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Why Sudan's leader is flying to the US on an emergency mission

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There is an urgency about Sudanese President Jaafar Nimeiry's visit to Washington this coming weekend. He is coming despite his announcement this week that he intends to reshuffle his Cabinet and despite the sudden upsurge of fighting on Sudan's border with Chad.

So why is the visit still on?

Because (from Washington's point of view) Sudan is so strategically important and (from Khartoum's point of view) there is a desperate need to do something about the country's worsening economic plight.

In strategic terms, Sudan is the single biggest piece of real estate in Africa under a single national flag. It is the back door into Egypt. It sits astride both the Blue and White Niles and therefore has an almost absolute control of the water without which Egypt cannot live. It has common borders with Libya and Ethiopia, two countries that have close associations with the Soviet Union. And it has a coastline across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia.

Proof of Sudan's importance in US strategic planning is seen in the country's inclusion among those where the current American ''Bright Star'' exercises in the Middle East are being staged.

As for Sudan's economic woes, its total indebtedness is more than $2 billion. It is behind $800 million on servicing its debts. Thirty-five cents of every dollar it earns should go on debt service, but its imports are costing roughly three times what it earns from exports. Half of those export earnings are earmarked to pay for oil imports. Agricultural output, the biggest export earner , is falling. And the inflation rate is roughly 50 percent.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has already provided several hundred million dollars in balance-of-payment assistance loans. Saudi Arabia has helped in this direction, too. There is a Sudanese request before the IMF for more loans, and General Nimeiry's Washington visit is almost certainly connected with this.

So, too, were decisions announced simultaneously with the reshuffling of his Cabinet. These included: a 12.5 percent devaluation of the Sudanese pound; abolition of the petroleum price subsidy; and the phasing out over the next 18 months of the sugar subsidy.

The IMF had indicated that the Sudanese government would have to take these austerity measures if more loans were to be favorably considered. Most outsiders agree that it took considerable political courage on General Nimeiry's part to go ahead with them.

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