Despite its reputation for war and violence, there is more to Sudan than meets the West’s eye.
24 September 2010
Huge, harsh, desolate, with bloody borders and regions wracked by genocidal conflict, listed by the United States as a state sponsor of terrorism and under an international embargo, led by the only sitting leader to be indicted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, Sudan, Africa’s largest country geographically, is the quintessential pariah state. But there is much more to this land of violence and extremes than the religious fanaticism, gun-toting militias and rebel groups, famine and poverty that is frequently portrayed in the Western media.
Despite having the odds and much of the international community stacked against it, Sudan’s northern region, the largely violence-free area where the Islamist government of President Omar al-Bashir faces little opposition, is developing at breakneck speed. New roads are carving their way across the vast stretches of desert, glass and steel buildings are climbing skyward in Khartoum, and, at least for some Sudanese living away from the country’s many conflict zones, living standards are slowly improving.
“Here there was nothing but dirt before. Now there are paved roads, all in just a few years,” Hagg Said, the brother of the owner of a roadside café near the northern town of Abri, told me during a recent visit. “We can get around and trade more easily, it’s much better.”
The road running past Hagg Said’s brother’s café, like many roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects in Northern Sudan, was built by Chinese contractors, using local laborers, Chinese foremen and imported Chinese equipment. Some locals are enthusiastic about China’s growing influence – one store owner in the area has proudly hung a photo of Chinese President Hu Jintao alongside one of al-Bashir on his wall. In contrast, many northern Sudanese view the United States with disdain. They see Washington (which bombed a pharmaceutical factory in the Khartoum suburb of Omdurman in 1998 on the spurious grounds that it was producing chemical weapons and had links to al-Qaeda) and Western nations’ policies as holding the country – and their own lives – back.
While the West has sought to isolate Sudan, banning investment and blocking trade in response to the al-Bashir government’s dire human rights record, China has seized the opportunity to expand its influence. Chinese investment in Sudan accounted for a large chunk of the $5 billion the country received last year and China is one of Sudan’s largest trading partners, a relationship that has helped the Sudanese economy quintuple in size over the last decade, one of the fastest growth rates in the world. Clearly, Beijing is not just interested in selling cheap consumer products, construction equipment and completing infrastructure projects. Sudanese oil – the country is now the third-largest producer in sub-Saharan Africa – accounts for around 10% of China’s oil needs, and Chinese investment in the country’s mineral and resource-rich regions is growing. And it is precisely those regions that have put Sudan under the international spotlight.
Darfur, whose inhabitants rose up against decades of government neglect only to be slaughtered in their tens of thousands at the hands of government-backed Janjaweed militiamen, remains a dangerous flashpoint in the west of the country – one that spread across the border into neighbouring Chad in 2005.
In the south, where 70% of Sudan’s oil is pumped, a two-decade civil war between government troops and separatist rebels representing the area’s Christian-Animist population, claimed the lives of more than 1.5 million people until a 2005 ceasefire brought an uneasy end to hostilities. A referendum on independence for the south, scheduled for January 2011, is likely to be a new flashpoint in the near term.
Just recently, the Abyei border region, an area of rich pasture lands close to key oil fields where a separate referendum is to be held next year on whether the territory should join the currently semi-autonomous south, has been the site of several killings linked to conflicting territorial claims.
In all these regions, people are dying, killed not just by the bullets of soldiers, militiamen and rebels, but by the consequences of those conflicts: famine, poverty and disease. The United Nations recently warned that places such as Akobo, a town in the south-eastern region of Jonglei, is the “hungriest place on earth” with almost half of all children suffering malnutrition. The international humanitarian aid that does get to where it’s needed is essential for millions of Sudanese living in the worst areas of conflict, but international political pressure has so far had only limited impact. Killings continue in Darfur and Abyei, the south is still tense, al-Bashir remains in power – he won a widely ridiculed election in April after opposition parties boycotted the poll – and has yet to be hauled before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Away from Sudan’s many areas of conflict, those countries willing to deal with Sudan and al-Bashir’s regime, such as China, India and some Gulf Arab states, are having far more impact, helping not only their own interests but, by proxy, also the lives of more than 20 million Sudanese (out of a total population of around 40 million) living outside the conflict zones.
Khartoum’s souqs and commercial districts bustle with activity, traders hawk cheap Chinese-made clothes and consumer products, internet cafés abound and mobile phone shops line every other street. New buses now ply paved roads previously only served by bone-rattling pick-up trucks, and satellite dishes beam channels from across the Arab and Western world into rural and urban homes. In the city’s squares, shops and cafes, where economics, rather than politics, governs daily life, people from Sudan’s many disparate ethnic groups mingle with apparent ease.
“I go to Cairo to buy from the warehouses and bring things back to sell in Khartoum. Everything is more expensive in Sudan, but people are buying so I can make a good profit. I’ve been all over for goods,” said Ibrahim, a trader from the capital, as he sat among boxed-up washing machines, flat-screen TVs and ceiling fans on the deck of the weekly ferry across Lake Nasser from Aswan in Egypt to Wadi Halfa in Sudan.
Much of the world has sought to isolate Sudan in order to punish its political rulers. But entrepreneurial Sudanese and the few countries still willing to deal with the pariah regime, regardless of their underlying intentions, have ultimately ensured the world economy and economic opportunity have become more accessible to the average Sudanese.
Nonetheless, the unbalanced development of the country, largely based on oil wealth and with a large disparity between the center and periphery, remains a potential source for conflict and political instability, especially if oil-rich south Sudan moves to secede from the north next year.
Andrew Eatwell is currently travelling through Africa. His journey has so far taken him through Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda over the last two months. He has found the experience interesting, taxing, fun, tiring, exhilarating and saddening in almost equal measure. Sudan and Ethiopia stand out as the two most intriguing countries he has visited.
This article is published here with the author’s permission. ©Andy Eatwell. Please visit Andrew’s website at QorreO.