulsion of 13 aid groups with a huge impact on victims of sexual assaults and rape?

I didn’t ask Mia Farrow, but I’m pretty certain she would have come down with stomach bugs during her umpteen trips to Chad and Sudan. And I reckon she wouldn’t have had puff teams around her trying to kill the story. (In the interests of full disclosure, my last trip to Darfur was almost aborted when I came down with a stomach bug after a fine evening enjoying the hospitality of Irish peacekeepers in Chad, a sticky state of affairs solved only with half a dozen charcoal tablets.)

The Bashir Boogie

President Bashir arrives in El Geneina, West Darfur, on his mission of peace

President Bashir arrives in El Geneina, West Darfur, on his mission of peace

Just back in Khartourm from a trip to Darfur with President Omar al-Bashir, who is waiting to find out whether the International Criminal Court will issue a warrant for his arrest. The trip was astonishing and fascinating in many ways. It was a whistle-stop tour of El Fasher, Nyala and El Geneina with five-minute visits to schools and lengthy rallies in front of as many as 20,000 people.

The sight of someone accused of orchestrating genocide in Darfur doing a jig in front of thousands of cheering people rightly dominated much of the coverage.

At the same time, Bashir’s message of peace and development shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. He admitted injustices had happened in Darfur and appealed to all parties to join talks. He also promised electricity, schools and hospitals to a chronically under-developed region of Sudan.

Fine words. But much of it was pretty vague. Journalists were kept well out of his way (although I did manage to slip the cordon and fire in a quick question, which earned me nothing more than a withering look) so it is difficult to know how genuine he is. Bashir has after all broken his word many times before, on disarming the Janjaweed and bringing Ahmed Haroun to justice, for example.

The question now is what difference the looming ICC indictments make and whether they will pressure him to make a real difference. So far he has hardly put a foot wrong, keeping the rhetoric under control and trying to built a diplomatic coalition at the United Nations. As a western diplomatic source put it:

“The rhetoric has been managed and the demonstrations haven’t got out of hand while the political manoeuvring is under way. You have to say, he’s played a blinder.”

Now President Bashir must match his fine words with action to help end the suffering in Darfur.

The view from Khartoum

So it’s almost a week now since the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court revealed his evidence against President Omar al-Bashir. And it’s still pretty difficult to work out where things are going. The consensus among aid workers and UN staff here is that things will stay quiet while Khartoum goes down the diplomatic road, looking to the UN Security Counucil to head things off. If arrest warrants are issued and if Khartoum’s allies fail to have them suspended then we may see a ratcheting up of the usual restrictions on foreign aid workers.

There have been demonstrations – including one where a mob of about 50 people took exception to my presence, something that hasn’t happened since the last demonstration I attended in Khartoum. They have been limited in size and clearly orchestrated. My favourite was the one led by a man in a suit that materialised alongside the Ministry of the Council of Ministers, where by strange coincidence about 100 journalists were waiting for a statement from Ali Osman Taha.

There has been plenty of angry rhetoric, government officials promising to turn Darfur into a graveyard or to fight any foreigner who sets foot in the region. Some of the quotes are spectacularly similar – “foreigners ask us for protection in Darfur, but how can we protect them when our statehood is undermined by the ICC” – suggesting that some government line has been agreed. But for now it seems that the top figures in government are being totally reasonable.

Alex de Waal sums it up:

To date, the application by Moreno Ocampo for an arrest warrant for President Omar al Bashir has not led to disaster in Sudan. The CPA is intact, the UN operations are continuing, there have been no clashes between government supporters and enemies. In fact, the country appears calmer than last week.

Where are we going? There’s plenty of scope for things to get worse. The anti-Western backlash could still happen. But at the end of the day Bashir is interested in one thing only: Survival. And for now that means keeping his head down and working the diplomatic channels. We’ll get a better feeling for whether the ICC move has harmed the chances of peace in Darfur if and when arrest warrants are issued.