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Nicholas KayBritish Ambassador to Sudan, Khartoum
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.
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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.