Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who seized power 25 years ago. Photo: Getty
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The Sudanese dictatorship: twenty-five years of impunity

Once, the plight of Darfur’s two million refugees would have made front page news. Today they seldom make even a paragraph in the inside pages of British broadsheets, although the repression continues unabated.

On Sunday, the Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir ordered the release of Sadiq al-Mahdi from jail. There was much rejoicing in Khartoum’s twin city, Omdurman, as the leader of the Umma Party, and great-grandson of the Mahdi who confronted the British in 1890s, was freed. Al-Mahdi’s “crime” in the eyes of the regime had been to denounce the atrocities being committed in the western region of Darfur by the government’s main counter-insurgency unit, the Rapid Support Forces.

Once, the plight of Darfur’s two million refugees would have made front page news. Today they seldom make even a paragraph in the inside pages of British broadsheets, although the repression continues unabated.  “Since January this year, over 300,000 people have been displaced, fleeing villages which are regularly bombed,” Motaz Bargo, Secretary General of the Darfur Union in Britain, told the New Statesman.

It is a quarter of a century since President al-Bashir, then a brigadier in the Sudanese army, launched a coup against Sadiq al-Mahdi, the country’s elected Prime Minister. Al-Bashir had been engaged in Sudan’s long-running conflict with the southern rebels at the time. But he led the coup on behalf of the conservative National Islamic Front. The Front, with its ties to Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, has been the power behind the throne ever since.

President al-Bashir has presided over a brutal but effective dictatorship. When the rebellion in Darfur erupted in February 2003 the Sudanese armed forces – still fighting the southern rebels – were unable to respond effectively. Instead the President turned to the Janjaweed, a cross-border force of Arab camel and cattle herders, with links to neighbouring Chad and Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya. It was the Janjaweed who spearheaded a reign of terror against the Darfuri communities, forcing them into exile and the vast camps on the outskirts of so many Darfuri towns.  They form the backbone of the Rapid Support Force, still deployed in the region.

The Sudanese government suggested that the atrocities were the result of unfortunate tribal clashes over which it had little control. The International Criminal Court (ICC) saw things very differently. In 2008 the court’s prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, decided he had sufficient evidence to bring a case against the president for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur. It was a brave decision and something of a legal landmark: the Court's first indictment of a head of state and its first genocide indictment. Seven years later, the President is still a free man. Moreno-Ocampo’s successor at the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, is left complaining to the UN Security Council that they have failed to support the Court. The world’s efforts to ensure justice in Darfur, she warned on Tuesday, could “go down in history as an indefensible failure.”

Olivia Warham, director of the campaign group, Waging Peace, outlined the consequences of this failure. “Bashir is indicted by the ICC but he continues to massacre, bomb and displace civilians with complete impunity. How many more people have to die before the international community wakes up?”

While the repression in Darfur was under way, President al-Bashir made his peace with the southern rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. The south’s demand not to be excluded and marginalised by Khartoum dated back to independence in 1956 and – nearly fifty years later – this could no longer be resisted. In January 2005 a peace agreement was signed between the two sides in Nairobi.  Six years later, to huge jubilation, the South obtained its independence.

South Sudan, now engulfed in civil war, has been anything but a success.  For the North this outcome was just what they had predicted, but having agreed to independence al-Bashir washed his hands of the mess.

Down the years the president has shown himself to be as shrewd as he is ruthless. When pressure from the United States and Saudi Arabia became too intense in 1996, he ensured that Osama Bin Laden left Sudan for Afghanistan.  Khartoum had been given assurances by the Americans that these measures would lead to improved relations. There were meetings in Washington between the CIA and Sudanese intelligence at which this was discussed.  But events got in the way, and the promises were never fulfilled.

Omar al-Bashir remains entrenched in Khartoum, despite the best efforts of the opposition parties in the capital. Repression continues in Darfur, while a war rages in the Blue Nile and Nuba mountains, but draws little attention in Western capitals. This weekend the Sudanese community in the UK will take their concerns to Downing Street. “We want to break the baffling international community silence towards Sudan atrocities in general and Nuba mountains genocide in particular,” says Ezzeldin Gamar Hussein Rahma, who represents the Nuba community in the UK.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.