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Last Updated: Sunday, 2 December 2007, 07:19 GMT
Sudan leaders court Western rage
By Jonah Fisher
BBC News

All the words of protest from Gordon Brown and the British government appear to have done little to help Gillian Gibbons in the dusty courtrooms of Khartoum.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir
Omar al Bashir's government appears to welcome western anger

Sudan's leaders are rather used to the sound of western outrage - and have come to realise that, for them, it rarely amounts to much.

Power in Khartoum rests with the combined machinery of national security, police intelligence and the interior ministry.

For the most part these agencies do not meet with Western diplomats - and they have little interest in improving Sudan's relationship with the West.

Shadowy organisations

Running these shadowy organisations are men who have been blamed and in some cases named for arming militias and organising the conflict in Darfur.

Map showing Sudan

What men like them fear most is having to account for their role in atrocities that have killed over 200,000 Darfuris over the last four years.

Their strategy appears to be to keep the Sudanese government at odds with the West and to try and minimise the international presence in the form of both aid workers and peacekeepers.

As part of this the security apparatus seizes on any opportunity to discredit westerners in the eyes of the Sudanese public and Mrs Gibbons's detention now seems to fall into that category.

During the two-and-a-half years I lived in Sudan, expatriates were regularly targeted by the authorities.

Aid workers who provided information about human rights abuses in Darfur were often arrested or expelled as spies.

On one occasion a small private party of aid workers and peacekeepers in Darfur was violently broken up by national security and one of the women was sexually assaulted by an officer.

Zoe's Ark workers detained in Chad
The Chad 'kidnap' case angered Sudanese leaders

The story that appeared in newspapers the next day was of a Western orgy having been halted.

An interesting recent example of the strategy came after the arrest of French aid workers on child abduction charges in Chad.

Most of the children appear to have come from the Chadian side of the border but Nafi Ali Nafie - one of Sudan's most powerful politicians - still gave a calculatedly inflammatory comment.

"The question is why these children were being taken to the West? Perhaps to provide organs such as hearts and kidneys to elderly patients."

Peacekeepers blocked

The disconnect between the public face of the Sudanese government and the reality on the ground has been seen clearly on the international stage.

Despite Sudan's president having given his approval to the deployment of a large African Union/United Nations peacekeeping force into Darfur it remains plagued with problems.

In part that is because of a reluctance on the part of Western countries to contribute helicopters.

But it is also clear that at a national and state level, security agencies are blocking their arrival every step of the way.

Members of the AU/UN peacekeeping force for Darfur
The UN/AU peacekeeping force has faced obstacles in Khartoum

Refusals to accept troops from non-African countries, delays in the allocation of land for military bases and the denial of landing rights are just a few of the problems.

In Ms Gibbons's case she has primarily been dealt with by the Ministry of Justice.

That is the same Ministry of Justice that was referred to the International Criminal Court in the Hague by the UN Security Council in 2005, which described it as unwilling and incapable of dealing with Darfur's atrocities.

Having been so publicly dismissed as weak, it comes as little surprise that the ministry has now seized on Ms Gibbons's case as a chance to flex its muscles in the face of its critics.

Oil revenue

The idea of cutting UK aid to Sudan has been mooted as a possible retaliatory measure for Ms Gibbons's detention.

Perhaps surprisingly, nothing would please the hardliners more.

Throughout the Darfur conflict, Sudanese officials have accused donor countries of perpetuating the crisis with their aid, rather than reducing its severity.

The reason why the UK and the West feeds about four million Darfuris every day is not because the Sudanese government is too poor to do so itself.

On the contrary - Khartoum receives billions of dollars a year in oil revenue.

It just believes its priorities lie elsewhere.

The uncomfortable truth is that if the estimated billion dollars a year in Western aid dried up, the food would stop too - with potentially serious consequences for the millions of victims of the conflict.

It took concerted international pressure to get aid workers permission to enter Darfur.

Every step of the way since then, humanitarian workers have had to struggle to gain access to refugee camps and displaced people.

Paul Salopek (L) and Governor Bill Richardson
Journalist Paul Salopek (L) was rescued by Governor Richardson

For those hoping that Gillian Gibbons will be released before the end of her 15-day sentence, perhaps the most optimistic precedent lies in the case of an American journalist called Paul Salopek.

Detained for illegally crossing the border into Sudan in 2006, he was held in a Darfur jail - on charges of being a spy.

After a month in detention he was released owing to the intervention of US politician Bill Richardson, during a visit to Khartoum.

This release was portrayed as a "humanitarian gesture" from the Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir to his longstanding friend the New Mexico governor.

British diplomats will be hoping that Lord Ahmed's visit can have the same effect.

Country profile: Sudan
30 Nov 07 |  Country profiles
Sudan 'blocking' Darfur mission
28 Nov 07 |  Africa

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