Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Khartoum. The hand-painted sign on Nile Avenue here best captured the attitude of urban Sudanese toward the visit of Vice President George Bush to their country in early March, just four weeks before the popular overthrow of President Ja‘far Numairi. “Vice-President and Mrs. Bush,” read the sign, “are mostly welcome.” The millions of Sudanese starving in the countryside would have been much less hospitable.

After nearly 16 years of Numairi’s rule, anti-US sentiment was on the upswing, along with hatred of Numairi. One joke in Khartoum had three men sitting outside Numairi’s palace. “If he were here now,” said the first, “I would shoot him so full of holes that you couldn’t see him.” “I,” said the second man, “would cut him with a sword until he was only a pool of blood on the ground.” “Ah, no,” interrupted the third. “If it were up to me I would give Numairi a house in Khartoum and a government salary of £S50 a month. Then he would die a thousand deaths.”

A national economy in a widening state of collapse had by this winter caught the capital city in its grips. Doctors secretly confided that they had seen as many as 35,000 children with malnutrition in Khartoum’s hospitals during January and February alone. The Sudanese pound had been devalued five times in less than three years in a series of International Monetary Fund austerity measures. Dollar shortages were so severe that even Bank of Sudan officials stalked the sidewalks outside foreign hotels offering a steadily increasing exchange rate for black market currency. There was simply no fuel in the country. Relief convoys stopped, as refugees crossed the border at the rate of 3,000 per night. Urban commercial transport ground to a halt, and thousands stopped showing up for work. Secondary school students began burning tires in protest throughout the capital. All schools in the city were closed, officially to save fuel. Sudanese soldiers suddenly confiscated all cash reserves from exchange shops and banks. Stores and teashops in downtown Khartoum were ordered closed at 5 pm to save electricity.

That was before the $20 million, 72-hour visit of George Bush—a delegation of 250, a contingent of six aircraft, an armor-plated jeep for dashes to relief camps and a custom limousine to ferry the VP to the Nile Palace of this key ally. Into the heartland of Africa’s famine arrived the Reagan administration in all its pomp and circumstance, preceded by a New York-based public relations firm and with enough vehicles to mount an emergency operation in eastern Kassala province. The street urchins scattered as the fuel tankers arrived. In a country beset by outrageous logistical obstacles, now there were satellite communications at the Khartoum Hilton, along with new, functioning transatlantic telephone and telex lines. Less than a mile away, relief workers tried helplessly to make phone contact with Gedaref, some 400 miles to the east. The most modern communications system ever installed in Sudan was completely dismantled a few days later, when Bush left the country. The fuel tankers disappeared. The street urchins returned. Little of Bush’s visit was telecast in the US. One segment which appeared again and again over Sudanese television showed a visibly nervous Bush at the camp in el-Obeid, alongside Sudan’s 300-pound minister for state security, speaking to several hundred hungry, displaced Sudanese.

Though billed as a gesture of compassion for Africa’s hungry and of US support for the tottering Numairi regime, the Bush visit also highlighted the relatively quiet entry of America’s religious right wing into Africa. Standing alongside Bush as he shook hands at emergency airlift ceremonies were the Moral Majority’s Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggert (of Jimmy Swaggert Ministries) and the Christian Broadcasting Network’s Pat Robertson. Even Sudanese government officials, with their impeccable record of suppression of the Sudanese Communist Party over the past decade and a half, found their speeches linking the famine to “creeping communism” to be “unbelievably ridiculous.”

Simmering outrage at the US began to boil over earlier this year at the extent of US influence over both Numairi’s policies and his state security forces. Numairi may have been eclipsed by former neighbor Idi Amin in shows of brutal repression, but he has a certified history as a shrewd and ruthless ruler. In the face of perhaps 20 serious coup attempts, Numairi systematically eliminated his opposition, shooting some, imprisoning others. He executed enough Communist sympathizers to deal a grievous blow to one of Africa’s oldest and largest parties. In the last several years, many Sudanese thought Numairi was growing insane and very ill. He passed out on national television on more than one occasion, disappeared for medical treatment annually, and in 1981 told the Associated Press that Libyan agents were fomenting unrest by throwing toothpaste into the Nile. Numairi applied the shari&lsuqo;a law with such brutality that it brought protests from traditional Sudanese religious leaders and even from Saudi Arabia. “Each day we wake to Radio Omdurman announcing who has had his hand or foot chopped off, or who is getting beaten to death with a lead pipe for obstructing the will of Allah,” said 30-year old Muhammad Idris in January. “I am scared to go into the streets.”

Numairi leaped from identity to identity—from a sergeant to a socialist, from a general to an imam—and had no consistent approach to basic economic policy. Sudan is one-third the size of the continental US, but has only 22 million people. Contrary to Malthusian notions that famine is everywhere borne of overpopulation, this country is severely underpopulated. With the exception of the Chinese, none of Sudan’s economic donors made infrastructure a priority. Following Sudan’s change of superpower alliances in 1971-72, new but long-term Soviet development schemes were abandoned by newly arrived US Agency for International Development officials.

Most villages are 50 miles from one another, and without roads to major urban centers. The AID emphasis on crops for export and little-used research programs prompted one Sudanese Embassy official in Washington to ask for reassignment last year because, he said, “I am tired of beating my head against the wall trying to convince AID to give us hoes and shovels.”

Numairi’s abandonment of rural development was a political decision. His party, the Sudanese Socialist Union, had little presence in the countryside. The religiously-based Ansar and Khatmiyya sects vied for traditional peasant loyalty, while the Muslim Brotherhood more recently penetrated the countryside to organize via local mosques. The Communist Party has organized almost exclusively among urban workers and students, and is now critical of its failure to address the needs and conditions of Sudan’s farmers.

In his 16 years in power, Numairi helped concentrate Sudan’s best farming lands in the hands of high-level security and military personnel. Sudan received more US economic aid than any other nation in Black Africa. Hundreds of millions of dollars were sunk into huge agro-industrial schemes dependent on US expertise and spare parts. Three and four years after gala opening celebrations, many of these projects dot Sudan’s few highways like policy mausoleums.

Chevron Oil Company discovered oil reserves—described by some company people as greater than those of Nigeria—in southern Sudan in the early 1980s. In an agreement with Numairi, Chevron began construction of an 826-mile pipeline to a refinery in the north of the country, ending for the south much hope of oil-based employment or revenues. The company was moving very slowly even before the 1983-84 attacks by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which led them to abandon drilling. In recent years, Sudan has imported 44 percent of its energy requirements. A US Embassy official commented last year that “we’re in no hurry to bring that oil up now—there’s a glut. We’ll need it later.”

Perhaps the only US move that gained popular support in Sudan in recent years was the December 1984 suspension of $194 million in economic aid, due to mismanagement of the economy. The announcement was met with glee in Sudan’s crowded markets. “I always thought,” said a Sudanese refugee official, “that Numairi would be overthrown by a sergeant. Now it looks like it will be the dollar.”

The Bush visit was to patch things up before they fell apart completely. Bush played in the limelight while the important meetings were held by Deputy Secretary of State for Africa Chester Crocker and AID director Peter McPherson. Bush and his wife made a 20-minute visit to Wad Sherife refugee camp, but when an airlift of supplies from a private US foundation arrived for distribution across the border into guerrilla-held areas of Eritrea and northern Ethiopia, US officials were in a quandry. “The official line has been and continues to be hands off the Eritreans and Tigrayans,” said one high US Embassy official. In fact, officials did discuss expanding cross-border feeding of millions of farmers cut off from international aid in contested areas of Ethiopia, and reportedly agreed to move as much as 200,000 metric tons of food into Eritrea and Tigray, but the plan has yet to be implemented. As one AID official put it, “Washington can’t decide if they want to buy Ethiopia or save Sudan.”

Other things discussed during the Bush visit were this year’s Bright Star military maneuvers (Sudan pulled out after the coup) and storing toxic and nuclear wastes in Sudan’s western desert. Much of the three day visit was spent smoothing out the details of the airlift of Ethiopian Jews out of Sudan, the so-called “Operation Moses.” Small groups of them (the term falasha means “outcast” and they consider it a term of opprobrium) had reached Israel from Sudan’s refugee camps since 1981. The “rescue” was devised in late 1984, when the North American Committee for Ethiopian Jewry determined that the massive movement of refugees into Sudan from the east provided the perfect cover for the arrival and departure of most of the rest of the Ethiopian Jews. They were urged to leave the one part of Gondar Province not affected by famine, and walk to Sudan without any support. The New York Times reported that between 2,000 and 3,000 died in Umm Rakuba camp, most likely the result of slow starvation on their journey to Sudan, where conditions were no better.

Some 13,000 Ethiopian Jews were evacuated before the operation was curtailed after publicity in Israel. An unknown number remained in the camps. It was their “rescue” that Bush arranged. “Operation Moses” incurred the wrath of refugees, Sudanese and expatriates alike. It disrupted the relief effort, displayed a gross imbalance in the allocation of refugee aid, involved widespread corruption of government officials and acutely embarrassed many Sudanese. Some, aware of the links between US intelligence and their own State Security Forces, recalled Bush’s former position as director of the CIA. “Can you imagine anything more insulting,” asked one student here, “than being ruled by a man who invites the intelligence services of the US, Israel and South Africa to invade our country and physically remove more than 10,000 selected people while millions starve?”

How to cite this article:

Gayle Smith "George Bush in Khartoum," Middle East Report 135 (September/October 1985).
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