Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Sudan: the effects of misrepresentation

To say the current conflict in Sudan has been underreported would be an understatement. Not only has it been underreported, but Sudan as a whole has been more or less forgotten by the West and its neighbours.

Alex De Waal made a compelling point on his SSRC blog where he points out that there’s a “Missing Academic Generation” on Sudan. He claims that there’s a missing generation of scholars on Sudan. There are those who taught and lived in Sudan in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s; and there’s the new breed that are producing new literature on Sudan. But none in between. He narrows down the reasons to the country’s self isolation, US imposed sanctions and Arabicization of the education system.

That’s fine; we all know the detrimental effects of isolation and sanctions. North Korea is a glaring example. However, a sudden surge of comparatively little media attention showed the more worrying effects of isolation and sanctions, and that’s misrepresentation.

Most articles being written about Sudan these days highlight the conflict as being more or less oil related. Every single article that tries to address the issue in Abyei paints a one-dimensional picture of the conflict. The phrase “oil-rich region of Abyei” is more common in literature about Sudan these days than a plausible solution. Now that the fighting has spilled over the state’s border, South Kurdofan gets an honourable mention as “oil rich South Kurdofan.”

The problem with such reporting is that the real stories get lost in the middle. Western reporters have failed miserably in addressing the real issues behind the conflict in Sudan. They seem to concentrate way too much on the oil wealth of the conflict ridden regions, and in doing that not paying much attention to other issues.

A recent news story about the development plans for South Sudan claimed that the World Bank recommended a $75 million trust fund for development purposes, while at the same time the government of the South is planning a $50 million independence celebration. This is ludicrous. It is unacceptable. But is it being disparaged? No, because people are too busy thinking about the “genocides” happening all over Sudan.

What’s more deplorable than all this is the overuse of the word “genocide.” Thanks to the over publicized Nickolas Kristof, Darfur and all other conflict regions in Sudan are now synonymous with genocide, ethnic cleansing and human rights violations. Every single report I have read about Sudan in the last 6 months – with no exceptions – has mentioned genocide at least once. A recent article posted on Nicholas Kristof’s blog, written by Samuel Totten, asks if Omar Al Bashir is up to genocide again. The base for this argument is the current hostilities in the Nuba Mountains in South Kurdofan. The region, mind you, is home to 30,000 rebel fighters who took up arms in a rebellion to demand their rights.

Some of you at this point will automatically assume that I’m a supporter of Omar Al Bashir and the NCP. I’m far from that. I’m not denying the deaths and violence, but using the genocide label so freely distorts the picture and is very counterproductive to those who are trying to voice their concerns.

So the point here is that when you label a conflict like that in the Nuba Mountains as genocide, you automatically remove the will, courage and audacity of those who took up arms from the equation. They become helpless civilians rather than freedom fighters (or whatever you want to call them). There’s a huge responsibility on the reporter to tell the story how it is. It is actually extremely condescending to have a western reporter classify the conflict in the country as genocide when it’s not, because of the sympathy and pity that are associated with the term.

This misrepresentation of events in Sudan is more dangerous than most people think, and because the conflict in Sudan is so underreported, we tend to inadvertently rely on such reports coming from the ground.

The coverage of the Arab revolutions was so immaculate because reporters knew the details of most of the inner workings of the political systems in the Arab countries, and most of the history associated with them. In Sudan’s case however, people just see governmental offences on African dominated “oil-rich” regions, they draw their conclusion there and then, and call it genocide.

Sudan’s history is intricate and requires an understanding. Even the local historians and political scientists – whose views are never taken into consideration when the issue of Sudan arises – are currently having a hard time understanding the predicament that the government has gotten itself in.

Mansour Khalid, a profound Sudanese political figure, published a book called “A Government They Deserve” in 1989. In this book he highlights how, since independence in 1956, the Sudanese elite have relentlessly failed their country and their people. I absolutely agree. It has been the North’s duty and responsibility – since they’re the educated ones – to ensure a united egalitarian multi-ethnic country, and not only has the North failed but it succeeded in doing exactly the opposite. You have to keep in mind that this book was written before the advent of the NCP. I could only imagine what Dr Khalid would have to say now.

The problems in Sudan are real and very serious, and I personally think it’s time that the Sudanese “elite” take responsibility and act for the future of the country as a whole. For that to happen, political, ethical, racial and religious differences have to be put aside. The government needs to stop categorizing the intellectuals as Umma Party or Communist Party, and take their advice where necessary; because in all honesty, they need as much help as they can get. This is no time to put the blame on political parties or corrupt officials, Sudan’s problem needs to be solved and it needs to be solved now, not tomorrow or the day after.

There has to be immediate, unbiased coverage of the hostilities in the South and West of the country. Calls for the genocide police and classifying rebellions as genocidal attempts by the government is doing injustice to those on the ground fighting for their rights.

Sudan: Not ethnicity, but incompetence

Many Sudanese people – even the so called political thinkers and intellectuals – blame Sudan’s failure as a state on the myriad of ethnicities that inhabit it. If you care enough to hear out this preposterous blaming game, they all eventually end up blaming the British and their divide and concur tactics. Well, the British wanted to concur, is there a way of morally concurring a nation? There isn’t.

Almost 60 years on, you still get the occasional “Sudan Expert” – usually a Northern Sudanese – claiming to have found the solution to Sudan’s problems. And nine times out of ten that solution would be for us to “embrace” our differences. I’m sure, ever since Sudan’s independence this solution would have been proposed on a daily basis.

Recognizing the ethnicity issue as a cause for all the tumult is good. But blaming the country’s consistent failures on it is inexcusable. A variety of ethnicities with conflicting demands is certainly not unique to Sudan, which is uncommon belief among most Sudanese. We constantly think that we are the only country in the world with conflicting ethnic groups. But we’re not. We’re not even the only one in the region, let alone the world.

Nigeria, for example, is more or less divided into three regions with dominant tribes. There are the Hausa in the north, the Igbo in the east, and the Yoruba in the west. All these tribes have sub-tribes. Nigeria being the most populated country in Africa has done a very impressive job in establishing a pseudo-democracy given the number of tribes that it accommodates.

Rwanda is another example. Rwanda’s current stability should make every Sudanese feel ashamed of our failure to contain our differences. Not only does Rwanda have conflicting ethnic groups, but the dominant Hutu waged an all out extermination of the Tutsi minority. After the atrocities of 1994, the Rwandan government has managed to establish a functioning system of governance and a stable economy under the patriarchal leadership of Paul Kagame.

It is self evident from Sudan’s history that the ethnicity issue was never made a priority. Not one president or prime minister has ever made a veritable effort to address the people’s differences. It seems that this was the case because, technically, the only people to have voiced their concerns and taken up arms in the early years of independence were the southerners; a bold move which was seen as audacious from the ever so chauvinistic north.

So when the southerners first formed a rebel army back in 1955, it was viewed as mutiny. The Sudanese government’s reaction was not much different from the reactions of the current Arab despots slaughtering their people. It seems the decision makers at the time thought the southerners didn’t have the right to demand their rights. Which is exactly what happened in Darfur, and South Kurdofan.

There are many reason to why the northerners think they are superior to everyone else; colour, religion, race, education and the like. The putative intellectual superiority of the north should now be called into question and scrutinized. Mainly because if the educated few can’t link armed rebellions with demands for rights and equal share of governance then who can?

So ethnicity is not the issue, it’s our leaders. They have a tendency to be incompetent. They have a tendency to deny minorities their rights, their freedoms and sometimes their modest existence. So no, I do not buy this hypothesis of embracing our differences in order to make our co-existence plausible, because that will help no one. What might help is if our government fully recognizes every region as significant in its own way from a political point of view; we can leave the emotional bonding for a later time.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Sudan?.. Not interested!

Shortly after all the revolutions kicked off in the MENA region, Al Jazeera, so impressed with the impact of social media on the uprisings, introduced a new, 30 minute program called The Stream.

This is what's written on The Stream's wikipedia page:

"It is branded as a “Web community With a Global TV show”. On television and online The Stream taps into the extraordinary potential of social media to disseminate news. The Stream is an aggregator of online sources and discussion, seeking out unheard voices, new perspectives from people on the ground and untold angles related to the most compelling stories of the day."

The Stream, impressively, has covered many untold stories. Contiguous events that other news outlets seem to ignore.

But it seems there's one story that everyone has agreed to ignore; and that's Sudan. Yes, Sudan. Sudan is no longer a country, nor a state, it's a news story. There is so much wrong in Sudan that even Ethiopia is offering a helping hand.

But it seems Sudan doesn't fit the aforementioned prerequisites. Apparently, there are no "unheard voices" to seek out, no "new perspectives from people on the ground", and also no "untold angles" related to Sudan's compelling stories. Well, OK, Sudan's story is never the most compelling of the day, because there's always someone somewhere in the world launching an online crime fighting website.

Don't get me wrong, I understand The Stream's commitment to the impacts of social media and its effects, but a consistent apathy towards Sudan is not justifiable.

Let's put Darfur and Abyei aside. During The Stream's first couple of weeks it addressed the issue of dying languages. There were detailed accounts made of two dying languages in Mexico, which was interesting. So I thought I should contribute. Being naive, I "told Al Jazeera" (#tellaljazeera) of the Nubian language in Northern Sudan that's losing its grip on survival everyday. Did Al Jazeera mention it? No.

At a later time, I was so enraged at the situation in Abyei, "I told Al Jazeera" to give it a mention. Did they mention it? No.

Mind you, Sudan is in the MENA region. It's right next to Egypt. To be more precise, Egypt and Sudan share a 1,273 km border, that's probably the circumference of Qatar (I'm not going to check, you check).

So, since none of the Misseriya, Dinka-Ngok or residents of South Kurdofan have iPhones or Android enabled mobile devices, the current conflict in Sudan will probably never make it to The Stream. Yes, all other news corporations also regard Sudan as insignificant, but The Stream matters to me, primarily because I'm its audience. I'm not a social media activist but I believe in the powers of social media, which automatically makes watching The Stream a daily chore.

The topics that have been covered on The Stream are numerous. From the Saudi women's fight for rights to India's new anti-corruption online activities. But for some reason, Sudan, which is inundated with problems, is being omitted.

Maybe social media hasn't done anything for Sudan, maybe it can, maybe it can't. But all these factors need to be addressed. I don't expect The Stream to cover only Sudan, but at least acknowledge the fact that there are some very serious problems in the region, and how, despite all efforts by the Sudanese online community, they have been incessantly missed or even ignored. That's a real issue, and it concerns social media and the internet. The failure of an online awareness campaign is just as important as a success. So, what's The Stream waiting for?

I was a dedicated fan of The Stream, I even used to watch the post-show discussions on a lagging stream, but I can't fervently support something that completely ignores my issues.

Hence, I think all Sudanese people should boycott Al Jazeera's The Stream, and I will be the first.