Chinese in Sudan

The Beijing hotel is, without a doubt, the largest “prefab” I’ve ever seen. Its spacious lobby, grandiose theater, connecting hallways and dozens of rooms are constructed solely from plastic slats fastened together in a less than appealing aesthetic. Its entrance is decorated with plastic trees that, at night, glow an array of neon colors.

Last Saturday evening, the Beijing Hotel appropriately hosted the celebration of the 61st anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. Sponsored by the Chinese National Petroleum Company and organized by the Chinese consulate, the event amounted to one of the strangest, albeit entertaining, that I have ever attended.

It commenced with gorgeous Chinese dancers playing drums on a stage that looked prepared to host the Blue Man Group. Blue, orange, green and yellow lights illuminated the dancers as copious amounts of fake smoke gushed from machines on all corners of the stage. The drummers were followed by a team of predictably underage male gymnasts who, despite frequent mistakes in their act, finished every maneuver with a plastic, ear-to-ear smile. The gymnasts made way for a series of renowned Chinese, pop culture entertainers who performed acts ranging from magic, to brass instruments to comedic routines in Mandarin poking fun at Chinese celebrities that no one outside of China has ever heard of.

In the middle of the event, a man from the consulate took the stage to say a few words about the People’s Republic and led the crowd in the Chinese national anthem. Unfortunately, neither he nor any of the other participants spoke a word of English. The presentation’s communication was left to a young, Chinese-American woman who served as the evening’s emcee. With a charming smile, and form fitting black dress she appeared between scenes to explain what would otherwise be lost.

The event was a strong and interesting indication of China’s growing presence in resource-rich areas of Africa. Here in Sudan, China is heavily invested in petro-chemical extraction in the oil rich basins throughout south central areas of the country. When one drives through the oil fields of northern Upper Nile state, it is common to see busloads of Chinese oil workers traveling on out-of-place tarmac roads between processing facilities. There is, in fact, an international airport in the village of Paloich, a tiny speck in the middle of the Melut oil basin. While I do not know for sure, something tells me that the planes that fly in and out are likely destined for China.

I am curious to see how the resource game between east and west unfolds here in Africa. As I watched these Chinese entertainers whose mission, at least in part, is to win popular favor among Sudanese, I could not help but think of the vast cultural gap between China and Africa. Western powers have been involved in Africa for centuries, leaving behind aspects of their customs, practices and languages. While large-scale cultural differences certainly exist between Africans and Westerners, most continental capitals bare the clear marks of past and current relationships with the West. The national powerbrokers in most countries share learned languages and customs with incoming French, Dutch and American investors. Watching a stereotypically Chinese entertainer play a trumpet into the face of a Sudanese parliamentarian seemed like a futile attempt at cultural persuasion.

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New Parliament Sworn In

Lt. Gen. James Wani Igga being sworn in for his second term as Speaker of the South Sudan Legislative Assembly (AP Photo/Pete Muller)
Lt. Gen. James Wani Igga being sworn in for his second term as Speaker of the South Sudan Legislative Assembly (AP Photo/Pete Muller)

The room feels far more like an SPLM rally than a parliamentary convention. With few exceptions, each incoming MP rises and bellows out the famous phrase, “SPLM Oyii,” which translates loosely as “SPLM on top.” The packed room echoes the phrase back to the caller. Miniature SPLM flags, known more commonly as the official flag of South Sudan, wave in the air. Verses of SPLM songs sporadically break out.

Eventually, the speaker announces the victory of a female SPLM-DC candidate. She rises defiantly and chants, “SPLM…DC!!!!” She repeats the letters four times despite pin-drop silence in the room. The leader of her party, Dr. Lam Akol, is despised by many southerners for his on-again-off-again alliance with the northern government. He challenged Salva Kiir for the Presidency of south Sudan but scored only seven percent of the vote. His ally makes a bold stand in this unfriendly room, but eventually sits down looking sheepish. The room burst into laughter.

It is clear that the SPLM plans on running the show in South Sudan for the foreseeable future. I would hate to be an opposition party in the room today. As the celebration went on, I could not help but think about General George Athor and his ongoing rebellion against the SPLA in Jonglei state. While his behavior is thus far isolated, it should certainly not be dismissed or underestimated. As I’ve written here before, I believe that the irregularities and shortcomings of April elections will have unfolding ramification for the future of South Sudan. One party rule will not suffice in this embattled land.

Election results and immediate fallout

Military and police forces deployed heavily following the announcement of election results on Monday.
Military and police forces deployed heavily following the announcement of election results on Monday.

The security environment in Juba has taken a sudden turn for the worse. Following the announcement of election results this afternoon, riots and confrontations were reported in the Hai Malakal and Customs areas of Juba town. The United Nations and other security services confirmed that shots were fired in the Hai Malakal area during confrontations. Heavily armed units of military and police deployed throughout the area in trucks and armored personnel carriers. All traffic and pedestrians were banned from entering.

All United Nations staff are on lockdown.

Reports indicate that the confrontation involves supporters of Independent candidate Alfred Ladu Gore, who ran for the gubernatorial seat for Central Equitoria. The word on the street, and among some polling officials and election observers, is that Gore won more popular votes than his opponent, the SPLM incumbent, Lt. General Clement Wani. The outcome, however, does not reflect such claims.

The issue of independent candidates was a tricky one throughout the elections process. Feeling that the SPLM candidate nomination process was unfair, some 300 SPLM members, many of them fairly senior, opted to break ranks and run on their own. This infuriated many within the SPLM and caused considerable tension in races throughout the region.

The Central Equitoria gubernatorial race proved particularly tense due to strong support for Alfred Gore. In the days before results were announced, rumors circulated that neither candidate would accept the other’s victory and that confrontations were probable.

Juba residents fear that violence might spread if political agreements are not reached. “We do not know what will happen,” says Robert, a local resident. “We are just remaining inside and praying that it will not get worse.”

I’m slated to move with police forces tomorrow. We’ll see if they will really allow it. Updates to follow.

Juba

I had no idea what to expect, and have been surprised for better and for worse. In many ways, Juba embodies the stereotypical perceptions of Africa. Many of the streets are battered and unpaved with piles of burning trash defacing the overall landscape. The days are shrouded in oppressive heat, leaving me exhausted despite minimal exertions. Men in camouflage uniforms move through town in open-back military lorries, clutching AK-47 rifles. Red dust hangs in the air at all times, often coloring the water in the bottom of a shower. I’m usually much dirtier than I think.

Perhaps naïvely, I am surprised by the hard exterior of people here. While I frequently dislike capitol cities for their hardened collective personality, I have yet to encounter one quite like this. I’ve seen little of the overt friendliness that commonly defined my previous experiences in Africa, even in war-torn regions. Facial expressions here are commonly tense; furrowed brows & taught lips. Crime, corruption and violence are pervasive and impact the atmosphere in a palpable way.

I attribute Juba’s coarseness to several basic factors. The war in this region lasted twenty-two years and cost more than two million lives. An additional four million people became displaced, both internally and externally. The brutality and length of the conflict took a ravenous toll on survivors, many of who demonstrate signs of untreated psychological trauma. Additionally, the presence of so many foreigners, both white and non-white, creates tension between Sudanese and those perceived to be encroaching on their authority and sources of income. It seems that among Sudanese, foreigners are sometimes viewed as the beneficiaries of suffering. Finally, in order to make way for “development,” many of Juba’s most impoverished residents have been forcibly relocated to shanties on the outskirts of town. Now, further from work, they must ride overpriced buses, which eats into already meager wages.

All that said, some aspects of Juba that are a pleasant surprise. Many of the main roads leading into and through the central areas of town are newly paved. This is a stark difference from many hubs in the region, including Gulu, in northern Uganda, which has only two or three paved roads. Despite highly inflated prices, many things are available here, including cheese, ground beef, canned tuna and an impressive array of personal hygiene products. It’s typical, however, to pay double the price in the US or Europe. One can of tuna, a tube of Pringles and a pack of eight chicken sausages cost nearly $20. There are restaurants in town that charge $15 for a hamburger.

I move slowly and with caution. I’ve been repeatedly warned against taking indiscriminant photos. “Our people can be very wild,” the Director of Information explains on my fourth attempt to collect a press pass. “You must first obtain permission for any photos you wish to take.” One of his subordinates later tells me that security personnel sometimes detain and beat journalists who disregard this. “If you cross them, they can treat you very harshly,” he says. “By the time we become involved, it is sometimes too late,” he says.

At a recent BBQ gathering, BBC news reporter Will Ross confirms the challenges of working in this region. On a trip to Malakal, northeast of Juba, Ross and two colleagues were detained for the better part of a day. “A guy in plain clothes approached us and asked us to get into a car,” Will says. “When you live in Nairobi, you quickly learn not to go anywhere with people who won’t identify themselves. So I said no.” Ross later learned that the man is in fact the local head of security. He recounts a harrowing day of interrogation & intimidation at the hands of revolving officers. While the team ultimately left unharmed and with all of their gear, it sounds like a very unpleasant experience.

I feel great about my first few weeks in Sudan. I have gained a basic sense of my surroundings, shaken hands with several local officials and laid basic groundwork for an upcoming story. It’s a challenging environment and I therefore feel satisfied with these basic accomplishments.

On Thursday, Jehan and I leave Juba for Kuwait where we will spend one week visiting her parents. The calm environment there will provide an opportunity to unwind and reflect about this new location and the best way to proceed upon return.