Feel the fear
April 15, 2009
What is Jonathan Scott Gration doing in Sudan? Gamal Nkrumah searches for plausible answers
United States President Barack Obama is hoping that the Sudanese authorities will eventually learn that their international image does matter. The US is the leading international donor to Sudan, pouring in some $5 billion annually in humanitarian relief assistance and development projects around the country. A question that springs to mind is why would the US invest so much in a country it has branded as supporting international terrorism? On 18 March he appointed Retired Major General Jonathan Scott Gration, Obama's chief military adviser during his presidential campaign, as his chief envoy for Sudan.
Ominously, and barely a week after his appointment, Gration was dispatched to Darfur for a fact-finding mission. In Khartoum he met with high-ranking Sudanese government officials. "Sudan is a priority for this administration, particularly at a time it cries out for peace and for justice. The worsening humanitarian crisis there makes our task all the more urgent," Obama noted soon after Gration flew to Sudan. "We have an immediate crisis prompted by the Khartoum government's expulsion of non-governmental organisations that are providing aid to displaced persons inside Sudan."
As far as Sudan is concerned, Darfur is just a cauldron. Something sinister is cooking. Darfur and other festering conflicts of Sudan need to be resolved soon or else they will boil over. It is for this reason that the US contributes so generously towards the provision of 4.5 million people in Darfur with assistance for food, shelter and protection. The Sudanese authorities, however, have questioned the meaning of "protection". Is it a euphemism for subversion, perhaps?
The armed conflicts in Africa are legion. Darfur is of a different order, however. Sudan's feeble attempts to enhance its security and break the logjam of armed opposition groups by force led to intensified opposition to Sudanese government forces and their local allies, the Arabised Janjaweed militias. Brute force breeds political intransigence and militancy.
Ripples through Darfur progressively swell into waves throughout Sudan. If badgered, Sudan might well disintegrate like the former Yugoslavia. But does it really make sense to extrapolate future paths for northern, western and southern Sudan? Only if that is the will of the people concerned.
But old habits die hard. In response to mounting international pressure, the Sudanese authorities deliberately favoured certain Arabised tribes and ethnic groups in Darfur much to the consternation of the indigenous non-Arab people of the region. The Sudanese government now concedes that shifting to a strategy focussing on the tribes of Darfur ran counter to the more pressing goal of building national Sudanese institutions. Playing one tribe off against another will not do in Darfur.
The policy unleashed a torrent of civil and political conflicts. Forging alliances with certain Arab tribes or tribal militias will only exacerbate matters in the current climate, and the Sudanese government is now courting non-Arab ethnic groups. But one also needs to ask, to what end?
Obama is determined to approach unresolved conflicts like Darfur afresh. He and his administration are prepared to act on tractable grievances of the people of Darfur. Vice- President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dealt extensively with Darfur in the Senate.
Today the onus is on the humanitarian catastrophe facing Darfur. The approach is a step by step transformation of US policy towards Sudan. "We have to figure out a mechanism to get those NGOs back in place, to reserve that decision, or to find some mechanism whereby we avert an enormous humanitarian crisis," Obama noted recently.
US Secretary of State Clinton was no less unequivocal. "Sudan's Al-Bashir should be held accountable," she warned this week. "The real question is what kind of pressure can be brought to bear on President Al-Bashir and the government in Khartoum to understand that they will be responsible for every single death that occurs in those camps." She was speaking in reference to the Darfur refugees in camps in neighbouring countries as well as camps for displaced people in Darfur itself.
That raises the final issue: Who the hell is Jonathan Scott Gration? Yes, he literally hails from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. As a son of Christian missionaries proselytising in what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gration spent much of his childhood in darkest Africa. Moreover, he is fluent in Kiswahili, the lingua franca of much of eastern Africa. And, more importantly, he sees Obama as America's Mandela.
Gration is a battle-hardened man of war, whose 32-year career with the US Air Force makes him a somewhat unconvincing diplomat. He was awarded the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. And, he flew 274 missions over Iraq. "I'm not a good guy to have around, I guess," confessed Gration.
What is "good" in any case? President Obama spoke of the "stain on our souls" with regards to the victims of civil war in Darfur. US chief representative at the UN Susan Rice, a vocal advocate of punishing the Sudanese government for alleged atrocities it committed in Darfur, declared that her government was contemplating bombing campaigns against the Sudanese government to save the victims of war in Darfur. These are not empty threats; the last Democratic administration, that of former president Bill Clinton, bombarded a pharmaceuticals hospital in 1998.
Gration has extensive combat experience in the Middle East and crucially served as Commander of Task Force West during Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2006, Gration accompanied the then senator Obama to visit Darfur refugees sheltering in camps in neighbouring Chad. The experience transformed his vision for Sudan's political future. Even so, the close nature of the working relationship between Obama and his chief military adviser raises serious concerns. Obama, after all, cancelled a visit to wounded US troops in Landstuhl, Germany, after being informed by Pentagon officials that he couldn't take Gration along.
Obama's appointment of Gration as chief envoy for Sudan certainly lends more than a little gravitas to the situation . A hardened fighter who has already chalked up all those bombings raids against innocents in Iraq as America's peace envoy? Certainly a sign to Al-Bashir that he should run for cover.