The recent death of an enigmatic Sudanese diplomatic fixer exposed just how much influence she had gained in Uganda, Sudan and Israel. Najwa Abbas Gadaheldam died in Khartoum on May 27 after contracting coronavirus.
Ms Gadaheldam has been an almost permanent fixture on the sides of President Museveni in regional meetings to deal with relations with Sudan under former President Omar-al-Bashir and current military leader Gen Abdel Fatah al-Burhan.
She was also always present in efforts to secure peace for war-ravaged South Sudan, always appearing when major breakthroughs in negotiations were about to be achieved according to sources knowledgeable about her dealings.
She was also credited with helping to organise a recent February meeting in Entebbe between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Sudanese leader al-Burhan, an event that baffled other members of the government in Khartoum who claimed ignorance of the meeting and the reason behind it.
It aimed at normalising relations between Israel and Sudan as well as getting the US to ease sanctions on Khartoum. In the aftermath of the Entebbe meeting, protests broke out in Khartoum against any diplomatic rapprochement with the Jewish state.
Sources say when it became clear that Gadaheldam had been infected by coronavirus, Khartoum first informed Kampala about the development.
She was taken into an intensive care unit and as proof of how much she was valued beyond her borders, the Israeli government dispatched an air ambulance with a team of doctors to evacuate her to Israel for better medical care.
The medical evacuation arrived in Khartoum and found her condition had worsened and before she could be flown out, she died the next day.
Israeli media have been awash with the news of the unbelievable effort their government put in saving a woman from what they called ‘enemy country’.
The Jewish News reported that “a small airplane carrying an Israeli medical team along with equipment and medicine for treating the coronavirus landed in Sudan in an attempt to save the life of a Sudanese diplomat who has been working behind the scenes on the clandestine relations between the two countries.
Najwa Gadaheldam, a senior adviser to Sudan’s leader, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, died Wednesday, about 24 hours after the plane that had intended to transport her back to Israel for treatment landed in the Arab country.
Israel and Sudan do not have diplomatic relations. Gadaheldam had been managing the countries’ secret ties.
The arrival was supposed to remain secret, but the plane and its unusual destination appeared on flight-tracking websites”.
Times of Israeli in a lead article titled; ‘Israeli MDs fly to enemy Sudan in failed bid to save diplomat behind secret ties’, said despite the two countries still being technically at war, Israeli officials went to great length to send “a plane with medical staff and equipment to Sudan in an attempt to save the life of a diplomat sick with Covid-19, who managed the clandestine ties between Jerusalem and Khartoum”.
The newspaper went on to say the plane landed in Khartoum “ carrying a senior official involved in ties with Sudan, medical staff and equipment, after hearing of her illness” but treatment arrived too late, when she was already in critical condition.
The controversial Uganda link
Ms Gadaheldam was said to have first met President Museveni in Vienna, Austria at the UN conference on water in early 2000s when the relations between Uganda and Sudan were fragile.
President Museveni was said to have first sent a reconciliatory message to Bashir through her and Bashir also replied to Museveni through the same channel.
As a result, Ms Gadaheldam for nearly a decade has been spending more time in Uganda than Sudan.
She is said to have booked a suite in a high end five-star hotel in Kampala which was available to her throughout the year.
At major regional meetings, Ms Gadaheldam was said to be the only person Museveni would allow to enter a lift with him, sometimes barging the security detail of the President until he waves them aside to let her in.
However, while she was feared by government officials who saw her as a close aide to the President, she was hated in equal measure for rubbing officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the wrong way.
The talkative Gadaheldam openly told some ministers in Foreign Affairs or spoke to other officials disparaging Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa and his officials.
She was said to have been abusive to some of Uganda’s ambassadors in the region, sometimes referring to them as “useless” and claiming she was the only one doing any serious diplomatic work for the President in the region.
A source within government told this newspaper that Ms Gadaheldam openly boasted that she was set to be appointed Uganda’s Minister of Foreign Affairs to replace Sam Kutesa. It is not clear whether she already held a Ugandan passport.
As an example of the confusion caused by her role in Uganda and Sudan, she is referred to as a senior adviser to al-Burhan but her brother, speaking to foreign media after her death, said she was “Sudan’s ambassador to Uganda” yet there is a current ambassador of Sudan in Kampala.
She first gained prominence for the behind-the-scenes role in secret negotiations that led to the 2017 release of Sudanese government soldiers held captive in Nuba Mountains, Southern Blue Nile and South Kordofan states by the SPLM-N of Malik Agar and Abdelaziz al-Hilu. They were released in Entebbe following mediation by President Museveni.
Ms Gadaheldam’s last ‘official’ function involving Uganda was said to have been on February 22 in Juba, where she attended a meeting between Lt Gen al-Burhan, the chairman of the Sovereign National Council of Sudan, and Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, who was representing President Museveni at the inauguration of the new government of national unity of South Sudan.
From there she flew to Khartoum in the jet of the Sudanese leader and the lockdown imposed in Uganda found her there.
Najwa Gadaheldam previously worked as an industrial development officer at the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation in Vienna Austria.
She served as the first chair of UN Energy Africa. She is a leading author of the book: Energy for Sustainable Development-Policy Options for Africa, as well as of the White Paper “Darfur - Making Peace Not War: A Human Rights Perspective.”
She held a B.Sc. in mechanical engineering and a Master of Science in renewable energy from the University of Khartoum and an additional M.Sc. in energy and economics from Oldenburg University.
Najwa Gadaheldam previously worked as an industrial development officer at the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation in Vienna Austria. She served as the first chair of UN Energy Africa. She is a leading author of the book: Energy for Sustainable Development-Policy Options for Africa, as well as of the White Paper “Darfur - Making Peace Not War: A Human Rights Perspective.” She held a B.Sc. in mechanical engineering and a Master of Science in renewable energy from the University of Khartoum and an additional M.Sc. in energy and economics from Oldenburg University.