Ilham Ahmed: Sudan Wants to Revive Ties with Bulgaria at All Levels
Novinite has met with Sudan’s Ambassador to Bulgaria, H.E. Ilham Ahmed, whose country is marking 61 years of independence – but also the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Khartoum and Sofia.
Ms Ahmed, whose mission in Sofia started in September 2014, is also accredited to Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania.
She began her diplomatic career in January 1989 and since then has worked at all levels of Sudan’s diplomatic service. Between 1998 and 2004, she was a senior diplomat in Sudan’s permanent mission to the United Nations. From 2008 to 2011, she was Khartoum’s Ambassador to Oslo, Norway.
Your Excellency, Bulgaria was one of the very first countries to recognize Sudan’s independence back in 1956, but later closed its embassy in Khartoum, while Sudan opened one in Sofia in 2007. What was it that made your country take the step after a decade of relatively stalled relations?
First of all, thank you so much for this opportunity. Sudan became independent in 1956 and Bulgaria established relations in July 1956 of the same year - and then immediately took the positive initiative in Khartoum. At the time, as we were a newly independent country, it was difficult to open embassies in the spot. In the first period of our independence, we were represented from Moscow and later on from Bucharest in Romania. To answer your question, because bilateral relations have been going on very well, it was thought it would be very important to have a resident representation of Sudan in Bulgaria. That was why in 1999 the embassy was moved from Romania to Bulgaria. It was a General Consulate at the beginning, for different reasons, including economic ones. But a little before 2007, the government of Sudan thought the country must have a full-fledged embassy and that was why we opened one in 2007 to further promote bilateral relations.
Still, knowing that relations were much more intense in the past, which cannot be returned, and judging from your intense activity as ambassador here, is there a goal to restore the intensity of relations that once existed?
Very much so. First, you are very right about what you just told me. Relations were very intense and active at all levels - academic, political, even military cooperation. But you know, at the time there was a transition and in many parts of the world changes happened. Both countries were busy reorganizing themselves as a result of the transition. That is why each was prioritizing at different levels. But the good thing is that relations have always been there. They were never cut, it was just a matter of embassies sometimes closing and sometimes opening due to the byproducts of the transition. Now we are back again, after all this period, I had before me two or three colleague ambassadors who did their best to promote bilateral ties. Since my tenure here in Sofia actually I try very much to revive relations at all levels, because I believe that we can do something with Bulgaria and Bulgaria can do something with Sudan – now the second-largest country in Africa, with enormous resources. We have always enjoyed historical relationship with Bulgaria, and I thought we can do business together. That is why one of my mandates when I was nominated by my government was also something I told the President of Bulgaria when I presented my credentials - that I came with one message: we want to revive active relations. And I think to a certain extent I have managed to do some movement in that respect.
When you first arrived, you said you would help build a tourist corridor between Bulgaria and Sudan. How far has this project gone?
This is a very good question because it came in the right time. Promoting tourism and promoting Sudan as a tourist destination was in my priorities. I managed to do a lot of talk with universities, with businessmen, with companies reaching out to different regions here in Bulgaria, municipalities and so forth, exchanges of ideas about Sudan and what Sudan can provide to a tourist from Bulgaria. And indeed, to a certain extent we have managed to promote Sudan in that respect. There was one important project I have been working on - and I am very happy to tell you that we managed to organize a tourist group to go to the Red Sea state in Eastern Sudan in order to see for themselves what Sudan can provide. I was truly happy to know that, even before me coming here, there were at least two tour operators in Bulgaria who had already been taking touristic groups from Bulgaria to Sudan, to see the Sahara, to see the Red Sea and other attractions in the Sudan. So this group of tourists from Bulgaria is a very important project to me that I managed to have materialized. It is supposed to move very soon at the end of February and I believe it will be a very good beginning of further visits.
I don't know if the Red Sea trip is more for leisure purposes, but as regards cultural sightseeing, maybe Bulgaria and Sudan do have a task in common: to preserve their heritage. The pyramids in your country, for example, still need preservation care, and so do many monuments here. Is there any potential of working on this or other cultural cooperation?
On the first part of your question, the trip is for leisure, but at the same time from the composition of the group itself you will find businessmen, investors, journalists, academicians who are interested in tourism; you will also find tour operators. All of these people will go talk with their counterparts about what the state can offer.
As to the second part of the question, in fact a few months back I met with the [former] Bulgarian Minister of Culture and we have discussed many issues pertaining to the promotion of real cultural cooperation between the two countries. Interestingly enough, you may know that we already had a very old agreement of bilateral cooperation. One of the points I have presented to the minister is the issue of archaeology and historical sites in the Sudan and that we would like to have Bulgarian scientists and Bulgarian archaeologists to come as a mission in order to study and to help in this regard, bearing in mind we have several missions from other European countries - France, Sweden, Italy and Hungary. We know Bulgaria can share with us very good experience because it is a very rich country in history and archaeology, and so is Sudan. Maybe I can mention a few - Nubia, the pyramids in Bijrawiya, the other temples in the northern states - there is a lot we can offer. Maybe it will interest you that we now have a huge project in this archaeological areas by the Qatar Foundation in order to promote this and build infrastructure in cooperation with the government of Sudan and the other archaeological missions.
Maybe it is too early to say, but do you have any affirmative response from Bulgarian archaeologists willing to go?
So far no. But I will continue my coordination to see if there is any interest.
Passing on to education, statistics show that during the Cold War many Sudanese students were enrolled in Bulgarian universities. In 2006, there were only two of them and just as many in 2015. There were also years with a zero. On the other hand, Sudanese universities are active trying to draw in Bulgarian students. Has there been any development?
In the field of education yes, the Cold War era actually was the most active time when there was cultural and academic cooperation. It may interest you to know that in that period there were more than 3000 Sudanese graduates from Bulgarian universities, who are now doctors and engineers holding very important positions in Sudan. But now I share with you the regret this number has dwindled. However, this is another field I am trying to work on very hard. There is also another important element that is affecting such cooperation – the system has changed, especially in Bulgaria. Now cooperation agreements take place directly between universities, and this is what is happening now. I am glad we have several MoUs between universities in both countries, but nevertheless, we don't have that big number of students here. From the Bulgarian side – yes, we have been promoting Sudan also as a country where in particular specializations like Arabic language, conflict resolution and conflict management, as we have big experience in this field, so there are some Bulgarian students going there, but it's not up to our expectations. We want both countries to elevate this cooperation, but both sides should continue working together on this. We have to bear in mind also other elements hampering such cooperation - the visa issue, the embassy issue... We need the Bulgarian Embassy also to open soon, hopefully, in Khartoum. But all in all, we continue to work on this field.
Sudan is also far from being in the list of main trade partners. That said, are there any domains where the trade exchange is growing of certain products?
What has affected education has also affected trade due to this transition. I must admit again, trade exchange is below our expectation and we want it to increase very much. I can however say there is a lot of interest and exchanges at the level of businessmen. The main products are gum arabic, sesame, salt and sugar. On the other hand, we have many Bulgarian investments in mining coming right now in the Sudan. But to me also one of the biggest investments is indeed in education, because we do have many Bulgarian professors working on specific contracts with Sudanese universities. If we consider that investment, it is a very good one. But on trade, both countries need to work hard to promote it.
Having in mind this cultural event that was actually the celebration of the 60th anniversary of Sudan - Bulgarians have had little exposure to Sudanese culture these last years. Are there more events coming this year that we should expect?
Yes, actually since I came it was on my agenda to promote culture. Personally I believe in culture as a very strong means to promote a country, to make people to get to know each other, because culture is simple, it goes directly to the mind and heart of normal people. We know that talk and politics are as important as they are, but culture in my point of view is stronger. We managed to carry out many cultural activities to bring folklore from Sudan, to bring artists from Sudan - and yes, this last week we had a very nice event to celebrate 60th anniversary of relations and the 61st anniversary of independence. We do have plans for this year – we already received the invitation for Burgas summer festival, as well as one to participate in an international handicrafts fair in Gabrovo. We want to work towards having artists, because we want to make it a habit to be present in all these events. We are also to participate in another festival that usually comes in May. We are regular exhibitors in December of each year at the International Women’s Club annual charity bazaar.
You tend to have a remarkable stall there.
We do. We have been exhibiting for the past three years, successively, and each year we have a bigger stall and come with a new dimension for exhibits, because we always have very exotic products we want to share with Bulgarian friends and because we love to participate in the charity bazaar due to its benevolent objectives. So we look forward to that, and we look forward to more cultural events.
Is there any other area of cooperation I forgot to ask about but something is ongoing as a project?
We are also working on the issue of sports. An exchange of sports, technical know-how. You know that Bulgarian coaches and academy of sports have been active since long time and in Sudan sports is very popular, especially football in addition to different Olympic sports, so it will be good to have this kind of relationship strengthened once again. We already have a very interesting exchange. We enjoy very excellent relations with the National Sports Academy. Also, last year the football team of the embassy of Sudan in Sofia got the trophy of the UN diplomatic corps tournament. This year both the Sudanese embassy and Sudanese community are playing. So yes, we are looking to promote further cooperation in the field of sports.
To conclude, over these 60 years, is there any stable association in Sudanese people's minds when it comes to Bulgaria? What is it best known for?
It is known for different things. The association is very peaceful and nice, first and foremost. Of course, people still remember the pilots who have been working in the Sudan since the early times of the 1960s to help in crop dusting of the huge agricultural products in the Sudan. The Bulgarian pilots used to help in the Gezira scheme – the largest agricultural scheme in Africa as a whole – as well as in Eastern Sudan in Qadarif area. This is one important element. What is good about this is that it is still ongoing, it has never stopped. And this tells you how strong this association is about Bulgarians. Secondly, I am also happy to tell you that the Sudanese who studied here in Bulgaria – and Sudanese-Bulgarian families who got married to Bulgarian women and vice versa – established themselves for a very long time in Sudan. Now we have many Bulgarians living in Sudan for such a long time and now they have managed to establish a similar Sudanese-Bulgarian association, which is very active and they coordinate with us here and with the newly established friendship association in Sofia. So rest assured, Bulgaria is in the hearts and minds of the Sudanese people.
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