Sudan belatedly tries to sharpen its act
We were wandering around the souk in Khartoum late at night - dodging the boys selling plastic AK-47s and looking at the camel saddles - when the electricity went. The market was plunged into darkness, and suddenly a hand grabbed my elbow. Anywhere else in the world, particularly in any other fundamentalist Muslim country, I would have been frightened. But in northern Sudan the people are incredibly hospitable to "Khawaja" - Westerners. The man was merely guiding me to the pavement.
Walking by the Nile in the early morning, the washerwomen wave. One man asked if I was Russian. When I explained that I was English, he laughed as he told me that my country had done bad things, going back to Kitchener. In the refugee camps and the homes I visited for The Daily Telegraph Christmas Appeal, everyone offered tea and fizzy drinks.
But they are nervous. In the camps, the tribal elders listen to the BBC Arabic service. In Khartoum, the news was switched off only when Manchester City played Norwich. The presidential election is as crucial to the future of the Sudanese as to Seattle.
"Bush has won," said one man, cradling his head in his hands. Hayder Ahmed is a psychologist. He was imprisoned and tortured by the Sudanese government for refusing to join the army at university. But he says he would prefer any Sudanese government to George W Bush.
"Emotionally, we were for Kerry even though we didn't understand what he stood for," he said.
"After Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush could go for us next," said his friend, Imad Musa. "It's either us, Iran or Syria. He can do what he wants now he has won such a big victory."
In northern Sudan, this is their fear - that they will become the next Iraq, just as their lot seems to be improving. They know the world's attention has swung to the largest country in Africa. In the past three months, they have received visits from Hilary Benn, Colin Powell, Jack Straw, Kofi Annan and Tony Blair. They are becoming used to the motorcades and cameras.
The "Western elders" all lectured them on the atrocities being perpetrated in Darfur. Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary, called the 1.5 million refugees, and the reports of rape and looting, "unacceptable". Colin Powell made it clear that the Janjaweed irregulars terrifying Darfur had to be bought under control. Kofi Annan begged for peace. And you know, said Mr Blair, it really would be better if the Khartoum regime sorted itself out and held independent elections. Hanging over their words was the threat: if you don't get your act together, you could be next.
In many ways, Sudan is in dire straits, particularly in southern Darfur, where villages continue to be torched by the Janjaweed. But the situation in the rest of the country is improving. In the north, the imams are relaxing their grip. Women walk with their heads uncovered. At an orphanage I visited two years ago, babies found on the streets by the police were often left to die; single mothers were stoned. Now the same police beam as they rush the babies to the doctors.
It is no longer illegal to talk negatively about the regime. As a result, many I met were openly outraged by corruption. Even the ministers are trying belatedly to sharpen up their act. "Iraq has been a lesson to us all," said one Sudanese minister, who didn't want to be named.
"If Americans troops arrive, our country will suffer for another 40 years."
In the Darfur refugee camps, foreign intervention is welcome. The area is suffering from a crippling famine and US Aid, the EU and Britain have flown in enough food to feed one million people for the next six months. The refugees no longer trust their own government, whom they believe armed the nomadic Janjaweed against the farmers.
But everyone else I met wanted to keep the West out. "They are what you call a sticking plaster with their aid, and for that we are very grateful. But what we need is more African Union troops; at present, we only have 3,000 of them to keep the peace," said one Sudanese director of an aid agency. "This continent needs to prove we can change on our own."
Most insist that anything that can be seen as occupation will play into the hands of foreign
fundamentalists. "Arabs, Africans, Christians, Muslims: we will be obliged to take up arms against the West."
Mr Blair has promised that Africa is his top priority. He has been saying that since his party conference speech three years ago. Now he seems to mean it. When Britain takes over the presidency of both the G8 and the European Union next year, Africa will be the main topic.
Sudan is an obvious starting point. So what do the Sudanese think Mr Bush and Mr Blair should do? The answer on the streets is that they should put more pressure on those involved in the peace agreements. Then ensure that Khartoum sticks to its promise of independent elections.
Easier said than done. Britain, when it is not shaking Robert Mugabe's hand, has been pushing for regime change in Zimbabwe for years. Sanctions didn't work in toppling Saddam.
What's different about Sudan? "Everyone has had enough of war. We want to be normal. Every family has lost at least one member," said a paediatrician who fled the south 20 years ago.
The war in Iraq has been both a curse and a blessing to Sudan. It has meant they no longer like America, in the way they liked the America of Ronald Reagan, who gave them aid when they were starving in the 1980s.
But it has also shown everyone - from ministers to imams to rebels - that, if they don't sort out their own affairs, they could become a country occupied by both Western troops and foreign fundamentalists.