Monday 18th October It is going to be a very sombre week in the House of Commons as MPs will meet to give tributes to Sir David Amess and then attend a memorial service in St Margaret’s Church Westminster on Monday. On Wednesday, tributes will be given to James Brokenshire before his memorial service. Both were good friends as well as colleagues. I want so much to be with colleagues as I know that their company will be a solace as we grieve.
However, in my role as Minister for Africa I have promised to visit Sudan, a country on the difficult road to transform from decades of dictatorship and oppression towards democracy and freedom.
Leaders in Sudan have achieved a huge amount in past 2 years including signing an historic peace agreement, negotiating terms with international creditors as well as many social and economic reforms. But there are huge challenges ahead. A military coup was attempted last month, it failed but tensions are very high. On top of all of this a recent blockade of the main port, Port Sudan, has exacerbated food supply shortages.
I have a packed agenda of meetings and visits planned which I do not think I should cancel. So instead of heading into Westminster I travel to the airport. After a first five hour flight whilst waiting for the next leg of the journey, I listen to the speeches from MPs, including many deeply moving reflections from Essex neighbours before flying onto Khartoum and the heat of Africa.
Tuesday 19th October & Wednesday 20th October During my visit I launched a new strategic dialogue between the UK and Sudan. We are providing them with a lot of technical support, for example with legal and constitutional advice and practical welfare and food support for families.
The mood is tense, Thursday 21 October is a special day in Sudan when people demonstrate in the streets to support peace and democracy. There is huge concern that these peaceful protests could turn violent if military forces intervene.
I met human rights activists, business leaders and many inspirational women leaders - women played a key role in the 2019 revolution - as well as representatives from both the civilian and military sides of Government. I pressed upon the leaders the need to continue to work to overcome differences and uphold the peace agreement, as well as urging them to let Thursdays marches take place peacefully.
I also visited two brilliant projects which are being supported by UK Aid. On Tutti Island, home to 220,000 people in the middle of the Nile, I met the inspiring Mama Iqbal. She has successfully campaigned to make the island FGM free. Female Genital Mutilation is a horrific and outdated practice that in the past has affected nearly 9/10 of Sudanese women and girls, some as young as two years old. Mama Iqbal is now expanding her work more widely across Sudan with help from UK Aid.
At a girls school in Jabal Awliya, I saw how the UK is supporting the world food programme to provide a daily school meal for children in great need. The school staff told me how the meals increase school attendance and help learning. The daily school meal of lentils, sorghum, salt and oil fortified with vitamins A & E is basic but nutritious and tasty. UK Aid support is helping to provide food assistance to 326,000 vulnerable people in Sudan where the humanitarian situation remains the fifth most concerning in the world.
Thursday 21st October Leaving Khartoum in the early hours of the morning today, 21 October, the city is still on edge, but after a long journey home I’m so delighted to learn that the day of busy demonstrations has passed peacefully.
Friday 22nd October Into the House of Commons. Parliament doesn’t often sit on Fridays, but when it does it is to hear Private Members Bills. We have been asked to attend as votes are expected so I will miss my usual Friday in Chelmsford. However, I use the time between votes to catch up with various Chelmsford issues via zoom.
I meet our Regional Schools Commissioner and discuss how the vaccination programme is going for teenagers. She asks me to keep a close eye on how rising covid rates are affecting our schools and I promise to write to all our local head teachers when they return from half term. I raise the fact that some children who need speech and language therapy are still getting this online which is not as effective as face to face, she promises to follow up.
Its late when I finally get home and after a few busy weeks of travel I am pleased that the next few weeks will keep me in the UK.