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There’s a new wind blowing in Sudan

I was sitting on a plane, flying over the Mediterranean, when I overheard one of the stewardesses say to a colleague, “OK, so we’re turning round and going back to Istanbul?” Gunfire had been reported in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, and the authorities had decided to close the airport. We, a three-man team from the Netherlands Court of Audit, were on our way to Sudan, to officially sign a memorandum of understanding cementing a partnership with the Sudanese National Audit Chamber (NAC). The idea was for us to help the NAC improve the management of public finances in Sudan. But it’s now Tuesday night, and we’re stranded in a hotel in Istanbul.

Auditor-general El Tahir Abdelghayoum Ibrahim Malik (right) of the National Audit Chamber of Sudan at the press conference in Khartoum.
Auditor-general El Tahir Abdelghayoum Ibrahim Malik (right) of the National Audit Chamber of Sudan at the press conference in Khartoum. Next to him vice-president Ewout Irrgang of the Netherlands Court of Audit.

This isn’t the first time that a spanner has been thrown in the works. We’ve known our Sudanese counterparts for many years now. They have consistently impressed us with their readiness to broach sensitive issues despite operating in a dictatorship. When we decided, back in the winter of 2019, to launch a partnership, this was at a time of mounting street protests. More and more people were taking to the streets to call for more democracy, less corruption, peace, and a better life. The government of President Bashir responded to the protests by declaring a state of emergency. These were not fitting conditions in which to try and start a form of bilateral cooperation. And the demonstrations continued even when President Bashir was deposed shortly afterwards in a military coup.

We stayed in touch with our Sudanese colleagues, albeit on an informal footing. But then, a new opportunity was suddenly thrown up by the installation of a transitional government consisting of a mix of army officers and civilians in September last year. The new government was a reformist government that would be much more likely to take heed of any findings and recommendations emanating from the Sudanese NAC. At the end of September, I ran into the head of the NAC, the Sudanese Auditor-General, during a conference in Moscow. Keen to seize the moment, we agreed to schedule the official launch of our partnership for this January. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs promises to support financially.

Not another banana skin?

Fast-forward to Wednesday morning, and the Dutch embassy in Khartoum has good news for us. Members of the former regime had staged a mutiny, but this has been crushed. The airport has been reopened and we’re free to travel. And so it is that we touch down in Khartoum at the beginning of the evening. Time for a reunion with two of our colleagues from the Netherlands Court of Audit in The Hague, who’d already arrived in Sudan some time before. We had been a bit worried about them, but they themselves weren’t in the least concerned: “We were staying in the same hotel as the President of Sudan, so it was probably the safest place in the country!”

As I said, the Sudanese NAC has asked us to help them improve the management of public finances. It’s clear from the start that it’s not going to be an easy ride. For one thing, the military are still firmly ensconced in the government, and also hold considerable sway over the economy. Dozens of mysterious state-owned corporations are used to channel a substantial portion of government expenditure away from the national budget. The Minister of Finance has no control over these corporations. With all sorts of special tax exemptions in operation alongside these shady money flows, it’s not surprising that the whole set-up is described as constituting a ‘shadow economy’. And this is precisely why the Sudanese NAC has asked us to help with two audits: one into the scale of the murky network of state-owned enterprises, and the other into the impenetrable mass of equally murky tax exemptions. These are two areas in which we have considerable expertise to offer.

We can also help the NAC with their communication activities. The NAC has already produced a wealth of critical audit reports in the past. It is vital that the new, reformist government should be made aware of the existence and contents of these reports.

The Sudanese Auditor-General, El Tahir Abdelghayoum Ibrahim Malik, is clearly relieved to see me and, later the same morning, we finally get round to formally signing the memorandum of understanding. A press conference follows, during which the Auditor-General is bombarded with critical questions. For example, won’t the partnership with the Dutch Court of Audit undermine the sovereignty of Sudan? The Auditor-General seeks to reassure the press: the Dutch will only be providing technical assistance, and the NAC will retain full responsibility. One of the questions directed at me is whether the Dutch reckon  the NAC is good enough for such a partnership. A cheer goes up in the room when I say in response that the critical findings published during a dictatorship are clear evidence that they take their impartiality very seriously indeed.

Later on in the afternoon, the NAC explains how it is planning to set about the audits. There is a discussion with the audience, which includes representatives of the Ministry of Finance, the tax authorities and the customs service. It is fascinating to see both the NAC and officials from the Ministry of Finance talking openly about corruption and the need to root it out. Clarity about the network of state-owned enterprises and the tax exemptions operating in parallel with the flow of revenue to the Ministry of Finance should prove a great help in this process.

In short, there is clearly new wind blowing in Sudan. But there’s still a massive amount to be done – and there’s also a big risk that the whole process will take far too long. Or even of progress being undone by resistance and mutiny stemming from those formerly in power, as we ourselves experienced during the first leg of our journey. Fortunately, our Sudanese counterparts are brimming with an infectious sense of optimism and enthusiasm. The team from the Netherlands Court of Audit can return home feeling satisfied. We’ll be back in Khartoum in a couple of months’ time – to do our bit in building a new Sudan.