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A tale of three Sudans

The second is the Republic of The Sudan now viewed from outside the main bowl of the entity, as sculpted with the various accounts of…

The second is the Republic of The Sudan now viewed from outside the main bowl of the entity, as sculpted with the various accounts of the international news media reportage and the views of sections of the international community.

The third is the Republic of The Sudan as the authorities in Khartoum desperately want everyone within and outside the entity to view it.

The first, the vastest political entity in Africa, is a nation-state as structured right from the mid 20th Century or even a bit earlier, a nation-state which has waded through quite a significant troubled political history, which has given birth to the present quite unpleasant political realities posing notable threats to its future as The Sudan known over the decades by all – one whole huge country with a population of over 40 million now.

The second is a large ‘infamous’ country with regard to ‘political troubles,’ a country reeking of ‘genocide,’ a country so rocked by internal conflicts and conflict with the neighbouring Chad Republic.

The third is a large proud and prosperous nation-state experiencing ‘normal’ internal political problems in the nexus of events through its political history, a country ‘very much despised’ by The West which ‘won’t let it be.’ This third Sudan impliedly argues that its problems are natural and normal with every nation-state, and all countries have common internal political problems, while each has a set of political problems peculiar to it, which it wants all to believe.

This third Sudan shows, or attempts to show, to all within and outside its entity that some of its political crises are ‘inconsequential,’ and others ‘so manageable’ (in fact, some of them will ‘soon wane away’) that activities towards the 2010 general elections are continuing peacefully apace.

These three Sudans all exist in one broad bowl – the bowl of The Republic of The Sudan, an independent African nation, a member of the United Nations (UN), African Union (AU), The Arab League, The Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) and numerous others, according to its wishes and aspirations as a nation-state.

The Sudan you see, or the one someone wants you to see, among the three depends on where you are, physically and conceptually.

Last May, Uthman Abubakar of the Media Trust of Nigeria, and Adekunle Adewale and Hakeem Okanlawon, both of the African Independent Television (AIT), saw the third Sudan for one week, perhaps only physically or, at least, much more physically than conceptually.

The trip was sponsored by the Embassy of The Republic of The Sudan in Nigeria. Evidently, it was organised on the behest of the authorities in Khartoum who have been getting so much aggrieved and irritated by the ceaseless ‘negative’ publicity and propaganda by sections of the Western media and the international community on the country’s internal crises over the decades, most especially the Darfur crisis, and frightened by the Warrant of Arrest slammed on President Omar Al-Bashir last March by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of genocide in the three-state conflict-shattered region.

The Al-Bashir government felt, and still feels, the ‘negative’ publicity and ‘mischievous propaganda,’ climaxing with the ICC Warrant of Arrest, have incited and aggravated international dissent against Al-Bashir and The Sudan too much to be ignored.

The trip was part of a broad project of ‘counter publicity’ and ‘de-escalation of propaganda,’ using, mostly, African and Asian journalists as tools, to see and show the other side of The Sudan – ‘the very peaceful much larger side of The Sudan,’ to show that the crises in the country are ‘very well manageable,’ even if too substantial to be ignored; the government is not bereft of the ‘good ideas and measures’ to manage and resolve them; and, in fact, the troubled areas are just a slice of the huge country, planets far flung from the larger Sudan.

By 11 am, or thereabouts, of Friday, May 16, the three-man Nigerian journalists team was at the international wing of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, conveyed there by the officials of the Sudanese Embassy in Nigeria, who had first gathered them at the Embassy office from as early as 9 am.

 As we all waited for the Ethiopian Airline Boeing 747, I was sufficiently cheered by the humorous SMS my Daily Editor, Mahmud Jega, sent to me: ‘Kayi hankali da Janjaweed’ (beware of the Janjaweed). This SMS, along with the excitement of going to the conflict frontline, cheered me throughout the about 6-hour Abuja-Khartoum flight.

The ET Boeing landed by 1.30 pm, and we immediately commenced the boarding process. At exactly 2.15 pm we took off, with the sweet feminine voice making, first in Amharic and then in English, the routine announcements, including the pre-takeoff safety instructions. Cruising at 38,000 feet above sea level, we had quite a pleasant four hours and fifteen minutes flight to Addis Abeba, landing at exactly 8.30 pm local time at destination (Ethiopia and the entire East Africa), which is 6.30 pm by the local time at the point of departure (Nigeria).

Lest I forget, I was woken up with a startle from my dozing with a slightly louder feminine voice to see a pleasantly smiling pretty Amharic lady, looking in her mid twenties, asking: ‘Fish or meat?’ ‘Fish!’ I replied, remembering a story a friend once told me of a flight passenger who was asked by the beautiful air hostess: ‘Tea or coffee?’ He replied: ‘Tea!’ She served him the tea. After a while, she came round and asked him: ‘What else?’ He replied: ‘What comes after tea (in the alphabetical order, what comes after ‘T’ is ‘U’). When she realized that he meant ‘You’ (which means her), she frowned and hurried away, leaving him chuckling mischievously.

I always remember this story during my flights, but I must say the truth, nothing but the whole truth, that I have never attempted to misbehave verbally like that passenger.  

As transit passengers, we had been directed by the pre-landing announcement that we (all passengers to Khartoum) should immediately proceed to the transit lounge after landing. We did. There, we went through another boarding process, and in much less than an hour, we boarded another ET aircraft, which had Cairo, Egypt as its final destination. The one and a half hours Addis-Khartoum flight was a bit boring, at least to Uthman, partly because it was dark when he landed at Addis, and, therefore, he could not view the famous city while the Abuja-Addis aircraft steadily descended, which had formed a substantial part of his excitement throughout the four hours and fifteen minutes, and partly because the flight was now getting boring.

We landed at Khartoum by 10.30 pm local time, which is 8.30 pm in Nigeria, finding Mohammed, the Correspondent of the Sudanese News Agency in Nigeria (or so he was introduced to us), our guide throughout the trip, with two young officials of the Sudanese Ministry of Information, waiting to receive us. We met some Middle-East journalists in Khartoum, including a very elderly Syrian journalist (he looked about seventy) who covered the Nigerian civil war. He declined to grant Uthman an interview on his experience of Nigeria of the sixties.

By 11.30 we were at our hotel, Taka Hotel, at the heart of Khartoum (South Khartoum), a nice lodging place, on the average, though not even three-star. We all went to bed with the excitement of interviewing President Omar Al-Bashir at the top of the list of several other Sudanese government officials any day within the week, which, initially, was a main part of the arrangement.

Our letter of invitation for the trip clearly said we were to interview Sudanese officials and visit Darfur and other research projects in the country. So we expected we would visit locations in the crisis-ridden Darfur and interview President Al-Bashir, The two main activities normally expected to be done by every international journalist visiting the Sudan in the present times.

Throughout the entire week, it was never organised for us to do any of these. As each day passed by without a reliable sign of any arrangement to take us to locations in Darfur, or to the Presidential Palace by the bank of the Blue Nile, I experience a painful lump of grief and disappointment descending down my throat. “Of what use is coming to The Sudan?” “How would I explain to my editors if I return to Nigeria without doing any of these two most significant activities of my trip to The Sudan as a journalist?” Right from the first couple of days, Kunle had always exclaimed to me: “My MD will shoot me if I tell him that I didn’t go to Darfur.”

We were not taken to Darfur, neither were we taken to the Presidential Palace to interview Al-Bashir. We couldn’t do more than get deeply aggrieved on the strength of the reasons both inferred and actually explained by Mohammed.

The reasons: Kunle had told me that days before we embarked on the trip, Khartoum officials had seriously queried the pedigree of the Nigerian journalist requesting to interview their president. So, when the interview was not arranged for us, we got sufficiently convinced that our journalistic pedigrees were assessed as too inconsequential to earn us the rare privilege of securing an interview with Al-Bashir, who was interviewed by the BBC’s Zainab Badawy, a few days earlier.

The excuse given for the inability to take us to locations in Darfur could be accepted as plausible under the existing circumstances. Obtaining the clearance for entry into Darfur, according to Mohammed, undergoes a long process of strict scrutiny. Clearance had earlier been sought with the name of Aisha Umar Yusuf (Media Trust), Kunle and a cameraman (AIT). Just a few days before the trip, Aisha’s name was replaced with that of Uthman and the initial AIT cameraman’s name was replaced with that of Hakeem. The time was too short for the organizers of the trip to obtain a fresh clearance before the end of the duration of the trip. The organisers even attempted to extend the duration of the trip by two days to make extra efforts towards obtaining the clearance. They couldn’t make any headway, or so they told us.

Deliberately or otherwise, we were confined to the city of Khartoum, making a triangular round around Khartoum South, Omdurman and Khartoum North, partly interviewing a handful of Sudanese government officials and politicians, and partly having a very memorable merry-go-round. The farthest we went outside Khartoum was to GIAD Industrial Estate, where we toured GIAD Motors, some forty to fifty kilometers outside the city. Perhaps to ensure that we never ‘strayed’ to anywhere we were not wanted to be, our Pass for free movement was even issued to us a day before our return flight.

So long as you are in Khartoum, you can never give any pathetic or appalling account of the situation in Darfur or the South Sudan. The city portrays a picture of a ‘majority’ peaceful Republic of The Sudan having very little or nothing to do with the ‘ridiculously unwise’ self-determination agitators of the South Sudan and the ‘Western and Chadian-incited 38 or so trouble-making clans’ of the Darfur region.

If you are in Khartoum, you can vouch that all is so well with The Sudan, the South Sudan and Darfur are ‘distant planets’ and they are ‘fading and negligible’ problems, and that a country-wide peaceful general elections can, in fact, peacefully take place come February, 2010, when Omar Al-Bashir has planned to seek to continue presiding over the affairs of the country as the sole candidate of his party, the National Congress Party (NCP).

With a view of Khartoum, the larger Sudan normally bubbles with social, economic and political activities, an all-well Sudan on the normal scale of developing countries, in sharp contrast to the whispered decadence and abject indigence of ‘the smaller sections.’  

The tours, the interesting features and the merry-go-round

First were the centuries-old burnt-brick industries, lining the banks of River Nile. The fact that the bricks are made of the clay collected during the flooding of the river during the rainy season is a pleasant confirmation of the promising multiple uses of the longest river in Africa, which shaped the larger parts of the histories of Egypt, the acclaimed cradle of civilisation, and The Sudan, the acclaimed cradle of humankind.

It is most interesting to observe that about, perhaps, ninety percent of buildings in Khartoum and, by extension, most of the communities in the country, especially those lining the famous river, are done with this ‘gift of the Nile.’ A most interesting advantage of building with these bricks is that, for example, during the hot season, when the panting heat oscillates most times between 42% and 47% Celsius, it is soothingly cool within the buildings.

Mayu (Hausa name for the month of May), a large ward named after May 25, 1969 revolution led by Jaafar Numeiri, who formally allocated it to the pilgrims trekking to Saudi Arabia, mainly from the present Northern Nigeria and Niger Republic as a Zango (settlement) cum transit camp, is a sprawling suburb of the city of Khartoum. The large pilgrims community had, hitherto, been settling there ‘illegally.’ The settlement is a mainly-populated Hausa community. After legalizing the settlement, Numeiri opened roads and provided other amenities there.

There are about 12 million Nigerians and Sudanese of Nigerian origin, most of them Hausa, who gathered in The Sudan over the centuries on the way to or from Saudi Arabia on Muslim pilgrimage.

A section of them camped there intentionally, while some did so when they ran out of provisions. Most of the settlers of the recent decades, however, camped there also partly intentionally, but partly, and very strikingly as victims of conmen pilgrims agents of Hajj-by-road, who dump them and disappear on the expiry of their travel documents.

Burj Al-Fateh, an architectural wonder and one of the most fascinating structures in Africa, the most fascinating modern structure in The Sudan, is a soaring hotel built in Khartoum by the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi. It is adjacent the Presidential Palace and the Ministry of Defense. It is strategically located that it can be viewed from all parts of the city.

Khartoum is divided into three – Khartoum South, Khartoum North and Omdurman, by the Blue and White Niles which fuses into one proceeding northwards to Egypt. The Blue Nile flows from Ethiopia and the White Nile, which has the stronger current, flows from Lake Victoria. The three sections of the city are joined over the Nile by seven bridges.

Eating out (outside the hotel) in Khartoum is fascinating indeed, especially in GAD Restaurant, a Lebanese enterprise. In the restaurant and other eateries enterprise, the Lebanese undoubtedly unmatched, even if, at least, in the Middle-East and the Arab world. So is a cruise in the boat in the Nile, which is very interesting and untiring. One of the most striking features of The Sudan is the high preference on white dresses and automobiles. 90 percent of the cars in Khartoum are white, so are the men’s Jallabia (gowns) and turbans. Why this striking preference on white? In that exceptionally hot terrain, the white colour repels heat. However hot it is outside, you don’t feel much of it while riding in your white car or wearing your white dress.

The interviews

Personalities interviewed were, most notably, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Africa, Khartoum, who is an acclaimed expert on the Horn of Africa, Professor Hassan Makky; Dr Lam Akol, a South Sudanese and erstwhile Foreign Affairs Minister of the country in the unity government formed by the National Congress Party (NCP) of the North and the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM) of the South as part of the implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), now a member of the Sudanese National Assembly; Dr Muhammad Mamdour Al-Mahdi, the Political Adviser to the Secretary of the National Congress Party; the Director-General of the Foreign NGOs; and Dr Abdelati, the Adviser and Consultant to President Al-Bashir on External Communication.

Intent on countering and de-escalating Western ‘negative’ news media publicity and propaganda against, they all commonly dwelt on the four most notable issues of Darfur; the ICC Warrant of Arrest on Al-Bashir, who will contest for the presidency in the February, 2010 elections; the Sudanese-Chadian strained relations; and the CPA with, and self determination for, the South Sudan.

The common view among them on Darfur is that the conflict there is fueled and stoked covertly by the western powers and overtly by the western news media; it is a conflict rooted mainly in the herdsmen-farmers clash over the ages; the conflict is now much more among the 38 or so clans there than between them and the state of The Sudan; the proclamation of autonomy/independence by some of the clans leaders in Darfur is treason according to the Sudanese constitution; the Darfur clans are obstinate on roundtable peace talks with the government of Sudan; and in spite of the Abuja and Doha initiatives, the Darfur crisis has no end in sight, especially according to Professor Makky.

The interviewees leaned heavily on the provisions of the Statute of Rome establishing the ICC and described the Warrant of Arrest on Al-Bashir as a ridiculous farce and a travesty of justice against which everyone must rise in solidarity with Al-Bashir. They swooped on the ICC, challenging it to, first, serve such warrant on the former President Bush of the United States for his ‘genocide’ in Iraq before it does so on Al-Bashir.

On the Sudanese-Chadian crisis, the interviewees see the Chad as the aggressor fueled by a section of the Western and Middle-East powers in a grand plan to provoke the Sudan into a full-scale war. The Chadians are the hawks; the Sudanese, the doves, they argued.

The prominent Sudanese, and Dr Lam Akol is most notable on this, all promised that in strict adherence to the CPA with the South, the NCP-led government would play no pranks to grant independence to the South Sudan if its peoples vote for it in the 2011 referendum. They, however, observed that the decades-old (since 1947) sentiment and agitation for independence by the peoples of that region is fast waning away in the face of emerging realities orchestrated by the ‘gross misdeeds and corruption’ committed by the autonomous government of the South Sudan (GoSS).

Dr Al-Mahdi and Dr Abdelati were impliedly even so emphatic on the argument that The Sudan is so intact and peaceful that it will hold the general elections, February, 2010, in which Al-Basir will run for the presidency as the only candidate of the NCP, “voters registration is going on all over the country (we did not witness any) and all the other parties are free to field their own candidates.”

That was the Sudan Uthman, Kunle and Hakeem saw, or were made to see.    

Meanwhile, the pro-self-determination sentiment and agitation in the Sudan can actually not be said to have subsided to an insignificant level to guarantee any required ease for the Sudan government to wane away the issue of the self determination before and during the 2011 referendum; the relations with the Chad continues to sour; the Warrant of Arrest still hangs up there, like the Sword of Damocles, on Al-Bashir, and it may descend on him, as it did on Liberia’s Charles Taylor, any moment after he ceases to be the president; and the news media outside the Republic of The Sudan will continue to report events in the country as they see them according to whatever conceptual inclination.

Above all, there is the Republic of The Sudan, an African nation-state and a member of the comity of nations grappling with the realities of nation-statehood according to its political history.

We came back to Nigeria the way we went on Saturday, May 24 via Ethiopian Airlines in another about six-hour flight. I returned with a mild pile.