Friday, 4 May 2012

Pa'gan in London

Picture the scene. A score of motley officials, aid workers and journalists are seated around a table at Britain's Overseas Development Institute in London.  At the head of the table sits Pa'gan Amum Okiech, Secretary General of South Sudan's governing party, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, and its tough chief negotiator at talks in Ethiopia with Khartoum's National Congress Party regime. Before him on the table is the latest issue of Africa Confidential.

Pa'gan complains that though Juba had offered 'to work together for the removal of sanctions on Sudan', Khartoum has responded by 'stealing' the South's oil. The NCP is certainly having difficulty getting used to the idea that since Southern Independence last year, it no longer owns that oil. The issue of President Omer el Beshir calling Southerners 'insects' also hits the fan. The NCP's London Ambassador, Abdullahi Hamed Ali el Azrag, who, as a former head of the Foreign Ministry's Arab Department might have been expected to be more cautious, starts protesting. Pa'gan brandishes Africa Confidential.

'You don't have to believe me!  Look at Africa Confidential!' Ponderously slowly, he reads out the paragraph (AC Vol 53 No 9, for those who may have missed it) recounting how President Omer el Beshir reminded South Sudanese of the old slave relationship. “Despite our attempts to make them aware so that they understand and know where their interests are, they do not understand. God has created them like that. That is why the best thing to do with them is to pick a stick and make them behave well'. This refers to a line from a well known poem by Abu el Tayeb el Mutanabi: 'You shall not buy a slave without a stick with him' (to beat him with). The 'rope of unity' appeared in another reference to the master-slave relationship: 'We will throw this rope around their necks once again, God willing'.

The Ambassador, who has already struggled to defend the indefensible ('when the emotions were very high') after Pa'gan's talk at Chatham House that morning, tries to convince us that this was not a reference to all Southerners. One of his acolytes leaps to his aid: 'This is not a reliable paper!'

Everyone laughs.  Says Pa'gan: 'It was quoted everywhere! It was on your own TV!' Many recall that at Chatham House that morning, one of at least seven Sudanese Embassy officials present had shouted at Pa'gan. 'You're a killer!  You're killers!' This is not what is expected at the august building in St. James's Square, a stone's throw from that same Embassy. After refusing to leave, the angry diplomat had been escorted from the room.