Scramble to see Sudan's president

South Sudanese officials find themselves hard-pressed to deal with the

    It was a scramble. The media had assembled at the compound of ministerial offices in Juba to be taken to the airport to cover the visit of Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, to the town.

    The journalists were more than the usual number of local hacks handled by the information ministry in this sleepy boondocks waiting to become the capital city of a likely new nation.

    The number wanting to get onto to the media bus was greater than usual because the world's media is in town to cover the referendum vote that is expected to split Africa's largest country in two.

    The harried ministry officials first tried to bring some order by selecting only prominent TV camera crews to cover al-Bashir's arrival and herd the rest to "J1", a place the new arrivals had no idea about.

    "Has any pool arrangements been made for the rest of us to get vision then," piped a no-nonsense Aussie camera woman.

    The officials had no idea what "pool" was about and heard it as "poor". They became very defensive about their arrangements. They then asked the selected ones to share there output with the less fortunate. An audible groan went up from a tribe known for its dog-eat-dog tendencies.

    For the uninitiated, "vision" is TV journalese for pictures and "pool" an old-term for the sharing of information and pictures provided by a few selected journalists when space or seats or something else is too constrained for the whole media scrum to cover an event.

    Nhial Bol, the editor of a local daily, said the disorganisation was because each department involved wanted to have its way.

    "The information guys, security guys and the president's office are all working at cross purposes. It is very typical of them," said Bol, visibly embarrassed by the spectacle.

    After more attempts at haggling to get the coveted pass, many agreed to be bussed to "J1". But once there, the bus was turned back to where it started. The rules had changed by then and anyone with a camera was allowed to get on to the bus to the airport. And that meant almost everybody in this age of digital journalism.

    The journalistic instinct that had made all of us insist on going to the airport was proved right. The scene outside was electric, with tribal dancers in all their finery and crowds ready to show al-Bashir their desire for secession. The Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), which is now the official military, were all over the place, guns at the ready.

    The SPLA are an intimidating lot. Their transformation from fighters in the bush to uniformed soldiers sits uncomfortably with them. But then they are the biggest show of force in town and they rule the roost.

    And by the end of it all, it was an event well covered without the usual pageantry and security associated with a presidential visit in more developed parts of the world. At least the people were there to be seen and heard by the politicians. Something that never happens in world capitals as security curtains become thicker and thicker, cutting off rulers from the ruled.

    By the way, "J1" stood for Juba One, the code for presidential palace. And am I glad to have forsaken the air-conditioning at the palace for the dusty, but real-world atmospherics at the airport.


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