By Don Wanyama
The Chinese-built L-shaped Friendship Hall in Khartoum, Sudan is an imposing structure. Equally imposing in the vicinity is the eye-catching oval-shaped 18-storey Corinthia Hotel that sits at the confluence of the Blue and White Nile.
On Monday 10th October, the area between the two facilities was a hive of activity as a new chapter was being written in the political life of the Sudan.
Leaders of over 90 political parties and armed movements had gathered in the Friendship Hall to put to ink a political pact that spelt a new dawn for the north-eastern African country.
Sudan has been characterized by a series of conflicts; political and violent. From Darfur to South Kordofan, from the Blue Nile to Kassala. This, however, was the day when a new effort to end these frictions would be instituted following close to two years of a national dialogue.
When the Master of Ceremonies announced the heads of state present, it was perhaps not surprising that Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni received the loudest applause from the lively audience.
After all didn’t he look a little the odd man out? Idriss Deby of Chad is head of the Africa Union. He is Muslim and his country directly neighbours Sudan to the West. Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is Muslim and his country is the northern neighbour of Sudan while Mohammed Abdul Aziz of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania is head of the Arab League. President Museveni is not Muslim and neither does Uganda directly neighbour Sudan anymore.
It would not be long before the audience found out. Shortly after the representatives of the political parties had signed the agreement, the Presidents were asked to briefly address the audience.
Whereas the other heads of state largely congratulated Sudan on the pact, it is President Museveni, in those few minutes who offered a telling context to the developments.
“This agreement is more important because it defeats some of the problems caused by our political class who stress identity at the expense of prosperity,” he told the attentive audience. “Some of our political elite like to say I am this, I am that. I am Arab, I am an African. I am Muslim, I am Christian. But they never ask if that identity will achieve prosperity.”
There is no doubt that the several conflicts in Sudan have been premised on the clash of identity and religion. That a visiting head of state was ready to openly broach the subject and discuss what others were perhaps glossing over, was a strong statement of not just leadership but honesty.
That perhaps explains why later in the evening, the hall was filled to capacity and President Museveni returned to offer a public lecture on state and land reforms. In attendance were politicians, academicians and high-ranking business people.
He did not disappoint. Starting from where he had stopped earlier in the day, President Museveni elucidated on the question of identity. “What is more important?” he asked, “Identity or interests? The answer is that interests should always be paramount and that identity can be sometimes important.”
He then delved into how interests relate to prosperity and the need for communities to make a case for them (legitimate access to natural resources, access to education, access to health services, access to market, security and ability to create wealth).
Whereas most people had appreciated this, President Museveni noted that the issue of market was not fully understood.
“When somebody buys what I produce, he is supporting my prosperity and vice versa. When I buy what you produce, I am supporting your prosperity. I am helping you to create jobs for your people, to earn incomes and to expand the tax base for your country—if you are from another country.”
How then are identity fanatics a danger to this prosperity? President Museveni answered it this way: “They are many times enemies of everybody including their own people. It is because normally people from the same group do not easily trade with one another; most often they produce similar products.”
Using Uganda’s case, he explained why for example inhabitants of South West Uganda, that produces milk and bananas in plenty, needs the market not just in the city, Kampala, but the regional East African one. Uganda, for example produces 2.2 billion litres of milk but only consumes 800 million litres, the rest being sold in the region. It is the same case with maize where out of the 4 million tonnes produced annually, only one million is consumed locally.
What then happens if one makes a case for sectarianism against those consuming this excess produce? It would be suicidal. President Museveni stated it succinctly: “Manipulating people for opportunistic reasons, suppressing people on account of identity, marginalizing them is wrong and must be resisted because in the end it harms both the author of the mistake and the victim.”
The President besides making a case for an integrated African market also spoke about the importance of stability in the region and beyond—using the case of Ugandan tea whose price per kilogramme has plummeted from $1.79 to $1.31 because of the Arab Spring and other conflicts in the Middle East.
It is in this light that he appreciated the Sudanese for starting a new journey but importantly called for tolerance, counselling that people should “live and let live”.
Watchers of the political developments in this region will know that a development like this about a decade ago would be unthinkable. President Museveni did acknowledge that he had differences with Bashir years back, but “it is now in the past”. Africa’s unity is more important, noted President Museveni, especially if the differences among African leaders only seek to serve interests of foreign elements.
When he concluded his presentation with the brief account of how he cautioned (now jailed) Egyptian president Mohammed Morsy on the dangers of politically mobilizing around religion (Muslim Brotherhood), the audience stood up to give President Museveni a standing ovation. A few minutes later, it followed with everyone jostling for a selfie moment. It was not only Sudan experiencing a new internal political journey,