LAST week the United States Senate received from President Reagan the nomination of G. Norman Anderson, a Foreign Service officer, to be ambassador to the Sudan. Mr. Anderson, fluent in Arabic, French, and Russian, has had extensive experience in the Arab world and in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. His appointment focuses attention on the delicate state of US relations with Sudan and on the significance of events in that country for the future course of northwest Africa. The Sudan, the largest country in Africa, shares with other countries in north-central Africa, such as Chad, the difficult task of forming a nation out of an Arab Muslim north and a Christian and animist south. This ethnic division and the severe problems of economic development have been the primary preoccupations of Sudanese leaders since independence in 1956.
Ambassador Anderson will go to Sudan at a time of a new political beginning. From 1969 until 1985, Sudan was under the rule of Col. Jaafar Nimeiri. He was replaced by a transitional military government that returned Sudan to civilian rule after an election in April. The new prime minister is Sadiq al-Mahdi, a British-trained lawyer and former prime minister and the great-grandson of ``The Mahdi,'' who first unified Sudan's northern tribes in the 19th century. A man who bridges the world of northern Sudan's older Arab and Muslim traditions and the world of the modern state, Prime Minister al-Mahdi faces formidable problems.
The turbulent currents that swirl around and influence Sudanese politics were dramatically illustrated during the Nimeiri rule. Brought to power in a coup supported by Sudan's large Communist Party, Nimeiri oriented Sudan toward the Soviets. He did not go far enough for the Communist Party leadership and they sought to unseat him in a coup in 1971. He successfully resisted that coup with, although difficult to believe now, the help of Muammar Qaddafi.
For the next several years, Nimeiri followed moderate policies and negotiated what then appeared to be a successful binding peace agreement with the southern Sudanese. His former supporter, Qaddafi, turned against him. Possibly with this threat in mind and conscious of the increasing strength of militant Islamic elements in the area, Nimeiri imposed Islamic law in the country. The non-Muslim south once more turned to revolt.
The United States established close relations with Nimeiri's regime. This relationship enabled the US to cooperate militarily in a show of strength at a critical moment in Qaddafi's efforts to take over Chad, and to facilitate the escape of Ethiopian Falashi refugees from the Sudan. The US still remains actively involved as Sudan's largest bilateral aid donor; Congress has appropriated $251.8 million in economic and food aid for the current fiscal year.
Throughout its history, Sudan has been at the crossroads of often conflicting external ambitions. Egypt has always considered a friendly Sudan vital to its security; the two branches of the Nile join at Khartoum and flow northward toward Aswan. Saudi Arabia has extensive trade and has provided firm financial support. The conflicting political movements in Ethiopia have used Sudan as a base; turmoil and drought in that country have sent thousands of refugees into the Sudan. Libya under Qaddafi looks for opportunities to increase its influence with each political change.
Despite potential agricultural and mineral riches, Sudan has remained one of Africa's poorest countries. Drought, the turmoil in the south, and the presence of 1.5 million refugees from neighboring countries continue to frustrate efforts at sound development. The lack of an adequate internal transportation system in this vast country handicaps international efforts to provide food relief. Promising ventures by US companies to produce oil in the south have been terminated because of the insurgencies.
Occasionally questions are raised about the importance of ambassadors in today's world of rapid communications and interdependence. Questions are also raised about the qualifications of United States diplomats to deal with problems in other cultures and languages. Some capricious approaches suggest either that ambassadors are not necessary or that it doesn't really matter who represents the United States.
The appointment of Ambassador Anderson and even a brief review of the situation in Sudan establish that the United States has highly qualified envoys for difficult tasks and that the tasks are important. In a country where strong feelings exist against US policy in the Middle East, where there are antagonistic residues of previous US support for Nimeiri, and where future US policy depends on the advice of a sensitive and qualified observer on the scene, the importance of the ambassador and his role is clear. The ability of the Sudanese to resolve their serious problems will depend on their efforts; the ability of the US to preserve its interests and to contribute constructively to the maintenance of a viable and independent Sudan will depend on the skill of our diplomacy in a region of conflicting ambitions and intrigue.
David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.