issue 222 - August 1991
Thank you Mr President
The ousting of Ethiopia's dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam,
has removed one long-standing obstacle to the fight against famine in Africa.
But other countries have similar obstacles. Jonathan Dimbleby sends an
open letter to Major-General Omar al-Bashir, President of Sudan.
Dear President Bashir,
I am sorry that we couldn't meet but I know how busy you must be - what with the civil war and the famine and working out what to do since your friend Saddam Hussein has been in such a spot of bother. But I thought it only right to say how greatly I appreciated my visit to your country. As it was more illuminating than I could have hoped, I have taken the liberty of recording a few of my impressions. I know that you will wish me to express myself somewhat frankly.
You have had to imprison so many intellectuals, writers and journalists that I had assumed the rest of your subjects would have learned to be loyal. Not a bit of it. Of course they don't say what they think on radio or television and they are not allowed to write in the newspapers. However you will be intrigued to hear that in private many people still speak openly about you; indeed some of them are decidedly outspoken, even saying that your regime (their term, not mine) is vicious, corrupt and incompetent.
You may know the kind of thing: that your dissidents are tortured; that only Islamic zealots can play any part in the affairs of the nation; that you have brought the country to economic mm; and that you will lie, lie and lie again to save the regime over which you preside.
Here's a perfect example of what the malcontents get up to. You know all those programmes about you on television? Well, in one of these you were addressing a huge rally in a cornfield. You looked splendid, dressed in that smart uniform with all the medals; the peasants were cheering, and you were making a fiery speech all about the record harvest which you and the Islamic Revolution have brought about in Sudan. You somewhat reminded me of your erst-while neighbour President Mengistu of Ethiopia, except of course that he really was a tyrant who got his just come-uppance.
Anyway you gave an impressive performance. Yet do you know what the malcontents said? That your harvest festival was a put-up job, that the cheering crowds were forced to be there and that what you were telling them was - well - a pack of lies.
Now of course these malcontents are only a hangover from that chaotic experiment with democracy from which you managed to liberate Sudan a couple of years ago. But in all fairness I could not entirely dismiss what they said. You see I had just come back from a journey deep into the interior. You may remember this since one of your officials told me that the BBC's application to film there had been approved by your Revolutionary Command Council - indeed you were kind enough to send along what we call a 'minder' from the Ministry of Information as well as one of your officers from your new Security Department so that we couldn't come to any harm.
In their company we had seen your subjects apparently at the point of starvation - skeletal children wasting away; people scavenging in the desert for wild berries and dried stalks. Now I know one shouldn't be squeamish but it did seem pretty dreadful; in fact, to be honest, quite horrifying. So I'm sure you will understand that I found myself paying rather more attention to those trouble-makers than you might have thought desirable. Indeed, despite strenuous efforts by the Minister of Agriculture for Darfur to reassure me that the harvest had in truth been 'very good' and the farmers were doing 'very well' it was difficult entirely to dismiss the apparent evidence of my own eyes.
In truth, it was even more difficult when it turned out that the dissident view is shared by an awful lot of other people as well; by the United Nations warning of a 'catastrophe' and 'mega-deaths' and the British and US ambassadors using equally apocalyptic terms.
I would venture to suggest that you need help, together with friends who are convinced that you are, how can I put it, serious. And to be very honest, Mr President, you now seem very short of friends indeed. Saddam Hussein is no longer of much use; the Saudis had the temerity to cut off your oil supplies when you spoke out so boldly against them in the name of the Arab nation; the Kuwaitis, wilfully misinterpreting your valiant denunciation of the 'allies' as support for the Iraqi invasion, have suspended all aid. And as if that were not enough, but for strictly financial reasons, the IMF has declared that you are not creditworthy and the banks won't touch you with even the longest and thinnest of bargepoles. It must all seem very unfair, not to say perilous.
May I suggest a possible way out. You could admit error; acknowledge that Sudan does indeed face catastrophe; plead for assistance; invite all the world's media in to witness what is happening; let them do for your peasants what they did for Saddam's Kurds; turn the trickle of relief into a flood. Shame the West into greater action, however belated. You might then salvage something from the wreckage.
But I forget myself, Mr President, forgive me. There is no famine, and you have a bumper harvest. And to suppose that many thousands of children are about to die in another biblical famine is to indulge a fantasy or to ignore the will of God.
By the way, have you ever read that poem by one of our English poets, WH Auden? The famous one that ends: 'when he cried, the little children died in the streets'. It's all about a tyrant who doesn't care what happens to his people so long as he survives. Well worth reading.
(BBC TV journalist)