New beginning

Published : May 23, 2008 00:00 IST

As peace slowly returns to Sudan, the capital of this resource-rich country starts showing signs of an economic boom.

in Khartoum

THE skyline of Sudans capital, Khartoum, has changed visibly in the past couple of years. When this correspondent first visited Khartoum 12 years ago, it was a sleepy city. There were very few cars on the road. Cell phones were unheard off. Sudan was embroiled in a haemorrhaging civil war at the time, involving the north and the south of the country. The huge oil wealth of the country could not be exploited adequately. Three years ago, the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) was signed and a unity government has since been in place in Khartoum. Peace now generally reigns in the restive south.

Signs of an economic boom are evident in the capital. International financial institutions have praised the governments handling of the economy. Sudan has the highest growth rate in the African continent. The economy is expected to grow by 11 per cent this year. Salaries have trebled in the last 10 years. The Sudanese do not have to stand in queues for essential commodities any more, unlike until the late 1990s. Everything is now available off the shelf. Impressive tall buildings dot the skyline. A $4-billion development programme is being implemented in the heart of the capital at the confluence of the Blue Nile and the White Nile. It is already hailed as Africas Dubai. Chinese and Malaysian companies are investing heavily in Sudan despite the sanctions imposed by the United States.

The sanctions were imposed after the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam. Khartoum was judged guilty by the Americans because of Osama bin Ladens presence in the country for a couple of years. His construction company had completed a few projects, including a highway linking Port Sudan to the capital. Once Osama raised the banner of revolt against the Saudi and U.S. governments, he was asked to leave by the Sudanese authorities. Hassan al Turabi, who was the most influential figure in the Sudanese government those days, told this correspondent three years ago that Osama bin Laden had no connection with the government and was more interested in his commercial ventures. Turabi said that he met Osama only twice during his stay in Sudan, both times on formal occasions.

The Clinton administration targeted Khartoum with missiles after the bombings of their embassies in East Africa. Sudans only pharmaceutical factory, Al Shifa, was the target of the attacks. After September 11, relations between the U.S. and Sudan improved considerably. Khartoum provided invaluable information on Islamic networks in the region. The Islamists led by Turabi were purged by the government. Turabi himself was jailed for some time. But for the past four years, there has been considerable openness in Sudanese politics.

The Sudanese Communist Party now functions in the open and is represented in Parliament. Its members were even offered ministerial posts in the national unity government that was formed after the 2005 accords. The Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) now virtually has a free hand in running most of the south. General elections, due in 2009, will be followed by a referendum in the south in 2011. Under the terms of the CPA, the Christian and animist-dominated south has the option to secede.

The CPA also mandated the holding of a national census to facilitate fair and free polling. Abdulla Ali Masar, adviser to the President of Sudan, said that this was the biggest census exercise ever conducted in the whole of the African continent. The exercise started on April 22. On that day, the government declared a national holiday and ordered all citizens to stay indoors. No vehicular, air or rail traffic was allowed as enumerators went from house to house on their mission. The results of the census will define the constituencies for elections envisaged in the 2005 peace deal, which ended nearly five decades of civil war. The results will also redefine the power and revenue sharing between the south and the more developed north.

There were some initial hiccups as the south threatened to boycott the census saying its questionnaire did not address issues of ethnicity and religion. Riek Machar, Vice President of South Sudan, said that ethnicity and religion were crucial issues for Sudan. He said that the long-drawn-out civil war was fought on issues relating to religious and ethnic identities. The south wants Sudan to be identified as a predominantly African nation. The Muslim-dominated north, on the other hand, wants Sudan to retain its pan-Arab as well as African identity, like the countries in North Africa.

Another contentious issue relating to the national census is the presence of two million southern Sudanese in Khartoum. The SPLA wanted all of them repatriated to the south for the census count. Decades of civil strife has attracted millions of Sudanese from the hinterland to the capital. The government in Khartoum contends that it cannot forcibly repatriate such a huge number, especially as most of them now earn their livelihood in the capital. However, a sizeable number of southerners have gone back to their homeland to be counted during the census.

There is a dispute, too, over the oil-rich Abyei province, claimed by both the south and the north. Some southern leaders have said that they will not be bound by the results of the census. Rebel groups in Western Darfur have also opposed it.

The United Nations and the international community have, however, hailed the census exercise. Sudan is the biggest country in Africa. The census planners had to face huge logistical challenges. Large parts of Darfur, a sparsely inhabited area the size of France, are inaccessible because of continued fighting. Many areas in the south are still covered with landmines.

April marked the completion of five years of conflict in Darfur. Sudanese officials admit that the situation is still far from normal. However, Rabbie A. Atti, spokesman for the National Congress Party (NCP), Sudans major party, said that despite the odds the government was making some progress in persuading refugees to return home. In recent weeks, he said, 20,000 refugees had returned home. Atti, who is also adviser to the Minister for Information, said that the joint African Union/United Nations peace-keeping force was making efforts to restart the dialogue process with the rebel groups. Salim Ahmad Salim, the veteran diplomat and trouble-shooter, visited Darfur in the third week of April.

Sudanese officials have expressed optimism about the next round of peace talks, which are expected to restart in May. According to Atti, the government is prepared to discuss all the issues raised by the rebels. But the task is difficult as the Darfur rebels have splintered into 20 groups, mainly on the basis of tribal affiliation. According to Sudanese officials, factions of the main rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), attacked some villages in March. The Sudanese government has moved reinforcements along the border with Chad.

A section of the Darfur rebels has the support of the government in Chad, where the JEM has its origins. The JEMs former military chief, Jibril Abdel Karim Bari, once served as a colonel in Chadian President Idris Debys Republican Guard. Sudanese officials say that the fighting in Darfur subsided in April because the rebels rushed back to Chad to prop up the government there. Chadian rebels, allegedly with help from Sudan, briefly occupied the capital Ndjamena. It was the intervention of French troops, along with the help of rebels from Darfur, that saved Idris Deby from being ousted.

Sudanese officials are of the view that it will be difficult to solve the Darfur problem as long as Chad and Central African Republic, which share long borders with Darfur, remain volatile. The long civil wars in these two countries have left the region awash with arms. Some rebel groups have already made peace with Khartoum after the signing of the 2006 Darfur peace accords. Minni Arkou Minnawi, who was the head of the military wing of the SLM, is now special adviser to the President of Sudan.

Khartoums grouse is that the West puts pressure on the government while giving the rebels a free hand. Sudanese officials point out that the 2006 Darfur peace agreement was designed by the U.S. and the Europeans. Atti said it would be easier to solve the problem in Darfur if Khartoums relations with Washington improved. If the U.S. and Sudan sign an accord, then automatically European governments will also follow suit, he said.

The U.S. has set certain conditions for bilateral ties to improve. It wants the Sudanese government to ensure the rapid deployment of more peacekeepers in Darfur. So far Sudan has shown a marked reluctance to let in European and American peacekeepers under the U.N. flag. It prefers peacekeepers from African and Asian countries. At present only 9,000 United Nations-African Union (UNAMID) troops are deployed in Darfur. The Sudanese government has agreed to the deployment of a force totalling 26,000, and the bulk is expected to be deployed by the end of the year.

The statement by the U.N.s humanitarian chief in the third week of April that the estimated number of conflict-related deaths in Darfur was about 300,000 has angered the government in Khartoum. Senior Sudanese officials have vehemently insisted that the number of those killed does not exceed 10,000.

Abdulla Ali Masar, who was Governor of East Darfur Province in the 1990s and is now adviser to the Sudanese President, said that the Darfur problem, which started as a tribal conflict, had now become a political conflict. It started, he said, because of rapid desertification that led to fighting over diminishing resources between settled and nomadic tribes.

Masar said that the movement of settled people from the north to the south and migrations from Chad started as early as 1981. The first clashes between the migrating tribes and the local, settled groups occurred in northern Darfur. The struggle, he said, became overtly violent in 2002.

He cites four reasons for the escalating violence: internal strife in Chad; the war between Chad and Libya in the 1980s, which brought a lot of arms into the region; the long-drawn-out civil war involving the Sudanese government and the SPLA, which supported the separatists in Darfur; and finally, the struggle between the U.S. and China for the resources of Darfur. Besides, he said, there was a growing Anglophone-Francophone rivalry for the resources of Darfur. Many experts believe that Darfur, like Chad, has lot of hydro-carbon deposits.

When asked about the notorious Janjaweed militia, Masar said that it was not an Arab militia fighting on behalf of the government. The first leader of the Janjaweed was not from an Arab tribe. Janjaweed is being used as a pretext to show that the struggle in Darfur is between Arabs and blacks, said Masar.

Professor Hassan Makki of the International University of Africa in Khartoum describes the Darfur conflict as one between herders and farmers. He said that the situation had become complicated because of the situation in war-ravaged Central Africa. Makki pointed out that 25 different tribes shared the border between Darfur, Libya and Chad. With guns freely available, young men who have no avenues for employment have joined rebel groups. According to Makki, fighting is the only profession they know. He said that the rebels managed to defeat the Sudanese army on 17 occasions and once even captured the important town of El Fasher. Makki said that the government made the tactical mistake of arming some of the tribes after its military reverses. These tribes, he said, were not disciplined and were responsible for much of the humanitarian catastrophe.

The West, according to Makki, wants to internationalise the Darfur issue under the guise of helping the refugees. He said that South Sudan remained a regional problem in spite of decades of fighting. But Darfur became an international issue in six months.

He puts the blame on two lobbies the International Christian Church lobby and the Black American lobby in American politics. He says that the blacks in America mistakenly believe that the Arabs of Sudan practise apartheid against the local black population.

Makki stressed that control over Darfur would give the U.S. unfettered access to the regions uranium deposits and oil. If the American military established bases in Darfur, he said, the U.S. would be in a position to control the flow of Libyan oil.

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