Thursday, March 03, 2011

Sudan Cracks Up

Will northerners' aspirations be forgotten when South Sudan secedes?

By Dan Morrison
Updated Wednesday, March 2, 2011, at 6:48 AM ET
From: Dan Morrison
Subject: Meet the Bernie Madoff of Sudan
Posted Tuesday, March 1, 2011, at 10:51 AM ET

KHARTOUM, Sudan—The Bernard Madoff of Darfur, predictably, doesn't live there anymore.

Adam Ismael, a former police officer who didn't finish secondary school, resides at a villa in Khartoum.

At a time when hundreds of students, journalists, and pro-democracy activists have languished in prisons and "black site" jails as the unwilling and sometimes tortured guests of Sudan's vast security apparatus, Ismael spends his days under comfortable house arrest, with access to servants, satellite television, and his mobile phone.

He is the leading figure in a Ponzi scheme that helped Sudan's ruling party retain power in Darfur and whose collapse last year pauperized much of the region's middle class, provoked unrest that left 10 people dead, and led to the lengthy abduction of a U.N. peacekeeper.

Ismael, not surprisingly, couldn't be reached for comment. Two potential intermediaries demurred, citing risks to their health and liberty.

"He will never suffer for this," said a person familiar with the scheme, known as the Mawasir Market. (Mawasir is Arabic for pipes, denoting in Sudan a scam in which your money flows away from you, never to return.) "He will not go to prison, but he has to keep the secrets."

It may come as a surprise to some that there's any money to be found in Darfur, much less the $180 million said to have been invested in Mawasir. Sudan's Texas-sized western region is eight years into a complex insurgency whose primary achievement has been the deaths of 300,000 of the rebellion's intended beneficiaries and the displacement of 3.5 million others in a retaliatory campaign of rape and ethnic cleansing by the government.

Despite this, the region still produces grains, tobacco, and livestock and is host to a $1.7 billion peacekeeping operation that hasn't kept much peace but does provide a lot of local employment.

If you want to get a sense of just how far the Darfur crisis is from being resolved, feast your mind on this: In the last year, more than 1,000 Darfur Arab tribesmen have died in battles with rival Arabs, often for control of fertile land plundered from members of the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa tribes.

This has been the deadliest aspect of the Darfur conflict for several years now: Landless nomads fighting landless nomads for land stolen from others.

If this makes a poor fit with the "Arab vs. African" meme that's for so long dominated popular perceptions of the Darfur conflict, neither should it obfuscate the crimes that preceded it.

Rather, it is a grim reminder that, even after Sudan's southern region becomes independent later this year, the country will remain a deeply complicated and conflict-ridden charity case—one ruled by men whose power is guaranteed by perpetuating the chaos in Darfur.

Sudan's government has retained the upper hand through a recent upsurge of attacks on rebel strongholds (40,000 people were displaced in December 2010 alone, and 31,000 last month), a divide-and-rule approach to Darfur's restive Arab tribes, and an intensifying campaign of obstruction against U.N. agencies.

The Mawasir Market scheme, which ensnared nearly 50,000 victims, can be seen as an economic front in Khartoum's war on Darfur.

Two people familiar with the scam (including one speculator who lost $30,000) described it this way:

The pyramid scheme began in early 2009 when Ismael, then a police officer who sold used cars on the side, opened an investment fund in Rahma Souk, or Mercy Market, not far from the state police headquarters in El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur state. The fund promised alarming returns. Investors would make in-kind payments of real estate or vehicles and receive, four to six weeks later, a check with a value of 150 percent of their initial investment.

These clumsy transactions were an attempt to evade Islamic law, which officially governs Sudan and prohibits both charging interest and taking profit from interest-bearing accounts.

Indeed, at first, some businessmen and preachers spoke out against the scheme as both risky and un-Islamic. But they and other skeptics, who acidly renamed Rahma Market as Mawasir Market, were quickly intimidated into silence.

The fund's accountant, a police captain (since promoted to major) who also serves as imam of the El Fasher police mosque, said from the pulpit that anyone using the term mawasir deserved to be mutilated. Investigators dispatched from the central bank in Khartoum were sent packing by national security agents.

With the blessing of imams linked to the government, Ismael started accepting cash investments, on which investors invariably received a 50 percent return.

No one with real authority asked where a few policemen would get the capital to start a multimillion-dollar investment fund—perhaps because they already knew.

In a short time, the market opened new branches across El Fasher, a dusty city of 265,000 that is currently off-limits to foreign journalists.

By March 2010, the number of branches in Darfur had grown to 170. All but a few of the branch managers were non-Arabs; most were Zaghawa, who have a reputation for business acumen and whose members form the backbone of two important rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement and a once-feared faction of the Sudan Liberation Army. (Ismael comes from a small non-Arab tribe known as the Berti.)

As more people became rich, Ismael was transformed from a lowly patrolman into a benevolent public figure. He was given the customary title sheik after donating $80,000 to local schools in a televised ceremony hosted by the North Darfur governor (and fellow Berti tribesman), Osman Kibir. He began moving with a detail of national security bodyguards.

The fund had just a few thousand bold investors until February 2010, when campaign season began for Sudan's April general election. Ismael and one of his partners, a police officer named Musa Siddig, became candidates for the North Darfur state assembly on the ticket of the ruling National Congress Party. Their faces appeared on giant banners alongside those of the governor and of President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur.

This implied presidential endorsement set off a frenzy. People across Darfur, in Khartoum, and from as far away as the United Kingdom began liquidating their assets and investing the proceeds in Mawasir. By March 2010, the fund's capital reached 500 billion Sudanese pounds, about $180 million, the vast majority of it from new investors—this in a country with a yearly per-capita income of $2,200.

Everyone wanted a piece. Rebels from a leading faction of the Sudan Liberation Army "neglected the struggle and came to make money," as one Darfuri put it. These dozens of Zaghawa fighters became agents for the fund, working off commission to collect cars, cows, camels, sheep, and even chickens in lieu of cash from would-be investors. "Even women were selling their dishes."

Then the balloon burst. For reasons that aren't clear, regulators froze Ismael's and Siddig's bank accounts, leaving them unable to pay the tens of thousands at the bottom of their pyramid.

The fund was finished, but Ismael didn't appear to know it. At a meeting in El Fasher, he promised investors they would get their money back. One person who was there told me, "It was clear he believed what he was saying."

Quickly, though, political conditions were attached to the investors' survival.

The governor, speaking at a campaign rally for Ismael, told the crowd, "I know people are anxious to know about what they call Mawasir Market—though it's better you call it the Mercy Market. Adam Ismael and Musa Siddig are sons of the National Congress Party who are clean and honest. We support them, and I want to ensure you that everyone will receive his entitlements and that this market will continue—just give the tree water."

It just so happens that the symbol of Bashir's ruling party is a tree. The message couldn't have been clearer. Osman Kibir was re-elected governor, and both Ismael and Siddig were elected to the state assembly in landslides. Tension grew in the weeks after the election as investors waited for their payouts. Ismael and Siddig holed up at the governor's residence, out of public view.

In April, a protest march on the governor's house was broken up by police. In early May, a mob of 1,500 people, some of them apparently armed, tried again and police opened fire. Four officers and six demonstrators were killed.

Perhaps spurred by the bloodshed, Ismael issued a statement that investors' money would be returned on May 27. On that day, however, the governor announced the closure of the fund, the arrest of its managers, and the establishment of an asset-recovery program. As more than 50,000 people signed up for compensation, Kibir said he was shocked to learn of the fund's unregulated and un-Islamic practices.

Sudan's long-embattled media erupted. During a contentious interview on Blue Nile TV, journalist Saddig AlRizegi called Gov. Kibir a liar. "You were not only aware of this market but you were part of it and everything in it," AlRizegi said. Soon after that, the justice ministry banned all reporting on the Mawasir affair.

The government started recovery efforts not dissimilar to those U.S. authorities are using to compensate Bernard Madoff's victims, but with a dictatorial twist. They ordered investors to turn over their earnings; a few were jailed as examples, and that convinced at least some others to come forward. But there's been no compensation, and the biggest winners, who are said to be close to the governor, have little to fear.

Given the fund's connections with the government, state security, and Sudan's ruling party, few believe that many victims will get their money back. Indeed, one insider told me it appeared no more than 15 percent of the principle will be recovered. Those wiped out include thousands of people living in displaced-person camps.

"This is another form of persecution by the government of Sudan and the National Congress Party to deepen the poverty of the people," Ahmed Adam, a spokesman for the rebel Justice and Equality Movement, told me.

The Mawasir fund, and its collapse, benefited al-Bashir's government in several ways. It impoverished members of the Zaghawa tribe, including supporters of the Sudan Liberation Army in Darfur's displaced-person camps. At the same time, it enriched a small group of elites linked with the central government. It ensured the ruling party would win elections in a state where it is deeply unpopular, and it helped the government map the centers of economic power in Darfur.

The Arab Janjaweed tribes who committed so much of the mayhem in Darfur were burned, as well. "Everything they got from the government—the money and the cars—they put it in there, and it collapsed," one Sudanese economist told me.

The implosion sparked a few vigilante incidents in which fund managers were kidnapped and assaulted. In October, a Hungarian disarmament specialist with the United Nations/African Union Mission in Darfur, known as UNAMID, was abducted and taken to an armed camp that was home to hundreds of Arab gunmen.

"In North Darfur there was some scandal, some pyramid game," István Papp told Radio Dabanga from his captivity. "They lost their money, and they want their money back, and it looks like ... I am now the solution." Papp was released unharmed three months later.

On Jan. 6, 2011, nearly 10 months after promising swift action to unravel the pyramid scheme, Hamid Al Faki, chairman of the justice ministry's committee on Mawasir, made a new public appeal for its beneficiaries to come forward.

If he really wants to get to the bottom of this Darfur disaster, his first stop might be a well-guarded villa in Khartoum.

Click on the Sudanese referendum.

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Subject: Fighting for Freedom in the New Sudan
Updated Wednesday, March 2, 2011, at 6:48 AM ET

KHARTOUM, Sudan—On a recent afternoon, Mariam Al-Mahdi, a daughter of Sudan's last democratically elected leader and a spokeswoman for his political party, found herself unable to attend a family get-together.

The women of the Al-Mahdi clan were preparing to deliver a petition to the headquarters of the country's National Intelligence Security Service demanding the release of hundreds of youths jailed since pro-democracy rallies broke out on Jan. 30.

The young protesters, most of them expressing public dissent for the first time, were being beaten, shocked with stun guns, threatened with rape, and—perhaps in honor of Sudan's biggest agricultural product—burned with molten sugar that interrogators poured on their bare flesh, including their genitals. New to open defiance and its brutal rewards, "I don't think many of them will protest again," a family member of one detainee told me.

Unsettled by the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, the coming secession of Sudan's southern region, and a cratering economy, President Omar al-Bashir's ruling National Congress Party has never been weaker. But the sharpest response the opposition could muster to free the imprisoned youth was a petition delivered to the torture-chamber gates by a few dozen brave women of aristocratic stock.

If it's a far cry from Tahrir Square, even that weak gesture was intolerable to the Islamist security state: As she was preparing to join her cousins at NISS headquarters on Feb. 11, Mariam Al-Mahdi found herself abducted.

* * *

There was a moment, way back in 2005, when even some jaundiced observers of Sudan allowed themselves to hope the days of brutality and censorship might be over. After decades of civil war, a landmark peace agreement was signed between the Arab Islamists in the ruling National Congress Party and the black, southern-based rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement represented more than just an end to Sudan's racial and religious-themed hostilities; it envisioned a radical reboot of Africa's biggest country as a plural, democratic state.

The treaty, known as the CPA, became Sudan's interim constitution, and it called for fair elections, decentralization, and a free press. It was negotiated with the unstated premise that rebel leader John Garang, a Christian—backed by voters in the south and the disaffected millions in Darfur, eastern Sudan, and the far north—would become Sudan's first black president. The National Congress Party, which took power in a 1989 military coup, would survive as junior partner in a new government embraced by the United States and Europe. Garang believed in a unified and democratic "New Sudan," but few of his followers agreed. So the treaty gave Sudan six years to make good on its promises, after which the south would have the option to secede.

Garang's death in a July 2005 helicopter crash, and the decline of U.S. influence after the Iraq debacle, put an end to the dream of a "New Sudan." Hard-liners regained the upper hand in Khartoum, and secessionism became the core political value of the south. Since then, the north's freedoms, always tenuous, have been under steady assault. When southern Sudan becomes an independent state on July 9, the CPA itself will cease to exist, taking with it any pretense of civil rights in the north.

President Bashir says the rump Sudan's future identity will be Arab and Islamist, ignoring the fact that Arabs form a plurality in the north, but not a majority. Today, a ruling party clique presides in God's name over a country that is seventh from the bottom on Transparency International's 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index and spends two-thirds of its annual budget on security. The April 2010 elections that certified Bashir's rule were comprehensively rigged.

"The CPA was a gift from the south to the north," Sawi Bitek, an ethnic Nubian elder in the northern city of Wadi Halfa, whose homeland is threatened with inundation by two Chinese dam projects, once told me. "People were crying here when Garang died." The absence of a southern counterweight will be keenly felt throughout the chastened north.

Torture of dissidents, illegal land seizures, renewed bombardment in Darfur—it's the kind of situation one might expect to hear the U.S. government shouting about. South Sudan and Darfur have fierce advocates in the West, but it's hard to find many people talking about repression in northern Sudan. The people there have been written off.

U.S. policy instead is fixated on bribing and cajoling Khartoum into honoring its commitments to let the south depart in peace. The bargaining chips include the likely removal of Sudan from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, an end to U.S. sanctions, and a possible deferral of Bashir's trial for alleged genocide and war crimes before the International Criminal Court.

Scott Gration, President Obama's Sudan envoy, has been full of praise for Bashir's government, in early February lauding its "great steps to lift restrictions" on humanitarian workers in Darfur A week later, a French aid group was ejected from South Darfur state, and on Feb. 25, the government suspended the operations of Catholic Relief Services in West Darfur state after accusing the charity of distributing Bibles.

"Gration and the government are working together at this point," Kamal Sadig, editor-in-chief of the banned news station Radio Dabanga, told me. "No one is talking about a democratic transformation—it's normalization they want. Only normalization."

* * *

On the day Mariam Al-Mahdi was picked up by state security, a 23-year-old college student whom I'll call Osman was in his eighth day of captivity. He'd been beaten with a rubber hose and stun-gunned, but he was lucky enough to avoid being burned. Fifty-four students, journalists, and activists were being held in his wing of the building, he said, and a larger group was being tortured elsewhere. More than 300 people were arrested that week. Detainees were forced to give up their Facebook and e-mail passwords.

While some demonstrators were traumatized by the experience, Osman sounded determined to rejoin the struggle. "Compared to the early '90s, the torture we had was nothing," he told me the morning after he was released. "There's no question: I'm going to be arrested again. They told us the second time will be worse."

Like young people across the Arab world, he'd been spurred by the fall of Tunisian President Zine Ben Ali and the movement to topple Hosni Mubarak. "When we saw what was happening in Tunisia and Egypt, we were inspired, we had to come out," Osman said. "We've kicked out dictators before, in '64 and '85. We kicked [Ibrahim] Abboud out, we kicked [Jafaar] Nimeiri out."

I asked Osman what role Sudan's traditional opposition parties had played in the demonstrations. "The big parties didn't support us," he said. "I was expecting them to come out, but they didn't. They're politicians. This is not the time for politics. This is the time for revolution."

* * *

Sudan's people have indeed unseated dictators in the past, notably in 1985, when protests removed Jaffar Nimeiri after 16 years in power. While many of the conditions that led to that revolt exist today, particularly rocketing food prices and inflation, many components of the coalition that toppled Nimeiri are absent.

The Islamists who stole power in 1989 have broken Sudan's trade unions. The leading opposition parties, two of them dynastic affairs tied to large Sufi orders, have been weakened by years of infighting and restrictions on organizing.

On Feb. 16, Bashir taunted Sudan's traditional opposition, daring them to take to the streets, "if they have any supporters." For now, the old-line parties are holding fire.

There's a fantasy scenario floating around that rebels in Darfur could one day join forces with remnants of the southern army in Blue Nile state and the Nuba Mountains to help unseat the regime. In May 2008, a mobile force of the Justice and Equality Movement roared across hundreds of miles of desert from Darfur to the very edge of Khartoum, pausing only to massacre dozens of people at a NISS training center in Omdurman, before the army beat them back. But these days the rebels are fighting for survival in Darfur, and they are unlikely to threaten the capital any time soon.

* * *

For an hour and a half, Mariam Al-Mahdi had been driving around Khartoum in the back of an unmarked government car, the men in plainclothes unsure what to do with her, clear only on their orders to keep her from attending the rally for the detainees.

As kidnappings went, this one was polite, and not without precedent. Al-Mahdi's father, Sadig Al-Mahdi, has been imprisoned several times by this and earlier regimes. Her cousin Mubarak Al-Fadil spent seven months in Khobar Prison in 2007. Two of Mubarak's sons were at the top of the list of protesters the Al-Mahdi women hoped to free that day. And her uncle the radical Islamist leader Hassan Al Turabi remains in prison since his arrest on Jan. 17.

In other circumstances, Mariam Al-Mahdi might have organized the petition drive, but she was still recovering from a Dec. 24 beating in which police shattered her left forearm after a party meeting. The arm was still in a cast, the ulna bone held together by a metal rod and five screws. So when the security men hustled her into their car, they were stealing a foot soldier, not the leader, of that day's demonstration.

"I asked their officer, am I under arrest? But he wouldn't answer," she said. "They just kept touring around with me in the car. After 90 minutes, he stopped the car and told me to dismount."

It was then that the officer noticed a thin sheaf of papers in Al-Mahdi's right hand. He ordered his men to seize them. "I can't use my arm yet, so I hugged the papers to my chest while four men were putting their hands on me, on my chest, trying to get them," she said. They pried the papers away and left her outside the high walls of her family home.

"The whole episode is puzzling," she said. "Like a joke, but not."

* * *

The question for many people in Sudan is how long this angry and amputated northern state can go on. A currency devaluation and reduced government subsidies on sugar and gasoline provoked small protests in several cities in early January—before the Tunisian uprising bore fruit. These pocketbook issues, several people told me, pose the greatest threat to Bashir's rule.

"The government needs money to lubricate the security machinery for buying and renting cooperation, but money is very tight now," a Sudanese economist told me. "Meanwhile, the people are desperate. There are no jobs."

"The Islamists have torn themselves apart and done themselves a disservice through their performance," he said. "This looks like the last months of Nimeiri."

Sudan's opposition parties have formed a big-tent coalition to demand new elections and an inclusive government. The regime's response has been less than magnanimous.

"I hope the Egypt and Tunisia lessons are heeded," Mariam Al-Mahdi said. "They will change or be changed, either peacefully or violently. All chances are open."


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