STEPHEN GLOVER: Criticism of Foreign Office over Sudan is overblown
STEPHEN GLOVER: Criticism of the Foreign Office over Sudan is overblown… Brits living there really should know it is a very dangerous place
As a young journalist I knocked around Africa a fair bit, and quickly formed the view that if there were any unrest the Foreign Office was unlikely to be helpful.
British ambassadors were sometimes good for a game of tennis, or a ride in their official car, but they weren’t interested if trouble loomed.
Experienced correspondents knew that in such an eventuality there was little point in turning to our diplomats.
So when it was reported the entire British embassy staff in Sudan had been evacuated before a single ordinary British passport holder, I wasn’t surprised. There is a long tradition of our officials bolting when things get tough.
As for the ambassador, it seemed to follow the script that Our Man in Khartoum should already be safely in London on holiday.
When it was reported the entire British embassy staff in Sudan had been evacuated before a single ordinary British passport holder, I wasn’t surprised, writes Stephen Glover. Pictured: Rapid Support Forces (RSF) fighters
As for the ambassador, it seemed to follow the script that Our Man in Khartoum should already be safely in London on holiday. Pictured: Giles Lever, the UK’s ambassador to Sudan, pictured outside his London Home on April 24
All in all, it looked like a typical Foreign Office (FO) cave-in, doubtless made worse because, for reasons impossible to understand, less than half of the FO’s staff were said to be in their Whitehall offices when fighting erupted in Sudan.
And once officials had deserted their posts in the capital, Khartoum — assisted with great derring-do by our brave special forces — there was no one on the spot with knowledge of the country who could help coordinate a rescue mission for British nationals.
Nothing changes, I said to myself. And yet as I heard the BBC and other broadcasters imply an almost unprecedented dereliction of duty on the part of the FO, I began to question my own prejudices.
One British passport holder after another (some with dual nationality) complained that they had been abandoned, and could not easily, if at all, make their way to an airstrip near Khartoum when the RAF eventually laid on airplanes to bring them out.
Naturally one has every sympathy for people in their predicament. But is it reasonable to expect British special forces to provide a personal escort from their homes?
The more I think about it, the more I’m persuaded that much of the criticism directed at the Government, and even the FO, has been misplaced. This isn’t the cock-up that has been widely alleged. In fact — touch wood — the rescue mission may be turning into something of a triumph.
In the first place, armchair critics in Britain should get out a map of Sudan. The country is nearly eight times bigger than the UK. Not all of our nationals are clustered in a small part of Khartoum.
This isn’t the cock-up that has been widely alleged. In fact — touch wood — the rescue mission may be turning into something of a triumph. Pictured: British nationals board an RAF aircraft, after being evacuated in Khartoum
Moreover, there may be as many as 4,000 of them — many more than any other European nation can claim — largely as a result of Britain’s forgotten former colonial links with the country.
There was therefore some injustice in the suggestion that the UK was more leisurely in rescuing its nationals than EU states such as France or Italy — the implication being that post-Brexit Britain is uniquely incompetent. The truth is that we are having to deal with greater numbers than other countries.
Doubtless the authorities were a bit slow on the uptake, but over the past couple of days RAF planes have been making the best of the 72-hour ceasefire by flying as many British nationals to Cyprus as possible.
So, many of the criticisms are unfair and they probably mostly come from people who know nothing about Sudan, or indeed Africa. And there is one basic fact which they ignore: any British national who lives in Sudan should know that it is a very dangerous place.
A group of Britons holidaying in, say, Spain or Portugal would be justifiably astonished if they suddenly found themselves in the midst of a civil war, and in need of urgent rescue. No such surprise could be felt by any inhabitant of Sudan.
During the past 25 years, the country has been one of the most unstable not only in the world but also in Africa, which isn’t a continent famed for good and peaceful government.
There have been coups, civil war, massacres and dictatorships. After a long and exceptionally bloody struggle, South Sudan eventually broke away and became an independent country in 2011.
People evacuated from Sudan arrive on a flight from Cyprus into Stansted airport in Essex
Sudan is dysfunctional — corrupt, violent and poor, though a small elite has enriched itself. The present conflict between the leaders of Sudan’s regular army and a rival paramilitary group is the latest iteration in a long nightmare.
Yesterday it emerged that a former Sudanese politician called Ahmed Haroun, who is wanted for alleged crimes against humanity, has just escaped from prison in Khartoum. He faces 20 counts of crimes against humanity and 22 counts of war crimes, with charges including murder, rape and torture.
Also facing charges by the International Criminal Court is his former boss, ex-president Omar al-Bashir, who has been serving a jail sentence for corruption, and is currently in a military hospital. Bashir is accused of leading a campaign of mass killing and rape in Sudan’s Darfur region.
You get the picture. Poor Sudan is a benighted country. It follows that British nationals who have been living there — some of whom are of Sudanese descent, and know the country particularly well — can’t be in any doubt about the kind of place it is.
Much of the reporting and commentary hasn’t taken this into account. You might get the impression that our nationals living there have somehow been taken unawares. This cannot be true.
So when I hear people being interviewed in Sudan, and claiming that they have somehow been deserted by the British authorities, I have to take a deep breath. Surely British nationals who have chosen to live in such a deeply troubled country should take some responsibility for their situation.
Surely British nationals who have chosen to live in such a deeply troubled country should take some responsibility for their situation, writes Stephen Glover
As I say, I hope that any British passport holder who wants to leave Sudan will be rescued by the RAF, and as I write the mission is going well. But when a few of them complain about being asked to get to the airstrip, as though door-to-door service is some sort of divine right, I’m afraid my sympathy begins to waver.
Abroad is usually more complex, perhaps especially in Africa, than it may look from the green benches of the House of Commons or the eyrie of a journalist in a broadcasting studio in London.
I also believe there is a propensity in some quarters to assume that everything this Government does is tainted by incompetence and moral delinquency. So there is an eager rush to judgment. Half-witted ministers must have failed again.
Maybe inveterate Remainers, who are on the daily look-out for the latest evidence of supposed post-Brexit ineptitude, are especially quick to condemn. I don’t think I was being paranoid when I detected a certain exultancy in reports that the Italians and French were efficiently airlifting their nationals out of Sudan.
It’s not over yet, but let’s hope that this time next week we’ll be able to declare a British success. Pictured: A mother and child arrive in UK after fleeing Sudan via Cyprus
Admittedly we were slow off the mark, and it was wrong for all our officials to desert their posts so quickly, though I think it was right that their families (I mean spouses and children) were rescued when they were.
But actually Rishi Sunak and the Government have done a pretty good job in appalling circumstances, and hundreds of our servicemen have behaved courageously. It’s not over yet, but let’s hope that this time next week we’ll be able to declare a British success.
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