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Britain’s new coalition government made its priorities on Sudan very clear as Henry Bellingham, the minister for Africa, used 90 percent of his opening remarks at his first press conference in Khartoum to outline how Britain could increase trade with Sudan.
The other 10 percent dealing with the run-up to the south’s referendum on secession, which is likely to create Africa’s newest nation state, and the International Criminal Court arrest warrant for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for genocide all seemed like just an afterthought.
At first glance many would say Britain was selling out — engaging economically with a government whose head is a wanted man would destroy the global divestment campaign’s years of efforts to make investing in Sudan a poisoned chalice and to pressure Khartoum to stop rights abuses and allow democratic freedoms.
Many Darfuris and rights activists who have been victims of torture and harassment will be dismayed by the move, which clearly extends a hand of friendship to Khartoum, virtually a pariah since the ICC warrant for Bashir last year.
Sudan has witnessed the end of what was supposed to be a historic event.
The first multi-party polls in almost quarter of a century to elect leaders on all levels, including the presidency held by Omar Hassan al-Bashir for 21 years.
But far from joy in the streets or pride in a job well done, there was just a sigh of relief.
The talk of the town for Sudanese is the position of Washington’s envoy Scott Gration after he met the National Elections Commission, the body accused of irregularities and bias towards the ruling National Congress Party.
“They have given me a lot of information that gives me confidence that the elections will start on time and that they will be as free and fair as possible,” Gration told reporters.
“This has been a difficult challenge but I believe they (the NEC) have stepped up and met the challenge,” he added.
Hosting a rare debate between Sudan’s much-maligned National Elections Commission (NEC) and opposition parties, the privately owned Blue Nile television was taking a risk broadcasting live to the nation.
In a country where, ahead of April’s first multi-party elections in 24 years, party political broadcasts are pre-recorded and censored, the evening promised to be fun.
In a shock unilateral announcement, the leading south Sudanese party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), withdrew its presidential candidate, Yasir Arman, and said it would also boycott elections on all levels in Darfur.
It paved the way for incumbent President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to win the April 11-18 polls. Arman was viewed as his main challenger, with much of south Sudan’s support – about 25 percent of the 16-million strong electorate.
Only the most foolhardy commentator would dare to say anything optimistic about the coming year in Sudan, four months away from highly charged elections and 12 months from an explosive referendum on southern independence.
So here goes — five reasons why Africa’s largest country might just manage to reach January 2011 without a return to catastrophe and bloody civil war, despite the worst predictions of most pundits.
On Monday U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration announced its new Sudan policy after months of speculation and lobbying from those opposed to any positive overtures to Khartoum and those who said further isolating Sudan would derail years of peace efforts.
U.S.-Sudanese relations have seen many ups and down in recent years. U.S. sanctions were imposed in 1997 and the United States bombed a Sudanese pharmaceuticals factory in 1998. There was praise for a 2005 north-south peace deal ending more than two decades of civil war, but it was overshadowed by outrage over atrocities in the 2003 Darfur uprising where Washington accused Khartoum of genocide.
Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has seen off other challenges in almost 20 years in power and there is no sign that he is going to give in to the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.
Some supporters of the court’s move hope it will eventually persuade Sudan’s politicians to hand over their leader in a palace coup, end the festering conflict in Darfur and do more to repair relations with the West.
Look down the list of the cases the International Criminal Court is pursuing – Congo, Central African Republic, Darfur, Uganda – and it doesn’t take long to spot the connection.
Of the dozen arrest warrants the court has issued, all have been against African rebels or officials. On Monday, the court begins its first trial - of Thomas Lubanga, accused of recruiting child soldiers to wage a gruesome ethnic war in northeastern Congo. Earlier this month, former Congolese rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba was in court for a decision on whether to confirm charges of ordering mass rape to terrorise civilians in the Central African Republic.