Understanding state sponsored violence in Sudan
By Anne Bartlett
There is an old Indian story about a group of blind men and an elephant, which does a remarkable job of illustrating exactly how the NCP has managed to get away with its campaign of bullying and state sponsored violence against defenseless people throughout Sudan. In the story, six blind men are asked to describe an elephant. Struggling to know the whole elephant, each man touches a different part of it. One feels the tusk, one the trunk, one the body and so on. Each comes back with a different description of the elephant and fails to agree with the other about the nature of the animal under study, and what it looks like.
At the risk of stating the obvious here, there are some very sharp parallels to be drawn between this story and the current state of inaction where the NCP is concerned. Chief among them is the propensity of the international community to deal with each instance of slaughter, starvation and political coercion as if it is a discrete or ad hoc event in Sudan. Why, for example, are Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile treated as if they different problems, rather than instances of the same genocidal impulse? Why are 20 years of brutality against the people of the South, previous violence in the Nuba Mountains and over a decade of violence in Darfur not lesson enough? Is the case of selective blindness on the part of international community a matter of incompetence where the butchers of Khartoum are concerned, or perhaps just diplomatic indifference to the people who are suffering?
If I sound angry about Sudan’s unfolding nightmare, then it is with good cause. Over recent decades, the world has been happy to turn its back on certain conflicts while taking decisive action on others. Notably, issues that have direct bearing on the West’s resource needs are solved with resounding speed and decisiveness, while those that pose moral or ethical questions are largely ignored, or even worse, left to China’s amoral political pandering. Sudan’s fundamentalist clique has been allowed to get away with murder – quite literally – even though on the face of it, they are more deserving of decisive action to halt their obnoxious behavior than almost any rogue government on earth. Yet today, even in the face of wholesale slaughter, we are still wringing our hands and debating what is to be done. Is the picture really that opaque that we can’t figure it out?
Where diplomacy is concerned, the predilection for moral equivalency continues to set the terms of the policy being followed. The first plank of this policy is the argument that there isn’t enough evidence to take decisive action. Both the British and United States governments have become very adept at using this argument, even going so far as to question whether the NCP is actually capable of genocidal action where its people are concerned. U.S. Envoy Princeton Lyman, for example, has made precisely such an argument where the Nuba Mountains are concerned, by saying he does not believe that SAF is capable of ethically “cleansing” the local population in large numbers. Besides the obvious duplicity of such a statement, it also begs the question of whether Lyman should be treated for chronic amnesia on account of his inability to recall Sudan’s recent history.
The other diplomatic ruse used to deal with each situation is to cloak it under the banner of “humanitarian crisis”. This inevitably reduces the solution to aid, rather than concerted political action to stop the tactics of the regime. However, this policy not only tinkers with the edges of Khartoum’s brutality rather than getting to the core of the issue, but it also sets a highly dangerous precedent of politicizing aid delivery. Through this policy the international community plays right into the hands of the regime in Khartoum: it allows the NCP to play God by deciding which NGOs can operate, who will be allowed to eat and who will die. It also further lines the pockets of Bashir and his relatives who, with the sanction of HAC, have generated fake humanitarian agencies to supply aid where external agencies have been banned. Finally, and of more concern for Sudan over the long term, the policy of supplying aid rather than dealing with the root cause of the problem also perpetuates the issue of food insecurity by failing to protect the agricultural sector. The net result is that instead of Sudan being the breadbasket of Africa as was often predicted, it will instead become an agricultural basket case that is very difficult to resolve.
Today on the ground, the ramifications of these policies are playing out in a slow motion cycle of desperation and despair. For example, where Darfur is concerned, the myth of peace perpetrated by irresponsible news agencies is showing itself to be a completely specious argument. For close to three years now I have argued that a massive program of demographic and cultural re-engineering has been underway in Darfur that has been bringing NCP supporters from outside, rounding up local people like sheep and allowing the imposters to police the very people they have displaced. Today, the evidence of this policy is starting to surface with rumors of mass graves and other atrocities. Even in the last few weeks, the residents of Kabkabiya in northern Darfur have been subjected to indiscriminate violence as a result of NCP attempts to rezone land in their area. On the 27th of March residents around Birgi market and al Salaam neighborhoods were terrorized by NISS and police officials, leading to 5 deaths and 6 admitted to hospital. A subsequent demonstration also failed to resolve the situation. Instead, a further 13 people sustained gunshot wounds and a man later died as a result of violence around the UNAMID compound where demonstrators were actually fired upon. Is this really what peace looks like in Darfur? And, perhaps more importantly here, what exactly is UNAMID playing at?
All of these points illustrate a fundamental weakness in the West’s policy towards Sudan. It demonstrates the actual reality of the partial truths and the hidden agendas employed by outside governments and their spokespeople. The US and UK notion that the NCP is a case of “better the devil you know” may yet turn out to be extremely ill advised. For a start, the corrupt and power hungry cabal at the center of the government in Khartoum is now not only highly unstable, but also perpetrating so much state sponsored violence that the cost of dealing with their behavior is prohibitively high. It may be true that at the end of the day, it is the people of Sudan who pay the ultimate price for these diplomatic missteps. Yet there is another side to this argument too. Doing deals with the devil is never a good policy. Even if it is in the guise of diplomatic self-interest and geopolitical expediency, this policy may yet come back to affect western governments in a way that they neither anticipated nor counted upon. The time has now come to chart a different course of action in Sudan, and for once in recent history that course now needs to be based on the needs of humanity, rather than naked self-interest.
Dr. Anne Bartlett is the Director of the International Studies Graduate Program at the University of San Francisco. She is also a director of the Darfur Reconciliation and Development Organization (www.drdoafrica.org). She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org