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Quick Thoughts on the Political Landscape of Today's Sudan: A STATUS/الوضع Conversation with Khalid Medani

In this Quick Thoughts conversation with Status/الوضع host Bassam Haddad, Khalid Medani provides a near-comprehensive account of Sudan's recent past, its internal and external struggles, and current challenges. 

Khalid Mustafa Medani is associate professor of political science and Islamic Studies at McGill University. Prior to his arrival at McGill, Medani taught at Oberlin College and Stanford University. Prof. Medani received a B.A. in Development Studies from Brown University, an M.A. in Arab Studies from the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley. He has published on the roots of civil conflict and the funding of the Islamic movement in Sudan, the question of informal finance and terrorism in Somalia, the obstacles to state building in Iraq, and the role of informal networks in the rise of Islamic militancy. 

In August 2007, Medani was named a Carneige Scholar on Islam, and was awarded a prestigious grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. 

Please find a transcript of the interview below the player. 


Khalid Medani Interview Transcript 

Transcribed by Nisreen Zaqout

Bassam Haddad (BH): So, before we start I wanted to get you to introduce yourself. We are very excited to speak with you, because most of what we hear on the news actually does not include Sudan—this also applies to the Arab media not just the media in Europe and the United States. But before we delve into some of the salient issues, I would love to hear from you a brief introduction about yourself.

Khalid Medani (KM): Sure. Well, my name is Khalid Mustafa Medani and I am from Sudan and I teach—I am an Associate Professor of Political Science and Islamic Studies at McGill University. So, one of my areas of expertise is naturally is the contemporary politics in Sudan and I teach a number of courses on African Politics and the Middle East. So, I’m very excited always to speak about current developments, political developments in Sudan because I know it is often neglected, especially given what is going on in the region. So, I know there is a great interest in the politics of Sudan, so I’m always happy to speak about it.

BH: And we will abuse that privilege that you are giving us. So, coming from a very basic perspective—somebody who knows the region but does not hear much about Sudan, unless there is some tectonic shift, or some sort of event that for some reason interferes with the geopolitics of the region and the becomes “newsworthy”. But beyond the headlines and beyond some of these events, can you tell us if somebody is beginning to look into what is going on in the country? Can you tell us a little bit about what are the broad contours of developments in the recent years or months?

KM: Sure, it is impossible to talk about Sudan without talking about the separation of the country in 2011. I think most people know that Sudan, the nation-state, was divided and South Sudan seceded and became independent in 2011. So, that is in itself an important agenda, theme or a “newsworthy” theme that I think the region and the rest of the world should pay attention to. Especially when it comes to what are the consequences for a country like Sudan and a country in the region when it formally splits out? So, on one level, you know, Sudan represents this example of what happens? What are the political and social consequences when one of our big countries in the region—both an African country and an Arabic speaking country -- splits up? I think that people in the region are very interested in that because it rarely happens officially and formally like that. But given what is happening in the region -- the fragmentation of many other states along either sectarian, ethnic or different clan lines -- Sudan is really important because it serves as a cautionary tale, but also, can serve as a lesson of what happens and how to deal with real deep division in such a big country. So, the consequences of the split are really something that people should pay attention to. And those, of course, have to do with the consequences in the North, in Sudan, Sudan proper, so to speak, or rather the original Sudan with the capital Khartoum. And of course, the new country of South Sudan.

I think probably, what your listener should focus on, in terms of South Sudan, is that for the past twenty months or so—and that is a long time—South Sudan had a very bitter civil conflict that has turned into, really, an almost genocidal conflict between different tribal groups in South Sudan. And that has been going on for as long as twenty months. And the humanitarian toll is unspeakable. It is very difficult to describe -- not only the kinds of killing that happen, but also the famine and also the displacement of so many people in the country. So, that is there, the humanitarian crisis there that is of course, you know, originated in a political crisis and a rivalry between the leader of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, and the rebel leader by the name of Riek Machar. So, we want to first of all, really highlight that there is a huge hereditarian, deep civil conflict between tribes that is of astronomical tragic proportions. And I think that people are interested in that. I think that what makes this conflict also a regional conflict is that it is, of course, a country that borders Sudan but also Kenya, Uganda, the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo). So, it has a spill-over effect in instability across the region and of course there is the issue of oil in South Sudan which has involved so many international actors -- the United States and China being central. And this kind of oil, these resources, the resource of oil, has led to a real kind of competition and the source of, really, violence, between these different leaders who mobilize their ethnic groups -- either the Dinka on the part of Salva Kiir, the president, or the Nuer on the part of Riek Machar. So, that is something to keep in mind.

Now, to bring you up-to-date, and for your listeners, this is the tragic and very sad part of the story. But another part that, hopefully, will be hopeful that we really have to see is the very fragile peace agreement signed this August between these two rebels that is a long document. But there are three elements that people should be interested in, if you turn to South Sudan, and that is that the agreement called for immediate ceasefire, it calls for the reintegration of the rebel forces into a national army—South Sudan National Army—and it calls for an interim government that represents both factions, both major factions. Although nighty-six percent or more of this interim government will be represented by factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement—that is the major political party that runs the state. And so, the idea is to have an interim government and after that elections that would legitimize the new state of South Sudan and hopefully stop the violence. The cautionary aspect of this peace agreement is number one: the violence is continued, the conflict is continued, especially in oil-rich states in South Sudan—most notably a state called Unity with a lot of oil. So, despite this peace agreement, its implementation had not really been realized because there is a deep conflict over resources. And of course political rivalry definitely has continued and, of course, it threatens the peace agreement—that is important. Another important point that people do not know—this is why I emphasize that the majority of those who are going to be in the interim government, if it does materialize, are from Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and its factions — and what that means is that many organizations and rebels who are not formally part of any important political party that runs the state of South Sudan are going to be out signed off this interim government. So, the do not have a say in terms of what the constitution looks like, what the electoral rules would be like, what level of societal participation would be involved in drafting the new constitution. And this we know from the past has really undermined any level of peace and long-term political stability. So, on that side, in South Sudan, we have to really be very cautious about whether this peace agreement will stick.

That, I think, will depend on what you are doing, Dr. Haddad, and that is to get the word out of what is happening in South Soudan. And the reason I say that is this kind of agreement is dependent on the international community and regional actors; Ethiopia, Uganda and others. The pressure of people saying, “Oh, wait a minute. We have to deal with issues of human rights violations.” We really have to incorporate civil society organizations. Without the general public, really, highlighting that and taking it seriously, we will have a very narrow peace agreement and there will be no incentive on the part of these other powers of states to really push the interim government, to really establish justice for those who had been killed and a form of punishment for those who had conducted the killing. And that is really essential to heal the wounds of what has become such a horrible, horrible and violent conflict. So, that is what we need to think about in terms of what is happening in South Sudan. Now, Sudan and the government of Sudan—Sudan up north—which people call GOS to distinguish it from GOSS (the Government of South Sudan) is also involved in two, long-standing conflicts that I think people know about, but had forgotten in terms of the news and even in the academic circles. Of course Darfur in the western part continues to be a source of conflict. As the conflict became more complicated, as the rebel groups became more fractionized, and as the central state in Khartoum has been able to play divide-and-rule among the different fractions, the international community has decided, “Oh, maybe it is too complicated of a situation to deal with.” There is unanimity -- the peacekeeping forces are still there, but it lacks financial support, it is very weak logistically and the humanitarian crisis and the killings and the violence continues in Darfur. So, that is something to keep in mind. Another source of conflict that I think is rarely discussed—if at all—is the violent conflict in the border region between South Sudan and Sudan proper. Most notably, it is an insurgency led by a group called Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North and they are waging a strong, violent insurgency in the areas we call the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan. These are important border-line states. This is one of the most important insurgencies that has really determined the course of the central politics of Sudan. In 2011, something historic happened; this insurgency on the borders called the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North went into coalition the main faction, the rebel factions in Darfur, the two main rebel factions; the Justice and Equality Movement and Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North. And they formed a coalition called the Sudan Revolutionary Front. In the movement, there is negotiations between the government of Sudan, Al-Khartoum led by Omar al-Bashir and this coalition that has not been able to successfully militarily defeat the central government and its army. But since 2011, it has generated a lot of success in the battlefield. Although the aerial bombardments of the Nuba Mountains by the central government had devastated that part of that province on the border, which is in South Kordofan bordering South Sudan. So, now we have negotiations on going between the government of Sudan and what I would describe as the most important military opposition/coalition against the central government. The problem with that, that it is stalled for one important reason: the Sudan government in Khartoum and Bashir insist that they will only talk to this rebel group and the agenda should be limited to just a peace agreement revolving around the border areas, the provinces and the Nuba mountains in South Sudan. And that is something that Sudan Revolutionary Front opposes. Their political agenda is located at the center: they want to have a transition towards democracy, they want to have an interim government to oversee a new government in Khartoum. And of course that completely undermines the interests of Bashir and his group. In fact, one of the main reasons that they conducted this election in 2005, in order to generate legitimacy because they were fearful that the Sudan Revolutionary Front was gaining more and more support. So, the idea was to say that, “Look, Omar al-Bashir has been elected democratically,” which is not the case, it was a very low turn-out and it was clear that it was not successful because of the lack of support for the central government. The people of Sudan need to keep in mind that there is this historic confrontation between a rebel group that is in coalition in the border areas and the Darfur rebel groups. Really, the crux of the conflict now is whether this group will be able to convince the government and persuade it -- of course, through coercion and through their success in the military field -- whether they will be able to persuade Omar al-Bashir to open-up the political system, which is at this point of course very, very unlikely.

At the level of civil society, you know, going away a bit from the military confrontation, which is of course the most important in terms of determining the politics of Khartoum and al-Bashir. The second aspect is the national dialogue that is ongoing, or at least it has been announced. It is supposed to include not only these armed groups, but also the civilian political parties, including the National Umma Party, which many viewers know about its historic national party that has been dominantly civilian politics since its independence. And that party is supposed to join in with the armed movements and something called the Sudan Consensus Forces. The Sudan Consensus Forces represent civil society organizations and other political parties including the party run by Hassan Turabi, including the communist party, including a number of civil society organizations and coalitions. The idea is to have a dialog between not only the armed groups, but groups and coalitions in the civil society, to discuss arrangements that would lead to a new political dispensation and a new interim government and a more representative government in Khartoum. That is of course still ongoing, and it is unlikely to be successful, because the Bashir government has insisted that, once again, the agenda should be very limited, and they refuse to oversee elections that would legalize and allow these political parties and civil society groups to participate in a free and fair-fashion because they are holding on to power. So, we do want to really emphasize that there are two ongoing issues in Sudan in the north: a military confrontation between Khartoum and Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North in alliance with rebel groups in Darfur, and the kind of conflict between civil society groups, human rights groups and civilian political parties in Khartoum that are trying to pressure the government of Bashir to finally allow for some, more broad political representation. But the dialogue is very weak and it has yet to be put into effect as the government keeps saying that they are going to continue. As you probably know, last summer, the government imprisoned and detained a number of very prominent leaders of opposition groups and leaders of civil society and human rights groups. That really is a reflection of their unwillingness to open up the political system to civil society groups.

Finally, I think the question is: where do we go from here for Sudan? As you probably know from talking to me before, there are two elements to keep in mind in terms of how the government of Khartoum will respond to what is going on in Sudan and its opposition in terms of political change. And I think it hinges on two elements: number one, unsurprising to you or you listeners, that an important aspect or element would be the level of military of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North. Or to be more specific the Sudan Revolutionary Forces—the alliance between the Darfur rebels and those on the border areas that call themselves the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North. So, right now there is a military stalemate, but even the discussion of this dialogue between Khartoum and SPLM-North really began in 2011, because there was a number of military success on the field on the part of Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North. And so, like in any other political conflict and civil conflict, you know, the issue of military victory -- who wins specific military victories on the field – will determines the amount of pressure that Bashir will feel, in order to enter into a genuine dialogue that talks seriously about some form of regime change or transformation. The other element is that, unlike many other countries in the region, you know, the ones enduring civil conflict—notwithstanding Iraq or Syria—Sudan is undergoing a deep, deep economic crisis, and it has since it lost the majority of its oil with the separation. This is why I want your listeners to begin with understanding that all of this hinges on the consequences associated with the separation between north and south. And so, having lost a great deal of oil revenue, this has really determined the crisis that Khartoum faces. It is one of the reasons we are talking about talking to these other factions. The news out right now is that the government is planning to remove subsidies from grain and fuel, if you remember, because you published it in Jadaliyya at the time. In 2011 through 2012 and onto 2013, you had civic unrest associated with these kind of economic reforms in the context of economic austerity and inflationary prices—an inflation rate of over fifty percent. For a middle-class population and lower-middle class populations in Khartoum, not to mention the poor, this has really stirred a great deal of popular uprisings and civic unrest. And that is not something small, this is something that the Khartoum government considers.

Now, the absence of attention to all of these different elements -- including the economic situation and the popular unrest, and really, the unpopularity of the Bashir regime – is something that, because there is not any attention on it, it serves the core purposes of the Bashir regime. The “blackout,” so to speak, of what is going on and some of the details I just articulated, serves the purpose of the regime at the moment. Sudan is not a country that it is immune to international pressure, to the sanctions that are undergoing. So, in that sense: what people understand in terms of what is going on in the country is very important in terms of how the government relates to its domestic population. There are some countries that are more autonomous from the international community. Sudan, of course is not because of the economic crisis, because of the continued sanctions on the part of the European community and the United States. For that reason, what you are doing -- trying to get the word out about what is going on in Sudan -- will potentially have very important political consequences in terms of change. That is not something, unfortunately, that can be said for other countries. Of course, international intervention in other countries is usually, I believe, uniformly negative. So, we are talking about really understanding the kind of constrains that this government is confronting and the news “blackout” of what is going on serves the purpose of repressing these communities. And once again, I want to highlight what is at stake and that is we are talking about wars, not just popular uprisings. So, we are talking about civil conflicts in Darfur with people dying, and displacement and refugees. We are talking about al-Nuba Mountains that people do not know about, where aerial bombardments have killed hundreds of thousands and displaced many. And of course, we are talking about this ongoing, brutal civil conflict in South Sudan that has been going on for twenty months. So, none of this is too small, and that is why it is important and urgent to really publicize what is going on in Sudan. Is that good?

BH: Wow, Khalid. This is the easiest interview in the history of humankind. 

KM: [Laughs] good, that is good.

BH: I did not say anything. And you know what, it seems like we choreographed it, where the reality is that I have been trying to get in touch with you for so long. And this is the first time we have actually talked, which is remarkable. I am not sure what to say right now, because you gave us a very well-rounded picture. But, you are not off the hook. What I would love to do, next time, is to prepare a more systematic interview, one of the longer ones, even though this was actually not so much of a quick thought. It was pretty comprehensive in terms of an overview. I would love to talk more about specific issues from political economy, to gender, to questions having to do with the actual political landscape: internally and the kinds of forces that are fighting for power, if at all. And I would love to revisit this. But for now, I am extremely satisfied with your remarkable set of answers. Thank you so much.

KM: Thank you, habibi.  First of all, thank you for all what you have done for all of us. It is really important -- I mean that sincerely -- because we just do not have any outlets like this. I want to genuinely get – you know, people’s voices are being silenced and that has been going on for a long time. Hopefully, we will get these wonderful people from Khartoum in civil society who can really, kind of, start getting this attention and speaking out. As you know, the Sudanese are so politicized – like the Palestinians in the conflict – that even though they get a hard time there, they speak very freely.

BH: Yes, I know this, and I can see this here. I would love to connect with colleagues of yours in Khartoum, in Sudan and we would love to have you back. Professor Khalid Medani from McGill University, Shukran Ktir. We will be in touch. 

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