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Dancing to the last beats of a united Sudan

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Half way through the evening you felt this is what a united Sudan could have been like.

It was an engagement party thrown by a beaming, white-robed Khartoum patriarch with pulsing music provided by Orupaap, a group of mostly southern musicians and dancers.

The band was barely into its third song when the northern, southern and foreign guests swarmed on to the stage raising their arms and clicking their fingers in one of the few African dances easily mastered by awkward middle class Englishmen.

“Where is the band from,” I shouted at the host above the amplified music. “I think the musicians are Shilluk,” he replied, referring to a group with its heartlands around the southern city of Malakal. “They’re from here in Khartoum.”

Sudan-a tale of two countries

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- KHARTOUM, Jan 14 (Reuters) – As delighted southern Sudanese vote in a long-awaited referendum on independence, visitors to the north and south could be forgiven for thinking they were already two separate countries. Far from the orange dusty landscape of Khartoum with heavy security, newcomers landing at the airport in south Sudan’s capital Juba wander off the runway to be greeted by a smack of wet, humid heat driven by the surrounding lush tropical forests. Beer adverts and often drunk soldiers adorn the few tarmacked roads in the would-be capital of what is likely to be the world’s newest nation state, a culture shock to anyone coming from the Islamic north where alcohol is banned. Visitors enjoy river Nile-side restaurants where they can sip a glass of wine and eat pork products unavailable up north. The south’s population is mostly Christian or follows traditional religions. African music blares throughout the town’s markets, run by a web of Ugandan and Kenyan traders. Residents shout at each other in an Arabic dialect almost incomprehensible to northerners. But window dressing aside, south Sudan has effectively been operating as a separate nation since it was given a semi-autonomous government under the 2005 peace deal. Juba then set about creating what has become a state within a state. “Is (the south) ready to govern itself? That’s what they’ve been doing for the last six years, doing just that,” Daivd Gressly, the top U.N. official in the south said. It has its own constitution, a separate central government,  10 state governments all answering to Juba, its own parliament and even its own laws. The two regions even have different banking systems – the north operates under Islamic sharia law while the south uses a conventional banking system. Few northern banks operate in the south, dominated by new southern Sudanese or East African banks. Ministries which began in pre-fabricated buildings often with just a minister in a lonely office with a few tea ladies and cleaners for company have become fully functioning institutions, complete with staff. “Frankly, the started with a president and a vice president and built everything from there,” Gressly said. Khartoum’s government was enraged when the south began opening “liaison offices” around the world which local newspaper began to call embassies. And Khartoum complained that Juba was not transferring any of the money it was collecting from customs or immigration. Juba in fact kept an entirely separate immigration system. Sudan visas, notoriously difficult to get, were bypassed by visitors who would get “Government of Southern Sudan” permits in Nairobi, travel to Juba and then fly on a domestic flight to Khartoum. One friend who entered the south overland across the Ugandan border got a “New Sudan” stamp on his passport from immigration. When Khartoum’s interior ministry saw the stamp, they panicked, fined him and stamped his passport with “British infiltrator.” “This is crazy – we are supposed to be one country but we can’t coordinate our immigration!” One Khartoum official grumbled to me as yet another journalist arrived with papers issued in the south, but not recognised in the north. One wonder what will really change once the south becomes independent on July 9.

South Sudan President Salva Kiir votes in a referendum on independence

As delighted southern Sudanese voted in a long-awaited referendum on independence, visitors to the north and south could be forgiven for thinking they were already two separate countries.

Driving Sudan towards paradise

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Back in1978, Sudanese statesman Abel Alier decided he had had enough of negotiating with troublesome locals over a controversial development project. Exasperated at the endless obstacles, he vowed to force it through without an agreement.

“If we have to drive our people to paradise with sticks we will do so for their own good and the good of those who come after us,” he infamously said.

Breaking down the walls – Sudan’s oil transparency push

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- It was a just another seminar on transparency in the oil sector. Seemingly banal. But this was being held in Khartoum, involving live debates between northern and southern Sudanese officials, a minerals watchdog and the international media, who were allowed free access to publicly grill those who administer what has for years been an absolutely opaque oil industry. What emerged was surprisingly positive and all walked away feeling that — at least until the Jan. 9, 2011 referendum on southern independence — this was the first step towards finally unpicking all the stitches that have sewn the sector tightly shut to outsiders. We are “PR stupid” said the newly appointed Minister for Energy from the former southern rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement Lual Deng who instigated the forum. He said this to explain the discrepancies in oil production and oil prices uncovered by the Global Witness NGO whose report “Fuelling Mistrust — the need for transparency in Sudan’s oil sector” provoked the discussion. These include figures published by the ministry of finance web site of oil revenues with little clarification of how they had been calculated, even citing barrels of Sudanese black gold selling for as little as 15 cents a barrel. It also found discrepancies between China’s CNPC who dominates Sudan’s oil sector dogged by U.S. sanctions, and Sudan’s energy ministry output figures. Those figures were easily explained as the difference between gross production and net of water, gas and solids on Wednesday. But the fact an international giant like CNPC is publishing undefined production figures in an annual report provoked concern even from Sudanese officials. And why did it require such an elaborate showcase to provide such a simple response? Minister Deng’s answer was the “PR stupid” line. After months of chasing and waiting in vain for a reply from The government or CNPC to the discrepancies in oil output, including having the phone hung up on them by the Chinese, Global Witness went ahead and published their work. “Next time you should just call us to verify the figures,” was CNPC’s ironic response, with the presenter who had flown in from Beijing for the forum, flashing on a PowerPoint screen the email and mobile number of CNPC’s country manager in Sudan. Just five minutes earlier that same manager had declined my request for a meeting or to share his contacts “in the interests of transparency.” One of dozens of attempts I have made over the years to extract any information from the state-owned firm. I wonder how long he will keep that mobile number. But if you sifted through the barbed comments by Sudanese officials directed at the Global Witness reps and the attempts by CNPC to ridicule the figures, important progress was made. Sudan said it would commit to the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative, to which CNPC gave its support. It also agreed to a full audit back to 2005 and the ministry said it would publish daily production figures. It also gave French oil giant Total a public guarantee that whether or not the south votes to secede in just five months, its oil concession contract would be honoured. If all this happens, it will be a massive step towards opening up Sudan’s taboo oil sector which could convince those elusive big European companies who left during Sudan during the north-south civil war to come back and invest. Do you see European companies investing in Sudanese oil and gas? If Europeans come back in should U.S. sanctions be lifted to allow American firms to compete for the spoils? Is Sudan – likely to split into two countries in five months –worth the risk for investors?

oilIt was a just another seminar on transparency in the oil sector. Seemingly banal.

But this was being held in Khartoum, involving live debates between northern and southern Sudanese officials, a minerals watchdog and the international media, who were allowed free access to publicly grill those who administer what has for years been an incredibly opaque oil industry.

Searching for reasons to be cheerful in Sudan

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sudanOnly 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.

Madagascar: How bad can it get?

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How bad can things get in Madagascar? Dissident soldiers said they had deployed tanks in the capital on Friday and the president urged the population to repel the mutineers.

In a worst case scenario, tanks in Antananarivo could lead to battles between the police and the presidential guard — who remain loyal to President Marc Ravalomanana — against mutinous troops and members of the military police.

Ivory Coast’s election dilemma

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ivorycoast_soldiers_ballots.jpgThe authorities in Ivory Coast have now embarked on what is supposed to be the last step of issuing identity papers to its citizens. Those who lost their papers during the war or never had any in the first place and missed out on previous hearings across the country are getting another chance .

This, in theory, will then allow those old enough to register to vote in elections, which are due to take place on November 30. These are the elections meant to end a crisis that was sparked by a short war in 2002-2003 and left the country, the world’s top cocoa producer and home to one of the region’s most stable and flourishing economies, divided between a rebel-held north and a government-controlled south.

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