Asharq Al-Awsat’s Mohammad Salih interviews Sudan’s Finance Minister

October 19, 2010 (SSNA) — Sudan’s finance Minister was interviewed by a London based news paper, Asharq Al-Awsat. Read the full text of the interview bellow:

Asharq Al-Awsat Q & A with Sudan’s Finance Minister Ali Mahmoud

By Mohammad Ali Salih

Q) Will the South vote for secession in next January’s referendum, or will Sudan remain a unified country?

A) We, as the President announced, are committed to two main aspects regarding the upcoming referendum, which form the basis of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Firstly: to hold the referendum on a set date and to acknowledge the results. Secondly: The referendum should be free and fair. We pray to Almighty God that Sudan will not be divided, and that it remains a unified country. However, there is a possibility that secession might be the outcome, which poses many significant, potential problems. Of course, as you might have heard, some Southern leaders have begun to talk recently about the secession. Furthermore, Uganda has been outspoken in its endorsement of Southern secession, and the possibility of intervening to protect the newborn Southern state. We don’t want to go to war, and we don’t want foreign intervention, neither in the south nor in the north.

Q) In your opinion, why did some Southern leaders change their mind and begin calling for secession?

A) They are extremists; we believe the majority of the Southerners, if the referendum is held freely and fairly, would vote for unification because we are brothers who have lived together on the land of a unified Sudan, for hundreds of years. Problems and civil wars occur in any country, but those who call for secession are extremists. The Sudanese Oil Minister, Lual Deng, who is a Southern unionist, has referred to the extremist Southerners as "The Taliban of South Sudan", as a joke.

Q) Yet the possibility of secession exists?

A) We pray to Almighty God that it doesn’t happen. If it does, we hope it will be peaceful. As I just said, we and the Southerners have lived together like brothers throughout Sudan’s history, and we are bonded together by multiple factors: family, patriotism, collective struggle, social and economic issues. Although the American media focuses on the oil issue, oil is not the foundation of our relationship with the South, and it never will be.

If the South votes for secession, it is imperative that our shared social and family relations are maintained. This goes for the commercial relations too, because the South’s only route for exporting oil would be to the North, through the seaport of Port Sudan. If the oil wells are destroyed, both the Northerners and the Southerners would lose. We will try and assist them in a wide range of domains, introduce them to the international community, and encourage tourism and investment in their newly established state.

Q) Was there any possibility of avoiding reaching such a point of division in Sudan?

A) Many Southern leaders maintain that the National Congress Party is responsible, because it has failed to make the idea of a unified Sudan attractive to the South.

Well, what did those [Southern] leaders offer to make the idea of a unified Sudan appealing? Why, since the very first day of concluding the 2005 peace agreement, have they worked to transform the South into a separate state? Why have they stopped all economic transactions with the government of Sudan, and headed toward Uganda and Kenya?

Q) [Southern leaders] argued that the National Congress Party (NCP) focused on implementing the Islamic Shariaa Law [instead of national unity], and the NCP would not rule out the idea of dividing Sudan, in return for implementing the Shariaa?

A) We did not impose the Shariaa on anyone. We said that every state and province was free to apply the laws it deemed appropriate. If they want, they can build mosques beside public bars in the South. However, there are others who want to build mosques, without bars nearby.

Q) [Southern leaders] said the Northerners were practicing racial discrimination against them?

A) Racial discrimination? How come? The First Vice President of Sudan is a southerner. The Minister of Presidential Affairs is a southerner too, and so is the Oil Minister. Furthermore, the southerners rule the South independently without a single northerner in their government, yet they participate in the governance of the North as well.

Q) Vice President of the Democratic Unionist Party (in opposition to the NCP), Ali Mahmud Hassanein, recently told Asharq al-Awsat that the ruling National Congress Party should be held accountable for the potential division of Sudan, because ever since it came to power in 1989, following a military coup, it acknowledged the right to self-determination for the South?

A) I will answer this question in two parts: Firstly, we advocate the freedom of the Southerners more than any other northern party, and maybe even more than any southern party. How could we govern a group of people who don’t want us to govern them? Opposition parties repeatedly talk about freedom and democracy. What about freedom for the southerners? We are proud to be the first party to have agreed to grant the southerners their right to self-determination.

Secondly, didn’t the opposition parties agree to the southerners’ right to self-determination in the 1995 Asmara Agreement? Did they forget the years of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and the collaboration with the SPLM? Did they forget the concessions they had made to the SPLM? Now that the SPLM has broken away from them, after exploiting the NDA and achieving its goals, opposition parties want to lay the blame on the National Congress Party, which from the very start, with good intentions and without political maneuvering, agreed to the right to self determination for the Southerners. I say this and add that it was no coincidence that the SPLM signed a peace agreement with the National Congress Party in 2005, and not with the opposition parties. The SPLM must have trusted us more than them.

Q) How do you see the future?

A) As I told you, we sincerely pray to Almighty God that Sudan, the land of our fathers and grandfathers, northerners and southerners, will not be divided. And because we committed ourselves to conducting the referendum, we will accept its results provided that it is free, fair and expressive of the opinion of the ordinary Southern citizens who, as I said, want to continue to live in unity with us. We have been their brothers and fellow citizens for hundreds of years, long before the discovery of oil in the South. The Ugandans and Kenyans want to cheat the Southerners out of their oil wealth. They have neither respect nor appreciation for them.

Q) What is the purpose of your visit to Washington? And what did you achieve?

A) Our purpose was to attend the World Bank annual meetings. For the first time in many years, we have made a considerable improvement in Sudan’s relations with the World Bank. We have agreed to hold a series of round table conferences to offer aid to Sudan, and examine ways of paying off its external debt. The first round table conference was held during the World Bank sessions. In that conference, World Bank Vice President for Africa, Obiageli Ezekwesili, a Nigerian national, admitted that not only the South needed the support of the World Bank, but also the North.

Soon, a round table conference and a number of workshops will be held to study development projects all across Sudan, not only in the South. The conference will be attended by top representatives. In addition to the World Bank, member states and large investment corporations will take part.

Q) What will happen to Sudan’s foreign debts, which have bordered on 40 billion dollars according to International Monetary Fund statistics?

A) As I just said, the subject will be discussed at the upcoming round table conference. The World Bank Vice President for Africa said that Sudan’s foreign debt was a ‘difficult issue’ that concerned the entire Sudanese people, northerners and southerners alike, regardless of the political developments in Sudan, and the issue of southern secession.

Q) What will happen to Sudan’s foreign debt if the South secedes?

A) Again, this will be discussed at the round table conference.

Q) Some Southern leaders declared that the South would not pay any of the country’s foreign debt, because they allege that successive governments of the North borrowed and accumulated the debt, building bridges and factories in the North, and purchasing arms to launch attacks against the Southerners.

A) I repeat, we are going to discuss the division of debts at the round table conference. We talked with the World Bank and stipulated that the issue be resolved before holding the referendum in the South.

Q) If the South secedes, will you request dividing the debts according to population, for example?

A) Whether or not the South secedes, we will request that Sudan be exempted of all its foreign debts. Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha indicated this while delivering Sudan’s address, at the United Nations general assembly last month. Taha noted that Sudan ought to be treated in the manner of the least developed countries, and have the principle of debt exemption applied to it.

Q) What role did the US play in improving Sudan’s relation with the World Bank?

A) The US representative in the World Bank presented initiatives to boost cooperation with Sudan. We believe that the US administration has recently been convinced that President Omar al-Bashir’s government is committed to implementing the 2005 peace agreement between the North and the South. Actually, al-Bashir’s government has met all terms of the agreement, unlike the southern government, which has only met part of them. All that remains is the referendum, and President al-Bashir has reiterated many times that we are committed to its implementation, and the recognition of its findings.

Q) To what extent would the oil revenues of the Ministry of Finance suffer if the South secedes?

A) We would lose 70 percent of our share of the oil reserves, and 50 percent of our share of the oil revenues. We hope, and pray to God, that Sudan will not be divided. But this is what would happen if the South secedes.

Q) What would you do if Sudan is divided, and you stood to lose all those revenues?

A) Firstly, oil is not a matter of life and death. We lived before the discovery the oil in our land, and we will be able to live even if we lose a considerable portion of our oil revenues.

Secondly, oil has been discovered in northern Sudan. We hope that this will offset the loss of the oil fields in the South.

Thirdly, we have started introducing the policy of reducing imports, increasing custom taxes and economizing government expenditure.

Q) What are these government actions?

A) When President al-Bashir appointed me as Minister of Finance, I conducted a study regarding Sudan’s exports and imports. I found out that we import over 9 billion dollars worth of goods every year: about one billion dollars for vehicles, around two billion dollars for wheat, 100 million dollars for oil, and about the same amount for furniture, fruits, children toys and other luxury imports.

According to my new policy, we must reduce luxury imports. Consequently, I have already ordered to cease imports of second-hand cars, because in the long run, a used car is a burden on its owner and the country’s economy. Furthermore, I have talked to the Sudanese about going back to the old Sudanese traditions of eating, beside wheat, “dura” (sorghum) and “dokhon” (millet), and making “kisra’ (bread sheets from sorghum).

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