Interview with Hafiz Ismail: Sudan needs to be open for business and investment

Former banker and civil society activist Hafiz Ismail is a leading member of the Sudanese panel of experts, many of whom have been living in exile since 1989. Radio Dabanga caught-up with him in London this month to ask him about his vision on the future of Sudan in the context of the current climate of change, following the overthrow of the Al Bashir regime.

RD: Since its independence from colonial rule, there have been several coups and revolutions in Sudan's history. How is the current uprising different?

Hafiz Ismail: The difference between the December 2018 uprising and the two former revolutions in 1964 and 1985 is that it began across Sudan and involved everyone, with the coordination of the Sudanese Professionals Association and the Alliance for Freedom and Chance (AFC). The momentum of the current uprising is being built by the determination of the Sudanese people.

The other aspect is that the young people participating in the current uprising were born and grew up during the last 30 years within the Al Bashir regime. They have been learning a lot about propaganda which the regime used to spread in terms of education curriculum, slogans, Jihad, and the 'war against infidels' in South Sudan.

The other important consideration is the feeling of hopelessness; that they have a very bleak future in terms of employment and prosperity in comparison to many other countries. They can now draw a comparison between themselves in Sudan in terms of politics, economics, of the country's position in the world, because Sudan is one of the main countries established within the African Union, and also because Sudan gained independence in 1956 through a democratic process. So, we know what democracy is about. We have experience in overthrowing two dictatorships.

The challenges which we are facing? We had a regime which held in power for 30 years; an ideological regime which was racist, and that waged wars against many sectors of Sudanese society, using the policy of divide and rule, exploiting the tensions between tribes.

They adopted a policy called 'empowerment', that actually changed the country into a single ideological system. They had a total monopoly over the country, socially and economically.

Indeed, the policy of divide and rule was learned from the British, as in much of Africa, however the Sudanese policy was actually worse than the British. They adopted a policy called 'empowerment' actually changed the country into a single ideological system. If you were not part of the system or 'one of them', you could not get a job, get into the army, become a businessman, work in the market. They had a total monopoly over the country, socially and economically.

They launched an ideological war and made Sudan a harbour for radical Islamists � Al Qaeda was actually established in Sudan. Sudan became isolated by sanctions from the USA and other countries, impoverishing many Sudanese and forced many young Sudanese to look for another country to live in. This is why Sudan became a source of illegal immigration, and also a route for the passage illegal immigrants coming from other parts of Africa.

RD: With so many young people with potential leaving the county, this will have resulted in a brain drain?

Hafiz Ismail: Exactly the regime policy of empowerment actually dismissed everyone who was not 'one of them'. I was sacked in December 1989 and many experts were sacked, which forced us to leave and find other places to stay. That is exactly what happened. There is a brain drain. They appointed their own supporters to positions in the police, within the army, within security; people without any knowledge, without experience, and that contributed to the deterioration of Sudan's affairs.

The uprising to get rid of Al Bashir and his regime that is a very significant step. What we now need is an interim period is to establish a civilian-led administration. The first challenge is to try and achieve reform in the security sector which requires reforming the army, reforming the civil service, to try and amend and improve Sudan's foreign relations.

RD: That would require eradicating the 'deep state'.

Hafiz Ismail: Indeed. It would require getting rid of all the elements of the deep state, and then put Sudan on the right track. The interim period alone is not going to be enough to achieve all of that, but at least we have to take the first steps.

RD: How long do you think this interim period should be?

Hafiz Ismail: I think that it will be four or five years. We need to prepare Sudan for a democratic general election to elect a government that will continue a process of reform, and also to try to address the issues of poverty and economics, and also the issues of constitutional governance. Ever since the 2011 referendum on South Sudan, Sudan never had a permanent constitution; never had a process of constitution-making.

Sudan has to discuss how the country is to be governed. This will require recognition of Sudan's multi ethnicity, diversity of religion, its multi-lingual character. All these issues have to be discussed within the constitution making process. That needs time.

RD: Part of the healing process will be bringing perpetrators of atrocities to justice. The Transitional Military Council (TMC) are holding Al Bashir and some of his cadres and they want to try him in Sudan, whereas the International Criminal Court (ICC) want to try him in The Hague. What are your thoughts?

Hafiz Ismail: I think we have to have a transitional justice process. This can include justice, truth and reconciliation, including reconciliation among those communities alienated from each other by the regime's divide and rule policy, obviously divided people like that for example in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains [in South Kordofan] and Blue Nile. I think that will have to be addressed through a transitional justice process.

The best course of action for Al Bashir and those that have been indicted for war crimes and genocide by the ICC is to hand them over to the court. Let the ICC deal with that.

I strongly believe that the best course of action for Al Bashir and those that have been indicted for war crimes and genocide by the ICC is to hand them over to the court. Let the ICC deal with that. We also have to establish a proper investigation of all the crime that have been committed, starting with the most recent atrocities during the break-up of the Khartoum sit-in, to hold those responsible to account. That is crucial and that is important.

Then also we have to carry out a thorough investigation on the harassment of activists since December. We have to address the issue of torture and use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. All these issues have to be addressed, and we need a healing process of which justice is an important component.

We need to engage in talking about how we can live together in one country; how can we recognise the diversity in terms of culture, language, religion and then allow the country to move forward.

Diversity is the source of strength. We need to break the current deadlock that we are facing because of the refusal of the TMC to allow the establishment of an interim government. Every day we are losing lives of some of the best young Sudanese. Just yesterday one of the young activists who was very active during the uprising was deliberately targeted and killed in Khartoum. All this needs to be addressed and all the perpetrators need to be held to account. Only then we can move forward.

We need to engage in talking about how we can live together in one country; how can we recognise the diversity in terms of culture, language, religion and then allow the country to move forward.

What we need now is a transition to civilian rule because the current impasse is actually very dangerous. We are in a vacuum. You have all the institution of the regime, the remnants of the regime are intact, the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) is still intact, the various militias are still intact. I think the first thing to do is to take over from these people. The sooner the better. It's not going to be easy. They have gained confidence and that is why they perpetrated the Khartoum massacre because they are still controlling everything since Al Bashir was deposed. It is very important to establish civilian rule.

The conditions have been set by the AFC: They have to stop the blackout of the internet, freedom of media, release of detainees, withdrawal of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) of the other militia from the streets, and deploy the police to be responsible for upholding law and order among the population and At least establish some calm and some security. The TMC has to admit their guilt of the killing, but I don't think they will do that.

The other option for mediation is an agreement of establishing an investigation committee which is international and regional, with some Sudanese elements who have nothing to do with the regime in Sudan. We can ask Britain, the USA, or other western countries, to supply us with forensic experts and specialists in these kinds of crimes. Let this committee establish who is responsible.

Any delay in a civilian authority taking over the administration is not in our favour.

The other aspect is that they immediately have to stop the deployment of the many elements who are not Sudanese; from Chad, Mali, from various countries. Their strategy is to master Sudan. That strategy is influenced by Saudi Arabia and the UAE because Sudan is actually sending missions to fight the war in Yemen.

The involvement of the USA and other western countries will totally neutralise Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. That would be the best thing to do. Any delay in a civilian authority taking over the administration is not in our favour.

RD: When you say 'we', you mean the panel of Sudanese experts?

Hafiz Ismail: Yes. This is the advice we are giving as the panel of experts. We advise, however at the same time, we are not independent or neutral. We are part of the opposition. I personally train and support young activists since December in terms of financial support, training, political declaration, in organisation, how to secure themselves, how to secure their communication tools, and all these things.

RD: Looking to the future, the economy is in ruins, you are going to have to build up the economy, you are going to have to build up the government. There are lots of challenges. Do you see some of these young Sudanese, and those of the older generation who have left Sudan as part of the 'brain drain' coming back?

Hafiz Ismail: Yes, that is also an issue we recognise and must address. We have had meetings here in the UK and elsewhere with doctors, engineers, etc. Many of them are retired now because they have been living in exile since in 1989 and they have all been forced to leave the country. Every one of them agrees that they will go back. The most important thing is that in 30 years, the Al Bashir regime, has not only destroyed the economy, but also the educational institutions and the social fabric.

In Sudan today, you have university graduates who are totally illiterate. What we need to do if we really want Sudan to survive economically, is to have skills and training giving them skills so they will be ready when Sudan opens for business and investment.

In Sudan today, you have university graduates who are totally illiterate. What we need to do if we really want Sudan to survive economically, is to have skills and training. We have 100,000 university graduates but in the last 20 years 90 per cent of the graduates are out of job. Most of them are driving rikshas, they are working as casual traders, casual labourers, but we need to invest in training them, giving them skills so they will be ready when Sudan opens for business and investment.

There is an association that has a major representation in the protest movement who we are speaking to. They call themselves Unemployed University Graduates, and this is not from one part of Sudan but from all parts of the country. They are young and play a big role in the demonstrations, because they believe that the future is not with this regime. This regime has to go.

I am sure that once we have a civilian government, the USA will move the Sudan from the list of the countries responsible for terrorism and other donors will start the process of getting relief for Sudan. Then we can make Sudan ready to welcome investment and support from all as Sudan is potentially a very rich country.

One other important issue is finding a permanent solution for the wars in Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan � to achieve the distribution of peace. We need to disarm the militias and civilianise them. Some of them can be absorbed into the new military and police, and others can transform their knowledge to the rest of the civilian sector.

RD: Industry and agricultural production has also suffered.

Hafiz Ismail: Sudan is a very rich country. For example, I am from South Kordofan where there are four million hectares of irrigated land. I have a 1,000 hectares in an agricultural project which stopped in 2011 when the war started. South Kordofan is the main Gum Arabic belt which is a major export.

South Kordofan also has more than four million refugees and internally displaced people. We need to start a process of repatriation of refugees and for displaced people to go back to their villages. We need to be sure that they have basic services in terms of water, primary health care, and also give them means to go back and cultivate the land and contribute to the national economy. We need to reform the security and we need to reform Kordofan educational institutions that include the university.

We need to engage the Sudanese public in terms of civic education, so they understand exactly what is going on and they have the power to make the right choices when it comes to the election.

These are the issues we need to address at the start, but this is a long task and cannot be finished within the interim period. We need to agree on a national strategy to try and deal with all these issues in Sudan and we have to have a consensus. We need to engage the Sudanese public in terms of civic education, so they understand exactly what is going on and they have the power to make the right choices when it comes to the election.

We need to learn from the mistakes after 1964 and 1985. When you have an election and you have not prepared for it, we end up with a parliament which is not representative of the people, but only serves their own corrupt needs.

Crucial is holding the perpetrators all the corruption which has taken place is the last 30 years to account. We need to get back the money that has be stolen from Sudan, including more than $80 billion in missing oil proceeds from 1999 to 2011.

It is important for the opposition to show solidarity with each other in unity

It has been stolen by the regime. All this money is now in Malaysia and other parts of the world. We have to hunt this down and return this money and invest it into job creation, building the infrastructure, the roads, bridges, and investing in our agricultural projects. We have the largest irrigated projects in Africa that have been totally destroyed by the regime. What we need to do is invest in them so they can grow. For example, the scheme used to support an amount of USD 400,000 million in cotton alone.

It created employment for me and for two or three million more people.

RD: It also created employment opportunities for many migrant labourers from Darfur.

Hafiz Ismail: Yes. Many of them are still there, living as squatters. They call them El Kanabi. They live in very bad humanitarian conditions in terms of education and health. They don't have any rights. They are just slave labourers. It is just one example of how you need to invest in a scheme so you can provide and feed the country, and also contribute to producing a product you can export earn foreign exchange. Sudan needs to revise all the investment agreements with Arab countries, Malaysia etc.

RD: In five years' time, where do you see Sudan? What are best- and worst-case scenarios?

Hafiz Ismail: I think that the best-case scenario, and I am an optimist, is that Sudan is going to have an election, The election is going to produce a government that is representative of all Sudanese. This will put our country on the path of economic regeneration in terms of democracy and addressing all the problems that have been created not only in the last 16-17 years but also in the last 63 years of independence.

I think the worst-case scenario is if we reach a deadlock because the AFC is an alliance of different political ideologies. They will disagree and that will curtail implementation of any reform programme which is going to put the country in the path of democracy.

So, it is important for the opposition to show solidarity with each other in unity.

Source: Radio Dabanga

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