Possible Futures: Sudan

Joe Waters looks into the political climate, as well as potential forces for change, in Sudan – a country that emerged from dictatorial rule only one year ago. As the civilian government attempts to bring the nation into a new era of peace and prosperity, visions and possibilities intermingle with the cruel realities of the country’s situation: a lack of basic resources, hideous levels of sexual violence, paralysing international sanctions and neglect from major charities, as well as the destabilising presence of the national army. The future looks brighter than it has in decades but, to reach it, Sudan must first face the harsh challenges of the present.

On 11th April 2019, after many months of uprising, the thirty-year reign of President Omar al-Bashir finally came to an end. Five months later, the first civilian cabinet was sworn in, led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. The new government claims it hopes to “[put] into effect: a transitional programme that lays the foundation of a country capable of fulfilling the aspirations and expectations of its people in a way that recognizes societal collective contribution in the process of decision making; ensuring transparency, accountability and strict commitment to standards of justice and principles of human rights and social justice.”

Their aims certainly seem laudable and those in charge have a good track record. For most of the last decade, Hamdok was the Deputy Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, whose staff remember him as “a diplomat, a humble man and a brilliant and disciplined mind.” Of the cabinet ministers Hamdok has appointed, six are women, including Lina al-Sheikh Mahjoub, founder of Impact Hub Khartoum, as Minister of Labour and Social Development, and Intisar Saghiroun, Professor of Archaeology, as Minister of Higher Education. The appointment of those with relevant expertise in positions of power relative to business and higher education is encouraging for the prospects of intellectual and economic reinvigoration in Khartoum. The Civilian Government clearly have positive aspirations and the wherewithal to go some way towards achieving them.

However, the positive intentions of the government are being undermined by many factors. The closest to home is Sudan’s army itself. While those at the head of the army have been replaced, the organisation remains close to those allied to the former administration. During the uprising, the army attempted to resume business as usual after the removal of Omar al-Bashir, before a civilian government could be established (this failed). Subsequently, reports say they have also announced the removal of certain cabinet ministers, independently of the civilian government, in a bid to blunt the power of the new government (these also failed). In addition, American sanctions are limiting the ability of Sudan to recover from dictatorship. America imposed sanctions on the country due to the al-Bashir government’s alleged funding of terrorist organisations. However, despite the change in government and the ceasing of this funding, restrictions on banking have not been lifted even despite other sanctions having been previously removed in 2017). Similarly, major charities such as Oxfam and Wateraid are refusing to do large-scale work in the country due to previous expelling of specific charities by the al-Bashir government (Oxfam were directly expelled) and fears for the safety of their employees.

Again, this seems unwise given that the government have been entirely replaced, since the uprising, and need support to help the many villages battling both starvation and terrible cases of Covid-19. Charities need to rethink their position on Sudan. One of the few charities who currently do work in Sudan is Kids for Kids, whose flagship project is loaning goats to communities in need. Their website details how, “Children are malnourished in every village.  Many have had no protein, minerals or vitamins for months on end which not only means lasting damage to them physically, but their IQ is reduced, often irreparably.” Given the existence of large ground water deposits in the country, this is definitely possible to combat. However, to build wells, support and donations are needed. Now is the time to re-orientate Sudan as an farming-based economy rather than relying on oil deposits, that will continue to cause environmental damage and, eventually, run out (especially given the loss of certain oil reserves in the split with South Sudan).

Perhaps the most horrific problem in Sudan is the regular use of tactical violence against women. A UN report reveals how, for example: “In 2018, the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur documented 122 incidents of sexual violence involving 199 victims: 85 women, 105 girls and 9 boys in Central, South, North and West Darfur States.” The report draws attention to the fact that many women are scared to report instances of such violence, so the numbers belie a much more endemic problem. These cases fit squarely within the UN definition of “Conflict Related Sexual Violence.” Sadly, during the 2019 uprising, this phenomenon continued. Crimes such as these need to be shown to be unacceptable. If not, they will continue to proliferate. It would be a step forward for the civilian government to start putting some of the widely known perpetrators on trial. The Middle East Monitor recently reported that “according to the Sudanese news agency, the meeting between the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramila Patten, and the Governor of Darfur, Abdel-Wahed Yousef, showed that “there is an official political will to fight violence based on gender”.” Given the scale of the problem, though, outside support and supervision will undoubtedly be needed to fully tackle this issue.

All in all, this is a crucial time for Sudan. Prospects for the nation are significantly better than they have been. However, they need support from the international community – both nations and charities. In the past, intervention in the Middle East notionally to bring “democracy” has been doled out by many Western countries. However, can these nations bring themselves to help a nation transition to democracy from a grassroots perspective? If not, the Covid-19 crisis risks causing the population at large to see Sudan’s moves toward democracy as a failed experiment and the impetus for change could slip away. Sudan has many natural resources (the water table, for example) and these need to be harnessed but money and aid are needed to make this happen. This is a situation in which we can all, but particularly those in power, intervene and make a difference in the present moment. Charities such as Kids for Kids, that are working in the region, need support. Governments need to be lobbied to care about the plight of Sudan’s fledgling democracy. The time to act is now. Real change is possible. Let us not squander the opportunity.

Image: Abdalla Hamdok taken by Ola A. al-Sheikh / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)


Are we born like this or did we learn this growing up?

The word “racism” was only added to the Oxford English Dictionary less than a hundred years ago, but racism started long before. Since the dawn of time, there have been people who feel superior either because of their bloodline, race, money, language, or gender. It comes to the surface in various ways, each a different picture, like that of the slave trade, racial discrimination, or of gender discrimination.

When the religious era came to the world, there were scripts against such behavior. The prophets came with a clear message that promoted the idea of equality and how we all must love each other. Some examples include one in the Torah, “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman, but incur no guilt because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love those that live around you as much as you love yourself: I am the lord” Torah (Leviticus 19:17). “You shall love the stranger like yourself” Torah (Leviticus 19:34). And the Bible “This is what I command you: Love each other as I have loved you.” Gospel of John 15:12. And the same ideal is mentioned in Islam, “And among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Surely in this are the signs for people of sound knowledge.” The Holy Quran, Al-Rum (The Roman), Surah 30: verse 22. And furthermore: “An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black, nor a black has any superiority over a white except for piety, all mankind from Adam, and Adam from dust.” The Farewell Sermon of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH).

Some people may qualify these quotes claiming one has only been sent to the Jewish people, one to the Christians, or one to Muslims, and maybe accuse them each of being an exclusive message on discrimination to one religion, but anyone who really understands the essential significance of religions would know that these messages were sent to all people. After all aren’t we all from same mother and father, Adam and Eve? And aren’t all religions originated from one another?  Wrong understand of religion would only add another type of discrimination which is religious discrimination.

I believe that some engaged in politics in many countries may have induced discrimination indirectly, for example, when a crime happens, the media would place emphasis on the nationality and the religion of the criminal instead of just mentioning the cause and the circumstances of the incident. Rather than just put all the blame on the individual, they give them an excuse for what they’ve done, and that, in my opinion, provokes the aversion of citizens against each other, and greater chaos would be produced as a result.

Another perspective is that, as the whole universe is linked together either by land or water and of course we all share the same sky, it’s impossible to not live together. One way or another people will inevitably find themselves with other people, some of whom they don’t like because of discriminatory reasons; so we should learn how to live in harmony together. As Carl Schurz, a German revolutionary who subsequently emigrated and became an American journalist, said “From the equality of rights springs identity of our highest interests; you cannot subvert your neighbor’s rights without striking a dangerous blow at your own”.

Admittedly, I’ve always found myself fascinated by the differences; different colors, languages, accents, cultures, food, thoughts, and differences in the way of living. These diversities, in my opinion, are what give the world its balance and its equilibrium. After all, no one gets to choose his color, race or to where they belong, so it’s inequitable to treat someone according to something they didn’t have a choice in. As a matter of fact, people do not wait for others to accept them, rather they want to be treated with the same rights as everyone else. Honestly, that’s not much to ask and as Abraham Lincoln, an American statesman and the 16th president of the United States, said “These men ask for just the same thing: fairness, and fairness only. This, so far as is in my power, they, and all others, shall have”.

The whole universe is based on differences, not only human beings but you can see it if you take a deep look at mother nature, and just wonder what do you think the view would be if there was one color for the flowers or one shape for the trees or if the sky is always blue? How would you feel if all animals sounded the same, or if all foods tasted the same?

Probably it’s not a fair comparison, although it gives us signs and pictures for the balance in the world. One perhaps would think if animals and other beings can live together in a limited environment why can’t we do in such a huge unlimited world? Speaking about this kind of thing will just leave us with many questions, but maybe the way to change things is to start by questioning yourself.

Possible Futures: Bahrain

In this series, Joe Waters will be looking into the political climates of Middle Eastern countries that are not generally explored in depth in mainstream news, with aim of providing a sense of the current political situation in these states, as well as potential forces for change (and whether or not they are likely to prevail). Today’s subject is the frequently overlooked nation of Bahrain. Often lumped in with other Gulf States, it in fact has a very specific political climate of its own – one that combines a generally authoritarian and conservative government with unexpected instances of liberalism. It is hard to work out which of these contrasting approaches is prevailing.

Much like its better-known neighbour Saudi Arabia, Bahrain has a powerful Sunni monarchy (however, unlike Saudi, the majority – arguably about 60% – of its population are Shiites). Its current head of state is King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Perhaps surprisingly though, the prime minister of the nation, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa has been around longer than its king. Having been in post for 60 years, he is actually the longest serving prime minister in the whole world today. Some argue that these two entrenched, senior figures are the roadblock to major change in the country and prevent many conservative policies from being overturned. Indeed, after the failed 2011 uprising, their grip tightened significantly. Sadly, even the country’s single opposition newspaper (quite a unique phenomenon in a fundamentalist state such as this), Al-Wasat, was shut down a couple of years ago. 

Interestingly, however, the winds of change have been blowing in the royal family. Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa (not to be confused with his Saudi-Arabian namesake) has spoken positively, with some considerable justification, about the country’s incredibly progressive “Alternative Sentencing” offenders policy, second only to the Netherlands, and claims on his website that he “is committed to providing quality healthcare services to all Bahraini citizens.” He has also supported the International Labour Organisation and attempted to start nationwide conversations on workers’ issues. He would go further if he could. Unfortunately, many of his more visionary efforts are discouraged by the more conservative elements in the Government. Nevertheless, in the persona of the Crown Prince, the country’s oldest and most antiquated institution has already become a force for change. 

It is perhaps ironic that the monarchy of Bahrain is more likely to see a change of personnel than its democratic counterpart. Unfortunately, Bahrain arguably has the most entrenched and ossified opposition movement in the world headed by Ali Salman, the world’s longest serving opposition leader.

That said the problems faced by the opposition are legion. There has been pervasive gerrymandering in all recent elections. This might have changed but the principal opposition party, Al-Wefaq, boycotted a generous power sharing deal in the 2014 elections (offered at the behest of the Crown Prince) and have been on the back foot ever since. In the 2018 elections there was no repeat of the offer, and to add insult to injury, they were barred from standing. This has rendered the party somewhat powerless in recent years, a situation unlikely to change unless there is a new approach before the next election in November 2022. Entering government seems unlikely for the party but, by my reckoning, their boycott achieved little and they should attempt to stand at the next opportunity they get. Even given the electoral crookedness, and in the absence of a repeat of the power sharing deal they were offered before, a show of official opposition would be powerful and they might even gain back some of the eighteen seats they previously held in the Council of Representatives. 

Refusal to engage with the system is understandable given the number of political prisoners in the country, notably Al-Wefaq’s leader Ali Salman. Even the respected Shia religious leader Sheikh Issa Qassim has had his citizenship removed after settling in Iran having left Bahrain (where he had been under house arrest) apparently to visit the UK for medical treatment. Yet, given the political deadlock of most of the last decade, and the recent release of the tub thumping and staggeringly outspoken government critic and opposition populist, Nabeel Rajab, a man who is constantly outspoken about the Bahrain government’s use of torture (a practice that has become far less common in recent years) and critical of the actions of the Saudis in Yemen (Bahrain’s allies and paymasters), a clear gesture of goodwill by the government, the time seems ripe for at least an attempt to parlay with the government, even if only incremental reforms are achieved.

To go about making change, it is necessary to understand the motives (other than habit) behind the rulers of Bahrain. Are they driven simply by religious fundamentalism? No – as always in these situations, the answer is both more complex and rather more predictable. The majority of Bahrain’s GDP is debt; much of their infrastructure relies on huge loans from Saudi Arabia. As a result, the Saudis put pressure on their smaller neighbour not to be too hasty in their steps toward democracy and a Western idea of human rights. The larger country fears that, if its citizens see concrete reforms in a state so close to their own, they will demand greater freedoms themselves.  

If Bahrain did have the gumption to liberalise, perhaps it might just trigger a broader shift in neighbouring states. This small, politically stagnant country might just become a progenitor for a major transformation in the Gulf. Maybe this is blue sky thinking but it feels like, given the depressing uniformity of the debate in Bahrain in recent years, a little imagination is necessary to instigate change of any kind. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking to expect Bahrain to move away from its unhealthy dependence on Saudi Arabia. But to push the boundaries a little could help give the nation a new lease of life – an opportunity to move toward freedom of expression and real, democratic accountability.  

Currently, these ideas seem remote. However, there are concrete steps that can be taken in the here and now. Al-Wefaq can push to be able to stand in the next election and attempt to start a dialogue with the Government. And the government could encourage Al-Wasat newspaper to relaunch, providing some financial support for it to do so. Acting out democracy is not sufficient but maybe, over time, pretence can evolve into reality. It is possible that, with a more empowered Crown Prince and a more active opposition, Bahrain may finally find its way to a brighter future. 

Image: The Saudi Bahrain Bridge taken by Mohamed Ghuloom / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)