Sudan's turnaround

Print edition : November 04, 2005

A new Cabinet, including members of various political groups, takes charge, promising the war-torn country peace and economic development.

JOHN CHERIAN in Khartoum

President Omar al-Bashir (in the background) and First Vice-President Salva Kiir (left) in the presidential palace in Khartoum before the first Cabinet meeting of the National Unity government.-JOHN CHERIAN

THE international airport in Khartoum is once again busy. Almost 10 years ago, when this correspondent was in Khartoum, only a couple of international airlines flew to Sudan. The airport had an empty look as the West and many of Sudan's neighbours treated it like an untouchable mainly because of the principled position the country had taken on the first Gulf War. Sudan had to face the wrath of the United States and its allies in the region for its support to Iraq. Khartoum had also enjoyed close relations with Teheran until the mid-1990s, heightening the paranoia in Western capitals.

The presence of Osama bin Laden and Vladimir Iliyich Sanchez (aka Carlos the Jackal) in the country did not help matters. Osama, who ran a successful road construction company in Sudan, was told to leave the country in 1996 and Carlos was handed over to the French some years later. Osama's company built an expressway connecting one of Khartoum's poorest suburbs to Port Sudan on the Red Sea. For most of the last decade, the country remained isolated. The war in the southern part of the country continued unabated, owing mainly to outside meddling and the government's hardline stance.

At a camp for internally displaced people in southern Sudan. Two decades of war have left more than two million people dead and made millions internal refugees.-SIMON MAINA/AFP

By the late 1990s, the Sudanese government changed course. It made a determined bid to mend fences with its neighbours, especially Egypt. Cairo had accused Khartoum of being privy to a plot to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during an Organisation of African Unity summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1995. Since then a lot of water has flown down the Blue and White Nile, which converge in Khartoum. With peace having finally dawned in the southern region and a new power-sharing formula having been put in place, the Khartoum skyline is changing fast. Frenetic construction activity is going on all over the capital. Swanky new cars are everywhere and traffic clogs the streets of the capital.

International agencies and representatives of global business are queuing to Khartoum to cash in on the peace dividend. Some Western countries, which have been critical of Sudan in international fora, are now lining up for lucrative contracts in the oil, transport and construction businesses. Sudan currently has a crude output of 300,000 barrels a day and aims to reach the half-million mark by the end of this year.

Sudan is China's largest overseas oil production base. Chinese companies are building a 1,500-km pipeline from the southern region to Port Sudan, where China's Petroleum Engineering Construction Group is constructing a tanker terminal. China has emerged as Sudan's largest arms supplier. It is also one of the largest recipients of China's overseas investment. Although India and Malaysia have a substantial stake in the oil industry, the Chinese have emerged as the biggest overseas players in Sudan, which is flush with oil revenues. More than 10,000 Chinese professionals and technicians are currently employed in Sudan.

POLITICAL stability, of course, depends on the longevity of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed between the government in Khartoum and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) on January 9 and the government's ability to defuse the crises that are flaring up in other parts of the country. Sudan is the largest country in Africa. Most of the country is underdeveloped and sparsely populated. The various ethnic groups fighting for a bigger share in power and revenues have not made things easier for the government in Khartoum.

The new Cabinet formed in the third week of September includes representatives from diverse political groups. This correspondent had the rare privilege of being present in the hall of the presidential palace when the first Cabinet meeting of the new National Unity government was held. The meeting was presided over by President Omar al-Bashir. Before the meeting started, verses from the Koran and the Bible were recited, a sign of the new beginning in Sudan politics heralded by the historic peace accord. It was the introduction of Sharia law in the northern region that gave a fillip to the secessionist movement in the Christian-dominated southern region.

The interim government sworn in on September 22 will remain in office until general elections are held in four years' time. Under the terms of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, signed in the presence of international observers, the southern region will be free to hold a referendum on self-determination in six years' time. "This government is a good omen and represents the will of the Sudanese people to establish peace and consolidate national unity," President al-Bashir said after the new Cabinet members took their oath.

Opposition leader Hassan al-Turabi.-JOHN CHERIAN

John Garang, the charismatic leader of the southern region whose role was pivotal in working out the peace deal, was killed in a helicopter accident in July soon after he assumed the post of First Vice-President. His death led to widespread riots in Khartoum and parts of the southern region. Initially, the riots put a question mark on the longevity of the peace deal. However, both the government and the SPLM leadership were determined to prevent its derailment. Salva Kiir, who succeeded Garang as First Vice-President, is committed to the new power-sharing arrangement. As many as 10,000 United Nations peacekeepers, including an Indian Army contingent, are deployed in the southern region to keep the peace. Two decades of war have left more than two million people dead and millions of internal refugees.

The formation of the Cabinet was delayed by more than two months owing to behind-the-scenes wrangling. Observers have noted that most of the key portfolios are in the hands of the al-Bashir-led National Congress Party (NCP), which has been ruling Sudan since the mid-1980s. In the new government, the NCP holds 52 per cent of the Cabinet posts, including the much-in-demand portfolios of energy and finance. The SPLM holds 28 per cent of the seats, including the Foreign Ministry. The rest of the Cabinet positions are held by other Opposition parties from the north and the south.

Interestingly, the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP), which at one time was the biggest workers' party in the African continent, has been offered two important Cabinet berths. The party was first banned in the early 1970s during the authoritarian rule of Jaffar Numayri. Its leadership was eliminated for allegedly backing a coup attempt. The party was allowed to function for some years after the overthrow of Numayri and won some seats in the last multi-party elections, held in the mid-1980s.

Opposition leader Hassan al-Turabi, who now heads the Popular National Congress, told this correspondent that he would like the SCP to be part of a broad political front. The party leadership was initially divided on the issue. However, according to the latest reports, it has decided to join the Opposition front. The UMMA Party led by former President Sadiq al-Mahdi too has decided to be part of the Opposition front, after initially toying with the idea of joining the government.

Al-Mahdi is the brother-in-law of al-Turabi. When this correspondent last visited Khartoum in 1996, al-Mahdi was under house arrest while al-Turabi was the all-powerful Speaker of Sudan's Parliament. Al-Turabi, who was once considered the political mentor of President al-Bashir, has since the late 1990s spent considerable time in jail. Al-Turabi said that he had spent more than 11 years in jail under various regimes. He was sceptical about the government's promises of holding fair and free elections beyond the confines of Khartoum. He said that the results could be manipulated in the outlying regions where tribal chiefs and elders could easily be swayed by government patronage.

On January 9, Sudan's Vice-President Ali Osman Taha (left) and Sudan People's Liberation Movement leader John Garang at the peace accord signing ceremony in Nairobi in Kenya.-THOMAS MUKOYA/REUTERS

However, Vice-President Ali Osman Taha promised that elections would be henceforth open and transparent. Addressing mediapersons in Khartoum, he said that "religious and non-religious parties" would be allowed to contest the elections. He said that the goal of the government was to decentralise power "so that each region will be free to develop its own culture and traditions". Taha, the most visible face of the Sudanese government in international fora, was talking after inaugurating a two-day regional counter-terrorism conference held in Khartoum on September 21 and 22. The regional meeting was attended by all of Sudan's neighbours except Eritrea. Taha accused Eritrea of destabilising Sudan by lending support to the secessionist groups in Darfur and other parts of the country.

Countries that sent their security chiefs to the conference included Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The U.S., Britain, China, the European Union and the U.N. sent observers.

Sudan continues to be on the U.S. State Department's list of countries that "sponsor terrorism". The draconian U.S. sanctions on Sudan have not yet been relaxed. Khartoum's major priority is to get off the U.S. State Department's list. Senior Bush administration officials have acknowledged that the Sudanese government has been sharing high-value information regarding terrorist activities since September 11. The Islamist tendency in Sudan's foreign policy is evidently a thing of the past. The focus in Khartoum is now on peace and economic development. Lifting of U.S. sanctions would also help Sudan to attract more foreign investment.

The conference ended with a declaration to "fight terrorism in all its forms and shapes and to enhance the means to combat it". The participants pledged to boost cooperation "among member-countries and with the international community in the fight against terror". The countries attending the conference agreed to continue sharing intelligence and frame laws that would "strengthen our capabilities in the fight against global terrorism". The Bush administration has alleged that organisations such as Al Qaeda continue to be active in the "Horn of Africa", specifically in Somalia. However, Somalia is a "failed state" with no recognised Central government.

It is only the problem in Darfur that is preventing the total normalisation of relations between Sudan and the West. "Branding Sudan a terrorist state is a political move by America. We call upon America to review its position. We want positive relations with the U.S.," said Taha.

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