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Opinion

Is there new hope for Sudan?

When I was British Ambassador in Khartoum from 1999 to 2002 our ambition, which at first seemed a distant aspiration, was a negotiated settlement to the North/South civil war which had devastated the country on and off since independence in 1956. I was also convinced relief and human rights would remain in a perilous state without stability and the prospect of economic and social development. During my posting I visited almost every governorate and spent many hours in private discussion in Nairobi with John Garang, leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), and in Khartoum with Ali Osman Mohammed Taha, first Vice President. Before leaving Khartoum I attended the first session of peace talks in Kenya.

Those peace efforts some twenty years ago resolved some problems but created others.  While John Garang wanted a “new Sudan”, there was little doubt many of his footsoldiers were fighting for their own state. The 2011 plebiscite in the South, after Garang’s unexpected death, resulting in a vote for independence created an unstable new polity, given the hostility between the Dinka and Nuer tribes. The Dinka dominated the SPLM and its armed wing (the SPLA).  The Nuer had fought on both sides of the conflict. Riak Machar, the Nuer leader, returned to the South as Vice President under the Presidency of Salva Kiir, the SPLA’s military commander; it was a predictably explosive combination. We can only hope reconciliation is possible.

Independence does not in itself deliver stability or development. But there must be benefits, I would argue, in a high degree of regional autonomy.


What are the leadership lessons to be learned?  One is obviously that independence does not in itself deliver stability or development. But there must be benefits, I would argue, in a high degree of regional autonomy.  Even shorn of the South, Sudan is a vast country with a relatively small and scattered population (except in Khartoum) and multiple ethnicities and tribal loyalties. But, especially in the rural areas, capacity remains near zero in health and education.  Food insecurity is endemic and frequently exacerbated by flooding or drought, let alone violence. The potentially rich agricultural sector remains undeveloped and access to markets is sorely lacking. Desperate poverty is a powerful stimulus for instability and conflict. 

To be fully successful the North/South peace deal would always have required a huge effort by the donors to improve communications and promote development. It was not forthcoming. Western governments were more inclined to sanctions because of fighting in the western region of Darfur, where a rebellion had broken out (encouraged covertly before the peace deal by the SPLM). A much more effective donor effort will be essential if the efforts of Khartoum’s new government are to deliver a stable future. Chronic under-development is aggravated by a mountain of debt and penalties for non-payment so large, I was told, that applying all the international mechanisms for debt forgiveness would still leave Sudan financially unstable.

There seems now a fresh opportunity for civilian rule and a renewed effort to overcome the age-old problems of tribal and sectarian competition.


It is heartening indeed that there seems now a fresh opportunity for civilian rule and a renewed effort to overcome the age-old problems of tribal and sectarian competition for limited resources. US policy is also changing, albeit seemingly driven not by any sense of principle or commitment, but as a bribe for recognition of the state of Israel and against a large compensation payment of $335 million, which Sudan could not afford and has presumably been funded from elsewhere – on what conditions one does not know; hopefully not a reversion to military rule. The Sudan has too often been “out of sight and mind” to the West and the world is preoccupied with many problems. It could so easily be overlooked again.

Twenty years ago a determined effort by European governments, spearheaded by the International Development Ministers of the United Kingdom, Norway and the Netherlands, made a decisive difference, coordinating skilfully with regional governments with influence, understanding and a shared interest in peace on their borders. The UK, with its long history with the Sudan dating back to the 19th century, is uniquely qualified to play a leading role in such an effort today and can surely do so, if the will is there: what better opportunity to prove that we can successfully coordinate the necessary diplomatic and developmental outcomes through the FCDO and demonstrate a continuing capacity for leadership at the international level.

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