Out of Tune

This post is also available in: Arabic

Colourful banners and tents spread as far as the eye could see on the ground beside the Mahdi’s tomb. This could have been a scene from a 19th century gathering during the Khalifate. Instead it was the annual Sufi celebration in Omdurman of the birth of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) – a week of religious devotion, intellectual exchange and promotion of peace. But this year that was not to be.

30 January was a momentous night in Khartoum for both good and bad reasons. On Monday night I was due to join Sufi Sheikh Qaribullah in his tent to take part in an event to raise awareness of climate change and the environment. Instead I had to stay at home. Violence had erupted between Salafist and Sufi followers in Omdurman. Tents had been burned down. Tear gas fired. Many Sudanese have been shocked by this: respect for religious diversity and tolerance run deep in Sudanese veins. Spilling blood in sectarian aggression has no part in Sudanese life.



Mahdis Tomb


On a more positive note, the same night Sudan had a famous victory in the African Cup of Nations. For the first time in 42 years, they won a match. All of that with a home-grown team. As one BBC reporter said, it’s nice to have a good news story from Sudan. I wish Sudan all the best for the rest of the competition.

Sudanese morale needs a boost amid gathering clouds. Once again Sudan has climbed close to the top of the world news agenda. The UN Secretary General has warned of a risk to regional peace and security and Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, among others is pointing to a looming humanitarian crisis.  

We have all struggled to understand the logic behind the dispute over oil between Sudan and South Sudan. Emotions are hard to rise above. Leaders seem trapped by the mistaken fear that “if one wins, the other must lose”.  Trust is proving elusive, despite the remarkable community of nations urging both sides – in their own interests – to compromise and avoid rash moves. The UK was one of many who worked hard in private and public to support African efforts to build bridges between the two Sudans. The tireless efforts of ex-Presidents Mbeki and Buyoya, of PM Meles Zenawi and of President Kibaki merit recognition and gratitude.

Statesmanship will be needed to  resolve the oil crisis, but lawyer-diplomats will also have a role. As the talks were going on in Addis, I attended an event hosted in Khartoum by the MFA, where a distinguished former Sudanese diplomat and lawyer reminded me of an important – and amusing – truth: there are two types of lawyer-diplomat – one who finds solutions to every problem and one who finds problems to every solution.

The event at the Diplomatic Club was in the cool of the Khartoum evening, charmingly hosted by the Under-Secretary and in its way a small piece of history. It was to launch the first ever MFA calendar containing 12 prints donated by Sudan’s leading contemporary artists. As HE Rahmatullah Osman Mohamed said, it was about time Sudan showed a different face to the world. A land of culture, ethnic and religious diversity:  Sudan has an ancient civilisation which deserves to be better promoted.

So life goes on in the Khartoum bubble – diplomatic receptions, the International Trade Fair in full swing, new hospitals (private) open, weddings abound, construction continues to boom. But I feel an increasing sense of unreality. Is this a city that is going through the motions – elegant, poised, with good heart, but where something fundamental is missing? I can’t quite grasp what it is, but images of discord rather than harmony come to mind. It’s as if the orchestra is bickering amongst itself, the singers are each on a different verse and the dancers don’t know whose tune to follow. Meanwhile thieves among the audience pick pockets and the ushers beat up people when they think no one is looking.

Beyond this tragi-comedy lies another world – one where people face enormous daily challenges. A young man dies penniless and far from home. Neighbours and strangers rally round. A funeral is arranged and paid for. Distant relatives get to Khartoum. Children are comforted. Arrangements made. Life goes on. The dead man is from South Sudan; the neighbours from the north. At street and village level, the social fabric seems strong. The daily struggle to provide food, transport, schooling and health care for loved ones unites people.

Little unity is visible among the intellectual elite of the country. A series of anonymous memos from different groups has attracted attention. Fundamental debate on the nature of the state, its political culture and constitution is emerging – timidly. As a foreign diplomat I try to make sense of it all. Words – and therefore memos – matter in a profession like mine. Every diplomat believes it’s better to settle disputes with paper and pen and debate than by violence.

7 Responses

  1. these are the contradictions of this country at one level people are so kind, so stoic, so generous and yet I feel what is missing is a critical and conscious self awareness of the old thinking and the old assumptions that are at the heart of our unspoken discord… But thank you also for reminding us of the good things, a community arranging the funeral of a southern neighbour is beautiful … and somehow these small acts must go toward healing the past and to remind us to forgive and like ourselves for who we are…

  2. Khalid AlMubarak says:

    Thanks Yr Exdellency for noticing some positive aspects too.
    The salafi intolerance is not new but has increased and has been condemned.
    The transit fee dispute is the result of what Hilde Johnson has called “lack of Capacity”of the SSudan negotiators (the same lack that has led to the way the Murle massacre was handled.The choice of Pagan Amim as head of the team was a clear indication that Juba was not interested in an agreement.They are- partly at least -intransigent because they (like a spoiled child) know that their backers wont tell them off .

  3. Aruna says:

    My mind resonates the same thoughts but I was quite unable to synchronize them as beautifully as you have, in your blog.

    If the reins are held tightly and the resources tapped wisely, Sudan will be one of the richest country in Africa.

  4. Lila says:

    I know very little about Sudan (as I guess do the majority of people out in the West) except for what pops out in the news every now and then, so I have read this article with great interest. I did not even know that it was split into two countries. The story about the funeral is a great example of how people are often brainwashed into senseless hate for reasons other than their own interest. All in all mightily interesting and good written.
    Thank you!

  5. Karim says:

    During the peak times of the conflict between Salafia and Sofia (mid 80s up to late 90s) no violent incidents were reported between the two parties. So for such an unfortunate incident to take place at this time (2012 where we would expect people to have higher level of civilisation) is not only illogical but it doesn’t not reflect the nature of the Sudanese character.

  6. Kamal Elzubeir says:

    Your blog is very well written and thoughtful It is my first encounter with the blog which I heard and read a lot about. The negotiations between the north and south was not done in good faith from the first dat after signing the CPA in 2005. We do not know whom to blame. An example of bad faith and beating under the belt is the change of currencies by both parties in July 2011. North Sudan was always portrayed in the west as the bad guy. This should change. The north negtiated the CPA in good faith and delivered all that need to be delivered but was stapped in the back by the south in Kordofan and the Blue Nile states with blessing from the west and the USA in particular through Suzan Rice. Please note I am no fan of our government and hate politics. However, as a citizen I suffer. Sudan image need to be changed. One day a western diplomat in Khartoum (who was sitting next to me in domestic flight) told me that Sudan is ruled by three tribes (Ja’aleen. Danagla and Shaygeya). I told him what is wrong with that. Gordon Brown was the first non-English Prime Minister in the UK, why do not you complain about the English domination of the UK. We did not exchange a word after that until the plan landed.

  7. Tag Elkhazin says:

    Mr. Ambassador:

    This is what you said on Feb 2nd:
    Quote: But I feel an increasing sense of unreality. Is this a city that is going through the motions – elegant, poised, with good heart, but where something fundamental is missing? I can’t quite grasp what it is, but images of discord rather than harmony come to mind. It’s as if the orchestra is bickering amongst itself, the singers are each on a different verse and the dancers don’t know whose tune to follow. Meanwhile thieves among the audience pick pockets and the ushers beat up people when they think no one is looking.Unquote

    MP Mme Mariam Abdelrahman Takis gave a brilliant response to your Arabic version of the thoughts.

    I would have been satisfied with your expression of feelings if you had given us reason(s) for your concealed optimism and apprehension that the harmony is not reality. To go as far as suggesting that the inhabitants of Khartoum are out of tune and that their social harmony may be false is a serious matter that may possibly fall outside your mandate as ambassador of Her Majesty to Sudan, indeed to the PEOPLE of Sudan.

    A British ambassador who was knighted when he left the service and went to live in France once told me that his briefing before he came to Sudan immediately after the June 30th coup was to preserve the relationship with the peoples of Sudan as first priority. He did that and opened his home and heart to the Sudanese people at difficult times.

    Another ambassador who later became the British Representative to Peace in Sudan and who served several times in Sudan told me that the last diplomat to leave the Embassy if the staff needs to leave will be the ambassador.

    Let me share another example with you: Shortly after the ambassador who served early in the days of Ignaz left a knighted ambassador arrived. he was knighted while in service. Arrogant, pompous and reminded me of obnoxious George Orwell in his days in Burma. Several of us in the Sudanese British Friendship Association complained to the Foreign Office. He was removed in 6-8 months after taking his posting.

    Why am I saying this? The biggest asset that the UK has in Sudan is the relationship with the communities. If I were you Mr. Ambassador I will not tamper with that; knowingly or unknowingly.

    While your intentions in writing this paragraph of the article may have been good, you certainly put yourself in an unenviable situation.

    stay well

    Tag Elkhazin

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