In an interview with IRIN in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, the minister also talked about the situation in the troubled Darfur region and the challenges ahead of the return of displaced persons (IDPs) to the south.
The minister was in Nairobi to attend a two-day meeting between the Sudanese government, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) and the UN to discuss coordination efforts ahead of the return of IDPs and refugees to southern Sudan, following the signing of the comprehensive peace agreement between Khartoum and the SPLM/A on 9 January.
Below are excerpts:
QUESTION: What is your assessment of the situation in Darfur?
ANSWER: The security situation in Darfur is better now. And it's not our own evaluation - it's also the evaluation of the UN and the international community. The movement of assistance and people is better, as we introduced the so-called “fast-track system” for humanitarian assistance. It is for the whole Sudan, to ease the movement of humanitarian efforts. We also made progress in social reconciliation, and last week’s tribal reconciliation meeting in North Darfur was very successful. It was agreed that all fighting would be stopped.
All political parties have committed to the ceasefire and reconciliation efforts are underway to bring them to the negotiating table. We are now waiting for the African Union (AU) to announce the date for the resumption of the Abuja peace talks. It is time for peace now.
We think that things are better in every respect. More than 70 international organisations are now working in Darfur with more than 700 cars and more than 10,000 staff.
Q: How do you reconcile your assessment with the latest Darfur report by the UN in which the UN Secretary-General expresses his concern about the increase in incidents of banditry and attacks on humanitarian aid workers?
A: I don’t think there is a serious problem of relief-targeting. Most of the attacks on humanitarian workers are from the rebels, and it was once stated during our joint meeting with the UN that rebels are responsible for the attacks. This is why the tribal leaders asked the rebels not to attack, not only the convoys, but all the movements. It is not the tribal militias who are attacking. There is a lot of pressure on the rebels to go for peace now, and not for fighting.
Q: And what do you think of the role played by the AU in Darfur?
A: The African Union is doing a god job in Darfur and we want to reach the number we have agreed upon [of AU troops] to have peace in Darfur. As Somalia showed us, we think that the Africans are better in tackling the problems in Darfur, but they need logistical support [from the international community].
Q: What is your assessment of the situation of the IDPs and refugees who have already returned to southern Sudan?
A: In our meeting we have discussed the issue of spontaneous return. It is not assisted return. We agreed on giving some assistance - of course we cannot provide them with the whole standard - and one of the most important [forms of] assistance is information. We are going to provide them with information. Now we have the staff in the places of departure who will record the situation and who will give information to them about the rules, the situation in the place of return, when they know the place of return.
We have other staff at the entry points and we are also investigating the routes of return to make sure the routes are safe. We have some services in what we call the transit camps, like Kosti [on the Nile in northern Sudan, south of Khartoum], with some facilities like water and sanitation so they can stay there for two to three days before they leave.
We hope that most of them will wait until we arrange for the assisted returns, which will be after the rainy season [October 2005]. We also have coordination with the local authorities so that they know that the people are coming to these places. We also inform those who distribute food in the areas of return to consider those who are coming to the area so that they can get the assistance that the others in the area are getting - especially WFP [UN World Food Programme], which is providing the food in these areas.
Q: For the IDPs and returnees that have not yet returned, what do you see as the top three priorities that have to be put in place before they return and what is the government of Sudan doing in order to put these things in place?
A: We are trying to have cross-line missions, and we are trying to clear mines, rehabilitate the roads and the railway system to deliver assistance directly from our side to the people in need in the south.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement prepared the way for the return of IDPs and refugees. Tripartite commissions, consisting of the government of Sudan, the hosting country - such as Kenya, Uganda and the DRC - and representatives from UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency] are drawing up the plans for voluntary repatriation. The timing of the voluntary returns depends on the availability of funds and the preparations in receiving areas.
We recently finished our survey of all the IDPs in the north. We are expecting the analysis of this data by the end of this month so that we can use this information about their willingness to return - whether they have children in school, what are their jobs, what is their place of return. Many questions will assist us in helping them.
We have another survey in government-controlled areas in the south, and another one in the SPLM-controlled areas. And the second survey we are going to conduct over the coming months will be in areas of return so that we will have a full picture of whether the places of return have the facilities to accept these people and provide for their needs.
All these surveys together will give us a clear picture. We think that most of the IDPs are willing to return, but not all of them at the same time. Once we have the details of the surveys we can make preparations with the government, UN agencies and with other organisations.
We think it is the standard that any displaced person needs to be transported, receive food assistance, security, protection, services in the area of return and some source of livelihood so that they can depend on themselves. For the area of return we are going to take an “area approach”. The refugees, the IDPs and the residents who are there will all have the same facilities and services.
Q: Environmental groups published a report about two weeks ago about the Merowe dam on the River Nile in northern Sudan. They said it was an important project in terms of electricity generation but expressed concern about the 50,000 people that had to be relocated. The report found that many of the free services and the compensation that had been promised to those affected had not been forthcoming. What is your reaction to these allegations?
A: I think this is one of the best-organised projects with the best-organised response for those that have been affected. The number is not so big, but it is [in] phases. I have been there to see their places, they have proper houses, they have proper facilities, they have farms, everything. And even it is better than the old villages. They have been compensated generously.
Phase two is those that have been affected by the construction and phase three is those who are very far from it. All the problems now are with those who are very far from the dam and they will be affected later on, in 2007. They think that they have to get the same things as those that are in the direct site of the dam. They think that even the Comprehensive Peace Agreement may affect them, that a new government will come and solve things for them.
I think this is one of the most important projects in Sudan, because it will produce double the amount of electricity that is being produced now in the whole of Sudan and it is one of the main programmes for poverty alleviation. One of our problems is that farmers cannot produce marketable or economical, feasible products because the costs of gasoline and spare parts in the rural areas are very high. The dam will create a tremendous amount of jobs by creating industry, because power is most important for industry.
It will change the whole situation in the area. I was there and they are now constructing an airport, a bridge, roads, everything, the whole area is moving now. About [US $] 2 billion will be spent in that area. It will bring it alive and change the area dramatically.
Q: And the affected people that are complaining about the lack of compensation and the lack of free services that they had been promised?
A: In the programme, they are there. They [free services and compensation] will come, but they will come later, they will come in phases. Some groups in the opposition want to use it as a political issue.