Searching for peace

As his second posting to London, Sudan’s Ambassador, Mohammed Abdalla Ali Eltom, knows the ropes.

His previous tour as deputy ambassador was eventful (2010-2012), coinciding with South Sudan’s independence. This post comes at another critical juncture in his country’s history.

The diverse ethnic groups that make up the country are engaged in a National Dialogue to resolve decades of conflict that have plagued Sudan since its birth.

“The Government is handling a legacy dating back to colonial times when control was centralised in Khartoum. Those in the South or on the periphery felt disenfranchised and they rebelled in 1955, even before the independence of the country,” explains Eltom.

Although Sudan underwent a process of devolution in the early 1990s, parts of the country continue to feel their needs have not been addressed adequately. “It takes time to properly strengthen institutions of federalism,” says the Ambassador.

Last January the government invited all parties and rebel groups (including those in conflict with the state) to an all-inclusive process to address four core issues – resolving conflicts; invigorating the economy; the complex issue of Sudanese identity; and guaranteeing political freedoms. The government later accepted the mediation of the African Union, with a British-US-Norwegian troika welcoming the talks.

But the optimism with which this initiative was greeted has faded as some opposition groups, united under the “Sudan Call” banner, withdrew from the talks, demanding a more holistic approach.

“They accuse the government of ‘divide and rule’ tactics,” says Eltom. “It is true we have concluded peace deals with different rebel groups in Darfur and the East, but that is because we have a multiple-track process dealing with specific issues in specific regions, including with the rebels in the ‘Two Areas’ [South Kordofan and Blue Nile], that will later feed into an inclusive agreement.”

With talks stalled, preparations are going ahead for elections in April. Some members of the opposition are boycotting the vote, saying conditions are not conducive to free elections.

When the opposition groups voiced such a concern last year, the Government offered to postpone the poll “to create more space for reconciliation,” says Eltom, but only if such a move was agreed by all parties within the context of the National Dialogue.

Reconciliation is an important part of the dialogue, he adds. “You can’t deny victims justice and think you can sustain peace. It’s not enough to sign a peace deal and security arrangements, you need to reconstitute the social fabric.”

However, he does not believe the International Criminal Court (ICC) – which indicted President Bashir over actions in Darfur – is an appropriate way to achieve long-term justice and peace in Sudan.

“Our concern is that the search for justice will be used as a pretext to demonise the government and destabilise the country. We feel that the ICC is politically motivated,” he says.

Arrangements similar to the South African Truth and Reconciliation model could be considered to address such issues. “Uncovering the truth of what happened is very important to heal the wounds of the past. The government has showed full readiness to find a mechanism – but our first priority is to end the conflict.”

With instability and violent extremism spreading on the country’s borders and infecting its conflict zones, the search for peace has an added urgency.

Threat of extremism
“If you have an absence of government in some remote areas, you have a weakness and this presents an atmosphere where radicalism can thrive and spread. Sudan has suffered from extremism but no-one is immune. We are living in a world where there are trans-national activities so we need to cooperate in the region and internationally.”

Working with the US to tackle terrorism was part of Eltom’s role as Director of the Foreign Ministry’s America’s Department. He also served for four years (2001-05) in Washington, handling Congressional relations. But Eltom is disappointed at the continued isolationist policies of the US, which lists Sudan as a state sponsor of terror and has imposed economic sanctions since 1997.

Sanctions and the loss of the oil-rich South have slowed the economy, he admits. “But I see the loss of oil revenues as a blessing in disguise. It will encourage us to diversify our economy.”

The Ambassador sees a future in agricultural development, mining and the development of agro-minerals. An important part of his role in London will be to persuade British investors that Sudan is a good business partner. It’s a tall order, he admits, because potential investors are deterred by reports of conflict and intimidated by US sanctions. “But the potential returns are huge,” he insists.

Sudan’s image problem is something the Ambassador aims to address. “It’s not about polishing a bad image but to reflect the real image of the country,” he says.

Away from the bad headlines there are good stories to tell, he says, such as the economic opportunities, the country’s rich cultural heritage dating back to the pre-Pharaonic era, or its efforts to promote the advancement of women in Sudan.

As Sudan prepares for its 60th anniversary of independence in 2016, there is much to do to put the country on a better footing, says the Ambassador. “We hope by that time we will have much more to celebrate.”

Elizabeth Stewart, the editor of Embassy Magazine, interviewed the Ambassador of Sudan on 30 January