Sunday, 14 April 2019

A coup, and a departure

Sudanese dictator Omar el-Bashir has fallen. I was in Sudan when he staged his own coup. Some memories of the days after he seized power, nearly 30 years ago

Sudanese dictator Omar el-Bashir has fallen, deposed by his own army. As I write (April 14 2019), it’s not yet clear how events will play out. What looks like an attempt to hold on to power by the army appears to have failed, or at least to have been strongly opposed.

Bashir (US Navy/Jesse  Awalt)
Sudan has disposed of dictators before. In 1985 Jaafar Nimeiry, who had himself come to power through a coup, was peacefully deposed and the country underwent a transition to democracy. The latter lasted only a few years before crumpling under the stress of the civil war in the south, and a declining economy. On June 30 1989 el-Bashir, then a 45-year-old colonel, seized power.

At the time I was a development volunteer for Sudan’s Refugee Settlement Administration in Showak, a small town about seven hours’ drive from Khartoum near the Eritrean border. I later wrote my own account of what happened in the days that followed. It went into my book on my time in Sudan, Even the Dead Are Coming. Like all ‘on-the-ground’ accounts of an event, it lacks perspective; I saw only what I saw. But here it is, for what it is worth. I have made some edits so that it can stand alone, but otherwise it is much as I wrote it a year or so after the coup.

ONE morning halfway through June 1989 my colleague Ali and I went to Gedaref. Ali had some business to do there, and so had I; I wanted to try and persuade the UNHCR office in the city to open their files on refugee protection cases for the third issue of the magazine I was publishing for the Administration.

At nine, we went to the house of the head of our Gedaref office, Ismail Ibrahim, who had kindly invited us for breakfast. (Work in a Sudanese office starts at 7.30am, and breakfast is taken between 9.00 and 10.00.) We walked through the industrial souk, or montega, towards the house. The montega was a riot of unguarded welding machinery, rotting cars waiting to be spliced together, and piles of nuts and bolts all over the ground. Among the montega’s more fun features were large drainage shafts about two feet square, sunk into the middle of the busiest pedestrian thoroughfares. There were no rails or covers of any sort on these, and a pond of black, oily water could be seen about three feet down. That morning I nearly fell down one, much to Ismail’s amusement. In fact he was the culprit as he had distracted my attention by telling me the results of the European elections in Britain, which he had heard on World Service that morning. The Conservatives, he was telling me, had taken an almighty pasting. Had I gone down the drainage-shaft, I should at least have died happy.

Politics was also discussed at breakfast. A friend of Ismail’s, an Army officer, ate with us; he was reading from the front page of one of the daily newspapers. It seemed that 17 senior officers had been arrested and charged after a failed coup plot against the government of Sadiq el-Mahdi had been discovered the day before. There was much speculation as to exactly what was going on.

What was? In the light of what happened not long after, it would be fascinating to know. Perhaps it was a feint, designed by the perpetrators of the later, real, plot, to lull Sadiq into a false sense of security. Or possibly the later coup was sparked off by a wish to rescue the 17, as much as anything else. In any case, after the arrests, no-one really expected further trouble that month. It was not on my mind at all.

About two weeks later, on the night of June 30 several of us gathered over a bowl of punch in the compound. The base for this punch was industrial aragi, the local arak; the taste (which was rough) was disguised by karkadee, an infusion of hibiscus, with lashings of sugar. It was Thursday night; as no-one was working on Friday, that being the Moslem sabbath, this was the night at the pub. It rained heavily. There was much thunder and lightning, and we took shelter in Simon’s hut. The dog Shaggy joined us; an unpopular move, as she stank horribly. At about nine, the electricity went off. This was unusual; it had done so far less that year. At about midnight I decided that I had had enough, and dashed through the heavy rods of rain to my own hut, where I balanced my torch on a shelf and got ready for bed. As often happened during the rains, it was cool. I had a good night’s sleep.

I awoke on the morning of July 1 to find the sun shining cleanly; it was hot, of course, but there was a freshness, as the rain in the night had evaporated and cooled the air a bit. Ian was just outside my hut, working on one of the motorbikes.

“Did you hear, there’s been a coup or something,” he grunted.

“Oh,” I said. Then: “Would you like some tea?”

A neighbour's children (M.Robbins)

FRIENDS IN Khartoum were closer to events. As one, an Englishman, explained:

I don’t know how your coup went... It was rather bizarre for me. I had gone to bed, as usual, in the front yard, completely sober, and about three in the morning was woken by a tremendous rumbling sound which at first I thought might represent the effects of a particularly badly-made fish stew concocted earlier. I rapidly realized, however, that the sound...was in fact caused by the passing of a number of tanks in the street...I attempted to get up to have a closer recce but was...restrained by my mosquito-net in which, in my haste, I got tangled up (James Bond never used a mosquito-net and now I know why). I got to the wall in time to see a British-made Ferret scout car bringing up the rear. It did cross my mind that it might be a coup but it seemed a bit of a cliche to be doing it that way so I put it down to some Sudanese tank commander... going to visit his relatives...

He went back to sleep.

Information on World Service the next morning was perfunctory. A Brigadier Omar el-Beshir had broadcast on Radio Omdurman, it was reported; the government of Sadiq, he said, had “beggared the people and made their lives miserable”. I have to say that this was true. There was a suggestion that the new military government intended to end the war in the south, then in truce, as quickly as possible. Several senior politicians, including Dr Hassen Turabi of the National Islamic Front and Osman Mirghani of the Democratic Unionist Party, were known to be under arrest.

The Prime Minister himself was reported by the BBC as having been seen being driven from the palace in the early hours, but over the next few weeks it became clear that he had evaded arrest and was missing. (Like Nimeiry before him, he spent some years in exile but eventually returned.) The BBC’s correspondent in Khartoum, who was Sudanese, was later arrested himself by the new regime.

Savage travel restrictions were slapped in place straight away. It became extremely difficult for a foreign national to go anywhere. The Sudanese themselves found it difficult. The day after the coup Hassen Osman, the head of the Administration – a very senior figure, and a powerful man in the region – attempted to reach Khartoum for an urgent meeting. He spent 11 hours arguing his way through the checkpoints before he reached the capital. There had always been a small number of checkpoints on the road, but now there were many, and some of the new ones between Medani and Khartoum itself were manned by paratroopers. Other measures depended on who found himself in charge in a given place. In Kassala, the Army announced that, henceforth, the number of vehicles run by aid agencies would be strictly limited, and some were appropriated. Most were later returned, often with huge mileages racked up; the Forestry Department in Kassala lost one when the Army crashed it, and left it where they’d wrecked it.

House searches began. Europeans appeared to be exempt from this (although apparently not in Port Sudan). However, the searches were methodical and comprehensive, and anyone holding stocks of liquor panicked. I was approached in the street by an Ethiopian refugee who wanted to sell a consignment of Melotti gin at half-price; I thought it safer to decline. In fact, the Army were probably looking for hoarded commodities rather than contraband; it soon became clear that in the Eastern Region, their priority was to try and make foodstuffs and other goods available at the “official” prices. These were set by the state, but everyone had long ignored them. In Khartoum, a curfew was introduced that ran from sundown to sunrise; later this was pushed back by three hours. Extra police-posts in the city ensured that this was strictly enforced.

In Showak, I was puzzled. Why had the Army staged a coup in a country, and at a time, when power was a poisoned chalice? I did not at the time think it political; the Islamist complexion of the new government was not apparent until later. Indeed, Dr Turabi, the Islamist leader, was then in prison with all the other politicians. And the Army appeared to want to end the war in the south, rather than prosecute it with renewed vigour; the truce remained in place for the moment, and there still seemed a good chance that it would become permanent.

I accepted that the Army simply wanted, as Omer el-Bashir had said in his initial broadcast, to end corruption and the black market and let people eat. For the moment, indeed, his priority seemed to be exactly that. It was soon announced that everything would be sold at the official price, and lists of these prices were posted by order at every shop. The reductions were dramatic; goods were listed at the level fixed by the State under the old regime, figures which had hitherto simply been ignored. Cigarettes were cut by over 50%. Bread sank to about 15 piastres a loaf; only in Khartoum had I ever seen it on sale that cheaply, and that had been nearly two years earlier. Sugar, a sensitive commodity in a sweet-toothed country, was henceforth also to sell at its official price - that was, S (Sudanese pounds) 1.30 a kilo instead of the S9 it had been commanding. Before long the shops shut, having nothing left that people wished to buy; or, if they still had it, not being willing to sell it at such a loss.

Children at Abuda, 1989 (M.Robbins)
I assumed that, this being Sudan, the goods would simply be kept below the counter and sold to known customers for whatever they were willing to pay. But I was wrong. A few days after the coup, I was sitting in my office when two policemen accompanied by an army officer entered the shop opposite. Beyond the purple shutters I saw the three talking to the shopkeeper, checking the shelves as they did so. The four men then left together, and the shutters were drawn shut, although it was early in the day. This happened to all the shopkeepers. Many simply remained closed; our local grocer Beshir, for example. Commodities became scarce. After a few days, a little sugar became available. It had been seized by the Army on the day of the coup. They had checked someone’s warehouse and found some 2,000 bags that had been corruptly diverted from local cooperatives before the coup. Some of this was now sold from the police station at the official price, and everyone waited in line to receive a bag each; it was soon gone. Simon joined the queue with everyone else under the blazing sun, and came back with a kilo in his hand; he waved it around triumphantly. But it was the last we would see for a while. Brewing operations came to a halt. There was barely enough for our tea.

Cigarettes were nowhere to be seen in the shops. The boys who had sold them from blue plywood boxes in the souk were rounded up and chucked off the streets. Ethiopian Nyalas, which were illicit imports and had never really been legal, were now available at extraordinary prices if you knew someone who had hidden his stock; after 10 days those prices spiralled to S40, five or six times the fatuous official price for legal cigarettes, of which there were none. I had a new office-boy; he was excellent at finding cigarettes, and went trotting down to the souk for me to interview shopkeepers known to his family. He nearly always returned with something. He and an elder boy had the market sewn up. We let them keep the change, and I think they did very nicely. But two weeks after the coup, these supplies also dried up. Soon afterwards, the office-boy disappeared as well. He was often ill and Ali had taken him to see Dr Mekki, who advised him to go to hospital in Gedaref. It seemed he had fallen sick because he and his family were now up at three every morning to queue for bread.

Why the chaos? Other parts of the country were not so badly affected. I heard later that the military commander who had taken control of the region had not been tough enough for the Young Turks of his regiment, and had been disposed of in his turn. His usurpers then decided to take tougher action against the black marketeers. They hit other targets as well. One day I hitched a lift over to the UN compound with Barrie Potter, a British colleague who was also a friend. On the way back, we followed the main road into the town centre through the red-light district. The road there was blocked by a large green lorry, surrounded by troops. Women were being herded out of the huts opposite and onto the back of the lorry, carrying what possessions they had; occasionally a cassette-player, or a bundle or two. They seemed to enter the lorry without fuss, but were heavily guarded.

I mentioned this to a colleague in the office when we got back. He said he doubted if the whores would come to any harm. “Perhaps the army at Girba is having a party,” he said with a grin. Then the grin was replaced by a frown.

“You know what all this means for us,” he said quietly. “We will have 20 years of this before we try democracy again. Another 20 bloody years.”

I nodded. It was just over two weeks after the coup.

I crossed the courtyard and mounted the stairs to Hassen’s office. His secretary smiled and stood to greet me. I asked her politely if he was busy; I knew that he did not appreciate being disturbed when he was. “Yes, he’s there. Go in, Mike,” she said. I did so. I rarely went there, for it was the holy of holies. Although spacious, it was plainly furnished. There were a couple of extra chairs, more ashtrays than usual and, for some reason, imitation flowers in a vase on a desk. Otherwise, it looked much the same as any other office in Showak, complete with flat-topped grey-steel desk. Hassen was sitting behind it, writing. He greeted me politely. “Sit down,” he said; he looked as completely in control as he had ever been.

“I want to know whether I’m going to print another issue of the magazine,” I said. (This was a publicity tool for the Administration; it had been my main work in Showak.) “I didn’t ask earlier because I doubted if you’d know yet. And I thought you might have other things on your mind.”

“Well, yes, I have.” He smiled slightly. “No, you cannot print another magazine. Under the new publications law it would be a capital offence.”

I was not that surprised. I suggested that I travel to Khartoum to see my field director, Ibrahim el-Bagir, who might have other work for me.

Hassen was still smiling. He knew that I was only two or three months from completing my posting, and would probably just leave the country from Khartoum. That was my intention. “Yes, go to Khartoum,” he said. He thought for a moment, and added: “When you get home, write about Sudan, about refugees, about what you have seen here.”

I promised I would. I have.

I stood and we shook hands, and then I left the office. I never saw him again; a few days later I did leave Showak, and Hassen was removed from his post before the end of the year.

Khartoum was full of rumours as usual. The Acropole Hotel seemed to have new staff on duty. I was warned to be careful what I said in the lobby. But there were plenty of cigarettes. I sent 200 back to Showak. And there was food. We had had nothing to eat in Showak since the coup but thin stews made mostly from okra, and even before that our diet had been getting worse. Ibrahim El-Bagir quickly scotched any notions of my remaining in Sudan. We did not discuss it in detail. He did not say so, but I think he felt that the nature of my work before the coup made it more sensible for me to leave the country. So I went to stay with friends in Khartoum Three, as I had on a previous visit a few months earlier; they were congenial company. I set about saying my goodbyes.

My compound neighbour from Showak, Ian, arrived in Khartoum a week or so later, having completed his own posting. He was not leaving Sudan permanently, but would have a holiday in Britain before returning to start a new job. In the early hours of August 8, we went to the airport with one of Imbrahim’s drivers. The curfew was being rigorously enforced; there was a checkpoint every 300 yards, and the night-passes for both the car and its occupants were scrutinised with great care. In the airport we went through the usual scrum, fighting to keep our place in the check-in queue; in the departure lounge we stepped over the recumbent forms of over a hundred young men who were waiting for a SudanAir flight to Tripoli, delayed for 24 hours. Finally we trudged across the apron and underneath the nose of the Tristar, then up the gangway, past the Royal Mail crest emblazoned on the fuselage. When the aircraft lifted off into the dawn, I felt a sense of relief.

But my mood changed as the aircraft wheeled around above the Mogren, the confluence of the Blue and White Niles, to pick up its course for Aswan. For, as I looked down along the wing, I could see the red-roofed villas set in verdant gardens ringed with date-palms, nestling beside the silver-blue expanse of the Nile. For a moment, I fancied I could see oxen and feluccas, but I think we were too high for that.

Gedaref, 1989 (M.Robbins)
SUDAN was not Ethiopia. There were no week-old corpses swinging from the lamp-posts of Khartoum, as there were under Mengistu Haile Mariam. But the military government of Omer Beshir continued to prosecute the war; it also adhered to the principles of Shari’a, Islamic law, which had in part perpetuated that war. And it dealt harshly with those who opposed these objectives.

It was not obvious when I left Sudan that any of this would happen. Indeed, the new government had suggested that the question of Shari’a should be subjected to a referendum. On the face of it, this was reasonable. But human-rights groups outside the country argued that, regardless of their feelings, people would not have voted against Shari’a because they would feel instinctively that this would be a vote against Islam. It may be that the government, knowing this, put the idea of a referendum forward in order to secure the continuation of Shari’a law before revealing its own true colours. To the Western mind, a vote against Shari’a is not a vote against religion, simply a vote against imposing it on others. But it would be unreasonable to expect the Sudanese to feel that way. I can confirm this; staff at the Showak workshop told British volunteers that they could not vote against Shari’a, yet added that they actually thought it should be repealed. In any case, the referendum never took place; in the end the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), as it called itself, resorted to more direct methods. Some flavour of these in the months after the coup can be had from the following testimony given to Africa Watch soon afterwards, in 1990:

The atmosphere in Khartoum is extremely tense. Everyone fears arrest and no-one knows who will be next. The most frightening new development is the mysterious new security agency, with its secret houses. …Information is gradually coming out about these ‘safe houses’ but not enough to paint a complete picture… [They include] the Bar Association club. Other known ‘safe houses’ include the Central Bank Employees Club, also located on Baladiya Street, and the Journalists’ Club on Mek Nimir Street. The choice of these clubs is not accidental, but is intended as a humiliation for the groups who have tried to resist the junta. As a sort of extra humiliation, the military have apparently written ‘Human Rights Chamber’ on the door of the room at the Bar Association club where they beat people up.

Political prisoners were not the only victims of the new state. Human-rights violations on a more general scale began early. While I was still in Khartoum in August 1989, Ethiopian refugees were told to report to the security offices, where a number of them were arrested and deported to points outside the capital. These were refugees holding permits to live and work in Khartoum, not illegals. In November 1990, the authorities started to deport displaced southerners (who were Sudanese citizens) as well, dumping them in open country to the south. The combination of the civil disorder that followed, and Sudan’s apparent support for Iraq during the Kuwait crisis, finally persuaded Ibrahim El-Bagir to remove the remaining volunteers from Sudan that month. After many years, the VSO programme in Sudan was closed.

But things were much worse in the south, where the army deployed what were called Popular Defence Forces containing numbers of fundamentalist volunteers. Amnesty International reported that in October/November 1989 at least 44 villagers had been killed by pro-government militias in Keiga Alkhel, northwest of Kadugli; this was probably just the tip of the iceberg. However, there were also reports of massacres not connected with the war. Both Amnesty International and Africa Watch stated that the murder of an Arabic-speaking farmer by Shilluk labourers in White Nile province at the end of 1989 provoked, within three hours, a bloodbath in which by the Government’s own admission 191 Shilluk were killed. (Amnesty International quoted reports that 500 people died.) Arrests were made, but by mid-1990 no charges had been brought. All of this happened within a year or so of the coup; the conflict in Darfur was yet to come.

NOT LONG before the coup I went to the great lake at Khashm el-Girba. Ali and I were researching the income-generating potential of the cooperatives movement, which the Government encouraged. The official at Showak whose task it was to promote this was badly overworked, but despite this he took us to see some of the projects in which he was involved. He was justly proud of what had been achieved. For example, there was a successful fish-farm near Girba, and we went to inspect it. The project had worked, and now help was being extended to the fishermen who were working around the lake, in the hope that their catch could be more widely sold. It was a valuable source of protein.

So we went to see them, too. Four of us crossed the dam in a Toyota Twin-Cab, and then peeled right towards the forest that lined the shore of the lake. It was a black rim on the horizon, and to reach it we had to travel over several kilometres of open plain. The rains had just begun, and the plain was not yet covered in grass; but a little moisture had softened the earth’s crust and the soil crumbled a little under the wheels, making them hiss as we sped along.

We entered the wood quite suddenly, and I gasped, for the grass grew thickly beneath the trees, which were themselves richly clothed in leaves. I felt I wasn’t in a desert land any more, but in parkland by an English country house. Yet there was a difference; here, the vegetation, fed by underground water from the reservoir, was so lush and vivid that it almost hurt to look at it. And in the gaps between the trees it was possible to see a sky so blue against the lurid green of the grass that the day has etched itself upon my memory.

The woods were not empty. Rashaida tents, like carpets strung across poles, and camels could be seen; but the human occupants of the tents were hidden. We passed them quietly and continued down to the shore of the lake, finding our fishermen with difficulty. They had no tent or other shelter, but seemed no less happy for that. They made do with an anquarayb (string bed), a few pots and pans, a bright yellow plastic abrique (a spouted can used for ablutions), and their nets. They slung these last into the back of the Twin-Cab; it was high noon and they would catch little, but they were keen to show us what they could do. They waded into the water off a shallow beach. One held the shore end of the net; the other swam out a hundred yards or so, and dragged the other end of the net round in a great arc before returning to the beach. It was, as I have said, noon; even so they caught a Nile carp for us and gave it to us as a gift. Ali took it home and got the cook to prepare it in the mess-building where he lived.

At one o’clock we made our way back out through the wood, climbing up and down the hummocks in the earth with care, anxious not to get stuck on the damp earth. We emerged onto the plain below a sky that brought to mind the great vaulted dome of a cathedral. For some reason I found myself thinking of a far-off time and place where other fishermen had left their nets to follow the son of a carpenter.

Even the Dead Are Coming is available as an e-book or paperback from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Flipkart, Google Play, iBooks, Kobo, Scribd, Waterstones and other online retailers. The paperback can be ordered from bookshops with the ISBN 978-0578035697.