Reflections on Sudan, Al-Bashir and Ramadaan in a military state

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

The hastily spoken words “al-Bashir might be arrested ” instantly jolted my senses back to Sudan.

Hastily making her way into the newsroom, after the front page had been finalised, our editor Chiara Carter added: “Change everything. He’s coming to South Africa”.

My instinctive response: “He should be arrested. I used to live in Sudan. It’s a military state.”

Carter: “Where? Khartoum?”

Me: “Yes. I did some work with an aid agency.”

It was Saturday night last week. The Sunday edition of this newspaper had to be put to bed. Time for offering reasons why al-Bashir should be arrested was zero.

Our crime reporter’s meticulous lead story was replaced with news instantly reported worldwide: fingers tapped away on keyboards headlines that Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir was in South Africa.

The Blue Nile in Khartoum bears testimony to the natural beauty of troubled Sudan. Picture Yazeed Kamaldien

The Blue Nile in Khartoum bears testimony to the natural beauty of troubled Sudan. Picture Yazeed Kamaldien

Most people were wondering by Sunday morning whether this country’s government would arrest the African president and promptly hand him over to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Unsurprisingly, according to our cynical view, by Monday al-Bashir made his way home without being touched. As compensation, a South African court declared that he should have been arrested.

Subsequent debates raised questions about the ICC’s relevance. This was in line with previous dismissals from African leaders, saying the Netherlands-based court was investigating only the continent’s alleged abusive presidents for human rights crimes.

A number of other global figures go unchallenged for their wrongs, complained African leaders.

But whether or not any court finds al-Bashir guilty of crimes related to deaths in Darfur won’t erase the words a Sudanese friend told me in Khartoum.

“We are a good people with a bad government. We don’t deserve this,” said Waleed one afternoon as the sun clenched to our skin.

Streets in Sudan's capital Khartoum indicate the lack of infrastructural development that locals have to live with. Picture by Yazeed Kamaldien

Streets in Sudan’s capital Khartoum indicate the lack of infrastructural development that locals have to live with. Picture by Yazeed Kamaldien

Waleed was running a small tour company when I’d lived in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, for seven months a few years ago. He was right: there were many good people in Sudan but they were constantly caught up in struggle.

A number of our conversations about the troubled Sudan, which had endured a 25-year civil war, focused on the political situation and the effect it has on locals.

Working in the humanitarian sector positioned me face-to-face with real-time developing world struggles. Unlike in South Africa, my home country, these were compounded by a military dictatorship, remaining tensions between the north and south of the country, and unchecked government corruption.

During my time in Khartoum, I would learn more about African realities, far away from Cape Town’s relative comfort. Power and water cuts were the norm and not many roads in the capital city were tarred. Come rainy season, muddy streets would need to be navigated. Overall, it was challenging.

It was during this time in Khartoum that I would also fast during Islam’s sacred ninth month, Ramadaan. And then the often-used word ‘ubuntu’ came to life.

Neighbours gather around straw mats to break their fast during Ramadaan. Picture by Yazeed Kamaldien

Neighbours gather around straw mats to break their fast during Ramadaan. Picture by Yazeed Kamaldien

Sudan is a country with predominantly Muslims and during Ramadaan they would fast along with many Muslims around the world.

As Ramadaan is a month of self-sacrifice and charity, the aid agency would deliver meals to less fortunate students, prisoners and patients in hospitals so they could end their day of fast with dignity.

We also made trips to orphans during Ramadaan, assisting them with clothes for Eid ul-Fitr, the festival marking the end of the fasting period. On this day, children usually get dressed in their best clothes to visit family and friends.

Closer to home, where I stayed alongside locals, the most interesting part about breaking the fast in Khartoum was how neighbours gathered in streets on straw mats.

Neighbours from each home in the street would bring something to eat or drink to the communal meal. Together, we would wait for the sunset call to prayer, which signals the time to eat again.

With this tradition cemented, it was guaranteed that many who may have been struggling behind closed doors would not remain hungry after a day of fasting.

A young boy recites the Qur'an, written on wood, in Sudan. Picture by Yazeed Kamaldien

A young boy recites the Qur’an, written on wood, in Sudan. Picture by Yazeed Kamaldien

It has been a number of years since I’ve returned safely home to Cape Town, where locals started fasting in Ramadaan this week.

It was also this week when chairperson of the national parliamentary portfolio committee on international relations and cooperation, Siphosezwe Masango, said attempts to arrest al-Bashir were an “opportunistic act only meant to pit African leaders against each other in the name of international law”.

Arguments about the ICC aside, this rhetoric ensures poverty remains entrenched in Africa, suggesting the continent’s leaders should remain united no matter how poorly their counterparts might be running other countries.

It speaks of an uncritical thinking that refuses opposing views questioning the actions of African leaders. It blames everything that is wrong on outsiders. It selfishly dismisses the humanitarian impact of incompetent governance.

Masango continued in a statement this week, after the African Union’s meeting in Gauteng, that the Ethiopian-based union “has serious business to consider including economies of Africa, regional trade integration, infrastructure development, xenophobia, illicit financial flows, and uncontrolled migration”.

“The task at hand that ought to occupy Africans is to make Africa a better continent whose place on the global stage is respected,” said Masango.

If I were to ask Waleed from Khartoum, the students, prisoners, hospital patients, and orphans, what would make their Africa better, they would likely say good leadership in government.

And right now they’re probably asking why the South African government failed to arrest al-Bashir. Like me, they know what it is like to live under a military dictatorship. At least I could leave a temporary insanity behind.

By the time I was reading the brilliant Sudanese novel ‘Season of Migration to the North’ at Khartoum airport, one of Africa’s most troubled countries made me hate the continent of my birth.

As an aside, two months of joyous journeying through Ethiopia immediately after that restored my love for the continent.

But Sudan shoved in my face all the stereotypical stains of a failed Africa: dictatorship, corruption, foreigners milking the aid agency system while locals play second fiddle, and an unenthusiastic limping through the mundane every day life.

Like many others leaving Sudan, I was surprised that one had to buy an exit visa. You don’t just leave the country. You pay the government a fee to permit your departure.

Ironically, during my first week in my next destination, Ethiopia, al-Bashir stood a metre away from me at an African Union meeting in Addis Ababa. At the time, I happened to be the only journalist near him and his seemingly relaxed bodyguards.

There was no urge inside of me to greet him, to extend a hand for a shake. That would have been betraying my friends back in Khartoum, who wanted nothing more than a good government for a good people.

Nobody knows if the headline “al-Bashir arrested” would ever make the news. Or if the ICC would prosecute bloodstained leaders in Africa and beyond, or remain simply a loud bark with little bite.

These things, it seems, take time.

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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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