It is not the first time that Sudan decides to curtail its diplomatic presence abroad. Faced with similar economic crisis and scarcity of hard currency as the one the country is currently experiencing, then President Ja’far Nimiery opted for scaling down embassies abroad with little savings achieved, if ever, given the high cost of closing down such operation with all its overheads.
The problem is not with repeating the same exercise, but in continue to expand into such costly diplomatic presence with no visible return or justification be it political, economic or because of having a larger Sudanese community that is in need of continuous consular services. A list of countries in Africa, Asia, East and Central Europe and where there is not much to achieve on bilateral levels leads to the conclusion that those embassies were merely set up to find placements to growing number of ambassadors.
The move has been drastic so far. Closing down 13 missions, drop the practice of having more than one ambassador in one embassy except for four major ones, in addition to scrapping information attaches except three in London, Cairo and Doha, reduce clerical and support staff by 50 percent and so on.
But that is not enough. And it will not have the desired effect, at least for the time being.
If the bottom line is to cut on government spending, there is a lot that could be done now and stick to it firmly. The government needs to set a good example. And that could be achieved easily by applying a surgical operation to reduce the political fat that has plagued the constitutional and the executive branches of the government.
Following the conclusion of the National Dialogue (ND) new members were added to the National Congress, or the parliament and with the States Council that operates as upper legislative chamber, some 400 members are currently representing the legislative branches. In addition there are 31 federal ministers, 40 state ministers, two vice presidents and four presidential assistants, all representing those who participated in that ND.
The problem is not restricted to gloating political appointees only. More seriously and costly is the ever growing spending on delegations travelling for endless saga of conferences and meetings. The very day the austerity knife was falling on the foreign affairs ministry, a delegation was heading for China for yet another mission to study the Chinese experience.
The cuts in the diplomatic staff abroad has been mooted for quite some time, but it was triggered by statement by former foreign minister Ibrahim Ghandour, who complained before the parliament that some diplomats have not received their entitlements for seven months, which is an untenable situation by any measure, if proved to be true. Some leaks have pointed to a different story pointing out that rich embassies like those in the Gulf countries or China where a commercial center is netting sizeable amount of income used to fund some embassies.
Such funds were believed to be under the discretion of the foreign affairs minister. And that is one of the areas needs to be addressed quickly and seriously. In fact what is happening in the foreign ministry is the tip of an iceberg, where many income generating government departments or ministries have resorted to the practice of sidelining whatever income from fees or otherwise that they levy and use to facilitate their operations. As a result those generating income departments have at their disposal an income to use for their own sake, while those who don’t generate income were left at the mercy of the ministry of finance.
The outcome of such exercise is that the government through its finance ministry has no longer jurisdiction over public money. The conventional logic, and for a reason, is that all income should be collected on behalf of the finance ministry, transferred to it, while ministries and other departments have to submit their budget proposals and when approved they receive their entitlements from the finance ministry.
Unless that exercise is brought back into operation in a strict and disciplined way the problems of deficits and inability to finance government operations will continue to be around. Simply put it is high time to resort back to the old order.
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