Sudan

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:17 pm on 15th October 2020.

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Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley 3:17 pm, 15th October 2020

It is a rare delight to speak in this House on Sudan, a topic that we do not often debate. When I visited the country a few years ago I discovered a beautiful land with a rich history, many UNESCO world heritage sites and a warm and friendly people. However, the Sudanese have been failed; they have suffered systemic poverty, an earth-shattering civil war and Government repression. Members will be all too aware of the terrible massacre of 3 June 2019 when security forces opened fire outside a military headquarters in Khartoum on protesters who were calling for the generals to hand power to a civilian Government. Countless innocent people died. Opposition doctors claimed that 130 people were killed and hundreds more injured. That was a disgusting and sickening crime against people who were standing up for democracy, and this country and its Government must stand with those who died and support them and their relatives.

After the massacre, the UK summoned the Sudanese ambassador to the Foreign Office to register its concerns and called for the establishment of an independent inquiry into the massacre. The Government also made it clear that there must be an agreed transfer of power, as demanded by the people of Sudan. Today I am pleased that significant progress has been made as a result of the constitutional declaration of August 2019, and that the UK’s statement has been heeded. I appreciate the fact that the Government has stepped in to protect people and move things forward.

The agreement secures the creation of a council of Ministers and a legislative council. Encouragingly, 40% of seats on the legislative council are reserved for women, which is a remarkable statistic for the region. The agreement also includes a commitment to an independent investigation of the atrocities of the June massacre. The transition really does promise a bright new future for Sudan, and it gives the Sudanese people a real stake in their country for the first time. We have heard passionate descriptions by my hon. Friend Harriett Baldwin and Jim Shannon of what has been done in the transition, but clearly a lot more needs to be done and words need to be backed up by actions on the part of the current regime in Sudan.

The UK’s support for Sudan’s democratic transition remains resolute and steadfast. In June’s aid conference, we committed £150 million to Sudan for humanitarian aid, social programmes, new infrastructure, Government reforms, and, in addition, the coronavirus response. At the conference, the Minister for Africa repeated that the UK Government would work with the Sudanese Government for successful democratic transition. However, as we have heard, things have not always gone to plan and not always gone smoothly, so we must press the Government to go further and faster with the Sudanese Government.

Considerable challenges remain for Sudan, and there is more that the UK must do to secure the country’s future. This month’s peace agreement, signed by the transitional Government and armed rebel groups, was welcome news. However, it needs to be fully implemented and must be expanded to include all armed actors. Sudan must undertake serious economic reform, building on the help already offered by UK experts, and must ensure greater transparency in governance, a robust environment for media freedom and improved healthcare provision.

Of particular interest to me is the religious freedom of Sudan and the protection of Christians there. In the recent past I have been deeply concerned by the persecution of Christians in the country, with Open Doors ranking it the seventh worst nation on earth for that crime. There are nearly 2 million Christians in Sudan, an important minority in a nation of 30 million Muslims. However, religious conservatives have been pushing for a sharia state so that they can enforce a strict Islamic regime. Thousands of Christians have been killed and displaced indiscriminately. Many churches have been demolished, Christian leaders have been arrested, and blasphemy laws have been used to criminalise Christian-born citizens and converts alike.

The civilian-led Sudanese Government must take urgent steps to protect Christians, their faith and their culture in accordance with the rights and freedoms promised by the constitutional declaration. As we have already heard, promises have not been matched with actions, and the UK Government must intercede and press the Sudanese Government on that. Nevertheless, I am optimistic about Sudan’s prospects under a civilian Government, with marked improvements in governance and security. I would love to see tourists visiting Sudan from all over the world. I very much believe that tourism and opening it up Sudan to the world will reduce many of its problems and increase its wealth as more people come in and see the wonderful sights. It is a place that many know little about, despite the fact that Sudan has so much to offer, which is something that I discovered when I visited a few years ago.

For instance, I am sure the House knows that Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt. The majestic Nubian pyramids at Meroë and Nuri are every bit as impressive as their Egyptian cousins, but are completely forgotten by some. General Gordon’s Nile gunboat lies distressed, alone, in the Blue Nile Sailing Club in splendid isolation, and the imposing confluence of the mighty White and Blue Niles sees little fanfare. The ancient city of Naqa is one of the largest ruined sites of Sudan. It once served as a bridge between Africa and the Mediterranean world and boasts gems such as the Temple of Amun. Even, as the House will know, my passion for the Emperor Justinian of Byzantium was sated when I travelled there and discovered that the Nubians were converted by missionaries despatched by the emperor in the 6th century. That shows that Sudan has been at the centre of our world, the Mediterranean world, for a long time, and it is a shame that we have let it go away and not embraced it as much as we should have. We should return to the days of embracing it.

Sudan truly is a wonderful and exciting country. I urge Ministers to listen to what we have heard today and take it on board to help push everything forward. I look forward to returning soon to witness Sudan’s democratic rebirth.