Monthly Archives: February 2011

Playing at John Simpson, and other perils of blogging about political events

What happens when what you write about becomes a political event? History does crop up in public debates, such as Niall Ferguson’s championing of empire as a positive thing. During the protests over university fees changes at Cambridge University, the comments on this news article called into question the validity and relevance of my field (African history) – incidentally through the quoting of one of my old tutors.

This week, David Starkey gets a new platform on Jamie Oliver’s Dream School programme for his misogynistic ranting about the “feminising” of history and how irrelevant women are in studying the past.

These are all things I’ve considered blogging about but haven’t; not out of a lack of frustration and things to say, but because I’m not sure I want to – or have to – respond to every public debate that touches on something I do. However, as revolutions and protests, or discussion of potential protests or why there aren’t any protests, spread across China, India, Zimbabwe and many other countries, it’s particularly tempting to give historical background to events and add your tuppence to the often frustratingly poor analysis.

I’ve been doing this with Sudan: initially about the referendum for secession, which I feel happier about commenting on because I feel I’ve done some work on it, but then with some comment on the small-scale protests and death of a student in clashes with state security in Khartoum, echoing events in Tunisia and Egypt at the time. I initially posted round-ups of links to various other news sources and the facebook pages of the organisers, but have gradually begun commenting on the analyses of the protests put about – particularly arguments about why the protests “failed”. I’ve been gradually sucked in.

With all the talk of using your blog to promote your academic interests, as an outlet for brainstorming and discussion with a wider community, should we be wary of suddenly becoming political commentators? I’m concerned that there is a danger that at some point I’ll become too strident, lose a professional tone, or more likely just not know enough about contemporary events to give a firm comment. I’ve decided that I’m going to continue writing about contemporary politics in Sudan as and when I feel I have a particular comment; the events in Sudan are massive historical moments, and I feel that if I can try to historicise and contextualise specifically Sudanese issues, I might be contributing comments from a slightly different perspective. However, I’m still considering what the boundaries of my blog topics should be, and trying to find a balance between contemporary debates and historical analysis.

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Filed under Academia, Blogging, Politics, Procrastination, Writing

Bashir is not running for re-election: let’s not get over-excited

OMG!!  Bashir won’t run for re-election!  In 2015 (which is a bit of a Yemeni-esque get-out clause.)  He also, more interestingly, has said he has offered to step down as head of the NCP, and has offered a package of reforms (optimistically called democratic by the Guardian, but then they’re probably all a bit sleep-deprived from the Tunisia-Egypt-Libya-Bahrain late-night live blogging).

This isn’t just about the fear of protests by youth in Sudan: the attempted protests in early February were comprehensively put down, with large-scale arrests, one death and a more general lack of will for the scale and type of protests seen in previous periods of economic crisis and political anger.  That isn’t to say there isn’t a need for this kind of announcement.  While I don’t think the various factions of the NCP are as nervous as the SPLM about their position, they also know they have real issues with their support base, particularly with the middle and upper classes that were their primary support base in the 1980s.

As Magdi says, the social and economic forces that brought the NCP to power have also restructured both urban and rural society.  There are significant frustrations in town and countryside with different aspects of the NCP rule, as well as the medium-term issues facing the economy – partly to do with how much the North can get out of GoSS for oil transit – and probably the changed international situation, particularly if Gaddafi goes.

There is an international trend towards younger leaders – whether or not they have the experience, or even the power.  There’s also more practical considerations: the NCP are handicapped by Bashir’s ICC status, regardless of the charge’s actual weight or implications.  The NCP are failing, and their elite sponsors and support base know that some changes are necessary, at least for appearances’ sake.  This also potentially would undermine the opposition parties’ refusal to enter talks with the NCP.  I don’t know – I’m just watching, and I would love to see a good analysis of this.  I’m still learning about northern politics.

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The history behind political change and the attraction of ‘turning points’

The Libya and Bahrain protests are so distressing it’s hard to read other news, but I need to sort through my electronic piles of stories on Sudan.  However, the situation in the Middle East and North Africa (as well as one of my friends’ new PhD proposal) is making me think about the attractiveness of tipping points in history.

There’s a really attractive oversimplifying element in discrete political events, as shown with the coverage of Sudan (in its North-South, Arab-black, Muslim-Christian tautology), Tunisia and Egypt, and now particularly Bahrain, with its Shia-Sunni divide.  It’s also fun to compare.  As well as comparisons and calls for ‘copy-cat’ referendums in Armenia and Azerbaijan, Balochistan (pinpoint that on a map, my friends), Kurdistan, Georgia and even Quebec, there are also more historical comparisons.

Douglas Johnson, at the Royal Africa Society’s seminar on the referendum on 4 February, used Somaliland’s UDI as a ‘lesson’ to the South about the importance of international recognition and the referendum route.  In comparison, Heather Sharkey, in talking about how some have seen South Sudan’s independence as a late-comer to the 1950s and 60s independence parties, looks at the turning point of Congolese independence and the CIA assassination of Lumumba in 1961 as an example of what can go wrong almost immediately following self-determination, particularly with international collusion and pressure.  Eritrea and Katanga have come up as comparisons in other seminars.

Turning points allow for teleological absolutism: Sharkey points out the tendency of news reports on the South to see secession as inevitable, even geographically obvious.  But seeing political events as discrete moments also lends itself to counterfactual history, as Sharkey says historians will focus on whether the referendum, and secession, was avoidable.

It’s too easy to see political events, particularly elections, as self-contained units – the announcement, the campaigning, the voting, the result.  Maybe this is why there’s been so much focus on the individual deaths that were ‘sparks’ for the Tunisian and Egyptian protests, and why so many political (and not so informed) commentators have been left saying how sudden and unexpected these events were, or being reductionist as to the causes.  It’s far too difficult to explain the history of Libya, say, and the causes and outcomes – political and psychological – of previous attempts at political unrest and change; it’s also very hard to express in a news-worthy fashion the real emotional frustrations that lead people to take on intelligence services, police and armies in this way.

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Filed under Academia, Politics, Referendum, Sudan

Google’s text mining and statistical research

Obviously as a key part of my statistical research methods essay I should currently be writing, I’ve been inspired by Yolana at Colonial Psychiatry Hub to have a play with Google’s data mining tool Ngram Viewer, which searches its archives of books for the frequency of any word you plug in.  Obviously there’s room for serious error, not only in Google’s own classification of its books, but also with spelling inconsistencies, fashions in words and grammar, bias for the types of books that survive from pre-1700, and all sorts – as Yolana says, Anterotesis does a good and funny look at the wierd things you can come up with.

However, for African political terms, which really only come into their own since the 1800s, there are some expected and fun results.  I’ve played with the key words from my seminar on “Tribe and Nation” here.

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Alternative narratives of corruption and political pressure in the South Sudan referendum: a rebalancing

I’m quite frustrated with this piece by Jort Hemmer at the SSRC blog today.  The article is, to me, an oversimplification, when I think it could be trying to say something more balanced and really pertinent.

Hemmer contrasts the general success of the referendum with an ‘alternative narrative’ of rigging, intimidation and, in his quote from Mareike Schomerus, an “environment of fear” surrounding the mobilisation of the “yes” vote.

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Quick update on Sudan protests

Analyses of the protests in Khartoum are focusing on analogies with Egypt.  This article focuses on Bouazizi’s story as a comparison to the other individual deaths in Tunisia and Egypt that helped to focus the protest movements there (it also helpfully summarises various Arabic newspaper editors’ lines on the protests); in contrast, there’s another vein of articles that reject the comparison with Egypt, or focus on NCP justifications of why Sudan is different.  The continued detention of some of the protesters is picked up on by Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and some newspapers.  Putting aside Khalid Mubarak, whose SSRC article is a true classic of the Sudan Embassy information office genre, Magdi has written the only comment I think makes some headway into talking about why the Khartoum protests don’t have wider visible support.  An English-language page for Sudanese Youth for Change (SPARK) has been set up on Facebook here.

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Isaiah 18 and the eternal life of religious justification

In my MA history seminars about Tribe and Nation in Africa – which despite its omni-title is going very well – we’ve been discussing the value of anthropological studies of local origin myths to missionaries in the 1800s, and how tying origin myths and prophesies to various interpretations of the Bible helped establish the moral and social relevance of Christianity, among other things.

Imagine my surprise at this fabulous article, published with perfect timing before my seminar last week, putting the South Sudan referendum in Biblical context, with an origin myth of Cush tied to a nice prophesy in the form of Zephaniah 2, which foretells the civil war.

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Filed under Procrastination, Sudan