Along the stretch of highway leading to the international airport in Khartoum, there are illuminated signs of Sudan's President Omar el-Bashir alternating with those of Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court who has indicted him. It is quite a jarring sight, and a jarring statement as the country waits to see if the ICC will issue an arrest warrant for its leader, the first for a sitting head of state, rumored to be due out tomorrow. It marks a turbulent time in a turbulent country, and illustrates how shaken the government is .
There are a number of possible outcomes if an arrest warrant is issued. Bashir has already been indicted on ten counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, although it is speculated that the last might be dropped. One is that a state of emergency could be declared and that a defiant government, that does not recognize the jurisdiction of the ICC, would strengthen its grip on power. Already people are being arrested. Sudanese men and women who work for NGOs have been beaten. The government believes they are providing evidence against Bashir. A nervousness invades the streets, but it's not something you can sense as a foreigner.
I had made plans to travel to Kordofan with one humanitarian agency. To travel you need permission from the Humanitarian Aid Commission, a government ministry. HAC insisted both the charity and myself wrote letters agreeing that I would not publish anything negative about the government.
You might think they had more serious concerns. There is an election scheduled for July 2009, and a referendum scheduled for 2011 to decide the future of the country. After Africa's longest running civil war came to an end in 2005 with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the semi-autonomous Government of South Sudan was established. The next step will determine whether or not the south becomes independent. The south is landlocked but has oil, the north, where the power is concentrated in Khartoum, has the know-how and access to the sea. Is it better for Sudan to stay as one country with access to the northern African countries, and a part of the Muslim world, or disintegrate into another small African country? What are the other repercussions? Another civil war? Conflict in the east? Sudanese are also perplexed that Darfur has grabbed the headlines when the numbers of dead from the north-south civil war totalled millions, and Bashir is not being indicted for crimes there.
Yet everyone talks about Darfur. At a British Embassy reception I had an interesting conversation with a gay (illegal here) Sudanese man. "The Sudanese," he tells me, "are the most racist people in the world." His family comes from one of the ruling northern tribes. "If I told my father I wanted to marry a Darfurian (all ironies aside), he would kick me out."
I was told that no trip to Sudan is complete without meeting the Black Pope of Terrorism, Dr Hasan Turabi, who engineered the coup d'etat in 1989 that brought Bashir, now mortal enemies, to power. He comes across as reasonable, gentle turbaned sheikh. But he oversaw an extremely gruesome period in government It is debatable how much political capital he has. Of interest is his putative link to the Justice and Equality Movement. The JEM rebel leader, who lead the attacks last year on Omdurman, on the outskirts of Khartoum, that shocked the government, used to be in Turabi's party. Both claim to have no connection, but rumours persist that they are linked.
Osama bin Laden used to be Turabi's neighbour in the luxurious suburb where he has his house. It was at his invitation that bin Laden came to town. Turabi says " he was a very gentle, soft-spoken and fragile man."
The question often asked here is how different Sudan is from conventional western perceptions. Darfur means Sudan to the outside world, yet its three provinces - South, West and North Darfur -are the size of France in Africa's largest country. Khartoum is a bustling city where men and women mix freely. Like any capital it is not representative.
In Nyala, the capital of South Darfur, there are many rebel factions operating, and I go and see a number of them. Or at least I think I do. All the headquarters look the same, all in an advanced state of decay, all wind-blown, all with men sitting around, all of them saying the same thing. It 's like being in a movie. Maybe I just entered one door, got turned around, and went back through the same door.
In Kalma camp an estimated 70,000 IDPs (internally displaced people) have sought refuge since 2003. It is one of many. Darfur is desolate at the best of times, and no where more so than here where people live in shelters constructed with twigs and whatever else they can find. UNAMID, the hybrid UN and African Union peace-keeping force, spends $2 billion a year in the Darfur region.
On August 25th the government entered the camp looking for weapons and shot more than 30 people, including women and children. We pass their graves as we enter. The IDPs asked for more protection and since then the UN has built a 24-hour armed boundary with barbed wire, sand bags and look-outs. No one wants the government to come back in, but this is not a failed state, it has a right to maintain law and order. There has been a spate of cattle-rustling. Many people think the thieves are plants from Khartoum, but there has been a rise in crime even in Nyala, and there are many tribal tensions inside the camps. Travel outside of the main towns has deteriorated enormously over the last few years, and the arms situation is now out of control.
The massacres that took place in Darfur between 2003-2005 have stopped. The level of violence has decreased, but then the government has liquidated much of its opposition. Many rebel leaders live lives of luxury in European capitals. Perhaps there are improvements along the margins, but the international community can never say what the endgame is.
Meanwhile political demographics are changing, old enemies, the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement/Army, now form part of the government with the ruling National Congress Party opaque as ever. No political players in Sudan have clean hands and if Bashir goes it is likely that someone else from one of the dominant northern tribes will replace him. "Who would you put in charge," asks one savvy western diplomat?
The devils who came on horseback now ride in stolen four by fours. Carjacking is a hobby in Darfur. A friend was held up, forced to lie face down in the sand as gun-totting militias threatened to kill her and her Sudanese colleagues. They didn't, finally only robbing them. So somewhere out there, a janjaweed wears last year's Roberto Cavalli glasses.