The United States government faced a wave of criticism when news surfaced about an official invitation it has extended to a senior delegation of the Sudanese government, particularly including Nafie Ali Nafie, Sudan's ruling party controversial strongman and Presidential adviser to President Omar Hasan al-Bashir.
In late April, a Department of State official told the Associated Press that Nafie and other officials have accepted an invitation to Washington DC for a “candid discussion on the conflicts and humanitarian crises within Sudan.” Another top State Department official explained to AFP that the U.S. had invited Nafie “after he voiced an interest in traveling to Washington”.
Considered a reward to the Sudanese government despite its ill-reputed record of undemocratic conduct and committing of war crimes in Darfur, the invitation drew wide criticism from the Sudanese activist community at large, as well as US congressmen and US-based Sudan advocacy groups, questioning Nafie befitting to be honored such an invitation.
In the early 1990s, a time at which securing its grip on power was the Sudanese regime's top priority, Nafie headed the notorious National Security and Intelligence Service, NISS, during which he was a mastermind of the practices and policies that shaped the ongoing legacy of the security apparatus. Specifically, Nafie is widely believed to be the architect behind establishing what is commonly known in Sudan as “Ghost Houses”, off-the-record detention safe houses at which security agents hold political activists captive without due process or judicial oversight.
Mass human rights violations reportedly have been documented to take place in these ghost houses, including but not limited to torture, rape, disappearance and killing that thousands of political activists faced.
Reports also accuse Nafie of personally participating in committing such violations, including in one incident the beating up of a detainee during interrogation sessions! In a 2008 interview, Nafie bluntly admitted and endorsed the torture of political dissents in his presence, arguing that his mission was to protect the regime, “not play cards with them”.
Nafie is arguably one the most disliked officials among Sudanese people. Well-known for his provocative speeches and statements in which he publicly scoffs Sudanese opposition at large, he is also credited for displaying contempt for any calls for political reform or change in Sudan.
“Lick your elbow!”, an expression he once used to ridicule what he believes is the opposition's inability to overthrow the regime became a remarkable reminder of his ill-mannered and disrespectful attitude towards the Sudanese. During the June-July protest movement of last year, dubbed on social media as #SudanRevolts (See Global Voices Online's special coverage of #SudanRevolts), protesters nicknamed one of the Friday protest days the “Elbow Licking Friday”, in an act of defiance and to challenge Nafie's assumptions.
In early 2012, a young student activist walked into a discussion panel held at University of Khartoum, which Nafie was addressing as a guest. Standing a few feet from Nafie, the activist delivered a speech, in which he harshly criticized Nafie for corruption and other wrongdoing. A video of the incident was uploaded on the Internet, and went immediately viral, viewed by hundreds of thousands online, making the activist an idol among Sudanese for standing up to the fearsome Nafie.
The activist was subsequently arrested and spent a month in prison before he was released without charge.
It is no wonder then, that for a man with such qualities, so to speak, and such history, the US invitation came off as surprising, if not quite shocking, to many Sudanese who suffered and continue to suffer from Nafie's and Sudan government's ill-fated record of oppression, brutal human rights violations and crimes. The non-violent youth movement Girifna (translates to “We Are Fed Up”) wrote a strong-worded Open Letter to US President Barack Obama, describing Nafie's invitation as a “big mistake”.
The letter went on explaining the miscalculations the US government makes by succumbing to the regime's propaganda machine that portrays the ruling National Congress Party as the sole guarantor of peace and stability in Sudan, before concluding:
The Sudanese people yearn for and believe in an alternative: democracy, justice, accountability and peace. If the US government is interested in helping the Sudanese people achieve this alternative, it must not stand in our way. Talking to this regime is one thing, but legitimizing it is a mistake.
The youth movement also launched an online campaign on Twitter, urging those concerned about Nafie's invitation to voice their objection to US government and officials, using the hashtag #NafieTheButcher. Many responded.
@TheDooda: Shame on @StateDept @USEmbassyKRT @BarackObama for inviting #NafieTheButcher for “talks”… He has blood on his hands, literally! @girifna
Azaz Shami, a Sudanese journalist and activist explained on Twitter that “whoever made the decision to invite Nafie is unforgivably unacquainted with Sudan complexity”, as having him “will do anything but bringing peace”:
@sudanesedream: #NafieTheButcher z nastiest NCP member who enjoy insulting #Sudan ese pple. he isnt representing us @AmbassadorRice @BarackObama
@MuzanAlneel: I am v. happy about the invitation of #NafieTheButcher to USA, maybe finally it'll be clear that America is no friend of the people of Sudan
@yasirya7ia: Lesson learnt, no matter how bloody your hands are, you are still welcome in the US
Khalid Ewais, a Sudanese activist, renowned novelist and journalist at Al Arabiya TV, asserted [Ar]:
@KhalidEwais: واشنطن ترتكب خطأً أخلاقياً وسياسياً بالغاً وفادحاً بدعوتها مساعد الرئيس السوداني، نافع علي نافع، أحد “جزاري” نظام البشير، لحوارٍ معها !
Washington commits a moral mistake and grave and fatal political one by its invitation to the Sudanese President adviser, Nafie Ali Nafie, one of Bashir's regime “butchers” for dialogue!
The real deal?
The question that begs itself for many in Sudan however, remains whether the US invitation to Nafie and his delegation is a fit of enthusiastic albeit misguided diplomacy, or rather a thought-out policy shift in which the US considers the current regime in Sudan an ally, despite its public pro-democracy rhetoric.