business corporate responsibility development human rights

Britain’s suspect new friends in Sudan

Last month the International Criminal Court issued a new arrest warrant for Sudan’s president Omar Al-Bashir. He was already wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, to which he can now add the count of genocide for his campaigns against the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups. In response, Al-Bashir warned Western organisations that they would be expelled from Sudan if they showed disrespect for his government.

So why, just two weeks later, was Britain’s Minister for Africa calling for closer ties with Sudan? MP Henry Bellingham visited the country as part of a short African tour, declaring that the UK would be “candid friends of the government.”

Needless to say, the main reason for the trip was trade: “One of our top priorities is to increase trade with different countries around the world, particularly in Africa. The trade we have with Sudan at the moment is very good but we feel the scope for that trade can increase.’

Bashir’s government came to power in a coup in 1989. The US has imposed trade sanctions on the country since 1997. China has been a big investor, but there has been a major campaign for British businesses to ‘divest’, and withdraw their money from the country. After all, trade in Sudan means money into government coffers, which pays for the conflict in Darfur. Many banks had listened, and one that didn’t – Lloyds – was fined $350 million last year for breaking US sanctions and disguising the origin of funds. Shell has been involved in the country for a decade, but has recently being trying to sell off its assets in Sudan.

Britain’s new government apparently thinks this is all going in the wrong direction. “We voiced our concern about certain issues” said Bellingham, “but we also said we want the relationship to be a strong one and one where UK bilateral trade will increase.” He added that British oil interests were lagging behind China, and that he wanted British banks “taking a more positive view of Sudan.”

Forget the fact that Sudan is number 3 in the Fund for Peace’s index of failed states, and one of the worst countries in the world for human rights abuses. According to Bellingham’s logic, the problem is the government, not the people, so “it would quite perverse and wrong for us to not encourage trade because trade equals wealth.”

Wealth for whom, one wonders.

Do we, as a country, believe in human rights? Do we support the International Criminal Court? Do we value peace in Darfur? Or is genocide acceptable in countries that have oil? If you’re as disgusted as I am by our new policy on Sudan, join in me writing to the Foreign Office to say so.


  1. Dear Jeremy:

    You’re obviously not at all informed about Sudan – let alone its nuances – are you??

    Reading a couple of articles in the international media about Sudan does not maketh an expert.

    Want proof???

    “Bashir’s government came to power in a coup in 1997”

    Err, Jeremy, he actually came to power in 1989.

    Says it all really about the quality of your ‘analysis’ about Sudan – cause célèbre amongst the ‘chatterrati’ in recent times.

    It has the distinct feel of an article cobbled from a Google search.

    You also quote some self-aggrandising ‘failed state index’ (likely produced by arm-chair Western analysts like yourself), which places Sudan third from last.

    That’s subjective tosh.

    Do you honestly (stress) think that Sudan (one of only a handful of countries in Africa to have jumped to middle income status – hardly synonymous with a failed state) is worse than Chad, Niger, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Liberia, Ethiopia (where 1000s pay smugglers US$150 just to have the privilege to be dumped on the outskirts of Khartoum), Eritrea or Malawi???

    A big fat “no!’

    FYI: UK Minister for Africa, Henry Bellingham, is absolutely right with his initiative to boost trade and investment with Sudan: nobody here supports trade restrictions or real or de facto sanctions.

    Why on earth should they (ordinary Sudanese like me)???

    Who in their right mind would support economic restrictions that stunt living standards???

    Answers on a post card please.

    In short, there’s a huge difference between the “virtual Sudan” beloved of activists, teenage scribblers, new journos on the block and the like, and the “real Sudan” with all of its nuances and intricacies (just like any other country) that I and millions of other ordinary Sudanese inhabit.

    So, Jeremy, let me leave you with this quote to ponder on the next time you try (stress) to analyse Sudan and reduce it to a simple, yet ultimately useless, black-and-white caricature:

    “No time to be deceived, brothers you should know and not believe.”

    Ride Natty Ride,

    The Right Honourable Robert Nesta Marley O M.

    Ibrahim Adam

    El Fasher

    North Darfur

    Live-and-direct from Sudan

    1. No, I’m not an expert, you’re right about that. And apologies, I realise 97 was the year US sanctions were introduced and not the year Al Bashir came to power, and have corrected that accordingly.

      Of course there are complexities, and none of this is black and white. There are good things happening in Sudan too, if you’re lucky enough to have shared in the boom. But if you’re one of the millions of internally displaced, or on the wrong side of the security services, then I guess things look a little different.

      I don’t support sanctions either – Sudan is living proof of how arbitrary and ineffectual they can be. My problem is the British government declaring ‘friendship’ with a regime that is responsible for atrocities on such a vast scale.

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