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Last Updated: Friday, 20 January 2006, 11:13 GMT
Sudan's African summit makeover
By Jonah Fisher
BBC News, Khartoum

Sudan's government is hoping some serious cosmetic surgery in the capital, Khartoum, can help mask its history of war, poverty and human rights abuses.

Presidential village
A presidential village has been specially constructed for the summit
Sudan sees the African Union summit as a chance to re-invent itself in the eyes of the continent.

The capital's first challenge was how to accommodate up to 40 heads of state.

They may only be going to stay two days but finding enough suitable beds for the night posed a real problem.

There is only one rather dingy luxury hotel in Khartoum so a presidential village was hastily constructed on the banks of the Blue Nile.

Forty heavily guarded orange villas have been built around a swimming pool and health club.

While the villas' architecture shows Arab influences, Sudan has looked to Europe for the finishing touches.

'The best'

Accor, a French hospitality company has equipped them with everything a president could possibly want after a long day at the summit.

Fifty-two inch televisions, beautiful linen and the finest china tea sets have been imported from Europe.

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"We bought the best, really the best," Armand Vargas, Accor's project director, said as he showed off the five-en suite bedrooms.

In another corner of the villa another Frenchman is training a group of butlers.

"A smile is the best protection against the moods of a grumpy president," he tells them.

Other staff are practising an elaborate procedure for opening a door correctly to an African leader.

Money well-spent?

The presidential village is six kilometres from the summit location, a gleaming white conference centre called Friendship Hall.

Along the route dusty roundabouts have been transformed into lush gardens, peeling buildings repainted and huge adverts put up to hide construction sites.

Flags flying in Khartoum
Sudan hopes the summt will be a showcase
No-one wants to say how much it has all cost.

"New roads, new buildings and beautiful things have come with the summit," Ahmed Mohammed, a student from Khartoum, told me.

"We are proud to have it."

But not everyone is convinced.

"The government just wants to show off. Cities in Sudan are not equal - you just have to go outside Khartoum to see how poor people are," said Jak Mahmoud, who comes from north-eastern Sudan.

"It's not a good way to spend money."

For the Sudanese government, the rationale is simple.

"We are investing to change the image for Sudan," foreign ministry spokesman Jamal Ibrahim told the BBC.

"This is a good opportunity for us to emerge as a country that has been in a lot of problems and lots of conflict and start a new page for Sudan. Of course it costs to make a new image for Sudan."

Darfur questions

While Africa's leaders will spend the summit in luxury, discussions on Darfur will make parts of the summit uncomfortable for Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir.

For three years the question of how to stop the violence in Sudan's far west has been the AU's biggest headache.

Sudan's President Omar e-Bashir
Critics say President Bashir should not be Africa's spokesman
Now the AU peacekeeping mission is running out of money and control is likely to be handed to the United Nations, a move Sudan fiercely opposes.

Historical precedent should also see President Bashir, as host, assume the chair of the African Union.

His government has been blamed for numerous atrocities in Darfur and human rights groups are appalled at the prospect.

"We seriously believe that such an action will deeply undermine and erode the credibility of the AU and at the same time compromise the authority of its institutions," a letter signed by 50 African groups and addressed to the continent's leaders said.

The fate of Hissene Habre - the former Chadian dictator who has been dubbed "Africa's Pinochet" - will also be decided.

A court in Belgium has demanded Mr Habre's extradition on charges of killing and torturing tens of thousands of political opponents in the 1980s.

Senegal, where he currently lives, has suggested that an African tribunal be established.

The African Union was formed in 2002 from the ashes of the much derided Organisation for African Unity(OAU).

This summit in Khartoum is another opportunity for the AU to show that it is capable of tackling Africa's problems and is not just a talking shop for the continent's leaders.


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