A principles meeting is taking place today to (belatedly) finalize the outcome of the Sudan Policy Review that the Obama Administration has been undertaking since it came to office. And in a savvy piece of timing from the Washington Post, they have chosen today to run this piece on Sudan Envoy, Scott Gration, by Stephanie McCrummen, the print journalist who traveled with the Gration trip to Sudan earlier this month (Stephanie and Gwen Thompkins from NPR were there for the whole trip – I just joined for the Darfur leg).
Advocacy organizations have already jumped on the most egregious quotes in the Washington Post piece.
I sat in on the interviews Gwen and Steph’ conducted with Gration. They were their interviews so I restrained myself from reporting before they did – besides, my purpose in being there was for book research not for blogging. But now their pieces are out, I feel I can at least make a few general observations.
The “cookies” and “gold stars” comments ["We've got to think about giving out cookies," said Gration . . . "Kids, countries, they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement"] were bizarre – so bizarre that Gwen piped up and basically asked Gration if he realized how it sounded. Gration quipped “It’s your job to work out how to not have it come across like that.” He continued, “Bottom line is, it’s just the way things work. Right now we react based on an attitude. We react on North-South or Darfur, because of an attitude we have towards them [Khartoum]. We need to update to reality . . . then be sure we don’t get swindled. This is why action plans are important.”
It’s the “don’t get swindled” part of that response which is critical.
Gration was at pains to refer to the ‘stop-go’ charts his office uses to measure how well Khartoum is cooperating. This aligns with Gration’s belief that Khartoum needs to be judged on what they actually do in the here and now. This sounds reasonable enough in theory, but I am yet to understand how Gration sees a green light for Khartoum by virtue of them (as Stephanie phrases it) “allowing some foreign aid groups to return after Bashir expelled others . . .” I still see a BIG RED LIGHT in terms of Khartoum’s cooperation in resolving this problem – one, we should never forget, that they themselves created.
The affiliate organizations that have been allowed in are but shadows of what the expelled organizations were. While Gration showed me a chart with figures from, among others, USAID, which seemed to indicate aid was back to 100% capacity relative to the day before the organizations were expelled, no one he spoke with on the ground actually agreed. With conflicting information being given to you, which source do you trust? My money is always on the people who are actually there – but it does raise the question of how the figures in the chart were generated [anyone reading this who has this info - please send my way].
The other part of Stephanie’s article that is raising eyebrows is where she explains Gration’s view that ” . . . many displaced Darfuris are dealing with “psychological stuff” that is leading to unhelpful mistrust of the government and preventing their return home . . .” As I have written in other posts, this was perhaps the biggest problem I noticed on the trip – a complete disconnect between Gration’s headspace and that of the IDPs in the camps themselves. He is asking them to focus positively on the future. They are busy surviving day-to-day, stuck in a country still controlled by the government that persecuted them.
The one aspect of the Darfur leg of the trip that Stephanie’s piece doesn’t go into is Gration’s efforts on unifying the various SLA rebel factions. I don’t think anyone can dispute the notion that fractured rebel groups only serve Khartoum’s interests and that a unified structure would strengthen the rebels hand in negotiations. However the effort is ruffling feathers.
This week someone known as Abu Sharati published an article in the Sudan Tribune.
Sharati refers to himself as the spokesperson for all the Darfuri IDPs and refugees – which strikes me as a rather a presumptuous title for someone who, as far as I can tell, has never been through any Sudan-wide, let alone Chad/Egypt (just to list the primary locations of the most recent Darfuri refugees)-wide selection process [anyone with info to prove me wrong on this, I'm all ears]. I also find the notion of there being a single IDP/refugee view as represented by this one person difficult to reconcile with the diversity of views that exist among both refugees and IDPs – certainly I have spoken to a number who claim categorically that what Sharati is saying does not represent their view.
Never-the-less, speaking on behalf of “the IDPs and refugees” Sharati accuses Gration of meeting with the new head of NISS (Sudan’s ubiquitous and rightly-feared security services), Mohamed Atta, in Khartoum on 18 September, and giving Atta the green light to, among other things, remove Abdel Wahid supporters “by physical liquidations or wining them by material incentives.” It’s a serious accusation.
To understand the context behind the claim you need to know that Abu Sharati supports Abdel Wahid, the “original” SLA President, who perceives the attempt to unify the SLA factions as threatening to his position. As Sharati views it, Gration is working to “change the leadership [Abdel Wahid] that we still tirelessly support.” But in this, I think Sharati/Wahid are mistaken. The people Gration spoke with were very clear that Abdel Wahid is still their President and that the attempts at unification across the various SLA factions were not being undertaken with the goal of ousting him. All they said was that if Abdel Wahid did not want to lead a unified structure, then so be it. In other words, a unified structure was more important than whoever ultimately ended up being at the top of that structure.
As for the claim that Gration met with Mohamed Atta, I asked whether Gration was in Khartoum on September 18 and his office replied that he was not. Of course that doesn’t rule out the possibility that the meeting took place on another day, but it does call into question the status of what Sharati refers to as the “undeniable information” he received about a meeting between Gration and Atta on September 18 in Khartoum.
Overall, the bad press Gration has received in these articles involve a mix of basically accurate (Washington Post piece) and more questionable (Sudan Tribune piece) claims about his work and intentions. But regardless of where the line between fact and fiction is drawn, the net perception generated is an overwhelmingly negative one. This puts another tool in the hands of advocates already deeply skeptical of Gration, as they push policy-makers to move away from the “clean slate” approach that Gration is trying to take towards Khartoum.
From the perspective of the book, the interesting question for me is how/if these factors will be absorbed into the policy discussion taking place in Washington today . . .