monim photoWhenever Alex de Waal publishes analysis or reflections, Sudanese intellectuals and activists, and the concerned international institutions and individuals, give it priority attention. The last week of April  and first week of May 2013 were for me remarkable weeks, watching de Waal coming with two articles, re-positioning himself as an advocate for  “principled” activism and presenting his belief in democratization as the central pillar for resolving Sudan’s multi-layered and multi-dimensional crises. The articles, “Reclaiming Activism” and “Flawed Politicians, Flawed Peace” are writings that signal, as I see it, the rebirth of de Waal’s old “identity”, the activist, who devotes his efforts, in his own words, in “solidarity with suffering and oppressed people.”


What sparked my attention after reading the two articles was the voice of de Waal beneath the text expressing genuine compassion to the Sudan(ese) people and towards their stability and welfare. But at same time, he sounds reluctant to acknowledge some of his shortcomings or failures as an expert during his long engagement in Sudanese politics. I therefore find myself between two feelings or positions in receiving de Waal writings: the first, is to celebrate what I call the rebirth of de Waal, the principled activist, after the abandonment of this identity for about seven/eight years as he notes his first article as he returns to advocate for a holistic national approach to Sudan’s multiple crises, with democratization at the centre, supported by the three activism/advocacy principles that he outlines.


My second feeling or position upon interaction with de Waal’s recent writings is one of questioning. In the context of my personal (in)direct engagement in the same public issues that de Waal has been part of over the years, in addition to reading his intellectual products, I am forced ask:  why de Waal is only now debating activism and the fate of Sudan? Is de Waal trying to offer a self-critique, albeit an unexpressed one, about his own engagement on Sudan’s issues over the last seven-eight years?


One major feature in the two pieces is de Waal’s reflection on a ‘wall of failures’ as he reviews his historic ‘principled’ positions across the fields of activism and Sudanese politics. In de Waal’s review of John Young’s book, The Fate of Sudan: The Origins and Consequences of a Flawed Peace Process, he describes the failure of “the inclusive approach championed by Justice Africa, and myself [de Waal], more than a decade ago, to resolve Sudan’s conflicts and engineer a democratic transformation.” This repositioning of himself also comes through in “Reclaiming Activism” when de Waal justifies his withdrawal from the “activist” tribe by saying that “about seven or eight years ago, I became rather uncomfortable with the word [activist]… because a group of people, in whose company I didn’t want to be, were claiming not only to be activists but to define ‘activism’ itself.”


The way I see de Waal presenting histories/events and his own engagement, in particular, make them more than just narratives. It is true that de Waal had tried to lead bright and principled initiatives seven-eight years ago as he said, and these principled efforts are still needed today because of the depth to which Sudan’s crises have reached. But I cannot easily accept the way in which connections are made in the two articles between de Waal’s principled positions of the past (seven-eight year) and of the now.  My concern here is not to question the physical whereabouts of de Waal since he became “uncomfortable” with the activist identity. His roles in political negotiations on Sudan’s peacemaking processes are known. My question here is how will be possible to understand (and other “principled” Sudanese activists and victims of atrocities say “forgive”) the role de Waal’s played since he left “activism” in a series of political/“peacemaking” processes which have only deepened Sudan’s ongoing dilemmas, and to accept him now as an advocate for “principled” issues, including his ‘”personal commitment to working in solidarity with suffering and oppressed people.” Between the two narratives is there any self-critique?


In “Reclaiming Activism” Alex de Waal points to what he calls the “arrogation” of “activism” by “designer activists” reflecting on the result as offensive, demeaning and counter-productive, and which has dominated and undermined the space for ‘principled’ activism. While I fully agree and rally with Alex’s three principles of activism as presented in his article, I also fully disagree with the way that he implicitly portrays the period of his voluntary disappearance, jointing “peace platforms,” as untrue activism era. My disagreement indeed goes further to be suspecting about de Waal’s interests of recent writings, and whether it can really be seen as “the rebirth of the principled activist”? Or just laying the ground for a new political soft-landing for new failed initiatives and engagement?


I recall the engagement that was guided by the “principled activism” of de Waal before he abandoned “us” (both Sudanese and international) seven/eight years ago. We have been continuing this work up to now, thousands of principled activists, such as those working with Enough Project, Darfur Consortium, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, and individuals such as Desmond Tutu, George Clooney, Wangari Maathai, Eric Reeves, etc. During this journey I have never seen what Alex describes as “consensus among national civil society activists viewing our regional and international partners/allies presenting narratives and prescriptions that are simplified, simplistic and pernicious.”


My disagreement with de Waal indeed goes more, coming from both my participant and observer identities, to suggest that de Waal has not been faithful to his own principles. As a result many Sudanese democrats and independent activists do not have much faith in the narrative of de the Waal Project, as it pushes false judgments into our mouths particularly with respect to our longstanding and principled relationships with regional and international activists. For example, in his unjustified enough anger against the Enough Project, de Waal tries to de-validate the views of activists such as Alhaj Warrag, noting that he is “intrigued and concerned” about his confidence in Enough’s capacity to “represent” him. Is de Waal himself organic to his three “principles” which guide an individual or organization aspiring to the honorable term activist? The answer to this I think can be found in an uncovering of choices/interests that de Waal, the public figure not the person,  has made over the seven/eight years since abandoning his own activist identity.


I would like to try to trace some of the highlights of these years in order to unveil other identities and tags that de Waal has chosen to wear, which in my opinion are reasons for him to leave (un) principled activism.

In September 2004, Justice Africa, headed by Alex de Waal, was involved in the birth a courageous initiative aimed at making visible the humanitarian and human rights suffering in Darfur, the Darfur Consortium. The Consortium was composed of a diverse group of sub-Sahara African NGOs, Africa-focused international NGOs, Sudanese NGOs and civil society in addition to NGOs from the Arab region, created before Enough Project and Save Darfur. Suddenly de Waal and his Justice Africa team have disappeared from the platform and tried to erase any relationship they have with the consortium. The Darfur Consortium (now transformed as the Sudan Consortium) made notable breakthroughs on justice/accountability and on protection of civilians in Darfur. As de Waal left his activist identity shortly after, the Consortium adopted in letter and spirit the three principles of activism that de Waal emphasizes in his writing through a variety of bright activities. This experience- seven/eight years ago- in my opinion marks the de Waal’s jumping from the “principled and genuine activism” boat into the camp of his political choices/ interests, the choices that have contributed to deepen Sudan’s crises.

Soon after the creation of the Darfur Consortium de Waal joined the AU mediation team that facilitated the signing of the Darfur Peace Agreement in May 2006. His involvement in that process clearly showed where his concept of “principled” efforts lay, not in an inclusive, national and democracy centric transformation, but in advocacy for a partial, piecemeal and unjust peace deal that was pushed through  by international actors with their own interests, using pressure and threats, and ultimately born dead. For example among his more than fifteen lobbying and advocating articles for the DPA de Waal completely dropped support for the principle of justice/accountability. He wrote: “the DPA does not include any special provisions for accountability for human rights abuses and does not mention the International Criminal Court… some of the provisions of the DPA may change the context in which the ICC carries out its work. For example, if the peace agreement leads to the setting up of courts that bring human rights violators to trial, then it is possible that the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC may choose to limit or even call off his investigations, on the grounds that Sudanese courts are able to do the job.” This kind of argument simply added ballast to the position of the Government of Sudan which was at the time strenuously trying to undermine the ICC through defense of the capacity of the Sudanese judicial system to address Darfur’s crimes (a lie clearly exposed later in the Mbeki report in which de Waal had a hand), e.g. silencing the voiceless victims of atrocities in their demands for genuine justice system.

De Waal’s migration from activism to the political realm did not end with brokering a born-dead peace deal.  For example over the next years he further cemented his departure from acknowledging the centrality of the quest for justice to achieving a lasting a peace. De Waal tireless efforts in attacking the ICC became a big question mark, and were simply food to the arguments and narratives of the ruling NCP against the ICC. In many respects the copy right for the Government of Sudan’s attempts to dilute the justice quest through the time-wasting debate of peace versus justice, and other efforts, goes to de Waal. However correct de Waals criticisms were of methods and attitude of the ICC Prosecutor the obsessive way in which he pursued his vendetta, was deeply damaging to the activist cause in Sudan and undermined the authority of the Court (and the Court is a far larger reality and dream than simply a Prosecutor). In the end the manner and context of de Waal critique contributed nothing to the ICC, but played only into the hands of those fundamentally opposed to justice, the perpetrators, the regime of Khartoum and its allies.

The fourth station in tracing back de Waal’s engagement on Sudan issues after leaving “our” activism is his work as an advisor to the African Union High-Level Panel on Darfur (AUPD), known as the Mbeki Panel. Despite the great initial efforts of the Panel and its comprehensive recommendations in bringing back the holistic approach and emphasizing democratization as priority – to which de Waal was central – the disintegrated foundations of the Panel (born in political compromise) ultimately doomed it capacity to fruit. Ahmed Maher, the former Egyptian foreign minister and a member of the AUPD said in an interview that “our goal [the Panel’s] was to find a way out from the dilemma of the President Al Bashir and the ICC.”

The fishy beginning of the AUPD in 2009, coupled with its transformation into the AU High Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) – which now has almost nothing to do with the implementation of its initial ground-breaking report – unfortunately reveal that despite initial efforts the engagements and activities of the Panel are not transparent and not participatory, and don’t display any of the basic principles of de Waal’s activism. As a peacemaking mediator the Panel turned into an informal market trader for whom supply and demand determines its day-to day trading activity. The chronically disappointing life cycle of the Panel can be described as follows: it started with Darfur, then abandoned its comprehensive recommendations there after involving in petty fights and competitions over mandates and resources with the UN and AU bodies, then moved to procedural/technical oversight of the elections that buried democratization in Sudan through the Panel methods of pressure and compromises to political parties, then it jumped into a cycle of never-ending negotiations between the two Sudans on outstanding post CPA issues without prospects for a lasting peace, got stuck on Abyei, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile without courage or power to enforce its own resolutions or facilitate effective inclusive negotiations. By presenting this selective reading of the AUHIP I am not of course trying to make de Waal alone accountable for these open- ended failures, but his continued involvement in these efforts – what I would see as basically unprincipled processes and actions – raises questions.

Ironically, the central principled position and insight that the Panel has made was declared dead just weeks ago. The Panel’s report states that “Sudan continues to face the historical challenges of managing its diversity, nurturing democracy and promoting equitable development, and that democratic transformation remains the urgent task of the Sudanese leadership in all its manifestations, which will continue to need Africa’s unwavering encouragement and support.” Unfortunately, in a recent meeting in May  Abdul Mohamed, an advisor to the AUHIP, and a close historic colleague to de Waal, declared in a civil society gathering in Addis that the AUPD’s recommendations are no longer relevant and it has been shelved after the Doha process been the only mechanism now open.

I cannot narrate all of what I know that might fill the gap between the two de Waals, the one we have known during the seven/eight years after he abandoned “us,” Sudanese and international activists, and the principled de Waal before that era who is now trying to return through his recent writings.

Some of these might be highlighted such as the inconsistent arguments of de Waal on elections (see for example his contradicted responses to Alhaj Warrag and John Young), his continued attacks on the late John Garang, who was perhaps the only potential national leader for Sudan, or his positive remarks about Kobar prison after he was allowed to visit political detainees in 2009, a move which particularly disappointed Sudanese democrats by giving free endorsement to a bloody regime.

I conclude with two final thoughts about de Waal’s April-May 2013 writings. First is my acknowledgment of de Waal’s contribution to my intellectual and professional development through my learning from his old writings such as; e.g. facing genocide, food and power, famine that kills, when peace comes, and through my personal engagement in some of Justice Africa/ his initiatives. Along with common friends and colleagues (the late Sudanese intellectual Abdelssalam Hassan on a top of list), we shared admiration for his contribution. Secondly, is the analysis that I recently contributed to in the newsletter of Sudan Democracy First Group about the splinter faction from the ruling Islamists in Sudan, the Sa’ihoon, who have called for a “principled” reform, and have showed interest to join opposition.  In that article I have shared with my SDFG’s colleagues the analysis: “the Sa’ihoon would have a lot to explain to the Sudanese before they could be accepted in the mainstream of Sudan’s civic and political sphere. They provided the striking forces of the human waves of Mujahideen who in the 1990s committed untold civilian killings in the South and later in Darfur… They would have to come clean on this dark page in their collective biographies and take responsibility for any unlawful actions to persuade the public of the genuineness of their new reformist credentials.” I am not saying that de Waal needs to come clean as the Sudanese Sa’ihoon, but I see that his “rebirth as a principled activist” necessitates, at least, a degree of a self-critique?

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2 Responses to Alex de Waal: the Rebirth of a Principled Activist?

  1. Sidgi Kaballo says:

    Alex is a friend of mine and we shared a common ground about human rights and democracy and the campaign against the dictatorship since he was in Africa Watch (Human Rights Watch, Africa now). However, I was very critical of his contribution to Abuja Peace Agreement and what followed of his activities and opinions. I share Al Jak critique and position. Though I welcome the new position of Alex, I add my call for a self criticism of the previous position.

  2. […] Elhaj Warrag wrote an article and so did Moniem Al Jak, about many of Alex De Waal’s latest articles including his review of John Young’s book on the […]

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