News Clip: They’re calling for revolution, and they’re creating it on the streets of Khartoum, and in towns and cities across Sudan. A paralyzing economic crisis has fueled this popular uprising. Tens of thousands of men and women demanding freedom. Activists called for a transition to a civilian government, an impasse ensued, and then bloodshed. The death toll in Sudan has risen to more than 100. Dozens have now been killed by government militia but they are undeterred, spurred on by frustration at the state of their country and their lives.
Jordan: Canadians and the world have watched for months the scenes from pro democracy protests in Sudan. The protests are inspiring, sometimes terrifying, and above all, they are courageous. This is the will of the people against first a dictator, and then against a military regime, a regime that is apparently getting $6,000,000 worth of help from a Canadian lobbying firm. It would be nice to believe that the Canadian link to a fight for democracy and civilian government half a world away, was a link worth celebrating, but here we are. So why is a Montreal based firm offering to help polish the image and facilitate military deals for a regime that has seen hundreds of protesters slaughtered. What kind of regulations and laws govern this sort of contract? How unusual are they? And will this news work to upset what is a very recent and very fragile peace?
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Jeffrey York is the Africa bureau chief for the Globe and Mail. He joins us from Johannesburg, hey Jeff.
Jordan: So I’m going to start, and I realize this is kind of expansive question, but for Canadians who have not been paying much attention beyond the occasional headline, what is the current state of affairs in Sudan?
Jeff: Well, um, the leader who was in charge of Sudan for almost 30 years, Omar al Bashir, the long ruling president, was removed in a coup in April. This followed several months of protests, growing protests by thousands of ordinary people in Sudan, probably millions in the streets, and the pressure finally led to him being toppled in April. However, he was replaced basically by a new military regime, not necessarily any more democratic than he was, and so the protests have continued. The biggest event and the most tragic event was on June 3rd, about two months after Omar al Bashir was removed in this military coup. On June 3rd the protesters out there, the main protest camp outside the military headquarters in Khartoum were attacked by a large number of police and paramilitary forces who had guns and other weapons, and it’s been well documented that more than 100, probably more than 120 of the protesters were killed on June 3rd.
Jordan: And since then, have they taken back to the streets? Is there a tentative cease fire?
Jeff: Yeah, so after that massacre on June 3rd, the protest were very much small scale for awhile, often in the evening and after sunset in small neighborhoods. The paramilitary and police presence on the streets was very heavy, and there was a lot of fear about what happened next. But on June 30th about 10 days ago there was a massive protest, the first really large scale protest since the massacre, and in that protest, I mean, there were certainly hundreds of thousands of protesters across Khartoum and other major cities across Sudan, and that put a huge amount of pressure on the military regime and it returned to the negotiating table, and late last week there was a tentative agreement on power sharing and eventually transitioning from a military regime to a civilian government.
Jordan: It’s fair to say then that the protests have had a significant impact, because I know the images kind of gripped the world, and we were wondering whether or not they would actually make a difference.
Jeff: Well they gripped the world and they gripped me, too. When I was in Khartoum last week, and especially on June 30th for the last huge protest, which was as I say the 1st ones since the massacre, there was a lot of nervousness and fear at the beginning of that protest I think a lot of people were not sure how the police and paramilitary would react, they were afraid there could be another brutal crackdown. But as the day went on, the protests increased and grew in strength, and by the end of the day it was a huge number of people probably, we’ll certainly in the hundreds of thousands, maybe over 1,000,000 people in the streets, and it was an incredibly impressive display, peaceful, almost entirely peaceful and I think it was bigger than the military had expected, and it did have a big impact I mean, I could see it in the streets how incredible the level of support there was for the protesters, for the pro democracy movement and I think it did have an impact enforcing the military rulers back to the negotiating table.
Jordan: When you’re in the streets there, what are the predominant emotions that you’re feeling or that you’re picking up from the crowd around you?
Jeff: Well, as I say there was certainly nervousness at the beginning. I remember at the very start of the protest around one o’clock last Sunday, which was the traditional beginning time for the protests. The protests that I saw when I was witnessing them, were small marches of a few 100 people in various neighborhoods in the city of Omdurman, which is across the Nile River from Khartoum itself, it’s really the twin city and part of the Greater Khartoum area, and the protesters were doing small marches through little neighborhoods, down the little alleys and the dirt roads, and keeping a low profile actually trying not to attract a lot of attention from the military, or paramilitary, or the police trying to avoid a direct confrontation because I think they weren’t sure what would happen. And it was difficult not to admire the courage, bravery and determination of these protesters to go into the streets knowing that 120 people have been massacred just a few weeks earlier for doing the same thing. You asked what the emotion was, as the day went on the protesters became more and more celebratory as they realized that their power was undimmed, that they were still as effective as ever, they were still a peaceful and as united as ever, and able to generate a huge turnout in the streets and able to really demonstrate to everyone how much support they had from the general population.
Jordan: And one of the reasons that we wanted to talk to you about what’s going on there is because a little bit before that protest you broke a story about a Canadian connection to the military regime. Can you explain that link?
Jeff: Yes. What I discovered just a few days before that protest that I described, was that a Canadian based lobbying company Dickinson Madson based in Montreal, had signed a contract with the TMC, the Sudanese military regime. That contract had been signed in early May, about a month before that massacre that I described, and in that agreement this Canadian based lobbying company had promised a host of services for the military regime in Sudan lobbying for improved government relations in the United States, Russia and Saudi Arabia, lobbying for an improved image for the military regime, improving the media coverage, getting more favourable media coverage for the regime. Obtaining various resources, investment including oil investment for Sudan, for the regime. Obtaining military support, funding and equipment for Sudan’s military. Arranging various partnerships with other authoritarian governments or in some cases with militias, including in Libya and in South Sudan and all in the service of the direct interests of this regime, which had taken power in a coup in April.
Jordan: That sounds like an incredibly expansive set of duties for a lobbying firm. Like well beyond what we would normally in Canada at least associate with lobbying.
Jeff: Well, I think actually, lobbyists do a lot more than just image polishing. That’s a big part of what they do, but they do many other things as well. They claim to use their contacts and their connections to provide a whole range of services for their clients. I’ve seen a whole range of services in these kinds of contracts between lobbyists and a number of regimes around the world.
Jordan: So what happened when you broke that story?
Jeff: Well, first of all it caused a huge reaction within Sudan. The pro democracy protesters were completely unaware that the military regime had allocated $6,000,000 U.S. for this lobbyist. So one of the first reactions is, from so many people that I heard in Sudan was, why is this regime spending $6,000,000 on polishing its image and getting international connections, seeking a meeting with Donald Trump, things like that when that money is desperately needed within Sudan. If you go to Sudan, you’ll see how much poverty there is these days, on the streets of Khartoum there are thousands of child beggars who come up to every car in a traffic light begging for money. There is incredible infrastructure problems, you know potholes in the streets, a deteriorating city, huge unemployment, huge economic problems, soaring prices for bread and fuel, those are the things that touched off the protests last December actually. When you talk to university students they describe incredible problems in the universities, dormitories that don’t have beds, residences that don’t have running water. I mean, the country is kind of falling apart and meanwhile, the new military regime that power in a coup was setting aside $6,000,000 for a high powered Canadian lobbyist, and people were outraged about that. They also thought it was a way of basically whitewashing the crimes of the regime, which, as I said, has committed massacres and other atrocities. It’s the same military group, the former janjaweed that committed atrocities in Darfur. So the reaction among ordinary people was that this was outrageous. The reaction from the Transitional Military Council, the regime that seized power in April, has actually just be in silence. They have said nothing about it, I’ve been requesting interviews with them, they give very, very few interviews and they have not said at all why they needed to spend $6,000,000 on this lobbying company. Now the head of the lobbying company, a man named Ari Ben Menashe has been giving a few interviews, and he is defending this contract, he’s confirming all of our reports about the contents of the agreement. He’s trying to spin it to some extent, I mean, he is a spin doctor so I guess that’s his job. He is claiming that he’s not trying to obtain funding and equipment for the Sudanese military regime that took power in the coup, he merely is trying to help the transition to a civilian government and then to obtain support for the military. In fact, the contract doesn’t say that so he is saying something that’s not actually spelled out in the contract. It’s his spin or his interpretation of it, but that is what he is saying to defend it, he’s saying that that there will be a transition to a civilian government, and then at that point he thinks the international sanctions should be lifted, and he will work to try to do that, and then at that point there’d be a flow of military support for Sudan’s armed forces, and I have to say that that’s his interpretation, but it’s not actually spelled out in the contract, which is on file with the U.S. authorities.
Jordan: Well you mentioned sanctions, and that’s one thing that I wanted to ask you, because back here in Canada it seems pretty shocking that a Canadian firm could be working to secure military equipment for a military regime. But what is actually governing that contract? Is it sanctions? Is it international law? Is there anybody investigating whether this is above board? Or is it just like nasty but legal?
Jeff: Well, that’s a good question, and that’s what people are trying to find out. Certainly, Canada has sanctions on Sudan. The United Nations has sanctions at an arms embargo on Sudan, so on the face of it, it would suggest that yes indeed, this could be a violation of the U.N. arms embargo, and the Canadian sanctions on Sudan, and it’s a serious enough issue that the Canadian government, the Global Affairs Department, formally referred the matter to the RCMP for investigation last week. So we know the RCMP is being required to investigate this. The only complexity of this is that there are a few loopholes and exemptions in the sanctions. For example, if the military equipment that this lobbyist was trying to obtain was peacekeeping equipment or surely defensive weapons, something like that, then possibly it might not be a violation of the sanctions. But again, there’s nothing in the lobbying contract itself that specifies that the funding or equipment that the lobbyist is seeking to obtain for the Sudan Armed Forces would be purely defensive or for peacekeeping or anything like that. So it certainly is something that the RCMP will be investigating.
Jordan: If the RCMP did find evidence and decided to move forward, what would we be talking about here? Would it be something similar to the SNC Lavalin case? Or do they have other options?
Jeff: Yeah, that’s a very good question. I don’t know. I really don’t know all the legal possibilities under the law. I mean, in fact, there’s being relatively few, if any, Canadian companies found to violate sanctions, it’s quite a rare situation. Even investigations like this, they’re quite rare, as far as I can tell. So we’re entering possibly unchartered waters here in terms of what the options would be, and what the outcomes could be, if the investigation finds that the sanctions were in fact violated.
Jordan: What about with other countries? If it’s not common in Canada, how common are these kind of contracts with Western firms working with governments in Africa? Is this an unusual one?
Jeff: Well there certainly has been a lot of lobbying contracts signed by U.S. and Canadian, and British lobbying companies on behalf of African clients. This has been a trend for a number of years, and it’s quite controversial because a lot of Africans themselves say it’s really a misuse of public money, a misuse of government money, to be hiring lobbyists to help the regime, instead of to be helping, you know, badly needed public service for the people. So for example, just recently, earlier this year, there was a controversy in Zimbabwe over the fact that the new government has; The government that is basically still at an authoritarian government that replaced Robert Mugabe in 2017, that this government has allocated $500,000 U.S/ to hire a U.S. based lobbying firm. The lobbyist named Brian Ballard, who is closely linked to Donald Trump, and the Zimbabwean government decided to give him money to try to improve Zimbabwe’s image in the U.S., and to try to get rid of sanctions on a number of senior elite regime officials in Zimbabwe. Those sanctions are often misunderstood, they’re not broad sanctions against Zimbabwe, they are targeted sanctions against some dozens of senior officials in the Zimbabwean government and businesses that are supporting the regime. So those sanctions have been in place for a long time because of human rights violations and so on, and the Zimbabwean government has now decided to spend money, government money, on hiring a Trump connected lobbyist to try to remove those sanctions.
Jordan: What about the reaction back home in Canada, from Sudanese who have come to Canada and are looking at a firm in their new country doing business to prop up the old countries regime? Have we heard from them?
Jeff: Well, I would say in general we’ve heard from the Sudanese diaspora worldwide on this issue. The diaspora is very active on social media supporting the revolution that’s going on in Sudan right now, and they have been among the leaders of those who have been very outraged at this lobbying contract.
Jordan: What can Canadians do who have been watching these protests, and this revolution only to find out that a homegrown lobbying firm is in the middle of it?
Jeff: Well, I assume that the federal government has a lot of leeway over its laws on companies that deal with regimes that are under sanctions, or with regimes that are violating human rights. For example, the Canadian branch of Amnesty International has written a very strong letter to the Canadian foreign minister and the Canadian justice minister asking for an investigation, that there are actually federal regulations that govern the arms trade and there have been efforts recently to improve those regulations, and make them tougher. Canada recently signed on to the international arms trade treaty, and they’ve been introducing regulations to implement that, and there have been some obvious loopholes in previous regulations. So there are tougher regulations that are taking affected September, and it seems to me that Canadian people can express their views on those issues to the government, and say what they would like to see in those regulations.
Jordan: And meanwhile in Sudan, how fragile is this piece and is news of this deal placing it in jeopardy?
Jeff: Well, I would say it is fragile. One of the controversial aspects of this agreement that was reached late last week, is that it would be a transition to a civilian government, but only 21 months from now. The military would continue to basically run the transitional government for the next 21 months, and then there would be a transition to a civilian government. So that’s the agreement, it was agreed upon by both sides. But a lot of ordinary Sudanese, and a lot of people who’ve been protesting in the streets are very skeptical about this agreement. They don’t trust the military I mean, they know the military’s been involved in this massacre. and other atrocities against protesters and so that’s why it is, I think, fragile. It remains to be seen if it will actually be implemented and whether it will be supported by all sides.
Jordan: Thanks Jeff for taking the time to try to explain this to us.
Jeff: Sure, my pleasure.
Jordan: Jeffrey York, the Africa bureau chief at The Globe and Mail, and that was The Big Story. You could find more big stories at our website thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can also find us on Twitter @thebigstoryfpn and of course in your phone, or your laptop, or your desktop if you still have one. Wherever you get podcasts, Apple, or Google, or Stitcher, or Spotify, or Cast box or I could go on but I won’t. Thanks for listening, I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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