It is a pleasure to speak under your tutelage and chairmanship today, Mr Walker. As others have done, I congratulate Mr Clarke on securing this important debate. It has come at an interesting time. There are plenty of distractions, both domestic and international, that might focus our attention elsewhere. My hon. Friend Tony Baldry reminds us of our historical links with the country of Sudan, and why we should take a continued interest in what is happening there and in developments as life moves forward.
Sudan is an exceptional country on many counts. It is one of the largest and most geographically diverse countries in Africa, with huge mountain ranges splitting the deserts in the north and the rain forests in the south, and the River Nile splitting the country from east to west. As with many African countries, its borders are a consequence of colonisation, and a product of the deals that settled imperial battles in the 1800s, which created an artificial state where the political differences between the north and the south matched the geographic contrast that I mentioned.
Indeed, from 1924 until its independence in 1956, British policy in Sudan divided the country into two separate territories: the Muslim area in the north, and the Christian area in the south. It is not surprising that, with such a stark cultural, religious, linguistic and economic difference between the north and the south, the country has been beset by conflict. To suggest, however, that we can divide such things and create a polarised view of the country would be misleading. There are over 200 different ethnic groups, each with their traditional beliefs, cultures and histories, and often their own language.
Conflict there has been. The humanitarian crisis has been described by the United Nations as
“one of the worst nightmares in recent history”,
and various leaders from across the country are accused of war crimes, including President Omar al-Bashir. The conflict has lasted for decades and the civil war has cost the lives of millions of people. It has driven millions of others from their homes, straining relations with neighbouring countries and squandering millions of dollars of international aid. The conflict is denying the country economic prosperity and, as has been mentioned, Sudan is a rich country. Oil has been mentioned a number of times, but there are also reserves of gold and cotton. All that is being squandered because the civil war is in the way.
The long overdue referendum was held in January and the country has been primed to split, which should happen in July this year. As the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill said, one area, Abyei, has still to determine where it will sit under the new order. There is a comprehensive peace agreement, but that resounding issue is unsolved. There are some spoilers; a number of organisations and tribal influences and so on are trying to prevent the peace process from reaching fruition.
Where does the border go? That is crucial. Any map showing the oil fields will illustrate the difficulties and the problem. Much of the oil straddles the border or is in the south, but the oil refineries and ports from where the oil is distributed are in the north towards the Red sea. The south produces 80% of the country’s oil, but currently receives only 50% of the revenue. The north has recognised the desire of the south to split, but it is no velvet revolution.
The Khartoum Government have a history of using proxy forces to bleed political concessions from the south. The most worrying example of that has already been mentioned and is the Lord’s Resistance Army. That Christian fundamentalist group was formed away from Sudan in 1987, and is today led by Joseph Kony. It has no coherent political strategy; it is a bizarre group that draws on religious fundamentalism and urges brutal guerrilla tactics such as cutting off the noses and hands of victims. It claims its members are possessed by spirits, and Kony advises his recruits to smear oil on their chests as a way to protect them from bullets. Its relations with Khartoum are worrying. In the 1990s, Sudan funded and trained the LRA to fight against Ugandan and Sudanese rebels in the south. In 2005, al-Bashir decided to cut links with the group after signing the comprehensive peace agreement. Nevertheless, there are continued reports of LRA activity, and despite official denial of those links, violence in south Sudan persists.
The LRA is not any small group, and it has caught the attention of the United States, which in December 2008 decided to send in the CIA in Operation Lightning Thunder. It was a botched operation that tried to remove the LRA from north-east Africa, and affected not only Sudan, but the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other countries. The operation had an adverse effect because rather than the group being removed, Kony’s troops dispersed into the land where they remain today. That epitomises the challenge of this contemporary conflict which involves a non-state militia group whose activities do not recognise any borders or laws. The group numbers less than 1,000 people, but it seeks to destroy the good work that has been done in the peace agreement.
President Obama has called for the LRA to disarm through the Northern Uganda Recovery Act 2009, and that strategy has been advanced. The Americans have taken the issue seriously and put it in statute to help the future of Sudan. The four objectives of the Act passed by the United States Congress are to increase the protection of civilians; to remove Kony from the battlefield; to promote defections, disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of fighters; and to increase humanitarian access and continued relief.
I would be curious to know whether the Minister believes that the work done by Britain ties in with that done by the United States. The official Government line condemns the actions of the LRA and in February, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend Mr Bellingham, stated:
“We are sparing no effort at all in helping those countries who are on the front line of tackling the LRA, and we are doing all we possibly can to bring its leader to justice in the International Criminal Court as well.”—[Hansard, 1 February 2011; Vol. 522, c. 724.]
I invite the Minister to update the House on what actions Britain is taking, together with the United States, to tackle that group.
Perhaps I may digress and ask the Minister some further questions about funding for Africa. The amount of aid given to Africa every year is about one tenth of the value of the minerals that are exported out of Africa. Much of that money disappears because there is no accountability or transparency to show where that mineral wealth, and the money paid by countries such as China, Britain and others, actually goes. The statistics on the website of the Department for International
Development state that about £150 million is given to Sudan every year. Will the Minister spell out how that money is accounted for and how transparency is provided? When the coalition Government were formed, I was pleased to hear the announcement that there would be more scrutiny of spending, to ensure that money is spent in a correct and accountable way.
It is important to step up our support. More incidents of violence are occurring in south Sudan, which suggests that force is being used to disrupt the moves towards peace. That level of violence takes place far away from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which suggests that organisations such as the LRA are receiving patronage from Khartoum or from outside.
As we ponder the consequences of the Arab spring—an opportunity to change things for the better and to sow the seeds of democracy that comes once a generation—we must look at how we can avoid a repeat of what we saw in Iran. Iran had its own revolution where our influence was perhaps not welcome, and we ended up with a regime with which we have not been able to work.
As we focus on Sudan, we must remind ourselves that this is also a once-in-a-generation opportunity and a chance to make a change and introduce a new country to the world. That requires the support of the international community. This rare opportunity that comes once in a generation must be harnessed. The birth of a new and fragile state such as south Sudan needs international support to sow the seeds of democracy and encourage the genesis of economic growth. Most importantly, we must deny insurgents, bandits and violent opportunists the chance to seize power by force. As my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury said, Britain’s historical involvement means that we owe it to Sudan to do our part. In the past, we had an historic role in carving out a poorly designed state over a century ago. Let us hope that today we can have a positive influence that might lead to longer lasting peace and prosperity for this new country.