Tag Archives: Musa Hilal

Musa Hilal’s prophetic words in Darfur

“The government call to arms is carried out through the tribal leaders,” Hilal said. “Every government comes and finds us here. When they leave, we will still be here. When they come back, we will still be here. We will always be here.”

From time to time, I still go back and read Samantha Power’s New Yorker piece Dying in Darfur. Published in August 2004, just as the world was waking up to the bloodshed in Sudan’s western desert region, it is credited by Mia Farrow as one of the key pieces that turned her on to the unfolding humanitarian crisis.

And it remains a perceptive piece of writing.

It is the final paragraph, and the quotation above from Musa Hilal, that makes it so illuminating. Every time I do one of the “why have we forgotten about Darfur?” radio pieces, I scribble out his words in preparation. But I never seem to be able to squeeze them in on air.

Hilal is generally referred to as a – sometimes THE – Janjaweed leader, whose militias carried out the bloody bidding of the government in Khartoum.

But his words show a more complex relationship, one that I find instructive for considering any broadly tribal society and its political relationships with the centre – whether in Pakistan’s border lands, or in Afghanistan or in the Middle East.

Because Hilal is still there. Darfur was his country before it was Omar al-Bashir’s. And his deadly campaign of 2003 onwards was part of his deal to make sure he stayed there.

Consider that when you hear that his militias are being incorporated into Sudan’s armed forces. Is it part of a programme to exterminate non-Arab tribes? Or is it Khartoum’s way of trying to rein in Hilal himself?

Then earlier this year he turned against Khartoum, urging his followers not to vote or even to disrupt elections. Of course he relented, no doubt after a lucrative deal was struck, and his men “were seen forcing voters who were boycotting to vote for the ruling party candidates and Bashir”, according to Sudan Democracy First Group (PDF here, and it is well worth reading the whole thing).

The dramatic reversal has raised doubts about Hilal’s sincerity and real intentions and concerns about how far the Government might go to contain his growing political ambitions without relinquishing ultimate control on its manipulative policies in Darfur.

Understanding this dynamic is crucial to understanding how Darfur and Sudan work. For as Hilal said 11 years ago, “We will always be here.” Proxies have a habit of sticking around long after they are wanted or needed. Something you suspect he knew well.

Darfur diplomacy row

On the road with Unamid

Ibrahim Gambari is head of Unamid, the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur. He’s a diplomat. And one of the things about being a diplomat is that you go to things when you are invited. That’s the diplomatic thing to do. And so it was that he turned up at a wedding do in Khartoum. Of course it wasn’t any old wedding. It was the marriage of Chad’s president Idriss Deby to a daughter of the infamous Janjaweed leader Musa Hilal. And guess who was there? Omar al Bashir, president of Sudan who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on several counts of crimes against humanity.

Unpleasant and distasteful the company may have been. But then few diplomats in the region would get very far if they avoided unpleasant and distasteful company. But look what happened next:

New York-based Human Rights Watch protested in a letter last week to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon over the meeting, in which a Reuters photograph showed Ibrahim Gambari talking to President Omar Hassan al-Bashir at the wedding in Khartoum.

“Mr. Gambari’s attention has been drawn to the letter and to the need to avoid such encounters in future, however unintentional this particular encounter may have been,” U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters.

In an ideal world, of course Mr Gambari should not be consorting with suspects such as Mr Bashir or his Janjaweed lieutenant. But then again, we don’t live in an ideal world. As Simon Allison points out, that is rather why we have diplomats:

This is a conflict in which there aren’t any good guys, only men of varying levels of disrepute. Bashir is among the worst, but he is also the most important. Knowing this, and given the parlous state of Darfuri politics does it not make some kind of sense that Gambari should seize whatever opportunities he can to speak with Bashir and his lieutenants?

I don’t know about anyone else, but when I turn up at an office in my tie with tape recorder in hand then everyone’s guard goes up. Instead I get some of my best work done, contacts made and titbits collected at social occasions. And the same goes for diplomacy.

The human rights analysis has proved an effective tool for raising awareness of so much suffering around the world. But sometimes we have to remember it isn’t the only game in town.

In the end, Mr Gambari has a better chance of making a difference in Darfur than a bloke with a megaphone laying down the law from New York.

(And if you like this argument – or disagree so much that you want to throttle me – there’s more of the same in my book, Saving Darfur.)

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.)

Business as Usual in Khartoum

Have neglected much of the rest of my patch as the crisis in Kenya rumbles on. But nice to know that you can rely on Khartoum to maintain business as usual.

The Sudanese authorities have given a senior government position to a man accused of co-ordinating the Janjaweed Arab militia in Darfur. The minister of federal affairs, Abdel Basit Sabderat, said clan leader Musa Hilal had been named as his adviser.