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.
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.