Khidir Haroun Ahmed | North-south divide won’t hit oil sector

Khidir Haroun Ahmed | North-south divide won’t hit oil sector

In January, a referendum in Sudan saw more than 98% of those in the south vote for secession. South Sudan is to become a new nation in July, with the official results having been declared last week. Sudanese ambassador in India Khidir Haroun Ahmed spoke in an interview on the implications of the referendum for Sudan and Africa and its impact on economic ties with India. Edited excerpts.

Southern Sudan has voted overwhelmingly in favour of secession from the north. How easy will the transition process be in terms of new institutions of governance, etc.?

Fortunately, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (signed in Oslo in 2005) itself tackled this problem here because the Agreement stipulated that the interim period would extend six months after the announcement of the results of the referendum. This interim period would remain up to 9 July 2011. The idea behind this is that during this period there would be some kind of smooth transition. As you know, we still have some outstanding issues. So far, we have demarcated 80% of the 2,000km which has separated the north from the south. So, answering your question, the south is not going to declare itself an independent state just tomorrow... Even the South Sudan government announced they are not going to declare immediately a new state, they are going to wait up to July. At that time, there will be hopefully the peaceful separation on the ground.

You seem to have accepted the break-up.

It is a huge issue, it is very sad for people of my generation. All through our life we have been proud of being part of the largest country in Africa and the Middle East, the 10th worldwide. So, it’s a very painful situation but you have to have in mind the background of the conflict between the north and the south. You will appreciate that both parties will be better off in separation than in continuation of war and bloodshed. People were prepared that the referendum could go either way.

But many people felt it was a mistake first of all to give self-determination to a region within a country because self-determination came when there was colonization. We never colonized the south. It was part and parcel of the country. Entire Africa, except for Somalia, is (made up of) heterogeneous societies. Except for Somalia, every single African country is multicultural, multi-ethnic. So, many people are quite worried in Africa because the situation in southern Sudan is like opening a Pandora’s Box.

Some of my African colleagues say that many people in their regions ask for the same treatment, that they should be given the right to secede. Why would the international community accept a breach of this principle of honouring and respecting the borders inherited (in the case of Sudan and not others?). People are very emotional about having their own flag, having their own identity. It’s some sort of a failure of the notion of the nation state.

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Now that we have a North and South Sudan, how will the pacts that have been signed with countries like India work because most of the oil fields operating now are in the south while the refining and other infrastructure is in the north?

For the most part, the oil sector will remain intact for some time. The central government and the South Sudan government agreed upon one fact—that they would honour whatever has been signed on this oil issue. Our current production of oil, 70% of it is coming from the south. New discoveries have shown the north has more oil… the comprehensive peace agreement divided the oil of the south equally between the north and the south —50% for each. And you know that 100% of the oil facilities are in the north—the pipelines, refineries, sea port etc.

Even militarily, both sides agreed to protect the oil fields as well as the pipelines jointly, so during the remaining month of the interim period, everything will remain intact. In the meantime, both sides will discuss the issue. Fortunately, nobody expects any problem on this issue. Nobody has any interest in stopping the flow of the oil because the south depends maybe 99% on the revenues of the oil. In the north, about 40% of the budget is coming from oil resources or oil revenues. Fortunately, this will keep both sides very keen about the safety of oil fields, pipelines, etc.

How do you rate international involvement in Sudan? Did you see the same kind of commitment today?

To be very frank with you, I am not quite happy about that, because if the international community honoured its commitments since 2005, maybe the results of the referendum of today would have been different. I was there in Oslo in April 2005 when we signed the peace agreement. The international community pledged a certain amount of money to help both parts, to redress grievances and rebuild the country after the war. Very few members of the international community in fact honoured their pledges of payment.

One of the pledges was to make the unity between the two sides attractive. The idea was this money would be used to develop the war-torn areas, to develop these regions and to connect the north and the south in a much better way. But unfortunately, like in most cases, the international community tends to turn its face away from its pledges. The Sudanese government, with its limited resources, tried to make unity attractive for the southern Sudanese. So this is maybe one of the reasons why South Sudanese were not quite happy to remain united.

What was the money pledged and which were the countries that did not meet their commitments?

Around $6 billion (27,300 crore) was committed to help the South. Fortunately, India met its commitment about what they promised and some other Asian countries as well. But unfortunately, for most European countries, the response was not that good, the European Union in particular. Still, we expected the international community to do something about the foreign debt of Sudan.

The original figure is $9 billion but with the arrears, now it’s $36 billion. We would expect the international community to cancel all this debt because this is one of the issues discussed between the two parties. This is again going to be a burden for us and for the new state in the South. Since they (international community) failed to honour their pledges in the past, we expect them to do something about it. At least help us to cancel this foreign debt in order to maintain peace.

Has the US kept its pledge?

For the most part, to be fair to them, the US has been helpful in terms of humanitarian areas, especially in Darfur and in the south as well. But we hope that US can still play a much positive role by lifting economic sanctions on Sudan by removing Sudan from the list of countries accused of sponsoring international terrorism. Many senior US officials have said that Sudan today nothing to do anything with international terrorism. It is a political issue.

When do you see yourself being taken off that list?

They are working hard to resolve all these issues hopefully before the end of this year, because they promised that if this referendum (took place), they would reconsider the situation. If you are following the annual report of the (US) State Department with respect to the issue of terrorism, Sudan got a clear bill 10 years ago. But because of this highly political issue as well as some lobby groups being very hostile to Sudan. These are some rainbow groups, the religious right, the black caucus and the US House of Representatives, some very liberal people who hate to see religion blend into politics. So, it’s a combination of people from very different backgrounds.

We see a wave of unrest across North Africa today. Why is this happening? We saw Tunisia and now Egypt. Is it the youth, globalisation or is there any external element at play?

We are in a very new age now. With Facebook and social websites and others you can easily mobilize young people because they are good at accessing this very modern way of communication rather than maybe our generation. We live in a global village now. So these factors would be a very serious factor in shaping the future of our planet. Many of these things took place in just no time. So the politicians, elites, especially in our third world, they should be very careful (about) these phenomenon and how to address the young generation and understand them and their way of thinking… Maybe, at each time, at a certain juncture of history we, have some specific phenomenon which would determine the future for some time.

Let’s talk about some specific Indian projects in Sudan. Ircon International, which is a part of Indian Railways, had undertaken a project to develop an 180km rail link from Khartoum to Al-Masala-Mian through a soft loan extended by the Indian government. What is the status of that? Even the Chinese were interested in developing it.

It is still stagnant. We have talked many times to the Indian authorities about that. Our people are still willing to sign that agreement… this railway is very crucial. It is part of a much longer link to the Darfur area. So, to be very frank with you, we haven’t received any response for some time since I came here. I remember the first thing I did here was meeting with these people on the government and at the company level. This is an issue off course. Some of it might be natural – maybe a wait and see approach – this is a country that is going to be two countries instead of one, why should be commit ourselves now? But I would like to say there is no reason for worry. There is no interest for each party, whether southern or the northern Sudanese, to start a new war.

The Chinese haven’t got it yet. Chinese also are there but our government approached India and we want the Indians to do that There is now a scramble of investors from the Gulf area, Turkey, from Eastern Europe and even from Western European countries to Sudan because of a very huge opportunity in a number of sectors… More delays will make Indians lose. It will be a lost opportunity.

What about the 500 MW Kosti thermal power project that India’s Bharat Heavy Electricals (Bhel) is constructing? It was expected to be commissioned by 2010. There was also a proposal for a 1000 MW expansion.

Well I think now the focus is to complete the process. There have been some delays. Both sides are now very keen to finish the project. Based on the success of that they would be talking of the expansion and whether the current company itself is capable of doing that or not within the right time or not. The two sides were talking for some time about the necessity of finishing this job as soon as possible. Based on the success they are going to discuss the expansion. I think they are talking about March but I am not certain that will be the case or not. Still, we expect some delays.

How would you rate Indian vis-à-vis Chinese involvement and investments and their level of commitment?

It’s a very difficult question but I will answer in this way. I think our dealing with Indian, Chinese and Malaysians is in fact a good testimony to the successful implementation of the old slogan of South-South cooperation. Because Sudan suffered a great deal from the embargoes and sanctions from the West, so early on we tried to look eastwards. First, it was China, second it was Petronas of Malaysia and thirdly India came in as well. So, it is a very successful story that Third World countries like Sudan have an alternative. Fortunately, India and China both are emerging as important countries, For the Indian companies, for the Indian business community, the opportunities in Sudan are limitless. They should not be worried about who is there, who came before them, what did he do, that is not the question. The question is that as much opportunity as you need it is there.