This post is also available in: Arabic
Another year. Another miracle.
Twelve months ago we were pleasantly surprised by a small miracle – the Southern referendum was held on time. I recall Professor Mohammed Ibrahim Khalil (Chairman of the Referendum Commission) saying that while it would be a miracle if it happened, miracles do sometimes happen. Now as 2011 turns into 2012, I keep being struck by another miracle – Sudan’s economy.
Whether you look at the micro or macro level, Sudan appears to be performing an economic miracle. At the micro level, millions of people in Khartoum earn considerably less than 1000 SDG (ie £200 sterling) per month. If you do the sums from the start of the day to the end of the day, it seems impossible that they survive – getting up in the morning, having tea (with sugar at the price it is), transport to work and school, some bread and basic foodstuffs, perhaps some medicine. The ends shouldn’t meet on the money available. But they seem to – something extra must be coming into households, presumably from friends and families abroad or in Sudan. This informal social safety-net is working, but must be stretching thin. At a macro level, the same miracle is happening – deprived of any revenue from oil transported from South Sudan since July and with extra expenditure on conflicts in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, it seems those in charge of Sudan’s finances are defying gravity. It’s a high-wire act. Balance matters. I noted with interest the National Assembly’s vote against cutting subsidies on fuel. Balancing the interests of the poor while reducing government expenditure is never easy – as indeed the economic situation in Europe illustrates.
But, as economic belts are tightened, to the casual observer life seems pretty unchanged in Khartoum. The construction boom of the last few years seems unabated: private houses and public buildings continue to take shape everywhere, quite literally in the case of the Navy and Air Force buildings that are now clearly visible in the shapes of a model ship and aeroplane – two rather concrete miracles.
I have had plenty of chances to observe the Khartoum skyline recently as I travel around town. Events have proliferated as everyone takes advantage of Sudan’s spring – fresh mornings, crystal-blue midday skies and evenings rich with jasmine and frangipani. There is perhaps no more beautiful place to enjoy this than at the University of Khartoum, where European diplomats gathered recently in the Faculty of Law to mark International Human Rights Day. It is a beautiful campus: mellowed stone arches, cloisters, shady gardens and everywhere the buzz of young people, brightly dressed in tobes, jellabiyas, jeans or suits, revising for exams, chatting or discussing the issues of the day. For a British Ambassador visiting the University evokes a strong sense of past and present. As Gordon Memorial College, it figured centre-stage in the UK and Sudan’s shared history. It has, I am delighted to say, a growing number of academic partnerships with UK universities. Just last week a 20-strong delegation from the University of Reading was here. I hope further ties will follow.
In Khartoum the past and the present are tied inextricably. The Dean of the Law Faculty showed me his office and the photos of previous Deans: the first Dean after the College became a fully-fledged University more than 50 years ago was Professor Khalil; the second Dr Hassan al Turabi. The University has fed Sudan’s rich political life over the decades. Many who watched a recent YouTube video of an angry recent graduate addressing a leading politician clearly saw that politics are still alive and well within the University precincts.
Elsewhere I have also been struck by the vibrancy of Khartoum life. One of the privileges of an Ambassador is the chance to get a glimpse into myriad different lives. My last week’s kaleidoscope included an uplifting morning at an Omdurman primary school, spent in the company of the Sufi leader Sheikh Mohammed Hassan Qaribulla and several hundred children from eleven different schools. Together we learnt and taught about the importance of protecting the environment and planted the first of three thousand trees which the young children of Omdurman will be nurturing, as a part of an Embassy and British Council project. Another evening I spent with women and children survivors of sexual violence and other human rights violations, who are working together with young Sudanese artists to raise awareness of the importance of diversity and human rights in modern Sudan. The passion of the art and the strength of the women survivors show what can be achieved when hearts, policies and resources are aligned. Again this was a small Embassy-funded project.
There have been so many cameos in the last week capturing current UK-Sudan relations: a large event for the Sudan Medical Association (UK and Eire Branch) bringing health professionals together; several discussions on the Constitution where I benefited from the wisdom of Sudanese elders who know better than me the UK’s unwritten constitution; and calls on the two new Assistants to the President in the Presidential Palace (built by Kitchener in 1899). I discussed with one of them how his great-great grandfather had not wanted General Gordon to be killed. But our talks did not dwell on the past. Instead we focused on the needs of the hour: how to end the fighting in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile States, help those who are suffering from the conflict, and support sustainable and responsible relations between South Sudan and Sudan. Colleagues in London discussed the same issues with Presidential Adviser Dr Ghazi Salahuddin during his visit to the UK last week. He arrived just after a major debate in Parliament on Sudan, which I commend to those who wish to see the level of informed interest among British MPs and the comprehensive statement of UK policy on Sudan made by our Minister for Africa, Henry Bellingham.
Mr Bellingham made abundantly clear the UK’s commitment to a long-term and even-handed relationship with both Sudan and South Sudan, which includes a significant development and humanitarian programme, technical support for debt relief, and active work to resolve outstanding conflicts and issues be it through the work of the AU or UN missions. He also made clear our grave concerns. As candid friends of both countries we are unable to remain silent when we see either side breaching agreements or international law. When we get it wrong, we equally expect to hear from the Governments in Khartoum and Juba – as indeed I did from the MFA this week ahead of a discussion in New York of the ICC Chief Prosecutor’s report.
So as the year ends, life in Khartoum seems a rich round of politics, human rights, the environment, art, medicine, and academia; all shared with immensely charming and talented Sudanese – old and young. This giddying whirl is both true and deceptive. Behind it we should not ignore another steady and insistent drum-beat, which reminds us that most Sudanese live, struggle and die in a harsher land that lies beyond Khartoum’s charmed circle. A drum-beat that speaks too of economic challenges to come. I wish all readers a happy, peaceful and, let us hope, prosperous 2012.