- Tangible signs of regional reintegration -

A marked improvement in the region's political atmosphere has coincided with moves to implement a free trade zone

At various times since gaining independence, Sudan has had strained relations with several of its neighbours, such as Egypt, Eritrea and Uganda. Similarly, feelings between Sudan and Libya have run alternately hot and cold. Sometimes security issues have been at stake, while on other occasions Sudan's interpretation of Islamic law has made even some of the predominantly Muslim African states uneasy.

For both geographical and economic reasons, it would make little sense for Sudan to be isolated from the rest of the continent. And over the past couple of years there has been a marked change in the regional political atmosphere, coinciding with reforms inside Sudan itself. Cairo and Tripoli are both actively supporting the campaign to remove international sanctions, imposed on Sudan in the mid-1990s when the United States accused Khartoum of fostering terrorism.

Sudan's rehabilitation has also received backing from both the Arab League and the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Several of the country's neighbours have even become actively involved in furthering the peace process within Sudan in an attempt to overcome the long-standing antagonisms between the north and south, and among the various southern ethnic groups.

One of the most tangible signs of Sudan's regional reintegration is the way in which it is now participating keenly in the revitalised Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa). This brings together 20 diverse African countries, ranging from physical giants like Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo to tiny states such as Djibouti and the Seychelles. At a summit meeting in the Zambian capital of Lusaka at the end of October, nine of these members including Sudan, took the historic step to launch a free trade area. Others are expected to join later. Comesa officials say this is the first major step towards full regional integration and a common currency by the year 2025.

The free trade area agreement guarantees the free movement of goods and services produced within Comesa, as well as the removal of all tariff and non-tariff barriers. Immediately after the Lusaka Summit, the Ministry of Finance in Khartoum started setting up mechanisms to implement the zero tariff. The minister of finance and national economy, Mohamed Khair al-Zubeir, stresses Sudan's African vocation and what he sees as the country's pre-eminent position. "From its size and location, and in terms of its resources, Sudan is the richest country in Africa and the Middle East," he says. "The Middle East only has oil. We have oil as well as other resources; so many pluses, including water."

AL-ZUBEIR 'We have oil and other resources, including water' Dr al-Zubeir continues: "Sudan is 60 per cent of the Nile basin. The White Nile comes from Uganda, while from Ethiopia there is the Blue Nile. They meet here in Khartoum and then the river goes on into Egypt. We get water from the Nile, and we have both rain-water and underground water, which constitutes enormous wealth." For a country in which agriculture and the processing of cultivated products still play a vital role in the economy and in external trade, water is indeed crucial. Moreover, Sudan is fortunate in having access to the Red Sea, with over 500 miles of coastline.

KAMBAL 'There is freedom of foreign exchange now' "The best location in Africa!" says Dr al-Zubeir. The minister of external trade, Mekki Ali Belail, concurs. "We border nine African countries, so we are actually right at the heart of Africa," he points out. "This gives us the means to deal easily with many countries. So I believe we have the most favourable location in Africa, so far as Comesa is concerned." Mr Belail maintains that Sudan's economy is probably better than any other Comesa member, with the exception of Egypt. "This is why we think that, given our potential in agricultural products, combined with minerals and even industrial products, we have great potential that we can make use of. We do not need to fear competition," he says. Egypt is an exception that cannot be ignored, however. "Of course we're concerned about Egypt," Mr Belail admits. "Its economy is well-developed and better than ours. Of course, Egyptian products are more competitive than ours. That is why we have a special protocol for dealing with Egypt, and we have an agreement with them to overcome any problems that might arise."

The development of a regional market for Sudan's products could play a vital role in helping the government to achieve its goal of turning Sudan into one of Africa's economic giants. "We have the opportunity to export certain products like sugar to other Comesa countries," says Abdel Halim Ismail al-Mutaafi, the minister for national industry and investment. "Also textiles, if we work hard. And food to the Horn of Africa. Right now, we are introducing steel, aluminium and other metallurgical industries, for export to the Comesa countries."

Maguzeb Khaliffa, the governor of the state of Khartoum, says the capital could become a leading player in the economy of Comesa. The growing industrial complex of Giad is situated near the city and Dr Khaliffa says Sudan is now the third-largest industrialised state in Africa after South Africa and Egypt. He adds that, with so many projects under way in his state, the overriding need is to improve communications between Comesa members, and particularly Sudan's landlocked neighbours.

Ali Khider Kambal, secretary general of the Sudanese Businessmen and Employers Federation, says: "Comesa is a very big African market, so if you produce in Sudan you can export to the other countries which are members. "There is freedom of foreign exchange and we have a stock market. People who have invested in telecommunications and energy are profiting and are very successful, but there is still a lot of potential in Sudan. We are very active in developing our foreign relations, and we participate in many conferences abroad to encourage investment in Sudan and to provide information about our country."