Interview: British Ambassador to Sudan Michael Douglas Aaron

Major world and regional powers are increasingly seeking influence in what is already an important and influential part of Africa. With just over three months before the US makes its final decision on lifting sanctions from Sudan, the nation is anticipating major changes to the economy as it encourages foreign investment and witnesses further shifts in alliances. The UK is also witnessing major changes after holding a referendum to exit the European Union. Known as BREXIT-the process formally started last week. Indicators show that the UK government will continue opening itself up to new and interesting trade opportunities. The UK has also shifted its policies on Sudan and says it will help with debt relief, peace efforts and the economy. What are Britain’s current interests in Sudan?

To discuss these challenges, the Sudanese Media Centre sat down with British ambassador to Khartoum Michael Douglas Aaron.

Q: I will start with the obvious question let’s talk about the relationship between Sudan and the UK and how that has evolved from colonizing to supporting peace efforts, economy.

A: Following independence in 1956, we and the Egyptians have been here for over 50 years. There were some very famous British colonial administrators. Hopefully we left some good things behind. The railway and the El Gezira project is often quoted.

For the first period after independence there was a lot of British influence. Britain would continue to be Sudan’s major trade partner but over the years that has changed and for the past 20 years the relationship has not been so good.

But we felt and the Sudanese government also felt that historical ties meant that we should have a better relationship. Last March we began a strategic dialogue looking at how we can improve our relationship through what we call ‘phased engagement’- looking at how we could engage with each other looking in a variety of different fields.

Last week we had our third meeting of this strategic dialogue here in Khartoum. We had a very big delegation come in from the UK with representatives from the Home Ministry, the Defense Ministry, and the Department for International Development and so on. And we had a very good series of talks with the Sudanese government.

Q: What have been the outcomes of these visits and if any, agreements or understandings that have been made?

A: We had a range of discussions in the individual areas. The British Council for example has signed a memorandum of understanding with the ministry of higher education and they are looking at increasing cooperation with other ministries. We are very pleased with the engagement on South Sudan in particular where we felt that we are able to reach a common understanding on the situation and we were delighted that the Sudanese government has opened a second humanitarian corridor to Bentiu-that was a very positive step. And in other areas we are taking forward the progress that we have made in defense cooperation we have some training programs with the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) on international humanitarian law and teaching English. So a range of things.

Q: I just want to pick up on an email that was sent out by the British embassy last week, asking Sudanese businesses to submit pitches to work with the British government after the US sanctions are lifted in July. This provides an interesting insight into the future trade negotiations Britain may look to pursue after it leaves the European Union. Can you tell us more?

A: At the beginning of March I was in London with a number of Sudanese businessmen and we had contact with the Middle East Association, the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce among other institutions. And we felt that the response was very positive so we plan to go back and work with a wider range of the private sector in Sudan to try to enhance UK-Sudan trade, we think there is a lot of scope for improvement.

The British exports to Sudan are only about 60-80 million pounds and we very much hope they can be increased by 10-fold or more. We think that UK trade in Sudan should be much higher and UK investment in Sudan should be much greater. And that’s why we are looking to work with the Sudanese private sector especially and see what opportunities there are.

Q: Can you be more specific, what sectors exactly are you interested in for example there’s agriculture, mining?

A: Agriculture is a big area, and mining as you say. I was talking to a British company interested in investing in the oil sector. We also have companies looking at water projects and solar energy projects. There is a company due South working with the state governments in Gedarif, Red Sea and River Nile states looking at major solar power projects. So a range of projects and a range of sectors. But really I think the key is going to be opening up the banking sector and reestablishing banking links. And there some British banks are interested in coming back and reestablishing contact here in Sudan.

Q: Stressing the historical ties between the two nations Sudan recently demanded the UK play a more effective role as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and to exert more effort to convince the Sudanese rebel movements to engage in negotiations with the government to engage in peace and arrive at solutions for the remaining contested issues. What is Britain’s’ role?

A: As a member of the Security Council and the Troika we have played a role over the last few years really pushing forward the peace process. At the moment we are very much supporting the efforts of President Mbeki. We look forward to his visit here later this week. He is coming here on Thursday for a few days and he is also going to establish contact with the ‘Sudan Call’ with the opposition groups. We are supporting that role and we think there is a good opportunity to make progress. We are disappointed how long it is taking the SPLM-N and Yasser Arman to make up their minds about the very good proposal the Americans have made for humanitarian access to the Two Areas, and to the Nuba mountains in particular. Really I think that is something that must happen. We are very worried about the situation in the Nuba Mountains, the people are suffering and there is a real shortage of medicine and food.

The leadership of the SPLM-N need to make up their minds to move forward in the interest of their people and in the interest of the peace process.

The peace process is being held up as result of the internal divisions within the SPLM-N and their failure to agree on this. We very much hope that can take place. We then hope the Sudan Call can meet with Mbkei in Addis Ababa-we will very much support that. The government and Sudan Call need to come and take forward the roadmap.

Q: Will the UK consider issuing sanctions to pressure these groups to accept and join the peace process?

A: I am not sure sanctions are the way forward- that is not going to be the thing that persuades them to move. I think we need to apply constant pressure- which we are, we need to be talking to them in consultation with our allies in the TROIKA, with the Americans, the Norwegians in particular.

They have their own internal disagreements, we understand they had a meeting in Kauda just last week, we understand and hope that meeting was successful, because we want a united SPLM leadership with Sudan Call as an effective partner for peace.

We have been pleased with the sudanese government move to accept the roadmap to accept the American proposal on humanitarian access and they have stated with the intention to move forward with the roadmap which is very positive but we think they need a united opposition so there is a good negotiating environment.

And then of course we need to take forward the results of the national dialogue, the sudan Call need to be able able to feed into that process once they have reached agreement with the government on the Mbeki process and then we look forward to a fully inclusive way forward on the basis on the views on the national dialogue of Sudan core which will lead to an all-inclusive new system in sudan. Election in 2020 under a new fair system that could lead to a whole new national unity.

Q: Britain recently promised Sudan that it would help with efforts to relieve Sudan’s debts. On what grounds has Britain made this promise?

A: So far we have been talking to the ministry of finance about the technical aspects and we have said that we are prepared to help with the technical side of it. It needs a number of steps before debt relief can be agreed.

One of those steps is finding an effective strategy for poverty reduction because one of the conditions for the process of debt relief is that Sudan is committed to helping the poorest people in Sudan and we have been supporting the government and its efforts towards that and we welcome their efforts and we look towards taking those forward. Equally they need to be talking to and working with the IMF because there has to be an IMF debt relief program in place for debt relief to take place.

So these are the sort of things we are doing talking to the IMF and working with the government as these are the things that need to be in place so when the conditions are right we can really move towards debt relief on an agreed basis with the government of Sudan.

Q: Let’s talk a little bit more about Darfur, many delegations have come and they are visiting and it seems that security and stability is returning to the area. What is your take on that and what is your assessment?
A. Our assessment is that things in Darfur are indeed improving but there are still a number of serious problems.

One is the presence of over two million internally displaced people in camps and there needs to be a solution to that. We are talking to the governor of North Darfur in El Fasher last week and he agrees very much and we have also spoken to governor in south Darfur in Nyala.

There needs to be a solution to the issue of the IDP’s that has to be on a voluntary basis, the people in the camps have to choose their own future and i don’t think anybody would choose a future in an IDP camp, there needs to be a resettling in the areas around the big cities- as that is going to be the easiest ways in terms of access to services or going back to their villages and their lands or be resettled elsewhere in the country.

I think that’s something that has to be done voluntarily and both the governors I have spoken to and I know all five governors agree with this, want to do that on a voluntary basis and find out what the views of the IDP’s are and take that forward.

So the IDP’s is one issue, but also the instability which is highlighted in the latest report by UNAMID which has been produced and distributed in New York about instability in the region.

There is still ongoing communal violence particularly between Nomads and pastoralists and that remains a problem that needs to be addressed in terms of providing security and restoring the rule of law and we are very happy to try and work and help with that.

Within the framework of providing humanitarian aid for the Two Areas, the US has made a suggestion to transport this aid. Does Britain support the US suggestion or do you have another suggestion?

We very much support the US plan and the issue there is about confidence on the part of the recipients they want to be reassured that the aid, the medicine and the food that is being provided hasn’t been tampered with and so the Americans are willing to support that and we are prepared to do whatever is necessary to support that.

But I think the key is therefore for the SPLM to accept the proposal and we can move forward on that as people in South Kordofan really need that assistance.

Q: How does the UK plan to work with a new U.S. Administration whose stated views on women’s rights, refugee rights and foreign policy contradict Britain’s values on such issues? What are the UK’s priorities in engaging the new us Administration, especially concerning Sudan?

A: I think we have a very strong relationship with the United States and I am confident that will continue into the foreseeable future.

There are always going to be issues where we have differences of opinion but we will talk to each other about and work out.

For example here in Sudan a big priority for us is the migration agenda. We are working with our European partners in particular not so much with our American partners to look for ways to help address some of the problems with the migration problems and that’s counter trafficking and counter-smuggling.

An issue that concerns us in this area is modern slavery, where people are effectively are under slavery conditions as a result of the trafficking and smuggling. So that is a major priority for us. So that is something we can work with the government of Sudan to help them resolve the problems.

Q: Do you think as Sudan warms up to major world players including the US, China and Russia and Britain, That the resource-rich country will become a new battleground for these world powers?

A: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think so at all. We all want a peaceful, stable, prosperous Sudan. Whether that’s the UK, the rest of the EU, the United States, Russia or China. We all absolutely agree that we want this country to be stable, prosperous and peaceful.

Q: An important part of Sudan’s reconciliation efforts and National Dialogue is the religious co-existence especially between Muslims and Christians. What is your assessment of religious tolerance in Sudan?

A: Sudan is a majority Muslim country and we understand and respect that. Here in Khartoum there are churches from the Anglican community, the Catholic community, the Coptic community, the Greek orthodox community.

You see there are a lot of churches here and a lot of people worshipping. We think that’s very good and very important. We worry sometimes about issues withe churches are being closed down and so on, and we raise these issues with the government on occasion. Sometime it’s to do with permits and so on and we would like to help resolve those kind of problems.

But the main thing is we feel that people of all religions are able to practice their religion freely and without any hindrance.

I think Sudan in general has a very good story to tell. There are a lot of people here who are able to practice their religion, their Christianity with freedom.

The government needs to look into this area and work out how they can improve their international image.  That means taking into account the particular needs of the minority so that they can live peacefully alongside their Muslim country fellowmen.

Q: Can you tell us more about cooperation in education and if there are any projects you are looking at for the future?

A: Yes. We have a very big British Council operation here. And they have been working with the Ministry of Education. And very soon-in the next month or so- they will be launching a brand new English language curriculum.

So they have been working with the World Bank, with UK financing to rewrite the entire English language curriculum for all of the primary schools.

For six years of primary school for English language teaching there will be new books, new material, and all the teachers will be trained, and retrained for use of the new curriculum.

Very soon every child who goes to primary school in Sudan, the English language will be significantly improved.

That’s a major contribution that we are able to make to the Sudanese education system.

Q: Last but certainly not least important, let’s look into culture. From your social media it seems that you are very interested personally in Sudanese culture. Can you tell us what type of cultural cooperation we can expect to see?

A: We had a British week which we thought was very successful. Joss Stone was here and did a concert with Nancy Ajaj and that was a great success.

We did a lot of events at the National Museum and the British Council did some events so did DFID. So the different part of the UK government is involved in cultural exchanges.

The Sudanese ambassador in London wants to do a Sudan culture week in the UK this summer and we look forward to working with him on that. This year we will do another British cultural week and look into further cultural exchanges.

We think the relationship between the British and Sudanese peoples is really strong and is something we want to nurture and take forward. And I think culture is an important way to do that. Some of that is to do with the English language, some of that has to do with British culture in terms of like films and plays like Shakespeare and other things.

Clearly we have a huge interest in Sudanese culture including singers and Sudanese literature, so there’s lots of opportunity there for cultural exchanges.

Thank you your Excellency.