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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.

Confusion rules as Sudan’s elections loom

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SUDANThese are confusing times in Sudanese politics — so confusing that even the activists are struggling to keep up with the shifting positions of their own parties a week ahead of national elections.

This morning, a spokesman from south Sudan’s dominant Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) called round journalists inviting them to a demonstration in Khartoum.

Are you the Darfur Justice and Equality Movement?

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darfurThere is a classic scene in Monty Python’s film The Life of Brian where the hero sets off in search of a secret band of insurgents. “Are you the Judean People’s Front,” he asks a group of malcontents. “The Judean People’s Front!” they reply in disgust. “We’re the People’s Front of Judea … The only people we hate more than the Romans are the f***ing Judean People’s Front … And the Judean Popular People’s Front. Splitters!”

Darfur’s more Islamic rebels will not appreciate the Judean comparison. But there has been an undeniable Pythonesque quality to recent efforts to negotiate with the splintered insurgent factions in Sudan’s strife-torn west.

Sudan leaders scuffle as time runs out for peace deal

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sudanIt started with a small scuffle over a confiscated bag of protest banners outside Sudan’s parliament. And it ended in confrontations between baton-wielding police and protesters on the dusty streets of Omdurman.

At the finish, once the tear gas and protests leaflets had settled, just one victor emerged — in the propaganda stakes at least — the protesters from a loose alliance between south Sudan’s dominant Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and mostly northern opposition parties.

Soccer match creates Arab diplomatic rift

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In scenes more akin to a prelude to war than a soccer match, Algeria won Africa’s last place in next year’s World Cup finals in the Sudanese capital Khartoum on Wednesday.

With 15,000 extra security men manning the stadium and heavily armed riot police on virtually every street corner for Algeria’s 1-0 win over Egypt, there was little opportunity for major violence.

Is an independent south Sudan now inevitable?

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So, is it now inevitable that Sudan’s oil-producing south will decide to split away from the north as an independent country in a looming secession referendum in 2011?

That was the conclusion of some observers of a bluntly worded exchange of views between two leading lights from the north and the south at a symposium in Khartoum on Tuesday.

Is Sudan’s Darfur crisis getting too much attention?

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Activists often say that the world is not paying enough attention to Sudan’s Darfur crisis. But could the opposite be true — that Darfur is actually getting too much attention, from too many organisations, all at the same time?

A rough count shows at least 10 international and local initiatives searching for a solution to the region’s festering conflict. Many of them are at least nominally coordinated by the United Nation and the African Union. But with so many parallel programmes in play, the opportunities for duplication, competition and confusion are legion.

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