"Asking The Right Questions About Darfur, Sudan", Part VII, Exclusive Q & A With Bill Fletcher, Jr., President, TransAfrica
Since assuming the responsibility of the presidency of TransAfrica, Bill Fletcher, Jr. has been quite busy. In addition to the day-to-day challenges of managing, strengthening and growing a unique organization in Black America; Mr. Fletcher has been a consistently powerful voice, not only speaking out and writing on issues facing the global Black electorate, but accepting responsibility for educating the Black American community on matters that concern all of the sons and daughters of Africa. Whether the subject has been Haiti, Liberia, Zimbabwe or Sudan, Bill Fletcher has worked dilligently to make the news and daily conditions of Black people in Africa and the Caribbean, in particular, relevant to Blacks in the United States.
TransAfrica Forum is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating the general public – particularly African Americans – on the economic, political and moral ramifications of U.S. foreign policy as it affects Africa and the Diaspora in the Caribbean and Latin America.
TransAfrica Forum serves as a major research, educational, and organizing institution for the African-American community. Acting in concert with likeminded organizations and individuals, they sponsor seminars, conferences, community awareness projects, and training programs that promote U.S. policies that are supportive of human rights, democracy, and sustainable economic development.
Recently, Mr. Fletcher granted Cedric Muhammad an exclusive interview for BlackElectorate.com's special in-depth series, "Asking The Right Questions About Darfur, Sudan".
Cedric Muhammad: TransAfrica’s June 25th statement is a very succinct statement and I think you all covered a lot of ground in a very short amount of words. Essentially, in a macro view, does TransAfrica, or yourself, primarily see this as a humanitarian disaster moreso than genocide as it has been characterized by several groups who specifically want that word to come out of Kofi Annan’s mouth and the Bush administration?
Bill Fletcher: That’s an interesting question. I would say that we see it as both. And what we believe is that much of the debate about whether what is going on in Darfur constitutes genocide is a debate that is almost legalese. Because there is a broad consensus that there is a humanitarian crisis, that this is not a humanitarian crisis that is the result of natural causes. And that something dramatic needs to be done to stop it. And so while I agree absolutely with Salih Booker and Africa Action that it is genocide and that if it is declared genocide it automatically means that certain things kick in, legally speaking; I am not convinced that the international community will come to a consensus that it is genocide. In fact I was just reading this morning in the Los Angeles Times that there is this backlash in Arab nations where there is great fear that the international pressure on the Sudan is part of an effort by the United States and its allies from the Iraq war to intervene and destabilize the Sudan. And so while you have that level of anger – which I think is quite legitimate – with U.S. foreign policy, you are not necessarily going to arrive at a consensus about whether what is going on is genocide. But the facts on the ground are very hard to dispute. The Sudanese government is now trying to throw smoke in the air by claiming that it is the rebel groups in Darfur who are mainly responsible for the death and destruction, but I don’t know that anybody, including the Sudanese government believes that.
Cedric Muhammad: Now jumping into the first paragraph of TransAfrica’s statement. It says, “Partly due to the colonial borders set up and upheld by African countries an ethnic clash has unfolded in Western Sudan.” That is a clear statement. It continues, “This ethnic clash has been deepened by various political forces”, another clear point. And then you conclude that line of thought with, “Darfurian opposition groups to the Khartoum government – Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement - (JEM ) turned to arms in protest over what they had felt to be decades of abuse and neglect.” The reason why I am isolating that is because I think that your statement more than most is transparent about there being some level of distinction between the political tensions and the ethnic tensions, in the backdrop of a colonial history. And so when you look at the SLA and the JEM some people will say those groups are analogous to and totally representative of the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa communities tribes. Other people are saying, ‘no, the SLA and JEM are not just these tribes, there are other groups involved seeking to have their grievances heard’. So if you could, would you explain that nexus where there are independent political interests that are now intersecting with what seem to be historic tribal and ethnic tensions?
Bill Fletcher: Alright let me give it a shot, and let me try to do it in the form of points. The first point is that the borders of the Sudan were not drawn by Africans and so that is critically important for people to understand. The second thing is that we are dealing with Black people in the Sudan – some of whom are Arab and some are not. And that distinction is cultural and ethnic but it is not what we would look at as racial, although, in the Sudan there might be certain racial connotations. But that distinction is very important. If you look at a picture of Bashir (the leader of the Republic of the Sudan, President Omer Hassan Ahmed Al-Bashir ), you would not think (he is an Arab). And so I think that the way the situation is portrayed is also confusing. The third point is that the non-Arab tribes or non-Arab ethnic groups in Darfur have much more in common with the people of Chad or the people in areas south of the Sudan than they do ethnically with Arab groups.
Now these groups coexisted for years although there was tension. There was tension between the pastoralists - the farmers, versus the nomads. As the Sahara desert has expanded it has put pressure on the people in that area to coexist in an atmosphere of diminishing resources. So, that is kind of the background. The Khartoum government is a right wing Islamist government that has manipulated ethnic division and religious division for years, in its quest to hold power. It has done what it can to suppress religious and secular opposition to the regime. And it has played on ethnic tensions as it did in the struggle with the Southern Sudanese movement. The people in Darfur are mainly Muslim and that region was feeling excluded from the centers of power. It felt that its issues were being ignored by the Khartoum government, that the Khartoum government was playing on ethnic issues in order to strengthen itself. And therefore this opposition movement developed.
Now the other factor that is important to consider in understanding when the opposition movement turns to armed struggle is the negotiations that were taking place between the Sudanese government and the (Sudan People’s Liberation Army) SPLA and the fact that this civil war – in fact the longest in Africa – seemed to be on the verge of being settled. But it was being settled without attention paid to any of the other political questions in the Sudan. This unsettled a lot of people. It unsettled people in the northern Sudan, Democratic oppositional forces to Bashir, who basically felt like they were on the verge of being “iced”, and that Bashir, in settling the war with SPLA could then turn his attention to immediately eliminating all elements of opposition. But the people in Darfur were also concerned and they appear to have concluded that if they did not do something quickly, the settlement would take place and the world would lose interest in the Sudan. Because it is important to keep in mind that there was growing interest in the Sudan crisis, including from the United States. In fact John Danforth (now United States Ambassador to the United Nations) was detailed to be the mediator in the talks, and it was probably the only successful and possibly progressive intervention of the Bush administration in international affairs. But the reason, at least in my opinion, for their interest is oil. Oil in the Southern Sudan. This is what seemed to pique the interest of the Bush administration. So, many of the forces in Darfur seemed to have felt that if the civil war was settled without attention to other political questions in the Sudan, then they would find themselves standing in the cold. And so under those circumstances and in response to years of grievances that the people in the Darfur region believed had gone unanswered, an armed struggle was mounted.
Now Bashir’s government, much like Milosevic in Serbia, decided that they were going to fight the civil war by making no distinction between what are euphemistically called “hard” and “soft” targets. That is, (they would not distinguish) between military targets and civilian locations. And what it would do is utilize an irregular military force, the Janjaweed, as a way of going against the opposition in the Sudan, but by going against the people, that is, eliminating the popular base for both of the rebel movements – SLA and JEM. And this Janjaweed would cooperate with the Sudanese military, where the Sudanese military would have plausible deniability...
Cedric Muhammad: ...like how the United States used the Contras in Nicaragua...
Bill Fletcher:...exactly, exactly. That is a very appropriate analogy, actually. Because when you look at what the Contras did in Nicaragua, the kind of terrorism that they carried out against the Nicaraguan people, the United States could stand back and say, ‘it ain’t us.’ Well that is essentially what Bashir and his clique, in my opinion, decided to do in Darfur. So it is a civil war. And in that sense I would say that the analogy is much closer with the former Yugoslavia than it is with Rwanda. In Rwanda, yes there was a civil war and an attempt to crush all opposition within the country by the Hutu clique. But what we are dealing with here is something that is more analogous to Milosevic and the way that he moved through a process of ethnic cleansing to move people out. I don’t think the Bashir government cares whether people are killed or not. I think that they are more concerned about physically removing the population. Do you see what I mean?
Cedric Muhammad: Right. Now when you say “removing them” you mean physically moving them off of that land?
Bill Fletcher: Yes, absolutely! So, if they die in the process, as the bumper sticker says ‘(things) happen.’, right? That is as far as Bashir is concerned. But the aim seems to be, principally physical removal which would then mean one of a couple of things – either the population is ejected from the Sudan entirely, or the terms for their re-entry are held in the hands of Bashir.
Cedric Muhammad: Now, in light of that, my question is, on the flip side. And I have heard both sides of this. Salih Booker (of Africa Action) told me that he did not know of any connection between the SPLA and the two opposition groups in Darfur (the SLA and the JEM). I have two other experts and respected voices who say there was absolutely an effort by the SPLA to move into that region to arm and recruit among the three major groups that are generally equated with the ethnic membership of the JEM and SLA. So I wanted to ask you, do you have any knowledge of affiliation between the SPLA and the two rebel groups in Darfur?
Bill Fletcher: I don’t but I think, as curious, as it may sound, that I think Salih and the other people are both right. By that I mean this – my guess, by the different things I have read and the people that I have spoken to, is that, at different points I am sure the SPLA tried to develop linkages. The SPLA also, interestingly enough, offered to mediate the dispute between the Khartoum government and the two rebel groups in Darfur. But the military operation of the SPLA – I have not seen any reports that have indicated that they have moved into the Darfur region in order to carry out military operations against Khartoum. I would not in the least bit be surprised if they had attempted to reach out, and may still be attempting to reach out with the possibility that the Khartoum-SPLA agreement falls apart and they have to be ready for plan B. But I have not seen any information that there has been a major SPLA presence.
Cedric Muhammad: OK, Human Rights Watch’s report, I am not sure if you have seen it...
Bill Fletcher...I have not read the whole thing, but I have read part of it...
Cedric Muhammad:...you probably saw the summary report. In it, they state that they believe they have proof of the Sudanese government relationship with the Janjaweed. You seem to share this conclusion. My question, there, is what is TransAfrica or you relying on when determining the truth of that charge? In the mainstream media it is a foregone conclusion that there is a Janjaweed-Sudanese government relationship. Now, from what I have seen, and from every way I know how to research something, from this side, it sounds like it is plausible, but I don’t know that what I have seen rises to the level of conclusive evidence or proof (of a direct relationship between the Sudanese government in Khartoum and the Janjaweed). So what is the persuasive evidence – empirical or anecdotal – that causes you to believe that there is an official policy from the Sudanese government to use the Janjaweed?
Bill Fletcher: Uncontradicted reports from organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, International Crisis Group (ICG), and through those reports, the testimony of refugees, as well as recent visits by U.S. Congressional representatives. And they all end up saying essentially the same thing, which is this: the Janjaweed are very often encamped right outside the refugee camps. The Janjaweed, according to refugee reports, have carried out attacks in conjunction with and receiving air support from the Sudanese government, the Sudanese military; that Janjaweed have been wearing uniforms of the Sudanese military. So there are enough of these reports that the denials from the Sudanese government really ring hollow. So that is what we have been relying on.
Cedric Muhammad: So essentially your last point would deal with that portion of the TransAfrica report that refers to an “interchangability”...
Bill Fletcher:...that’s right...
Cedric Muhammad: ...between the Janjaweed militia and the Sudanese military person. One of the things about the Human Rights Watch document pertaining to this that is interesting is that they say there is an official high-level connection or documentation, but really what they are saying they have, when you examine their report closely, are documents purporting to be from the state, the provincial government – or the civilian administration in Darfur involving it with the Janjaweed; but nothing to the level of Khartoum. Now, I don’t know that the federal-state relationship in Sudan is anything like the relationship between the federal government in Washington D.C. and say, the state government in Nevada; but, I just thought that was interesting because I have yet to see anybody (provide direct or “official” documentation of a relationship between the Sudanese government in Khartoum and the Janjaweed in Darfur). But TransAfrica’s position in relying on the accounts of others has been to kind of track military movements (that show a working relationship between the Sudanese military and the Janjaweed)?
Bill Fletcher: Yeah, the thing is that it is both an interesting and potentially academic question about whether or not the contacts are with Khartoum or with the provincial government. It is interesting and it is worth asking because it might mean that the Janjaweed operation is essentially set up by the locals and given tacit support by Khartoum. It is also possible that Khartoum, again, wanted plausible deniability for the operation. The way that I think about it, and I had a discussion with an African ambassador, and I am not going to say who it was - because I don’t think that he would want this public - but he said this very interesting thing when we were talking about the situation. He said that it may turn out that it was much easier for the Sudanese government to initiate the Janajaweed than it is for them to reign them in. And I think of that somewhat in terms of a Frankenstein and monster analogy. I think that it is a plausible scenario. That is, the provincial government in Darfur or the Khartoum government initiated this and this is now, kind of on its own course. That’s possible. But it seems to me that the level of coordination that has been reported by refugees and observers, leads me to believe that it is not quite the appropriate analogy and that the connections – again going back to the former Yugoslavia – are much more like that, where you have irregular forces as well as the formal military, and that while there may be rogue elements among the irregular forces, they can be reigned in. The question is one of political will.
Cedric Muhammad: Let me jump to the most important area which I think is that of the question of how to make things better. In what you all have proposed, I really feel the emphasis on humanitarian assistance. Now there is a part in here I wanted to ask you about, because again, this is also a civil war with political trappings. One of the demands that you have is that the Sudanese government cease all military operations in Darfur. And so I wanted to know, because I think the Sudanese government has called for all armed militias to put down their weapons, including what is called the Janajaweed. Is this a demand that you are extending to the opposition as well?
Bill Fletcher: Yes.
Cedric Muhammad: So this would be a total ceasefire?
Bill Fletcher: Yes, absolutely. Certainly we are putting the weight on the Sudanese government because they are far better armed and equipped. There is supposed to be in effect, as of this past May, a ceasefire between all parties. And we are saying that, yes, you are absolutely right, that ceasefire should be respected.
Cedric Muhammad: Bill, do you have any concerns about the way this issue has been handled – the way it has been reported; some of the activism around it; and just the paradigm that this has been used to characterize this as an Arab vs. Black African problem? Do you think that this characterization and paradigm in some ways hinders a long-term solution although it might facilitate short term humanitarian assistance?
Bill Fletcher: Yes. In terms of your question, I think the way this has been portrayed in the press has often been very unhelpful and also very misleading, except on one level – that what is unfolding in Darfur is a scenario of horror. In that sense it is helpful because people need to know that something horrific is unfolding and something needs to be done but when people describe this simply as an Arab vs. African thing, well there are a few problems with that, first of all, the Arabs in Africa, unless my geography is wrong, are African...
Cedric Muhammad: (laughter) right...
Bill Fletcher:...I mean, maybe I missed something, maybe some canal was built while I was asleep, right? They are African. And it is important to understand the important role that North African Arabs and Berbers played in supporting continental independence. For example, Algeria, as well as Egypt under Nasser. These were Arabs too. They spent a lot of time, resources, people died, supporting the end of colonialism, not just in their own countries but on the continent as a whole. And I think it is important for your readers to remember that, so we don’t kind of get things totally confused. The second thing is that there are very real ethnic conflicts. This is not just true in the Sudan. It is true all over the world and part of what has happened is that many of these ethnic conflicts, internationally, have taken place as resources and wealth have polarized and diminished. Various countries, particularly in the post-Cold War period lose their relevance to the West – Western Europe and the United States, their resources decline, forms of discontent emerge – sometimes it takes the form of religious fundamentalism, sometimes it takes the form of ethnic clashes – and all of these things go on, unfortunately, as opposed to progressive secular opposition. And I say this, and it may sound confusing, but it is also important to remind your readers that the United States helped to destroy many of the secular political movements in Africa, during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s – groups they defined as communist. They crushed them, including - and very importantly - in the Sudan. Sudan had the largest communist party in Africa. It was a very strong secular movement in that country. And it was crushed with the support of the United States, and it was in the crushing in the early 1970s, that seeds of Islamic fundamentalism were planted and used as a way of eliminating secular opposition. We could go on and on about that but I think it is important.
I think that the other thing that is very scary is that you have these right-wing Christian groups and I want to word this very carefully, but you have these right-wing Christian groups, that are basically Bush supporters that have decided to make the Sudan a cause celebre' and many of these groups actually agitated for Bush to get involved in the Southern Sudanese conflict, in terms of slavery and religion, because they were basically saying that good Christians in Southern Sudan were facing a jihad from the North. They didn’t properly construe the conflict. These forces are also getting involved in the Darfur issue and they are helping to confuse the situation. So, I think that there are a number of things going on out there that make for complications. Now, on top of all of this is the question of the role of the U.S. and other outside powers. Many people say, ‘why are Africans, why are the Pakistanis, why are the Chinese so reluctant to see international forced to go into the Sudan?’ There are a lot of reasons but let me just say this, first, we believe that a multinational force needs to be deployed, not U.S. troops. Not a U.S.-led force. And we are very adamant about that. But we have to understand and I tried to raise this on the Hill, (Capitol Hill) in a meeting a couple of weeks ago – that many countries in the global South have had a very bad experience with U.S. foreign policy and European colonialism, and are therefore very skittish any time they hear the notion of outside forces being deployed. And unfortunately it sometimes leads people to turn a blind eye, whether it was in Rwanda, or whether it is in Sudan, on ethnic cleansing and genocide, for fear that the door might be open to outside intervention. I think that we have to understand people’s concerns, but that does not mean that we should be misled by it.
I had this argument with this person that I know who is also in the Black Radical Congress (BRC), like I am. But she and I disagree on the Sudan, because her point of view, which is not the point of view of the BRC, is that the Sudan crisis should be settled without outside intervention and that basically the U.S. is trying to whip things up in order to intervene. And this person criticized me and said that ‘you were against the U.S. going into Haiti why are you for foreign intervention in the Sudan?’ And I pointed out to her that the last time I checked, Aristide hadn’t carried out any ethnic cleansing. And that the coup in Haiti, was a coup where the finger prints of the United States were directly involved. What we are looking at in the Sudan is a matter of ethnic cleansing is taking place, where thousands of people, and civilians are being killed, and more than a million people have been driven out of their homes. There is supposed to be a ceasefire, the ceasefire is not working. Somebody needs to do something about it, and that somebody in my opinion, really should be the African Union. It really should be the African Union. And I am one of those strong proponents of the “African Union before the united Nations”.
Cedric Muhammad: I am too.
Bill Fletcher: The African Union had a mandate when it got formed, just within the last couple of years, that said precisely when situations like this emerge, that the African Union would get involved. And I feel that they were good in terms of negotiating the ceasefire but in response to the ethnic cleansing that is going on? They are giving Bashir a pass.
Cedric Muhammad: Now aren’t they (the AU) still in the process of having observers there in Darfur?
Bill Fletcher: Yes...my understanding is that the observers are mainly going in to monitor the ceasefire, they are not mainly going in to deal with the displacement. So in other words, I guess I am saying that it sounds to me that their mandate is too narrow.
Cedric Muhammad: You and everybody has pointed this out - and it would appear to be a fair litmus test for the Sudanese government to pass – the problem of humanitarian aid getting to those who need it, and the question of whether the Sudanese government is facilitating or obstructing this process. But I have seen in the past though, particularly in Central and South America (among indigenous populations in areas rich in natural resources or where political opposition groups and revolutionary ideologies are emerging), and I think I saw this in Zimbabwe, that sometimes humanitarian assistance has a good-sounding name but alot of U.S. AID, Christian missionary and other humanitarian assistance groups are really fronts, (and used by intelligence agencies and commercial interests to make inroads).
Bill Fletcher: Right.
Cedric Muhammad: Not only are they fronts sometimes, but they also come with practices and stipulations that violate the sovereignty of a country.
Bill Fletcher: Yeah.
Cedric Muhammad: So I wanted to know, have you heard of anything that would justify the lack of cooperation, in any part, or resistance, or hesitancy by the Sudanese government as it relates to the humanitarian assistance process. Because generally speaking people are for it, but I have not heard much regarding the details of how the aid would be delivered.
Bill Fletcher: No. I have not seen this. The Sudanese government in fact has repeatedly said...and the Sudanese Ambassador, or his deputy, in April, said to me, and two other people, – one from Amnesty International and the other Washington Office on Africa - that the Sudanese government was not going to obstruct the influx of humanitarian assistance. That’s what he said. He did not indicate any problems with the process. And I think that you are right that various types of NGOs can be problematic but while that is true, there are ways to work around that, particularly in the current situation.
Cedric Muhammad: So, is the African Union’s problem money, or is it just lack of will power?
Bill Fletcher: Both. And that is where I think the United States could make a real difference. If the United States says, ‘look we are not going to send U.S. troops but we will provide financing for an African Union force. We will provide airplanes trucks etc…to move peacekeepers into place. We will provide satellite information for the African Union’ that would make a world of difference. But the other thing is their political will, and an (international) concern. I think that no nations want to be seen as the chumps of the United States, particularly in light of the U.S. aggression against Iraq. And I think that there is a skittishness out there, but I am hoping that the AU gets over that. This is not about Iraq. This is not anywhere near an Iraq situation. And I think that there is no need to ask of the United States to take the lead in this, by African countries. African countries should resolve this.
Cedric Muhammad: The genocide terminology and what that triggers if it is accepted by the United Nations Security Council. What do you see in a negative sense in the long-term if that moves forward? Do you think that it opens the door for international devaluation and even commercialization of the term, itself?
Bill Fletcher: No, not at all. I think that if it was recognized by the international community that genocide is going on in Darfur, that would actually make people much more sensitive about looking at it and recognize that it is simply not a rhetorical term.
Cedric Muhammad: I am just thinking about it in terms of how words like “terrorism” develop a relative meaning. And as you know, all over the world there are these ethnic conflicts. And my thought is that I could probably pick thirty spots on the globe where one group would say that what they are experiencing at the hands of another is genocide, and then you open the door for...
Bill Fletcher: Well, I think that is true. That is always a possibility. But I worry less than that because I see how slowly the international community has been to respond to genocide, generally. So I am not really worrying about them responding (improperly). It is a lesser concern. I think that it is the case that anyone can cry “genocide”. But therefore there needs to be an investigation, and documentation of it, it can’t just be rhetoric. And it can’t just be people dying. There is criteria that the international community is to recognize.
Cedric Muhammad: Well, Bill I really thank you for your time.
Bill Fletcher: Thank you. This is that important.
Part I: Exclusive Q & A With Professor Sean O'Fahey
Part II : Exclusive Q & A With Joe Madison, President, Sudan Campaign
Part III: Exclusive Q & A With Karen Kwiatkowski, Lt. Col. United States Air Force (ret.)
Part IV: Exclusive Q & A With Salih Booker, Executive Director, Africa Action
Part V : Exclusive Q & A With Dr. Kwame Akonor, Founder, African Development Institute
Part VI: Exclusive Q & A With Georgette Gagnon and Leslie Lefkow, Africa Division, Human Rights Watch
Monday, August 23, 2004