How the military is helping fight Sudan's economic woes

Join the Army . . . and become a captain of industry? In theory, at least, that is becoming possible in Sudan, where the Military Economic Corporation (MEC) established last September is involving the armed forces in the battle to come to grips with the country's soaring economic difficulties.

The Sudanese armed forces are offering their members far more attractive career opportunities and jobs than the suppression of antigovernment riots, the combat of bandits and armed political dissidents in the country's rough southern provinces, or the foiling of plots hatched by Sudan's unpredictable neighbor, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

In the future, enlisted men will be able to assemble Bedford trucks in Port Sudan, serve as municipal bus drivers in Khartoum, tend farms in the countryside , or work the road between Khartoum and Port Sudan as truck drivers.

More senior military personnel may want to become bank directors, insurance company executives, industry captains, or trade monopolists.

The opportunities could be almost unlimited, provided Sudan's MEC - the umbrella for an increasing number of military-economic enterprises - proves to be more successful than the country's faltering civilian public sector.

Sudanese businessmen and diplomats alike attribute ''noble intentions'' to the Sudanese military's attempt to establish itself as one of the country's major economic factors.

Yet they fear that President Jaafar Nimeiry may be embarking once again on a politically and economically risky road.

MEC was preceded by a series of economic conferences in January last year during which President Nimeiry faced severe military criticism of his economic policies.

The Sudanese leader countered moves to replace him by removing 22 senior officers in a sweeping shuffle of the top echelon of the armed forces. A senior Western diplomat summed it up: ''Nimeiry has effectively destroyed any coherent political opposition to his regime.''

Three officers, described by observers in Khartoum as ''not very popular in the armed forces,'' were appointed commanders of the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force. But Mr. Nimeiry waited until last October to promote Army chief General Dahab, a reportedly docile, nondescript man, to the post of deputy commander-in-chief of the Sudanese armed forces.

Many in Khartoum feel the MEC was, as one put it, ''a nice way to give senior officers access to funds.'' A well-informed source said that ''there are lots of pickings to be made at the top'' and warned that MEC runs the grave risk of corruption.

MEC officials, more often than not dressed in military garb, emphatically deny that the corporation is a means of keeping the armed forces in line. Insisting that profit is not MEC's most important goal, they argue that the armed forces have a defensive role in times of war and the obligation to further economic development in times of peace.

''Our peace task is to help the economy flourish,'' a senior MEC spokesman told the Monitor.

MEC philosophy appears to involve contempt for civilians and their ability to cope with Sudan's towering economic difficulties. ''We have the discipline, the experience in management, and the command structure to tackle fundamental problems,'' the spokesman said.

MEC hopes to cut labor costs by utilizing ''idle manpower'' available within the armed forces. Military equipment such as bulldozers and buses will in the future ''benefit the people.''

President Nimeiry, who serves as chairman of MEC, envisions MEC as a demonstration to both the public and the private sector of how to manage the economy, the spokesman said, adding that ''all MEC officials have been personally appointed by the President.''

MEC expects to have established itself in 22 sectors of the Sudanese economy by September. A sampling of MEC activities and programs leaves little doubt of the economic impact MEC foresees for itself:

* The Military Banking and Insurance Corporation has well-developed plans for the establishment of a bank, co-financed by the El Nilein Bank and the Bank of Khartoum. This MEC subsidiary will also form a new insurance company.

* The Military Commercial Corporation has acquired the Khartoum Commercial and Shipping Company Ltd., and the Kortefan Trading Company Ltd., headquartered in adjacent buildings in the center of the Sudanese capital. The MCC also acts as agent for Bedford in Sudan and assembles Bedford trucks and four-wheel-drive vehicles at Port Sudan's Gezirah Trading Company.

* The Military Housing and Construction Corporation has begun minor work on a seven-kilometer stretch of road.

* The Military Agriculture Corporation has bought the privately owned Belgravia Dairy for the sum of 1 million Sudanese pounds ($770,000).

* The Military Transport Corporation operates 20 Magirus Deutz trucks between Port Sudan and Khartoum and has established a competitive third public transportation system in Khartoum. Brand-new Spanish-built Pegaso buses, driven by soldiers in civilian dress, run alongside the older, more run-down buses of Khartoum's two other public transportation companies.

* The Military Service Corporation will offer public medical services beginning May 25. Arguing that public hospitals in Sudan charge 20 pounds for every visit, an MEC spokesman says the organization will charge its patients no more than five Sudanese pounds per visit.

MEC has also been appointed agent by a consortium led by the Italian firm Snam Progetti, which is bidding for the contract to build the pipeline from the south to Port Sudan. But two days after its appointment, MEC announced its willingness to help with civil works on the pipeline, regardless of which of the five bidding consortia wins the contract. Some observers in Khartoum feel that MEC's appointment will prove decisive in the awarding of the project.

Sudanese businessmen voice carefully formulated criticism of MEC. They question MEC's ability to force price reductions. ''It's a dream, you can't control demand,'' said Taha al-Roubhy, owner of 12 different Sudanese companies and a member of the US-Sudan business council.

''You can't change things overnight, it takes time,'' he went on to say. Price reductions can be achieved, Mr. Roubhy said, by flooding the market with goods, ''but MEC can't do that alone.''

Others, who requested anonymity, argued that MEC threatens to disrupt trade. ''Denationalization has been the motto for the past two years,'' said one wealthy trader. ''But,'' he added, ''the establishment of MEC is now reversing the trend.''

Khartoum University's Prof. Mahammad Omar Bashir predicts that the reported monopolization of Egyptian-Sudanese trade by MEC will ''alienate the middle class.'' ''This monopoly will simply create a new black market,'' one well-informed source said, arguing that no one can control the Egyptian-Sudanese border.

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