Khartoum, Asharq Al-Awsat—Sudanese Information Minister, Ahmad Bilal Osman, emphasized that his government will not negotiate with the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement-North, adding that Khartoum does not recognize this group.
In a broad-ranging interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Osman discussed Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam and the ensuing political upheaval in Egypt, the Darfur crisis, South Sudan, and freedom of the press.
Osman has served as Sudanese minister of Culture and Information since June, 2012. He previously worked as a presidential adviser to Omar Al-Bashir, representing the Democratic Unionist Party.
This interview has been edited for length.
Asharq Al-Awsat: For the first time, the Sudanese position on Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam differs from that of Egypt. What’s the reason for this?
Ahmad Bilal Osman: Our position on Egypt is unchanged, and Sudan has interests which it must consider with any country. What has been said about the Renaissance Dam is a “storm in a teacup” and has caused a lot of confusion. What’s the harm in saying this is good for us? Are we banned from talking about our interests as Sudanese? We have made many sacrifices for the Egyptians, and will continue to do so, and if Sudan had not stood by Egypt, the Aswan High Dam would not have been built.
I would like to inform those who are unaware of the Sudanese role through this forum: What other country would accept the evacuation of 22 villages, the submergence of more than 100 million palm trees, and 350,000 fruit trees, in addition to culture and history, and migration to a different climate, in order to build the High Dam? Is it reasonable for the Egyptian national [soccer] team to lose to Algeria—not Israel—in Khartoum, and for Egypt to insult Sudan as a result of this? The Renaissance Dam has many benefits for the Sudanese and we hope the sensible Egyptian minds are careful because our relations are being damaged, and because migration from north to south is growing, and for the first time since 1821, there are between 350,000 and 400,000 Egyptians in Sudan. It is true that there are around 2 million Sudanese in Egypt, but reverse migration has started, in addition to the fact that we are opening three roads between the two countries for the first time. The Renaissance Dam is not part of the water war, and it will not stop. Egypt needs Sudan just as Sudan needs it, in this war. Insults and injuries are not acceptable, and the official state of Egypt has not insulted Sudan.
Q: Has the Egyptian foreign minister asked you to adopt a new position on the Renaissance Dam, similar to his government’s position?
The question is not an issue of dependency, but an issue of cooperation between the Nile Basin states in a way which increases their water resources, and thus, Egypt, Sudan and others benefit. The issue needs cooperation and understanding, and the language of bullying and threatening does not work.
Q: Some say you are trying to use your position on the Renaissance Dam in order to gain concessions from Egypt regarding the disputed territories of Halayib and Shalateen?
The argument over Halayib is nothing new; this has existed since 1956. These people behave like they went to bed, and then woke up and found the Renaissance Dam. This project has been discussed for four years. We are much wiser than those who promote disharmony between the two peoples, but we will only have good relations. If we have a legitimate claim, we will take it, and if they have a legitimate claim, they will take it.
Q: Does this mean that Sudan relinquishes its historic rights to the so-called Halayib Triangle?
Egypt has not asked for that, and we have only asked Egypt to put things back in the Halayib area to where they were before 1995, to make it an integrated, unified area, not a conflict zone.
Q: Sudanese president’s assistant, Mahmoud Ahmad Osman, claimed that Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi pledged to return Halayib to its pre-1995 state, but the presidential office later came out to deny that. What’s your view?
Egypt is going through a transitional period and some imbalance, where if Mursi says something, there will be someone who will disagree with him, and if he rejected something, they will “reject his rejection.” This is an internal matter in which we will not interfere, our interest needs Egyptian stability.
Q: Are you saying that Mursi made a promise to Bashir’s assistant to rectify the situation in Halayib, and that he later came under political pressure to disavow this?
Our relations with Egypt will not be built on, or be destroyed by, the Halayib issue, and it is not wise to discuss this now.
Q: The attacks on press freedoms continue in Sudan. Some newspapers are seized, some are suspended, and some journalists are banned from writing, despite the reported decision to suspend censorship. What’s your take on the issue?
The use of the term “attack” is wrong in this regard. Freedom of the press in Sudan is limitless. The suspension of censorship, before or after print, was announced by the first vice-president Ali Osman Taha, and the issue was left to the public conscience. At the same time that rebels were attacking people and torturing them, journalists were told that the armed forces were a red-line, especially regarding defamation. This is because any untruth would be harmful, while any leaks would be tantamount to treason.
Two newspapers were stopped for breaking the agreement regarding the armed forces. As for those who were suspended personally, it was because they defamed and harmed the army. Good governments and people respect their armies, and if the press adhered to this single red-line, there would be no censorship.
Q: Why were the suspensions applied outside the law and judicial authority?
We are fighting rebels who say if they come to power they will disband the armed forces and the judiciary, and create provinces on the basis of ethnicity with the right to self-determination. We will not allow anyone to say “the army is not fighting and is weak.” Whoever says that is part of the conspiracy. We must respect the sanctity of the army. As for resorting to the courts, we will bring a number of lawsuits to the courts against those who spread lies.
Q: President Bashir took the decision to stop oil exports from South Sudan, and then the government accepted the proposal put forward by the African Union High-level Implementation Panel, led by former South African president Thabo Mbeki. Have you now backed away from this?
We strive for good relations with our seven neighbors. Our borders with the south are the longest and are inhabited by eight million people who are always on the move and interacting with one another. We are still committed to what president Bashir said when the south seceded: “We want a special relationship with the south, which rises to the level of Sudanese union.”
We do not harm anyone, and would like the other party to stop causing trouble. We closed our oil pipelines and suspended the enforced agreements with the south. Following that, there was a lot of activity, and Mbeki presented his initiative. This served as a base for solving security problems, which was accepted by both South Sudan and ourselves.
Q: Is this not the same kind of rhetoric that characterized previous agreements?
It is new in that there are specific schedules and timetables, and it is being overseen by the African Union.
Q:This was an important decision but would it not have been better if this were made by the relevant authorities?
This approach is intended as an attack on Bashir, and nothing else. The matter was put forward to the council of ministers. It was discussed and agreed upon. If there were individuals or institutions such as those of the ruling party, they did not communicate with us. We made the decision as a ministerial council.
Q: The decision to block oil was supposed to be implemented immediately, but you set a deadline of 60 days. Why the contradiction?
There is no contradiction; we are committed to the agreements that other countries and oil companies are participating in. If we do not reach a solution, the oil will stop completely after 60 days.
Q: Are the measures to stop oil exports permanent or will they be deferred until after the Mbeki initiative?
It is not a maneuvre or aggravation, we have advised the relevant authorities as to what will satisfy the north and south.
Q: Will you enter dialogue with Sudan’s People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N)?
We do not recognize the so-called northern front. We do however recognize a security problem in the states of the Blue Nile and South Kordofan. We also recognize the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which commits us to providing their entitlements. The so-called revolutionary front is a minority group claiming to represent Sudan as a whole. If we provided solutions, another front would rise up against the agreement.
Q: But security council resolution 2046 did not diminish the scope of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, it was an emergency agreement between the territorial owners and Nafie Ali Nafie.
This treaty was rejected and we are not obligated to adhere to it—we did not subscribe to it. We are committed to the agreement we signed in Naivasha concerning the entitlements of South Kordofan, the Blue Nile, and the Abyei areas. During the negotiations, Yasir Arman insisted on one provision and that was a ceasefire and allowing the passage of humanitarian aid. This means he rejected dialogue, and the intentions were to use this time to gather their forces and prepare for war. Before everybody returned from Addis Ababa, they attacked Umm Ruwaba and Abu Karshula.
Q: But there can be no doubt that SPLM-N are a real force on the ground.
Should we discuss all of Sudan’s problems with this “real force” on the ground? If we enter into an agreement with them, who can guarantee that this will not just create even greater problems?
Q: Some say that the government’s policies are the reason for this. Do you agree?
We will not close the door to dialogue with those who want to resolve Sudan’s problems, including armed fighters. But if a small group comes and monopolizes this right without the others, it will not be accepted.
Q: Did the African mediation invite you to return to negotiations?
No, the international community is preoccupied with solving problems in the south.
Q: Do the government forces have a role in the tribal conflicts in Darfur?
This is a false claim. neither the army nor the police adhere to tribalism. What is taking place in Darfur is unrelated to politics.
Q: Minister, isn’t this a simplification of the problems in Darfur?
What do you call an attack by the ‘Bani Halbah’ tribe against the ‘Qamar,’ or an attack by the ‘Ma`aliyah’ against the ‘Raziqat?’ Is this a struggle for power, or an attempt to overthrow the government?
Q: What is the variable that changed the situation in Darfur? The tribes were living in peace for hundreds of years. Was this violence avoidable?
Your question requires reflection… What could have been done to avoid this madness? This question should be directed to all Sudanese.
Q: The assemblies in Khartoum say that there are intense conflicts within government. The president’s aide Nafie Ali Nafie emphasized that the armed forces are weak, and a spokesperson responded, saying that “if the armed forces are weak, the government will fall.” What do you make of this?
Nafie’s speech was misinterpreted. Talking about strengthening, rearming, upgrading and redistributing the army does not imply weakness. The Sudanese army is one of the strongest in the region. Insurgencies have changed the ruling body three times in Chad, as well as in the Central African Republic, Uganda, Congo, and Ethiopia. Our military alone has survived.
Q: So, how do you explain the army’s rejection of these statements?
Nafie and Colonel Sawarmi (the spokesman of the armed forces) are not the same person.
Q: But Sawarmi speaks for the army.
This is true, but Nafie is one of those defending the Sudanese army.
Q: It is rumored that the army demanded that Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Mohammad Hussein and the president’s aide Nafie Ali Nafie be dismissed. Is this true?
This is a lie and I refute it completely.
Q: Military documents are usually denied, but later acknowledged.
The only note sent by the Sudanese army was in February 1989, and the thing [coup] that the army warned of took place in June of the same year. Nothing of this sort is currently taking place within the army.
Q: The suspects that attempted the coup were tried, and some were pardoned—including some of the coup’s actual leaders. Why does the former security director General Salah Abdullah remain in custody?
It is not an exemption. The trial took place, and then some were pardoned and acquitted. You said that the coup’s leader was tried and released; this is not true.
Q: So who was the real leader of the coup?
This was Salah Abdullah. We will not talk anymore on this issue because it was taken up before the court and he faced charges.