It was not completely a new story, but the venue mattered.
Last week and on the side meetings of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Durban, South Africa, the German giant Siemens announced that it has signed a memorandum of understanding to work closely with Sudan and Uganda in areas of power supply, healthcare, industry and transportation.
The WEF meeting in Durban, is an offshoot of the mother one held annually in Davos, Switzerland, where some 2500 participants from all over the world descend to meet and mingle with politicians, businessmen, media, bankers, NGO figures and so on in an informal gathering. Sudan was never a participant in such meetings whether in the main one in Davos, or the regional ones in South Africa and Jordan.
In fact and for years, whenever Sudan is mentioned it was in a negative way whether in one of the UN agencies or the African Union because of its ongoing crises.
But here in Durban and through Siemens press release the tone has changed and is signaling to a positive development in the form of a partnership with one of the leading world companies.
It was a ground breaking event last December, when Siemens announced that it was supplying Sudan with five gas turbines to its thermal generating company and that the project would be completed by the end of this year.
That was a significant step at the time Sudan was reeling under US sanctions. Businesses and bankers were over complying with US sanction regulations to avoid being penalized for doing any business with Sudan. But the Germans seem to be believing into a different approach: constructive engagement, instead of boycott. And they prove to be right. The Siemens move came six weeks ahead of US President Barak Obama's decision to ease sanctions on Sudan in a partial and temporary way for a six-month test period.
The step by Siemens was quite a shift. It was one of the western companies, who had concluded more than $20 million contracts with then Sudan's nascent oil industry, but given the flare-up of the civil war in south Sudan that was followed with violence in Darfur, many NGOs and activists have joined hands to launch a divestment campaign targeting western companies working in Sudan to leave the country as a way of exerting pressure on Khartoum. Siemens was one of those companies who pulled out and stopped doing any business in Sudan for more than a decade.
If the move then was interpreted as yielding under the public pressure of NGOs and activists, the return to do business with Sudan is a signal that such pressure is not as a strong or effective as it used to be. And more important imposing sanctions and divestment is not the best way to make positive changes in country's behavior.
A multi-national company like Siemens with strong track record of expertise and more than 150 years of operating traditions in Africa could really add value to Sudan's attempt to break out of the cell of sanctions and poor foreign relations. When the forthcoming MOU with the Gulf countries is added, this will represent the best chance so far for the country to make a breakthrough and put a firm foot on the way to socio-economic development that can be the base for the much missing political stability.
However, more depends on Sudan putting its own house in order to utilize this opportunity. First and foremost is the political environment that allows for transparency, the rule of law, checks and balances and before that reaching out for some settlement to address grievances in the regions that allow for looking for solutions through ballots, not bullets.
In fact Sudan's inability to utilize its abundant natural resources can only be matched with its inability to draw the valuable lessons from its rich political experience and build on it.
Politics provide the framework and environment for business to operate where there is a lot that needs to be done from raising the efficiency of the state employees, to providing timely and accurate statistics and work along a plan to improve the World Bank scale of doing business in Sudan from its current low ranking of 168.
The Siemens announcement should be regarded as an opening or a message that needs a well-tailored effort to translate it into tangible programs and results that can pave the road of Sudan towards development, prosperity and political stability.