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Khartoum’s calculated fever

Gérard Prunier
5 December 2007

The three weeks in Sudan from mid-November 2007 have been a strange period, where the continuing tragedy in Darfur and the farce of a British primary-school teacher imprisoned for allowing her class to name a teddy-bear "Mohammed" commingle yet seem to belong to different worlds. But what marks the current phase in particular as one of escalating tension is the bizarre quality of a number of the Sudanese government's declarations and actions; this is even clearer when the public record is tracked in Arabic, since the original sources are often quite a bit rougher than their English translations .

Gérard Prunier is research professor at the University of Paris and director of the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa. He is the author of The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide (C Hurst, 1998), Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide (C Hurst, revised edition, 2007), and From Genocide to Continental War: The Congolese Conflict and the Crisis of Contemporary Africa (C Hurst, 2006)

Also by Gérard Prunier in openDemocracy:

"Darfur's Sudan problem" (15 September 2006)

"The DR Congo's political opportunity" (14 March 2007)

"Chad, the CAR and Darfur: dynamics of conflict" (18 April 2007)

"Chad's tragedy" (7 September 2007)

"Sudan between war and peace" (1 November 2007)Two speeches within a few days of each other by Sudan's president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, are especially revealing in this respect. The first was delivered on 14 November 2007, at the opening of a conference on Islamic NGOs entitled "Mercy for the Universe". It began by blaming the Darfur situation on "western conspiracies that are as old as the invasion of the Sudan by Kouchner (sic) with the assistance of the then Christian Yemen and the killing of Abdallah al-Ta'aishi while he was saying his prayers".

This introduction itself deserves a moment's decoding. It is interesting enough that the 19th-century British imperial warrior Lord Kitchener had been turned into the French minister for foreign affairs and strong advocate of "humanitarian intervention", in what was presumably a slip of the tongue; but the notion of a Christian Yemen taking part in the 1898 conquest of Sudan is astonishing. Moreover, the president's account of the killing of Khalifa Abdallah involves some historical truth-bending: what happened was that the khalifa fled the battlefield after his defeat at Karari, with the British in hot pursuit; refused to surrender when encircled, preferring death to captivity; and at the last moment, realising all was lost, wrapped his head with his jallabiya and went into prayer-mode as the bullets cut him down.

After the opening excursion, President al-Bashir raised the rhetorical temperature by seizing on the topic of the mostly Chadian children taken into illegal adoption by the confused French NGO l'Arche de Zoe (Zoe's Ark). "This is a new conspiracy", he said, hatched against Sudan by these people who are missionaries, who "want to turn our children into priests and send them back here to preach Christianity". But in fact this is their cover: actually they are motivated by greed for Darfur's minerals.

Then the president shifted emphasis: "What they want is to put their nose into our religion; they want us to change our costumes and school curriculum while drafting laws on anti-semitism which make simply questioning the reality of the holocaust a cause for legal punishment. They are a cursed alliance of Jews and Christian extremists who bless the abuse of Prophet Mohammed as a sign of freedom of expression, all in order to fuel the conflict in Darfur".

Wad Medani: the lion's mouth

But this was only an appetiser. The second speech, on 17 November in Wad Medani, was even more violent and more rambling. Both the venue (Wad Medani is, after Khartoum and Port Sudan, the third largest city in the country, and a traditional bastion of the opposition) and the occasion (in celebration of the nineteenth anniversary of the creation of the Popular Defence Forces [PDF] militias) were carefully chosen and significant.

Wad Medani remains the agricultural capital of Sudan, and a symbol of the "liberal" north; both the Communist Party and the agricultural workers' trade union have strong support there. Before the 1986 elections, the Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Hassan al-Turabi was stoned out of town when he had tried to hold a meeting there. The speech's subject also contained an element of more immediate, deliberate political provocation. When the south-Sudan-based Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) withdrew from the coalition government on 11 October, accusing the dominant Islamists of ignoring key provisions of the north-south comprehensive peace agreement (CPA, signed in January 2005), its prerequisites for returning to the coalition included the disbanding of the Popular Defence Forces.

Also in openDemocracy on Sudan, Darfur and the region:

Stephen Ellis, "Darfur: countdown to catastrophe" (9 June 2004)

Lyndall Stein, "Darfur journal" (18 November 2004)

Alex de Waal, "Darfur's fragile peace" (4 July 2006)

Suliman Baldo, "Darfur's peace plan: the view from the ground" (23 May 2006)

Simon Roughneen, "Darfur: between peace and delivery" (25 June 2006)

This demand was quite logical for the SPLM to make, since the PDF is a political militia which is widely held responsible for the worst human-rights violations inflicted in south Sudan during the war of 1983-2002. To go to Wad Medani, to celebrate the southern-killing PDF, was a calculated insult to all forms of opposition thinking.

But the Sudanese government's internal enemies were not the only targets of al-Bashir's speech. He warmed up by returning to Zoe's Ark, accusing "the west" (in general) "of wanting to restart the slave trade by abducting Muslim children". (This, however, was almost moderate when set against regime dignitary Nafi Ali Nafi's statement that the "10,000" Zoe's Ark children were destined to be cut up and their livers and kidneys used for organ transplants "for elderly Europeans".)

The president then embarked on an omni-directional assault:

* on the proposed United Nations / African Union "hybrid force" in Darfur: "Ban Ki-moon, [Alpha Oumar] Konaré and others come forward and tell us they will bring forces from Thailand, Nepal, Sweden and Norway. But we will not accept any forces without consent. And we are convinced that the elements they insist on sending us from Sweden and Norway are in fact intelligence elements from Mossad and the CIA"

* the crisis over the implementation of the CPA: "It is (the southerners) who have violated the peace agreement many times. We are keener on peace than either America, Britain or Europe. They are just hypocrites who want to steal our children"

* the Abyei border-commission report: "Their report, I drink it. We will not budge an inch on the question of the Abyei border and we will only accept the 1905 border demarcation (which puts Abyei in the north).

The expression "I drink it", related to folk superstition in some Muslim countries, also needs some decoding: a curses is written on a piece of paper and which is then plunged in a cup of water, whereupon the ink dissolves and a person makes the curse effective by drinking the water. So the Abyei commission of experts now stands cursed, washed out and drunk; the next stage being urination, this leaves the whole process at a very low level of dignity.

In case anybody had any doubts at this point, President al-Bashir invoked the image of a particularly grievous insult in Muslim lands by saying of western countries: "their faces are under the sole of my shoes".

Darfur: wolves at bay

The two speeches were followed on 25 November by the arrest of Gillian Gibbons, a primary-school teacher from the English city of Liverpool, who was threatened with capital punishment for allowing her charges to name a teddy bear "Mohammed". After intense diplomatic efforts, including the despatch of two leading British Muslim politicians, the teacher was released early from her fifteen-day sentence on 3 December and returned home the following day.

At this stage, it might be wondered if Sudan's political leadership is suffering from an impairment of its mental faculties. The answer is a most emphatic "no". The Sudanese regime is in fact using the age-old tactic of "scare and confuse the enemy" - reminiscent of the savage pre-match haka war-dance of New Zealand's rugby team. Khartoum too has logic on its side, since there is an emergency.

Sudan is in very serious trouble. The Darfur civil war-cum-massacres show no sign of improvement (in fact 30,000 more people were displaced by attacks in October 2007, bringing the total number of additional IDPs this year to 280,000); the government of national unity is frozen and the prospects of getting it restarted are uncertain, notwithstanding the announcement on 5 December 2007 of a provisional deal between Omar al-Bashir and southern leader Salva Kiir; there are unexplained troop movements all over the country; the eastern peace agreement (EPA, signed in June 2006) is floundering; and on Darfur's western border the Chadian civil war has restarted in earnest.

This pervasive violence and confusion makes the government very worried that the deployment of international peacekeeping forces - Eufor in Chad and Unamid in Darfur - is in fact a western ploy ultimately aiming at regime change in Khartoum. The ghost of Slobodan Milosevic haunts Sudan's rulers; in response, they are trying their best to present to the world a resolute, bellicose and insulting mien. They calculate that the international community, shaken by Iraq, Afghanistan, the Arab-Israeli conflict, al-Qaida's threats, the Ethiopian intervention in Somalia and tensions with Iran, has had its fill of confrontations with political Islam.

Thus, Khartoum's current febrile mood - of which the teddy-bear saga is a minor if revealing symptom - can be understood as a calculated bid for dissuasion, an attempt to deflect what it sees (probably wrongly, but that is irrelevant) as a direct threat to the regime's existence. As Condoleezza Rice visits Addis Ababa on 5 December, Khartoum will be watching closely for signs of any initiative in the region that reinforces its sense of threat.

There may, Sudan's serious trouble notwithstanding, be less immediately to worry about than Khartoum thinks. This is certainly the case where Darfur is concerned. There are over 80,000 United Nations peacekeepers deployed worldwide. Unamid would cost over $1 billion per year and nobody seems to know where the money is coming from; nobody seems to be able to find helicopters with sand-filters for desert operations either (the United States has a lot but they are all in Iraq and it does not want to spare any). Vehicles adapted to the terrain of Darfur are in short supply. Khartoum is spurning troop offers from western states ("child kidnappers", "missionaries", "Mohammed abusers") and wants only "African" (read "under-equipped") soldiers.

In this light, the war of words waged by Khartoum is much less irrational than it seems. Actually, it is designed to avoid having to fight a war of bullets and it will likely achieve its aim. The bullets will remain for use against the population of Darfur.

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