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Nicholas KayBritish Ambassador to Sudan, Khartoum
Be it very good or very bad, when something dramatic happens, everyone talks about it. That’s only natural. There is plenty of talk these days in Juba, Khartoum and places in between. Talking can help whether your heart is leaping or bleeding.
It is also a time when people listen - to others, to rumours, to the media, sometimes to diplomats, and above all to their leaders. Thankfully the leadership, whether pan-African in the form of former South African President Thabo Mbeki or Sudanese, is giving strong, clear and reassuring messages. On Wednesday I heard President Mbeki speak of Sudan’s “new beginning” being the pride and hope of Africa. In recent days both leaders north and south have said the hand of friendship will extend beyond any eventual separation of the country, if that is the outcome, and that diversity will be respected. Both leaders deserve and receive credit for the achievement of the last six years: implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and now the referendum.
Many doubted whether it would be possible to hold the referendum on 9 January. Despite all that, it’s looking like the polling stations will open on time on Sunday. That is a major achievement that the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission and its exceptional Chairman, Professor Khalil, and the parties should be proud of. The UK support – financial, practical and political - has been extensive. More details of the assistance that we've provided are available here.
The mood in Khartoum among the political elite and diplomatic community has swung in the last couple of weeks. Relief, surprise and growing confidence prevail. But beneath the surface calm, ordinary people in Khartoum are nervous. Rumours abound. Fear is mostly of the unknown. But people also recall the deadly violence that followed the sudden death of John Garang in 2005. Nobody expects that to be repeated and the authorities are well prepared. Community and religious leaders will play an important role in reassuring people and maintaining peace.
Elsewhere, there is always the potential for conflict in the north-south border states. Some boundaries are still disputed. Both sides’ forces are on high alert and in close proximity. The UN Mission to Sudan is well-prepared, but again peace will depend on the decisions taken by military and political leaders.
It is a time for cool heads and to steer a steady course. Sudan really can become a shining example of how to make peace and build something very special – a new model of economic, political and social cooperation across borders and of tolerance and good governance within borders. The prize is great. Next week’s referendum is just the first of many choices to come.
Thank goodness the blistering heat has gone. Khartoum is blessed now with gentle, sunny days. The Nile flows slowly. Living and above all thinking is easier. Just as well really. There is plenty to contemplate as 2011 starts. And a great need for cool heads.
The referendum to decide on Sudan’s future rushes nearer. The ballot papers have arrived on time (printed by a UK company). Most of the EU’s 110 observers are now here, as are others from the US, Asia and Africa. The world’s media circus will grow over the coming days. UK Ministers have been busy working the phones to Sudanese colleagues and others: urging calm, underlining the UK’s commitment to both north and south Sudan and trouble-shooting potential security and humanitarian risks.
Sudan is on people’s minds. Just before Christmas I was in London for a few days and had the honour of an audience with Her Majesty the Queen. She was last here in 1965, but is following with care this current chapter in Sudan’s history. As is the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, who was keen to hear what more can be done to help the Sudanese – north and south - over the coming months. It was our second meeting since he took office in May. He stressed again how he reads all our official cables and how committed he is to supporting the Embassy team’s efforts.
I shan’t mention the four day nightmare journey to get back to Khartoum from a snowbound Britain. Nor the need to move house on Christmas Eve (quite another story). It was all good in the end and we had a great Christmas with our three children. The first time all five of us have managed to be together in Sudan. A few precious days in which to catch breath and recharge batteries for the days ahead.
But nothing has really stopped in Sudan for the festive period. The political rhetoric ebbs and flows. The police clashed with a small demonstration on Christmas Eve. And in Darfur, fighting has once again flared up in a number of places. On Boxing Day I had an excellent meeting with Foreign Minister, Ali Karti. The following day I was in the Ministry again with colleagues representing the five permanent members of the Security Council for another meeting on the referendum. No diplomat is in Sudan in search of a quiet life. We are here because there is a job of work to be done. In 2011 we shall be doing our best to help Sudan in what seems ever likelier to be a new beginning as two separate, peaceful and progressive states. War is often said to be the failure of diplomacy. But diplomats can only do so much. In the end it will be Sudanese leaders, north and south, who determine whether their people enjoy a happy and peaceful New Year.
If I had a pound for every time I hear or say the word “contingency”, I’d be rich. Sudan seems to be a country that has cornered the market in contingency planning. Or at least gazing to the future and worrying about what’s around the corner.
Registration for Southern Sudan’s referendum finished last week. Others better equipped than me will make judgements, but it seems to have gone remarkably well. Final figures for voter registration are likely to be respectable, if not spectacular. More Southerners in the North have registered as the process goes on. There may still be complaints about specific aspects of the process, but the timetable allows for complaints to be addressed. Starting the vote on 9 January as scheduled remains distinctly feasible.
So the reality that Southern Sudan may be about to secede creeps up on everyone. And contingency planning assumes extra urgency. The UN is planning. The EU too. And of course, the British Embassy and our team in Juba. We worry about what will be the impact on people – our staff and our families, but also the millions of Sudanese who could be affected. So the planning covers security preparations, humanitarian responses, consular protection and above all “political contingencies”.
Our political aim is to ensure a viable North and a viable South whatever the outcome of the referendum. If it is a vote for independence, both the north and south will be new. New borders, new economies, new political challenges. We and international partners are signalling hard to north Sudan that we shall not be “abandoning” them if secession happens. Our interest is to see the north develop in an open, plural and integral manner – at peace with itself and with its neighbours. On 1 December the UK identified £45m for development in Eastern Sudan over the coming four years (subject to final approval in London). We are working hard with others to make progress on resolving Sudan’s outstanding external debt issues. The British Council’s Chief Executive from London visited last week to see one of the Council's fastest expanding operations in the world. On many fronts we are intensifying engagement and, as the situation evolves, we should be prepared to do more to encourage Sudan’s own efforts to rise to its challenges responsibly and progressively.
Last week I was also in Darfur to see the work of UNAMID on the ground. The UK funds about £95m pa of this joint AU and UN peace-keeping mission. In addition, we have spent approximately £25m on humanitarian assistance in Darfur this financial year. We care deeply about what happens there. And we shall not stop caring after next year’s Southern referendum. Amidst the rhetoric that the war is over, nearly 3000 people have died in Darfur from violence this year, compared to 800 last year.
One piece of welcome news last week was that the three Latvians kidnapped in South Darfur in October have now been released. However, another EU citizen remains in captivity, nearly ten weeks since he was first taken in El Fasher, North Darfur - a grim reminder of the threat of kidnappings and criminality which makes it difficult for organisations trying to deliver relief and, more importantly, longer term development to operate in Darfur.
In the meantime, the UN and AU, civilian and military, try hard to help. Under a straw roof on a dirt floor, I saw African peace-keepers delivering forceful training to teenagers displaced by conflict. The subject was gender based violence, with a franker and more passionate treatment of the subject than you’d find in many places. And for me a moving reminder that African solidarity and action is offering hope in Darfur.
I also spent a day in Juba last week. Our presence is growing there. And our commitment to helping build a viable entity is as strong in the south as it is in the north. In our office I met again some of our local staff who have relocated from Khartoum to Juba. As I’ve reported before, there isn’t a flood going south. But there is anxiety and uncertainty and some people are moving. About twenty five of our team in the Embassy in Khartoum have resigned in recent weeks to go south. But out of over 400 applicants to replace them at least half are Southerners. So it’s a time of complex choices.
Pots, pans, wardrobes, beds, bundles of clothes, six children and no husband, Mary is on her way “home”. A place she hasn’t seen for 21 years. A place none of her six children know. She is leaving a job as a school teacher and going to Juba, where she hopes she can find something. Is she fleeing in fear? Apparently not. Her brother has died and her aged mother in Juba has nobody to look after her. She, like all the other families I talked to, said it was time to go home. So far this month at least 7,000 southerners have passed through White Nile state making their way south. Not all take the same route as Mary. I met her and several hundred others waiting patiently at Kosti new port for a place on a barge to Malakal or Juba. Both are easier to reach by river than by road - especially if you are taking your entire worldly possessions with you.
In Kosti, thanks to international donors and NGOs, the returnees are well cared for. Large open-sided shelters seem to take about ten extended families each. Crowded, but clean and fairly comfortable since the returnees are travelling with their own beds and furniture. There’s a clinic, school and kindergarten, communal kitchen and latrines. More facilities than they’ll find on the decks of the barges that will take them on the next stage of their journey – up to 21 days voyage south up the White Nile to Juba.
Why was I in Kosti? Curiosity really. First to learn about the real numbers, conditions and motives for southerners leaving the north. Secondly, to try to get a bit more under the skin of Sudan, its economy, its past and its prospects. All are inter-linked. I stayed as a guest of Kenana Sugar Company, who run Africa and possibly the world’s largest sugar factory. Steeped in history – some of it controversial (e.g. a Nimeiri/Tiny Rowland grand scheme that became for a while an expensive white elephant) – Kenana is currently doing well (helped by fresh investment from Kuwait and Islamic banks) and is preparing for the future with a large modern ethanol plant. Kenana is about 15 miles from Kosti and in some ways the same distance from Sudan. It’s a company town (or series of townships). Employees benefit from free health care, schooling, university, water, electricity etc. The senior managers I met had all been there for about 30 years. Many of the workers were second generation Kenana people.
But even here the political drama of a country divorcing intruded. Several senior staff are southerners. Will they be allowed to stay after secession? Nobody knows. The manager of the ethanol plant became quite emotional at the idea that James, his domestic employee for decades, might be forced to leave. In practice, southern secession would have been more of an economic shock a few years ago, when sugar cane was cut by hand and most of the labour was from the south.
Confusion and uncertainty about the referendum and the future marked many of my conversations in Kosti and nearby Rabak. The signs of southerners on the move are obvious – buses full to the gunwhales, steaming precariously down the highway. Hundreds waiting for barges. But the numbers are still not a flood. One NGO employed by the International Organisation for Migration to track returnees counts nearly 7,000 individuals this month. Two years ago, the figure would have been more like 300. But this year it has been mounting. 3-4,000 per month being about the average figure for the first nine months. But these are not the total. Others return by air. Others are missed by the trackers who frequent the bus stations and road-sides trying to log passers by.
Meanwhile, the 41,000 or so southerners living in White Nile State are registering to vote in larger numbers than elsewhere in northern Sudan: 3,000 in the first week. I visited two registration centres in the heart of dusty and very poor villages on the outskirts of Kosti. Both were doing more “business” than many centres in Khartoum. One had registered fifty the same morning we visited. Everything looked in good order, although staff were disappointed at overall turnout. One centre had expected to register 1,000 in total. They were up to 347 after 10 (of the 17) days. Women had been the first to register. Men were only just beginning to appear.
Why are more registering to vote here than in Khartoum? Pure speculation. But perhaps because they feel less vulnerable. In Khartoum, it feels a long way to the south. In Kosti, it’s just up the river. Nobody knows if southerners will be allowed to stay if the south becomes independent (even if the Governor of White Nile told me breezily that “of course, everyone will be able to stay”). Some, fearing the worst, are making the move now. But nor is it just fear. Among the hundreds waiting for the boat in Kosti, there was also a sense of hope and almost fulfillment. Even those who had been born elsewhere knew they were going home. But, like Mary, they just don’t know what home holds in store.
The Chairman of the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission is on record as saying it would be a near-miracle if the referendum happens on time. But miracles, he went on to say, can happen. With 49 days to go, it's still too soon to know if he's right. But the omens are better now than even a week ago. As I write, registration for the referendum is completing its first week. It started as scheduled (and to many people's surprise) on 15 November. Precisely the day before five days of public holiday for Eid al Adha. Like several colleagues, I stayed and worked through much of this - but did spare two days to visit some of Sudan's outstanding archaeological sites (see photo below).
On return to work this Sunday I've been asking how registration is going. So far it seems - a game of two halves. Good turn-out in Southern Sudan, where generally good-natured crowds wait patiently to register. Patchy and tetchy in the north. Turn-out in Khartoum is low and each side (north and south) accuses the other of obstruction. Our Embassy team in Juba has been out and about to observe in three of the south's ten states. In the north we have been to several registration centres in Khartoum and I aim to visit some more later this week. Our Embassy observation gives us some useful colour, but no more than a snap-shot. Fortunately, there are other observers on the ground too. The EU and Carter Centre have substantial international teams deployed for this registration period and, along with the AU and Arab league, will have even more on the ground for the actual vote .
Voter registration is happening against a backdrop of mixed signals. On the one hand, the two parties (NCP and SPLM) are close to concluding a Framework Agreement and a separate agreement on Abyei. Or at least they were before the Eid holiday. We hope President Mbeki will be back in Khartoum shortly to resume his mediation. Less reassuringly, significant numbers of southerners in Khartoum are relocating back to the south. And some northerners in the south also have doubts about whether they should stay or leave. So far the numbers involved are relatively small. But for those who are uprooting themselves, travelling with all their possessions on rickety transport, living en route in poor conditions and heading to an uncertain future, the drama is real.
I find it hard to believe this is what leaders in north or south really want. But so far neither side has given a categorically reassuring message to their citizens. People need to know that all who are welcomed as brothers and sisters in Sudan today will enjoy the same welcome in the Sudan(s) of tomorrow.
The European Film Festival in Khartoum finished at the end of last week with the screening under the stars in the British Council gardens of "End Game", which tells the story of Thabo Mbeki's role in negotiating the end of apartheid in South Africa. As we watched, only a mile away in the centre of Khartoum, ex-President Mbeki was locked in another historic negotiation - this time mediating discussions between north and south Sudan to agree what will happen if Southern Sudan votes for independence in January.
As I write, we don't know the final outcome of the talks. But the clock - or rather the moon - is ticking. President Bashir is in Mecca for the Haj pilgrimage, and Khartoum is all but closed for business until after the Muslim holiday of Eid al Adha in the coming days. Meanwhile, voter registration for the Referendum begun this morning, on which more later.
During the past week the UK has been more active than ever in striving for a "soft landing" after the referendum. Mr Mitchell, the International Development Secretary, made a four day visit during which he worked tirelessly in his meetings with Vice Presidents, Ministers, the African Union and the United Nations to promote peace and prosperity. He advocated strongly the need for proper contingency planning in the event that violence or conflict break out. He urged (with success) Sudanese leaders to reassure publicly Southern Sudanese in the north that they will be safe whatever the outcome of the referendum and he encouraged the governments north and south to behave responsibly and seize the opportunity to transform their standing in the international community. We covered many miles over the four days, visiting Darfur (a place Mr Mitchell had visited twice before ) and Juba, where he opened the UK Government's new office building in the EU compound, which will provide a great platform for the growing HMG team in Southern Sudan. (photo below)
As Mr Mitchell and his team led by Sandra Pepera (Head of DFID Sudan) pushed our messages at the highest levels, the Embassy was also heavily engaged in supporting Thabo Mbeki's talks at the working level. We had experts feeding into drafting on economic, security, legal and border issues. On the last, Michael Ryder (the UK Special Representative for Sudan) was closely involved, helped by Phil Hunt, an expert from the MOD's Defence Mapping Agency, who flew into Khartoum to spend valuable time with Sudanese and international experts. Phil was able to offer an objective and well-informed view on where exactly the boundary between north and south was on 1 January 1956 (it has been agreed that any future border should be the boundary as it was at independence in 1956).
Apologies for the long blog. Not every week will be as full. But I can't finish without mentioning the wonderful Service of Remembrance organised by our Defence Attaché, Lt Col Chris Luckham, at Khartoum's Commonwealth War Cemetery on 11 November (gallery below). Under bright Sudanese skies, surrounded by immaculately kept graves and lawns, nearly two hundred people from more than thirty countries gathered to pay tribute to the dead of all nations and all conflicts. It was an honour to be there and a strong reminder to me of how vital it is that together we succeed in helping Sudan heal its wounds and silence forever the guns.
I am a reluctant blogger. But far from a reluctant Ambassador. Professionally there is no other country I'd wish to be in than Sudan today. It is possible that Africa's largest country will divide into two over the coming months. The people of Southern Sudan will decide on that in a referendum in January. The implications for both north and south Sudan, for the region and for the work of the British Government are far-reaching.
I have decided to start writing this blog in the hope that a view from Sudan will be of interest to a wider audience in coming months. I shall try to offer some reflections from the ground as Sudan prepares for a truly historic moment, and to explain the role the UK is playing. I shall also invite my colleagues to contribute their perspectives, especially those of our team in Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan.
Before going any further, I want to be quite explicit about the UK's approach to the referendum and possible secession of the south: our interest is exclusively in seeing the referendum happen to time, to standard and safely. Whatever the result, the people of north and south Sudan should be able to live in peace and growing prosperity. The whole of the UK government in Sudan is working to the same end. Our commitment to helping both north and south is firm today and will continue through and beyond the referendum.