Sudanese soldiers with guns have been a familiar sight on the streets of Khartoum for many years – a constant reminder that this was a country at war with itself. Much less familiar, but suddenly a routine presence in the same dusty streets, are the armed, uniformed khawajas, or whiteys.
At the Acropole Hotel, for example, long a refuge for visiting aid workers and archaeologists, officers of the Spanish and Cypriot armies may now be seen taking their morning coffee. In the evening, blond Norwegian lieutenants and captains haunt the city’s few Turkish cafes.
Elsewhere in town you see other soldiers from distant countries involved in the United Nations mission, or from the African Union (AU) forces, busy with logistic support for field operations, standing guard at key buildings, or just hanging around as soldiers do. And there are more outside the capital, and more coming in by plane every day.
The true scale of the foreign military presence is not something officials like to talk about, but one Sudanese journalist friend told me that by the end of the year the UN and the AU will have a combined force of roughly 20,000 in Sudan – considerably more, as a point of reference, than the 12,000 Kitchener required to recapture Khartoum in 1898.
This is the outward sign of a dramatic change that few involved are ready to acknowledge openly, even though it is beginning to make some Sudanese uneasy. Just half a century after the colonial age ended here, this country – the biggest in Africa by area, with a population of nearly 40 million – is back under foreign rule.
Officially the reins of government may still be in the hands of President Omar Hassan el-Bashir, but the true power in the land today is a small, balding Dutch politician called Jan Pronk, who was sent to Khartoum last year as Kofi Annan’s special envoy.
“Jan always stresses that we are here at the ‘invitation’ of the government,” one of his senior advisers told me. “But it is of course an invitation the government could not refuse to give.”
Speaking off the record, the adviser then explained that the UN runs a kind of parallel military and civilian establishment in the Sudan, involving its own agencies and the non-governmental organisations. In Darfur alone some 12,000 people, Sudanese and expats, work for the UN and NGOs.
And he described relations with the Sudanese authorities: “I often have to tell government ministers what we want and are going to do. They are often spitting with anger, but they have no real power any more to stop us, and they know that.”
As we chatted in a restaurant, we watched five Italian carabinieri in their light summer uniforms enjoying a meal at a nearby table. They belonged, my companion explained, to the 300-strong protection force for the new UN headquarters in the suburbs. And they were not just for show. “During the riots after the death of John Garang on 30 July they became fully armed and manned machine-gun posts on top of the roof of our building,” he said.
This armed foreign administration arrived almost by stealth.
First, there was the long war in the south between the Arabic-speaking, Muslim central government and the black, animist or Christian rebels led by the charismatic Garang. Over several years the international community – the UN, the United States, the European Union and the AU – fostered peace talks.
Then came Darfur, a largely separate conflict in the remote west that prompted vast movements of refugees, international alarm and demands for urgent action. In June 2004 Pronk, a former Dutch development minister, was despatched to Khartoum to see what he could do. When, in January, the talks on the south finally reached their climax with a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that involved disengagement of forces and power-sharing, Pronk, the man on the spot, was given the considerable job of overseeing these, too.
Ever since, as international concern over Darfur has ebbed and flowed, and amid the uncertainty following Garang’s death in a helicopter accident, Pronk and his team have steadily extended their control over the country, elbowing the Sudanese aside.
And they have done well. No one could deny that food, water, sanitation and health programmes run by UN agencies and NGOs under the umbrella of the UN regime have brought tremendous benefits to communities in Darfur, southern and eastern Sudan. Nor do they deny that policy is increasingly made outside the country.
“Naturally we have to work with the Sudanese authorities,” said a field co-ordinator for the Irish NGO Goal in Darfur, “but we decide the programmes.”
Given President el-Bashir’s dreadful record, notably but not only in Darfur, it is tempting to say that the further he is kept from power the better, and that is certainly the view of many NGOs. But things are not so simple. The government today is a coalition of el-Bashir’s National Congress Party and the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, formerly led by Garang; this is power-sharing as envisaged by the CPA and promised by the CPA’s external sponsors. And yet there is precious little power to be shared.
Nor is that about to change, because the consensus among UN officials is that the UN presence will increase rather than decline. The CPA process is due to run for six years, with elections in three to four years and a referendum in the south in the sixth year. As for Darfur, people speak of a five-year peace process but those talks are nowhere near conclusion yet, so it could take far longer.
In the meantime the CPA has powerful enemies. El-Bashir faces a challenge in the north both from his Islamist former mentor, Hassan al-Turabi, and from the Umma party of Sadiq al-Mahdi. Al-Turabi, whose Popular National Congress is linked with the rebel Justice and Equality Movement in Darfur, insists that the CPA will provoke upheaval in Sudan of the kind that wrecked Yugoslavia. Al-Mahdi, though more moderate, talks of the “half-baked enterprise” of the CPA and also believes that ultimately it will lead to more conflict.
El-Bashir is vulnerable to these pressures and now relies heavily on his partnership with Garang’s successors in the southern-based SPLM, yet it remains to be seen how stable the ex-rebels are. In such a climate a managed transition back to self-rule seems a remote possibility.
Thus, 49 years after the end of British rule, for good or ill and without anybody having asked or given permission, Sudan is, in many ways, a colony again. And it seems it will remain so.