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Heads up – Embassy 31

Sacrifice for peace

Abdullahi Al Azreg now represents a smaller country than when he first arrived in London, but Sudan’s plain-speaking Ambassador remains resolutely upbeat.

“We are no longer the largest country in Africa, but it was worth the sacrifice to stop a 50-year civil war,” says Al Azreg, whose country lost part of its oil-rich territory after the population of Southern Sudan voted overwhelmingly in favour of secession.

“Now the South needs the support of the North so that it can function as a viable state,” says Al Azreg, adding the following commitments: “We will allow the South to transport their oil though our pipelines and to use our ports in the Red Sea. We will make our refineries available to them and ship oil back to the South. We will help them to establish a good bureaucracy and we will administer a ‘soft border’ between the two countries to facilitate movement of goods and people.”

The one outstanding issue to resolve before independence of Southern Sudan is formalized in July is that of the disputed border territory of Abyei. But the Ambassador believes there is little chance of this turning into Sudan’s ‘Kashmir’ and remains convinced the two tribes will come to a solution before the deadline.

“The Comprehensive Peace Agreement has been implemented honestly and we are proud of this – and we should be given credit for this, particularly the President [Omar al-Bashir],” he adds as an aside.

But President al-Bashir remains indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes committed in Darfur. “A person who stops a 50-year war should be a Nobel Prize laureate, not chased by the ICC,” says Al Azreg, who claims the accusations are false and spread by rebels who have their own agenda and are in the pay of “powerful, unelected NGOs”.

The ICC action also complicated matters on the ground, he adds. “It emboldened the rebels and gave them the false impression that the West would invade Sudan and hand them power.”

He admits, however, that human rights violations have been committed by all sides in the tribal conlict in Darfur.

Now the Sudanese government is moving ahead with a four-point strategy in the region, he adds, which aims to improve security; promote development and services; repatriate internally displaced people and refugees; and redouble efforts in Doha to conclude a comprehensive peace agreement with the rebels.

The new realities in Sudan will be incorporated into a revised constitution but new elections will only take place after the incumbents have completed their term of office. He adds it is unlikely Sudan will go the way of other North African and Arab regimes by falling prey to a popular uprising to oust the President sooner.

“There are good reasons for this,” he says. “Firstly, we have free expression in Sudan – the government does not control the internet and we have a free press. Secondly, the economy: prices have risen in Sudan, but to alleviate the negative effects, we increased the salaries of employees and pensioners by 40 per cent; and we sell commodities at cost price. Thirdly, the people do not believe their President is corrupt.”

Finally, he adds: “ The uprisings erupted as an expression of dissatisfaction and anger at subservience to the US at the expence of national interests. Sudan has hoped for friendly relations with the US; but Sudan was, and still is, subjected to unfair US sanctions and inclusion on the terror sponsors’ list. This is a badge of honour in the eyes of the Arab Street and has made President Bashir more popular.”

Sudan remains something of a pariah in Western eyes, but the peaceful manner in which the referendum was conducted has gone some way to repairing the country’s image. “I think we have turned a corner and there is a better understanding of Sudan in Britain,” remarks Al Azreg.

In particular the Ambassador is hopeful the new atmosphere will attract investors, particularly British ones, to share in Sudan’s oil and mineral wealth. Economic diplomacy will be a priority for him during his tour of duty in the UK.

“I am going to encourage British companies to invest in Sudan – we have huge resources and there is a window of opportunity in oil and gas and mining, but the British companies must act now before it is too late,” warns Al Azreg, who says China, Malaysia and a number of Gulf states are already making inroads.

He also wants to revive the long-standing cultural ties that Sudan shares with Britain. “Most of the people in leadership positions were educated in the UK and many British volunteers used to visit Sudan to teach English so I want to restore those educational ties,” says the Ambassador.

Repairing Sudan’s image, which he says has been “unfairly distorted” by the media, is another priority, and he wants to remind the British public that Sudan is home to the proud ancient Nubian civilization, whose 323 pyramids pre-date Egypt’s ones.

“My focus is on soft power – trade and culture – and the political ties will follow,” says the Ambassador, a seasoned diplomat who has been posted as Ambassador to Bulgaria and has served as a diplomat in a number of countries including Kenya, China and the US.

When it comes to soft power, as a poet and writer, Ambassador Al Azreg knows that the pen is mightier than the sword.

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HE Mr Abdullahi Al Azreg

“We are no longer the largest country in Africa but it was worth the sacrifice to end a 50-year civil war. The CPA has been
implemented honestly and we should be given credit for this”

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