- An African giant -

Africa's biggest country is no stranger to drought, famine and civil war, but economic reform and the exploitation of oil resources have brought new hope

Labour force: petroleum will bring jobs, export revenue and kick-start industryMention Sudan to many British people and their minds will conjure up the image of General Gordon, perishing at the hands of supporters of the 19th century Islamic nationalist, the Mahdi, on the steps of what is now the presidential palace in Khartoum. From history books and Hollywood films, the white-robed figure of the Mahdi himself is familiar. At the end of October, copies of his photograph were held aloft in the streets of the Sudanese capital as the crowds gathered to welcome his great-grandson, Sadiq al-Mahdi, the leader of one of the country's main political parties, back from four years of self-imposed exile.

Timed to coincide with the run-up to the elections held during the second week of December, Mr Al-Mahdi's return was symbolic of what has been dubbed Sudan's equivalent of glasnost and perestroika. Political reform and democratisation are taking place alongside profound economic change. Shunned by much of the Western world during the 1990s due to the negative perception of the so-called fundamentalist regime in Khartoum, the largest country in Africa is now coming in from the cold. Foreign minister Mustafa Osman Ismail makes no secret of the fact that the government of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir hopes that domestic political change will make Sudan more appealing to Western investors as well as foreign governments. "We need to have good relations with the West and those who have technology," he says. "To have that, you need to follow the international tendency for more participation, democracy, human rights, openness, the rule of law and good governance," he says.

The changes are radical but cannot happen overnight

AL-BASHIR 'We set a model for privatisation in the telecoms sector' President Al-Bashir (click here for the full transcription of his interview) acknowledges that the bad press Sudan has received in Britain and elsewhere in recent years - including coverage of the civil war that has raged in the south - has damaged the investment climate. But he says that domestic factors were involved as well. "Firstly, there was a lack of energy in the country and a lack of foreign currency. Also, the trade unions were so powerful that they could put off investors. Lastly, there was a lack of clarity in the policy of the state itself."

Over the past couple of years, there has been a radical overhaul of much of the government's policy. Sudan's economic performance has been boosted by the successful exploitation of oil deposits and a rigorous privatisation programme has been launched. "We set a model for privatisation in the telecommunications sector," President Al-Bashir says. "We have achieved a bright success in that field, and the entire work-force is Sudanese. This has proven to a high extent how viable privatisation is in this country."

Sudan's labour force is one of the country's greatest assets. Although the majority of the 30 million population still works on the land, there is a highly educated minority, many of whom are studying abroad in countries such as Britain. These are the people who will spearhead the country's planned entry into the technological age. At the same time, the government has no intention of neglecting Sudan's agricultural potential. As President Al-Bashir points out, agricultural products can make a significant contribution to his country's export earnings.

"We can cover the whole of Europe with vegetables and fruits during winter," he says. "Then there are our animal resources. Our cows aren't mad. And we have processing industries - things like sugar and oil-seeds." There are more than 100 million head of livestock in Sudan, including cattle, sheep, goats and camels, and there is already an important export trade in meat and live animals. But to capitalise on such resources, the country needs to spend a lot of money on upgrading its infrastructure.

A key element of the government's Comprehensive National Strategy for Development aims to increase land transport capacity by 20 times, tarmack the roads, and connect the huge and diverse country to the network. A 25-year development plan has been drawn up and divided into five-year stages, with foreign investment playing a vital role.

The government is conscious, however, that so long as there is fighting in the south, some investors will be cautious about becoming too heavily engaged. But moves for peace have been afoot during recent months, involving representatives of President Al-Bashir, Sadiq al-Mahdi, Muhammad Mirghani, the leader of one of the country's main political parties, and John Garang, leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, one of the main forces operating in the south.

Although the nature of the current changes taking place in Sudan are radical, people realise that there can be no overnight transformation. Even with an annual growth rate of about six per cent, the economy still has a long way to go before most Sudanese can enjoy a decent standard of living. It is not so long ago that many of them were suffering starvation. According to the minister of justice, Ali Mohamed Osman Yassin, people realise there is a long road ahead. "The Sudanese are very patient because they are sure there is a good future waiting for them," he says. "But this government has told them to be extremely patient. We faced starvation some time ago, but now we are improving. We will come to the end of the road, God willing, and find prosperity."

Both the government and Sudanese businessmen realise what it will take to rebuild the country's image in the eyes of the outside world. Abd Elwahab Ahmed Hamza is managing director of the Sudan Development Corporation, a government-established body which aims to attract investment to key sectors of the economy. He is realistic about the future: "Everyone in Sudan has been facing problems in explaining to people abroad about Sudan's potential. The outside world is, of course, excused because of what they see in the media. But now the image is changing and people are beginning to understand."