The Times of Zambia (Ndola)
By Edward Mulenga
SUDAN means 'dark skinned people', according to the widely accepted basic definition.
And for three years, the crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan has cast darkness on the entire picture of this Africa's largest country, over 2.5 million square kilometers big.
I was happy to visit this vast land to see, among other things, the much talked about dark skin and learn more about the crisis in the Western Darfur.
However, this author almost concluded that "dark-skinned" was a fallacy because Northern Sudan, where the AU summit was hosted, is largely inhabited by light-skinned Arabs, until a few days later when the real dark-skinned people were seen at the conference centre.
I must confess I was struck by the darkness, but struggled to only take it as Africa's pride.
The South is inhabited by these people.
We arrived in Khartoum at 03:30 hours after an exhausting and delayed flight from Lusaka, through Addis Ababa. Temperatures were below 11 degrees Celsius and many dignitaries, waiting at the VIP lounge to proceed to their respective hotels, found themselves reaching for their warm clothing.
At the Plaza Hotel, no sooner had we started enjoying some sleep than a protocol officer arrived at 07:00 hours asking delegates to go for accreditation at the media centre.
In the accreditation room, an officer asked me: Which country are you from? "I am from Zambia," I responded.
"Oh! Zambia, ok, Kalusha Bwalya, yes, yes", added the Arab in his fragmented English as he broadly smiled while staring at me.
The summit had many other meetings within it by various groups such as First Ladies, scholars, UNESCO, and others, and so it was business every hour.
Zambia's Maureen Mwanawasa chaired the Oganisation of African First Ladies Against HIV/AIDS (OAFLA) sessions and emphasised the need for eminent African women to take a more active step in fighting HIV/AIDS and caring for the underprivileged as well as safe-guarding the lives of girls against paedophiles.
After accreditation, it was time to visit the media centre which was teeming with hordes of journalists preparing for extensive coverage of the AU summit.
From the gossip in the media centre, it became clear that Sudan would not get the chairmanship of the AU, despite massive lobbying among its neighbours.
Some of the benefits of the comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) are reflected in the number of new buildings being constructed and other positive economic reflections in this land of the dark-skinned.
The signing of the CPA on January 9, 2005 in Kenya, leading to a government of national unity, ended two decades of civil war and military operations in the Southern Sudan and opened dialogue to consolidate the agreement.
Under this power-sharing deal, John Garang, who had led the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA rebellion in the South became first vice-president of the republic and president of the government of Southern Sudan.
Unfortunately, he died in a plane crash last year, barely three weeks after being sworn-in and was succeeded by Lieautenant-General Salva Kiir Miyardit, a towering and bearded figure.
The Sudanese feel that the provisional national constitution, ratified on July 8, 2005 will enable the republic to become a full member of the club of democratic countries.
Apparently, there has been large scale propaganda by different media organisations in Sudan to portray cohesion and hide the hostilities that remain to be uprooted for the country to entrench peace.
According to Sudan: a Distinctive Culture and civilisation', a local publication, Sudan is composed of about 570-595 groups, which emerged from 546 groups, each with their own customs, traditions, heritage, culture, civilisation and area.
At the moment, Arabic is the most prominent language among most Sudanese, while about 10 local languages are still dominant at tribe level.
Sudan celebrates its 50th independence anniversary this year and the emphasis is on peace commemoration as a reality.
But despite several peace initiatives, the task is incomplete with the Darfur conflict still unresolved.
Therefore, during the summit, heads of State turned down Sudan's bid for the AU chair and instead gave it to Congo Brazzaville.
Prior to the heads of State summit, the civil society had also opposed Khartoum's bid for the chairmanship because the nation was yet to resolve internal conflicts in line with AU aspirations.
Sudan has been accused of employing a laissez-faire approach towards the Darfur crisis which has seen human rights violations, rape, killings and displacements over the years.
The condition is that Khartoum should stop arming the Janjaweed militia, a gang drawn from various tribes to commit atrocities against the civil population in Darfur, an allegation Khartoum has persistently denied, and straighten its record in the critical eyes of the international community.
However, the argument by government officials is that recent desertification and severe drought have caused the two groups to fight for resources such as water.
This, they say, has been compounded by the proliferation of arms along the border with Chad and support from kin tribes from neighbouring countries.
Following incessant accusations by Chad that Sudan has been arming rebellion along the border leading to killings there, delegates insisted that Sudan and Chad should come clean and tell the truth for everyone to decide who the real aggressor was.
AU commission chairman, Professor Alphar Oumer Konare, said in his opening remarks that there was need for Sudan and Chad to tell the truth about the border hostilities for the continent and the world at large to know who the aggressor was.
These sentiments were echoed by past chairman, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who denounced the killings in Darfur where an estimated 300,000 people have died and two million more displaced.
"Sudan wants AU chair, critics see it hurting," was the headline in one of online publications by Reuters, South Africa.
On the whole, it was the Darfur crisis that denied Sudan the opportunity to chair the AU, with the United States saying "Khartoum has carried out genocide, a charge the Khartoum government has persistently denied."
Just as human rights groups feared that the AU's credibility would be compromised, the sixth session of the AU heads of State and governments summit chose Congo Brazzaville's President Dennis Sassou-Nguesso as AU chairman and gave Sudan a one-year probationary period in which to reform to qualify to the chair in 2007.
The AU has a 7,000-man strong mission, known as AMIS, that monitors the shaky ceasefire in Darfur between the government and rebels who launched a revolt in 2003 on the basis that they were neglected.
AMIS added its voice to criticism against Sudan ascending to the AU chair.
To try and explain more on the Darfur crisis, a booklet called The Black File of the Armed Movements in Darfur says there are three rebel groups in the region which emerged out of a simple rebellion that settled in Marrah Mountain and captured the delegation that was sent to the area to try and negotiate for peace.
According to the book, rebel activities had soured relations between Chad and Sudan, yet Sudan was busy trying to convince the rebels to lay down their weapons, stop the rape, killings and other atrocities.
UN Secretary-General Koffi Annan in his strong message to the AU summit, through his envoy, spoke tough and warned Khartoum to check itself and stop the atrocities in Darfur.
Zambia's President Mwanawasa was among the leaders that thought Sudan should wait for peace to hold before aspiring to chair the AU.
Zambia's first president Kenneth Kaunda shared the same sentiments: " The heads of state have decided to postpone Sudan's chairmanship because there are still some problems to be resolved. Until those problems are resolved, Sudan cannot chair the AU," Dr Kaunda said.
"How can you resolve problems when you still have many issues unresolved in your own country?" he questioned.
These were the sentiments of most leaders, especially from Southern African Development Community (SADC).
In all, the crisis in the North does not appear to be real because it is quiet, but the Darfur region in the west and the southern Sudan where there are still some remnants of resistance against the central government based on perceived inattention are still hot spots.
It was a happy occasion that African leaders adopted one of the resolutions that no African leader or former ruler will be tried by outsiders for offences committed during their reign.
Away from the crisis and AU summit in Sudan, the visit to that country proved that peace is cardinal to development.
Looking at what is called the remains of what was impressive infrastructure, one sees a ghost of what would have been a beautiful Khartoum now devastated by war. Khartoum has several zones.
It is a city of extremes with conspicuous underdevelopment on one hand and fully developed areas on the other. It is a true hotch-potch which makes one fail to believe the country has been at war for decades.
In some areas, you find collapsing buildings, rubble and bullet-marked buildings maintained in their wrecked state as national monuments.
However, the booming construction industry, as a notable indicator of economic growth world over, tells the story that Sudan is on the path to massive economic prosperity.
Many buildings are being constructed everywhere and the planning is appreciable in the sense that there is adequate room for expansion of the city.
Ultra-modern shopping malls have been constructed and more are coming up.
With its strong currency, the Dinari, which is 230 to one US dollar, the evidence points to a buoyant economy which would even do better given the right conditions, chief among them, peace.
Sudan has a lot of oil, especially in the south.
It is with this progressive economic crusade that calls for cementing of all peace efforts to achieve total tranquility between the South and Darfur region are being made.
This is the more reason the Khartoum administration should work closely with and not hinder United Nations intervention, especially in Darfur.
Socially speaking, high levels of morality are a priority and are faithfully pursued to the letter.
Whereas our societies, especially in southern and west Africa, are grappling with crime, people in Sudan carry money freely and do their shopping openly, brandishing money without fear of the unknown.
There are no bank robberies simply because bandits know their fate; Shariya law.
Amazingly, the exchange rate is uniform everywhere. There are no variations in exchange rates.
If at one bank the rate is 230 Dinars per US dollar, it is the same everywhere because anything above that is deemed as theft.
On the roads, you rarely see a police traffic officer on any road, and throughout my two-week stay in Khartoum, I never saw any such spectacle.
This, perhaps, answers the question why there is terrible driving in the city of Khartoum where drivers can make u-turns in the middle of the road without any reprisals. It is survival of the fittest.
Many delegates to the AU summit were disappointed that even hotels do not sell alcohol and that only non-alcoholic beer is sold.
"There is also nothing like girl-friend and boy-friend here, it is an offence. So all these beautiful women you are seeing, you just watch, but do not touch, " remarked one Arabic friend.
Many middle-aged men are not married because it is expensive to marry.
" I am not married, I cannot afford because it is expensive," said Ibrahim, one of the ushers at the conference.
He said one needed about US$5,000 to marry because Arabs or Muslims value their daughters and want to safe-guard their lives and so, the man has to prove that he would keep their daughter well in marriage.
After the AU summit, which reflected a lot of maturity in the way Africa is moving as one towards continental unity, it became apparent that the wisdom of conflict resolution did not any longer belong to Europeans and Americans.
The continued transformation of the AU into a mature and independent forum has sent lessons to all leaders on the continent not to abuse their authority or lead their countries irresponsibly because they will not be allowed to be part of the continental family.
It is, therefore, essential that the Khartoum administration renews its commitment to resolving the Darfur crisis to be able to live happily with the AU family.