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How do you celebrate World Food Day in a country where hunger stalks the land? In Sudan, the past month has seen a further half a million people fall into food insecurity. The international community, including the UK, aims to feed 5.2 million Sudanese this year. Food problems are the result of both natural forces – poor rains– and man-made causes, such as conflict. The continuing refusal of the government to allow international aid into conflict-affected states of Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan makes the impact on civilians worse. The wars there continue with no end in sight. Civilians suffer while leaders sacrifice lives rather than sit around a table. Miscalculation, pride and an exaggerated sense of strength bring suffering to tens of thousands. In the very states that should be planting and growing food for much of Sudan and South Sudan, the fields are abandoned. The bitter seeds of future hunger have been sown.
You don’t have to travel to the periphery of Sudan to find hunger. Daily life in Khartoum is increasingly hard. Since I left on holiday at the end of August, many food prices have risen sharply: cooking oil from 25 SDG to 33 SDG for 3 litres; a chicken from 14 SDG to 18 SDG; rice from 7 SDG to 9 SDG a kilo; bread from 20 cents to 25 cents. I’m no mathematician, but it looks like rises of 20-25% in one month. Little wonder Khartoum has seen protests in the last few weeks. And little wonder the Government’s No1 worry is the economy, as President Bashir told the National Assembly last week.
Against this background of rising prices, a falling Sudanese pound and war in Sudan’s “new South”, hopes were high for the first bilateral Summit between Presidents Bashir and Kiir last weekend. It would appear some progress was made as both leaders pronounced their commitment to peace, non-aggression and to resolving economic differences as a priority. They also acknowledged the concerns that affect many individually – the status of students, employees and merchants both sides of the new border. It is again the task of statesmen and diplomats to convert these words into actual agreements and to see them implemented. President Mbeki’s Panel and the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy are on the task. The UK is actively assisting. We shall do less or more depending on the wishes of the parties.
A week after resuming work in Khartoum, I am still grappling to understand current events and report accurately to London. Other than price rises and the spread of conflict to Blue Nile State, the past month seems to be more notable for things that haven’t happened: no progress on Abyei (the Interim Agreement has not been honoured and Sudanese forces have not been withdrawn despite the impressive deployment of Ethiopian forces by UNISFA); the broad-based government in Khartoum has not been formed; and no clarity has emerged on how the Constitution will be revised. In the absence of obvious progress on these, diplomats draw their conclusions from things that have happened: more restrictions on the press, including the closure of newspapers; continuing detention of human rights defenders; the visit of the President of Iran; etc.
It is too easy to caricature Sudan. While events of the last month certainly don’t paint the picture of a confident and progressive country, I still believe Sudan and its many leaders – political, religious, academic, business and military – are able to chart a course to bring real peace and development to Africa’s third largest country. I hope next year’s World Food Day will truly be a celebration in Sudan and not, as this year, a lament.