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Sudan, Africa’s third largest country, is on the brink of disintegration, because two belligerent Generals – Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan of the Sudanese Army and General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, head of a paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – are determined to destroy their own country for selfish reasons. They were allies previously when they worked together to oust Omar al-Bashir, the dictator and butcher of Sudan, but now the two Generals have turned against each other. They are fighting over power and position, backed on both sides by powerful outside interests, whose main target is access to the rich resources of Sudan – gold, oil reserves, and gum Arabic. Sudan is the confluence of the White and Blue Nile, to form the great Nile. Egypt and Ethiopia have serious need of the Nile. About 10% of global trade passes through the Red Sea, around which Sudan is also strategically located. In the international community, there has been a scramble for the rich resources of Africa, since the colonial times, leading to the partition of Africa, slave trade, and the reduction of Africa to a source of raw materials to be exploited at cheap rates by Western and Eastern powers for their own gains.
The international community, for more than 100 years, has talked about a global community of values, the equality and sovereignty of states, globalisation, human rights and the common heritage of mankind but the same people who mouth these ideas the most are the most hypocritical. Africa is their convenient play-ground. Russia is seeking to control more of Sudan’s gold. It is backing the RSF in Sudan through the Wagner mercenaries. China also has its eyes on Sudan. Egypt is backing al-Burhan. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is pro-RSF. This is part of the drama playing out in Sudan: the hidden hands of hypocrites. But this had been possible before now in Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, Mali, Cote D’Ivoire and elsewhere because Africa has an unlucky supply of bad leaders. General Omar al Bashir brought Sudan to its knees, and instigated a civil war in Darfur. He ended up as an international felon and left behind a deluge. His country has not known peace since he was ousted in a coup in 2019. The same people who got him out of power are not better either: Generals Burhan and Dagalo have frustrated Sudan’s transition programme and now that country is practically in a war situation. Sudan is an apt illustration of the saying that “when two elephants fight, the grass suffers.” Indeed the people of Sudan are suffering. Hundreds of them have been killed, thousands have been displaced, artillery guns are booming on the streets of Khartoum. Normal life is impossible.
As Sudan slips into chaos, and a humanitarian crisis explodes, the international community, apart from urging peace and a ceasefire, has embarked on the evacuation of their nationals in Sudan. Every country has a responsibility to protect and secure the lives of its citizens whenever they are in distress in any part of the world. We have seen that happen during the war in Ukraine, the crisis in Somalia, and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nothing inspires patriotism and nationalism more than the feeling that your country truly considers you important. It is in this sense that we have seen many countries rushing to Sudan and getting their people out of harm’s way before the imminent blow-out. By Sunday, 30 April, Britain had airlifted about 2,122 people on 23 flights from Sudan through the Wadi Saeedna airfield near Khartoum. Yesterday, Britain further told UK citizens to head towards Port Sudan for an extra flight out of Sudan. Initially, the British government had said that NHS doctors without passports would not be airlifted, and that priorities would be given to British citizens and their families. James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary who had initially complained about complexity has since said that those without passports have now been included in the flight to Cyprus, before the final journey home. The Royal Airforce and the Navy are leading the evacuation exercise. They are going right inside Sudan and getting their people out.
Similarly, the United States has dispatched its special operations forces to Sudan, aerial surveillance assets and unmanned but combat-ready drones. A Naval ship – UNS Brunswick, which is a fast-transport vessel, was deployed by the Pentagon to the Port of Sudan. Two other ships are on the ground – the USS Truxtun, an Arleigh-Burke class destroyer and the USS Puller. The US Africa Command (AFRICOM) based in Stuttgart is co-ordinating the evacuation. On Saturday, the US evacuated all its embassy staff out of Khartoum. Other US citizens have been ferried out of Khartoum in buses, guided by drones and other aerial assets. With China and Russia involved in the Sudanese crisis, and given the strategic regional importance of the country, America’s interest in Sudan is understandable. Part of its present mission is to ensure the “Red Sea Security”. The US is a partner of the Sudanese Armed Forces. Our key point is that the US, like 10 other countries, has moved swiftly to protect its citizens, and chosen to be strongly on standby off the coast of Sudan in case the situation further deteriorates. China has also sent a military vessel to Sudan to evacuate Chinese personnel. India, over the weekend, also dispatched a patrol vessel, INS Sumedha, to the Port of Sudan, with two Indian Air Force aircraft – the C-130J transport aircraft stationed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. India has so far evacuated 3,000 of its nationals from Sudan. Other countries that have acted pro-actively include Germany, Canada, Italy, Turkey, Belgium, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Africa, France and the Netherlands. It is not an easy operation. On Sunday, a convoy trying to take French embassy staff in Khartoum to safety ran into a hail of gunfire. France has shut down its embassy in Khartoum. There is a race out of Sudan, as a 72-hour negotiated ceasefire and a further extension have failed, and bodies litter the streets, aerial bombardments continue, and Sudan begins to look like a convenient ground for geo-political warfare.
The foregoing picture leads us inexorably to one question: What is Nigeria doing to rescue its own nationals, about 5,500 of them, and more who are mostly students and who are stranded in Sudan? The figure is probably higher. Data from official sources in Nigeria are never reliable. Nigerians have been going to Sudan since the era of the trans-Saharan Caravan trade, and there may well be millions of us in that place. As the conflict in Sudan enters its third week, it is a crying shame that all that we have been getting from the Federal Government are excuses and such funny explanations that no serious country should offer. We have seen videos of Nigerians who are stranded in Sudan, most of them students, complaining about how they have been neglected by their government. We have seen families crying out for help. Nigerian youths are so aggrieved they have threatened to attack family members of Nigerian Embassy officials in Sudan. They say our Embassy officials are charging them $250 to be put on the evacuation list. Sudan is charging $8 per person, and those who have managed to get to the border of Egypt are being asked to cough out $25. While the Sudanese are fighting, Nigerians are staging a backward drama of their own. Nigeria’s Ambassador to Sudan, Safiu Olaniyan, has had cause to cry out in a voice note, appealing to Nigerians in Sudan not to attack Embassy officials. He made it clear that they, the Embassy officials, are as vulnerable as other Nigerians in Sudan, and that nobody should attack them. According to him, the responsibility for managing the evacuation of stranded Nigerians is with the Ministry of Disaster and Humanitarian Affairs and the Nigerian Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) back home in Nigeria, but that he and his team would continue to liaise with the Nigerian authorities. Can you imagine a country’s envoy throwing his own home authorities under the bus? It is not just Nigerians who are stranded in Sudan, it is Nigeria itself that is stranded. Compared to what other countries are doing, Nigeria looks like it has no shame.
Last Friday, I asked for explanations on another platform in order to give Abuja the benefit of the doubt. They had promised that the first batch of Nigerians would return from Sudan on Friday. Allen Onyema, chairman and founder of Air Peace Airline publicly offered to use his aircraft to airlift Nigerians out of Sudan, without charging a penny. His aircraft were ready. Since the Nigerian government had promised that Nigerians would be airlifted through Egypt, he went ahead and secured landing rights for Air Peace at his own expense in Egypt. The Aliko Dangote Foundation has also announced that it would partner with Air Peace to do whatever it takes to get Nigerians out of Sudan. Countries benefit from the philanthropy of some of their best citizens who complement government’s efforts without expecting anything in return. We saw that during the COVID-19 pandemic when Dangote led a private sector coalition to provide help. We saw that when Allen Onyema went to Ukraine to bring Nigerians out of that country when war broke out. We saw that when, during the xenophobic attacks in South Africa, Allen Onyema took the risk of helping to evacuate Nigerians. But the Nigerian government always disappoints, and that is precisely what they are doing in Sudan.
Once upon a time, Nigeria had the dream of becoming a world power. We boastfully referred to ourselves as the giant of Africa and our leaders could call the shots across the African continent, and fight for a seat at the United Nations Security Council. When Professor Bolaji Akinyemi was minister of Foreign Affairs, he talked about such ideas as the Concert of Medium Powers, the Black Bomb, and Nigeria as a world power. The situation in Sudan has just exposed how we have lost it. Three weeks after the Sudanese crisis began, Nigeria is talking about how much was spent to hire buses that would evacuate Nigerians. Dr Sani Gwarzo, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Disaster and Humanitarian Affairs, has given a press conference where he reportedly affirmed that Nigeria had set aside $1.2 million to engage bus drivers and that so far 26 buses have been engaged, each at a cost of $30,000. N24 million to hire a bus from Khartoum to Port Sudan or Aswan? He said the money was sent through third parties. Dr Gwarzo and the Situation Room on the Evacuation of Nigerians from Sudan, which he chairs, must be told that they have more explanations to offer. He said 40 buses were engaged, but only 26 have been seen. What happened to the $1.2 million then? There was even that ugly incident, as reported, whereby drivers taking Nigerians to Aswan, the Egyptian border, stopped in the middle of the desert and told the distraught Nigerian passengers to pay or be left there in the desert. They were there for five hours! The buses eventually started moving, only for us to be told again, yesterday, that one of the buses conveying 50 Nigerian students, tagged Katsina 1, caught fire. What kind of embarrassment is this? Are we serious at all?
What is worse is that the Nigeria Air Force (NAF), on Saturday, sent a Hercules C-130 to Aswan, Egypt to get Nigerians back home. The NAF crew of 14 left with food supplies, but that crew is stranded at the airport. What was meant to be a swift operation has turned into a nightmare. The NAF is being charged heavily by the Egyptian authorities. The NAF crew is stranded. In Sudan and back home in Nigeria, we are told that the country is having logistics and diplomatic challenges. After three weeks, nobody is sure when Nigeria would airlift its first batch of evacuees. The Nigerian Air Force crew of 14 is suggesting that it is better to use Port Sudan, rather than Egypt, which is insisting on visas and payments.
What the hell is happening to African unity? Egypt has provided support for other countries. Sudan has not asked the Americans for money. Somalia took its people out through the Ethiopian border. Sudan is surrounded by seven African countries. Nigeria is being snubbed by Egypt. Can’t we arrange to evacuate our people through another country? Or are we so hated diplomatically in Africa that nobody would offer our people easy passage? Why would Egypt ask Nigerians for visas in an emergency rescue operation? This is clearly a failure of diplomacy. Every African country treats us shabbily, especially the North African countries. The only exception was Muammar Ghaddafi of Libya during his lifetime. He had a grand vision of African unity, but other North African leaders relate with sub-Saharan Africa only when they have something to gain. Please, where is the African Union and the regional economic groups in Africa? What is left of African integration? Has anybody deemed it necessary to summon the Egyptian ambassador in Nigeria? The NAF crew is recommending that Nigeria is better off evacuating our people through Port Sudan. Have we sent an aircraft there? Do we have a functioning naval vessel that can provide transportation from Port Sudan to Nigeria, or do we need to hire navy transportation?
Nigerians in Sudan want to be rescued from a war situation. Their families at home want them to be safe. If Nigerian officials have nothing intelligent to tell us, the minimum that they can do is to bring our people home, and until they have something concrete to tell us, they should do us the favour of avoiding plainly stupid excuses. It is painful that a country like Somalia is able to rescue its nationals from Sudan and my own country is busy telling moonlight tales. If they need help, let them approach the British and the Americans or even the International Red Cross, or perhaps the Chinese, without getting involved in any matter beyond rescue and evacuation. As I write, a story pops up that the Egyptian president has now approved that Nigerians can be airlifted out of Aswan after President Muhammadu Buhari spoke to him, but with stringent conditions. Are we supposed to be excited about that? Did Egypt insist on the same stringent conditions with other countries? For the past four days, over 600 Nigerians have been stranded at the Egyptian border. For two days, our Air Force has been treated shabbily in Aswan. The only thing to say is that when our people are safely evacuated back home, we would believe the endless stories. What a country!
Reuben Abati, a former presidential spokesperson, writes from Lagos.
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