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Nicholas KayBritish Ambassador to Sudan, Khartoum
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.