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Posted: August 16, 2002

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Africa Confidential and Sudan: Hindering Peace?

by David Hoile/ESPAC

The new and significant moves towards a peaceful resolution of the Sudanese civil war (1), as outlined in the July 2002 Machakos peace protocol, must go hand in hand with a concerted attempt to stem some of the media mis-reporting that, together with deliberate propaganda and disinformation, has artificially prolonged the conflict.

A publication that has been party to questionable coverage of Sudanese affairs has been the newsletter 'Africa Confidential'. Sudan "specialist" Gill Lusk has been the deputy-editor of that publication for several years. (2) 'African Confidential' presents itself as independent, but its coverage and analysis of Sudanese affairs has been very far from independent. Lusk lived and worked in Sudan for many years during the Nimeiri and Sadiq al-Mahdi regimes, and is a bitter political opponent of the government that has ruled Sudan since 1989, and this is clearly reflected in 'Africa Confidential''s work on Sudan. The newsletter's analysis has been systematically skewed, based on a combination of wishful thinking and the repetition of stale disinformation.

Ms Lusk, for example, has been forecasting the end of the al-Bashir government for a number of years. As early as July 1991, she confidently predicted that Bashir's government "seems unlikely to complete a third year in power". (3) In January 1997 'Africa Confidential' published an article on Sudan somewhat optimistically entitled "The Countdown Begins". (4) In August that year, Lusk equally confidently predicted that the present Sudanese government would fall by the end of that year or in early 1998: "The opposition expects to overthrow the government by the end of the year or the first half of next year. Previously cautious Western officials agree. It's a matter of time". (5) In 1998, the newsletter published an article entitled "Next Year in Kadugli", implying the fall of the government-held capital of the Nuba Mountains. (6) 'Africa Confidential' has also repeated several disinformation stories about Sudan, regurgitating, for example, subsequently discredited early 1990s claims about the alleged presence of two thousand Iranian "military trainers" in Sudan. (7) The newsletter also saw fit to repeat equally untrue claims about the involvement of Sudanese doctors in the mistreatment of patients (8) and claims of Sudanese government use of chemical weapons, which "raised fears that chemical weapons are in use" - allegations that have been exhaustively discredited. (9) All in all, this would seem to indicate 'Africa Confidential''s reliance on partisan and questionable sources, and wishful thinking, for many of its articles on Sudan. (10)

'Africa Confidential' states that it has always "maintained its independence and sought to print only the truth", and that it "is trusted and compulsory reading". (11) Far from independently reporting events in Sudan, or printing only the truth, 'Africa Confidential' appears to be unable to resist repeating any item of gossip hostile to the government of Sudan.

While repeating stale disinformation, 'Africa Confidential' has also displayed a surprising disinclination or inability to keep up with even basic changes within Sudan. In an in-depth, 3-page piece on Sudan, including a detailed profile of "Who's who" within the Sudanese government, published in February 2002, the newsletter managed to get the portfolios of key Sudanese ministers wrong. (12) The Ministers concerned were Dr Ghazi Salehuddin Atabani, incorrectly said to be the Minister of Culture and Information; he is in fact the Presidential Adviser on Peace Affairs; Dr Nafi'e Ali Nafi'e was incorrectly said to be the Presidential Adviser on Peace Affairs when he is the Minister for Federal Government ('Africa Confidential' continued to get Dr Nafi'e's job wrong, referring to him as the minister for local government). 'Africa Confidential' was eight months out of date with governmental changes amongst perhaps the most important ministries in Sudan (13), at about the most significant time in Sudan from the point of view of Sudanese peace process. It was Dr Atabani's appointment as Presidential Peace Adviser that resulted in the Machakos peace agreement.

Ms Lusk's inability to move beyond her personal prejudices regarding the Sudanese government is clear. Despite considerable, documented, reforms and changes within Sudan, she remains wedded to dated stereotypes. When interviewed, for example, in April 2002, she denied that there were any moderates within the Sudanese government, and that its ideology and commitments have not changed. (14) Yet, only a few months later, somewhat more objective and independent reporting by Associated Press stated that "Sudan has come a long way since its militant heyday in the 1990s...the changes in this country...are too sweeping and popular to be rolled back. Human Rights and civil society groups operate openly. Press censorship has been lifted and independent newspapers freely criticize government policies."(15)

Should the Associated Press article be seen as a one off? Seasoned BBC reporter Barbara Plett, reporting from Sudan four years earlier, in 1998, observed: "What was I to make of signs that Sudan is liberalising? Was this the beginning of glasnost in Africa's largest state? The IMF seems to think so...This year it congratulated Khartoum for carrying out economic reforms and took it off the blacklist...And political debate is open and fierce. The growing number of private newspapers freely criticise the government...We have more political freedoms than almost any other country in Africa, one university professor told me. The change in atmosphere from previous visits is truly remarkable." (16) Ms Lusk appears not to have noticed this change, writing as she does without having visited the country in a decade and a half.

'Africa Confidential' has also shown blatant partisanship in covering the Sudanese conflict. In an article mentioning the deaths of Yousif Kuwa Mekki, a senior SPLA commander, and the Sudanese minister of state for defence, General Ibrahim Shams el-Din, 'Africa Confidential' described them as "one much loved and respected and one widely hated and feared", while also referring to SPLA "liberated areas" in Sudan. (17) It is also interesting that the newsletter chose not to report on the Clinton Administration's cruise missile attack on the al-Shifa medicine factory in Khartoum. It is surprising that an Africa information and intelligence newsletter such as 'Africa Confidential', a newsletter that has focused extensively on Sudan, chose to ignore this, the first ever, cruise missile attack on an African state, an attack that was virtually an act of war on Sudan. This would perhaps have been for one or two reasons. Firstly, Ms Lusk may have realised that the American action was a disastrous mistake and that to admit so, as everyone else did or subsequently would, would cast the Sudanese government in a positive light. And secondly, to admit American intelligence failure with regard to al-Shifa and its non-existent links to Osama bin-Laden and "international terrorism" would greatly undermine claims about Sudan and terrorism in general. Rather than concede either point, 'Africa Confidential' ignored an unprecedented attack on an African country - a somewhat transparent case of partisanship if ever there was one.

There can be no doubt that the sort of skewed analysis of Sudan and Sudanese affairs, based upon wishful thinking and personal prejudice, provided by 'Africa Confidential' has distorted how Sudan has been seen internationally - certainly amongst those companies, non-governmental organisations and embassies that subscribe to the newsletter in the hope of clear reporting on Sudan. (18) Lusk also interfaces with academia and business, speaking, for example, at meetings at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. (19)

Ms Lusk's approach to peace is also somewhat problematic. She has been critical of the announcement in July 2002 of the landmark Machakos peace protocol for Sudan. Although hailed by rebels, the government and the rest of the international community, Lusk dismissed the protocol stating that it did not address "the main issues". (20) Rather than accurately documenting the widely-welcomed Machakos agreement, Africa Confidential preferred to dismiss it, writing it off as nothing more than the Sudanese government's "arch manipulation of American and British peacemakers". (21)

Given 'Africa Confidential''s track record on Sudan, either Ms Lusk's analytical skills are surprisingly deficient, her common sense missing, or she is remarkably biased in what she wishes to project about Sudan. It is perhaps time that Africa Confidential chose a more plausible Sudan specialist.

Notes:

1. See, for example, "Rebels Welcome Sudan Peace Plan", News Article by BBC News, 5 July 2001. See, also, "Sudan Opposition Welcomes Deal", News Article by Associated Press, 21 July 2002; "US Says Deal Between Sudan, Rebels is 'Significant Step' Towards Peace", News Article by Agence France Presse, 22 July 2002; "Sudanese Joy Over Peace Between Government and Rebels", News Article by Deutsche Press Agentur, 22 July 2002; "Sudan Truce Monitors Optimistic on Peace Prospects", News Article by Reuters, 23 July 2002.

2. A previous editor of 'Africa Confidential', Stephen Ellis, for example, went on to teach African politics at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.

3. "Sudan: The Islamic Front in Power", 'Africa Confidential' (London), Vol 32, No 14, 12 July 1991.

4. "The Countdown Begins", 'Africa Confidential' (London), Vol 38, No 3, 31 January 1997.

5. Newsweek, 18 August 1997, p.18.

6. "Next Year in Kadugli", 'Africa Confidential' (London), Vol 39, No 1, 9 January 1998.

7. "Sudan: Turabi's Unconvincing Transition", 'Africa Confidential' (London) Vol 34, No 21, 22 October 1993.

8. "Torture Charge", 'Africa Confidential' (London), Vol 38, No 19, 26 September 1997.

9. "Gas Mask", 'Africa Confidential' (London), Vol 40, No 17, 27 August 1999.

10. 'Africa Confidential''s regular predictions of the demise of the al-Bashir government is somewhat reminiscent of the coverage by 'The New York Times' of the early years of the Soviet government. A 1920 content analysis study of 'New York Times' coverage showed that the newspaper had predicted the fall or imminent fall of the government in Moscow on 91 occasions - Charles Merz and Walter Lippmann, "A Test of the News", A Supplement to 'The New Republic', 4 August 1920, p.10.

11. See 'Africa Confidential' website at www.africa-confidential.com

12. See "Unconstructive Engagement", 'Africa Confidential' (London), Vol 43, No 4, 22 February 2002. Mahdi Ibrahim, named in this article, was subsequently identified by 'Africa Confidential' as the Minister of Culture and Information - a portfolio incorrectly ascribed to Dr Ghazi (Vol 43, No 5). He is, however, the Minister of Information and Communications, the ministry having been restructured and renamed in June 2001.

13. For the changes, see "Sudan Names New Peace, Information Ministers", News Article by Reuters, 15 June 2001.

14. "Sudan Analysis", Broadcast by Voice of America, 14 April 2002.

15. "Seeking Friends in the West, Sudan Tempers its Islamic Zeal", News Article by Associated Press, 13 July 2002.

16. Barbara Plett, "From Our Own Correspondent", Broadcast by the BBC, 25 April 1998.

17. "Death Knocks Twice", 'Africa Confidential', Vol 42, No 7, 6 April 2001.

18. 'Africa Confidential''s inability to get other details on Africa correct is also clear. In one of its shorter "Pointer" pieces touching on Sudan, the newsletter even managed to claim that the former apartheid statelet of Bophutaswana was the Zulu homeland when it is KwaZulu. This is the equivalent of claiming that Yorkshire is the Welsh homeland, somewhat surprising for an publication presenting itself as a font of African information.

19. Lusk spoke at a meeting of the Africa Business Group, run by the Centre of African Studies at SOAS, in association with Africa Confidential, on 17 October 2000. Interestingly, the title of her speech was "Newspeak: Where Words Mean Their Opposite".

20. "Rebels Welcome Sudan Peace Plan", News Article by BBC News, 5 July 2001. See, also, "Sudan Opposition Welcomes Deal", News Article by Associated Press, 21 July 2002; "US Says Deal Between Sudan, Rebels is 'Significant Step' Towards Peace", News Article by Agence France Presse, 22 July 2002; "Sudanese Joy Over Peace Between Government and Rebels", News Article by Deutsche Press Agentur, 22 July 2002; "Sudan Truce Monitors Optimistic on Peace Prospects", News Article by Reuters, 23 July 2002.

21. 21 "Calling the Shots at Machakos", 'Africa Confidential', Vol 43, No 15, 26 July 2002.

The European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council sent this media contribution to Media Monitors Network (MMN)

Source:

by courtesy & 2001 European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council

by the same author:

 
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