Home | News    Tuesday 17 January 2006

Khartoum rushes to transform itself for AU summit

Jan 17, 2006 (KHARTOUM) — Khartoum’s usually slow-paced city centre is a hive of activity as impoverished Sudan rushes to smarten up its rundown capital for next week’s African Union summit, the first major gathering here in almost three decades.

The government has build luxury Nile-side villas for visiting presidents, commandeered hotels, tarmacked roads and turned hoses on the muddy river banks in an effort to create lush green lawns in this desert city.

Rights groups have protested against the decision to hold the Jan. 23-24 summit in Khartoum, saying the government should not be honoured in this way while conflict and atrocities persist in its remote western Darfur region.

"For years this government has done nothing to improve this city, and now suddenly it is transformed," said student Khaled Osman. "It just goes to show what they are capable of doing if they put their minds to it."

The government, which relies heavily on foreign aid to feed and shelter 2 million refugees in Darfur, has declined to say how much the summit preparations will cost. But many speculate it will have spent tens of millions of dollars.

"It is ridiculous how much money this summit is costing — millions of dollars," said one hotel manager who declined to be named.

Omar Berido, head of the summit organising committee, said he is expecting up to 3,000 delegates but there is a shortage of rooms because some hotels being built for the summit were not finished in time.

A presidential decree has reserved every room in Khartoum’s mostly run-down hotels from Jan. 15 onwards.

"We have rehabilitated some boats on the river for accommodation ... and we are quite confident we are ready," Berido said. The AU gathering is the first major summit Sudan has hosted since 1978.

The venue was chosen to reward Sudan for signing a peace deal last year that ended the war in the south, Africa’s longest civil war. But conflicts still simmer in the east and in Darfur, where pro-government militias stand accused of a widespread campaign of rape, looting and killing.

The violence has driven more than 2 million people into miserable camps and prompted one of the world’s largest humanitarian operations, costing more than a billion dollars of international aid money.

NILE-SIDE VILLAS

Sudan earns billions of dollars a year from oil production of about 330,000 barrels per day and, according to the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, is among the 20 most corrupt nations on earth.

As the summit approaches, it is clear where at least some of the government’s money is being spent — on 40 presidential villas in a secure complex equipped with swimming pool, health club and in-house staff.

"We imported a lot of equipment from Europe," said Armand Vargas of the French company Accor, which has been hired to run the complex. "It’s of top quality and all the kitchen equipment is state of the art," he said. Expatriate staff have been flown in to serve the presidents.

A new road links the complex to the conference centre beside the Nile, and the recent removal of a corrugated iron fence surrounding the centre has revealed a pristine white annexe to the main conference hall, sparkling under the desert sun.

The dazzling new buildings stand in stark contrast to the miles of slums which surround the capital and house many of its residents — with no running water, electricity or healthcare.

"African presidents will come here, but will leave with no idea how real Sudanese live," said Osman the student.

(Reuters)