Home | Comment & Analysis    Wednesday 24 March 2004

The neglected eastern Sudan


ASMARA, March, 24, 2004 (IRIN) — As the Sudanese government and rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) inch closer to a comprehensive peace deal, observers say the chasm between the north-south accord and east-west discord appears to be growing ever wider.

Opposition groups at the east-west extremities of the country complain of exclusion from the peace accord. For them, this simply reinforces the marginalisation they say they have felt for years. A year-long, full blown conflict in the west between the government and rebels in the Darfur region is gathering momentum as prospects for a deal approach. And now rebels in the east, who have hitherto been relatively quiet, have threatened to remobilise unless they are included in the peace process.


Regional analysts point out that there is a growing sense of regional identity among diverse communities sharing the same experience of marginalisation.

Marianne Nolte, a conflict analyst working for the UN in Sudan, notes that increased opposition to the bipolar structure of the peace process, brokered by the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), has led the mediators to accommodate some demands for a greater share of political power and wealth. For example, she says, IGAD has prevailed on the government to hold parallel talks (albeit fraught) on the status of three disputed regions - Southern Blue Nile, Abyei and the Nuba Mountains. (i)

"This has encouraged other regional groups, for example from eastern Sudan and Darfur, to intensify their political and military pressure on the government to be included in the peace process," she says.

Justice Africa, a UK-based think tank, notes that eastern Sudan, along with Darfur, are among the most neglected regions of the country and have the lowest proportion of people holding positions in the central government.


Observers warn of simmering conflict in the eastern region, particularly by the indigenous Beja people - who are Muslims but not Arabs - and whose grievances are essentially the same as those faced by the Darfur rebels. The Beja say there has never been any sign of the government in their area - basics such as education and medical care have been completely overlooked.

The various groups making up the Beja are represented by the Beja Congress which is a member of the Asmara-based Sudan opposition grouping, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

Salah Barqueen of the Beja Congress is a leader of the civil administration in the "liberated areas" of eastern Sudan and says his group’s armed forces are the second largest in the area after the SPLA.

He says the NDA controls a swathe of territory from Karora to Hameshkoreb, which it wrested from government forces in October 2002 after weeks of heavy fighting. Bejaland, he adds, covers some 100 sq km in eastern Sudan and 20 percent is under NDA control. He insists the Beja are not seeking secession, and want to be part of a federal system. "One Sudan for all Sudanese," he states.

Salah says there has been no fighting for two months now to give the Naivasha peace talks in Kenya a chance.

"We are giving them [the government and SPLM] a chance to include us," he said in the Eritrean capital Asmara. "But we are not going to wait much longer."

His fellow NDA members concur. NDA chairman Moulana Mohamed Osman al-Mirghani is currently involved in intensive negotiations to ensure that the Alliance’s members are included in the phase of the negotiations concerning power-sharing.

In February, the Sudanese government broke off negotiations with the NDA, saying that its newest member - the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) rebel group from Darfur which joined earlier this year - was fighting a war and therefore could not take part in peace negotiations.

NDA Leadership Council member Awad Elbari Elsir expressed regret over Khartoum’s decision. An agreement signed in Jeddah between the NDA and the Sudan government in December 2003 provided a basis for power-sharing talks between the two sides. Awad said he hoped the Khartoum authorities would restart the negotiations.

"We are trying to explain to the government that the SLA’s membership of the NDA means it is seeking peace," he said.

Motaz Osman El Fahal, NDA Executive Bureau member, added that the NDA is now actively seeking participation in the Kenya peace talks.

"This is our last chance to join the process," he told IRIN. "The issue of power-sharing concerns all groups in Sudan, not just the Khartoum authorities and the SPLM."

"We will see if there is a way, but if not we will continue to fight," he warned. "The unity of Sudan will not happen without an all-inclusive agreement and there will not be peace."

The NDA believes that the international community has paid no attention to the concerns of the marginalised groups and that it ignores warnings of the resumption of war at its own peril.

The Alliance’s various fighting forces say they are ready to resume combat at any moment. All warn that the situation in the east could mirror that in the west.


Abdel-Aziz Khalid, chairman of the Sudan National Alliance/Sudan Allied Forces (SNA/SNF), another NDA member, says that the troops are exercising a policy of containment at the moment.

"The front is calm except for minor operations," he said. "But we want to exhaust the enemy to stop them from moving forces to the west. We are increasing the tension, they don’t know when we will attack."

He acknowledged that his group has connections with the western rebels. "There is coordination," he said. "Both fronts are putting pressure on Khartoum."

But the government has dismissed any potential threat from the various NDA forces, although it says it recognises the NDA as a "political player" because the SPLM is part of it.

"The NDA decided some months ago to renounce violence as a means of achieving its ends," Sudanese government spokesman Said Khatib told IRIN. "Until they explain this [the SLA membership] it looks like relations with the government will remain suspended."

The SLA and the Beja Congress officially joined forces in January stating that their grievances were essentially the same and henceforth they would oppose the government from a common platform.

"The government asks why a fighting force has been accepted into the NDA when peace talks are going on," Salah explains. "But we are also a fighting force."


Observers point out that the SLA’s membership of the NDA could strengthen the Alliance’s negotiating position with the Khartoum, which has been trying to organise peace talks with the Darfur rebels - now under the glare of the international community.

"The SLA made a smart political move in applying for admission to the NDA," Justice Africa points out. The NDA, it says, remains a negotiating forum whereby power-sharing in the north could be accomplished.

The Alliance meanwhile has dismissed rumours of a split, caused by reports of the possible entry into government of the traditionalist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) - one of the strongest members of the NDA. NDA chairman Mirghani is also the DUP leader.

Bakri al Khalifa Ahmed, a member of the DUP president’s office, told IRIN this was misinformation created by the Khartoum government. "Khartoum is trying to decapitate the NDA by spreading these rumours about the DUP," he says.

The NDA is firmly behind by the SPLM in the hope that it will negotiate an all-inclusive deal. By remaining part of the NDA, the SPLM could give the Alliance some clout in any future power-sharing talks.


But longstanding and unaddressed humanitarian problems are also pushing the patience of the NDA groups to the limit. Eastern Sudan has been overlooked for years by both the government and the international community. The NDA says the outside world is totally ignorant of a mounting catastrophe in this region.

Many of the NDA members have their humanitarian wings, and although their intentions are good, their resources are very limited.

Sheikh Ahmed Ali Betai of the civil administration in the "liberated areas", and a member of one of the most prominent families in the Hameshkoreb area, says the east is a "forgotten problem".

"We expect a lot of good for the area now it is under the NDA," Sheikh Ahmed told IRIN. "But we urgently need relief services - education, medical and so on."

Another group, Sudan Future Care, which is allied to the SNF/SAF, is implementing projects to tackle tuberculosis and malnutrition in the areas under NDA control. Its executive director, Dr Sabir Abdin, also bemoans the almost total lack of international activity in the region where quality food is scarce because of the extreme aridity.

"Our most urgent problems are water, food, health and education in that order," he says. His organisation has also launched an education campaign to stamp out traditional practices such as female circumcision, and the concealment of women by some of the Beja tribes.

The NDA parties say the only international organisations working in the area are the Samaritans and the International Rescue Committee (IRC). Occasionally some Eritrea-based organisations go into the area.

The Sudanese government admits that the eastern areas, particularly Bejaland, have been neglected by successive governments since independence.

"It is a fact, it is one of the least developed areas," Khatib told IRIN. But he stressed that as part of the wealth-sharing agreement in the peace deal, money would be available for the east and elsewhere through the National Reconstruction and Development Fund.

"The most pressing needs are human development, including health and education," Khatib acknowledged.


Despite the fact that its headquarters are in Asmara, the NDA is adamant that it is getting no military support from the Eritrean authorities.

Salah of the Beja Congress says that Eritrean assistance comes in the form of facilitation. The Eritrean authorities allow the NDA members to use the ports for export - for example camels and livestock.

"We helped them during their 30-year struggle, now they are helping us with civil activities," he says. "They don’t give us weapons and they never intervene."

According to some reports, the Eritreans have been supplying the Darfur rebels in the west but all sides dismiss this as propaganda by the Sudanese authorities.

"This is far-fetched," says Yemane Gebremeskel, Director of the Eritrean President’s Office. "Just think about the logistics."

"We don’t have an agenda of regime change in Sudan," he told IRIN. "If the Sudanese want to change their government, then it’s up to them."

He admitted that relations between Khartoum and Asmara were currently poor, but added that "there are no insurmountable problems".

The problem was historical, caused by Khartoum’s desire to export Islam to the Horn in the mid-1990s. Yemane says they chose to focus on Eritrea first, because they believed that due to its small size it would be easier. "That is the basis of the problem between our countries," he says. "The lack of trust has its roots in the past."

According to Horn of Africa expert, Professor Lionel Cliffe, "the incursion from Sudanese territory of a multinational group of Islamist guerrillas into the Sahel region of Eritrea in December 1994 proved pivotal in the decline in relations between Khartoum and Asmara."(ii)

Yemane denies there is a contradiction between Eritrea’s professed support for the Sudan peace process and its hosting of Sudanese opposition groups on its territory.

"The NDA has a political presence here just as it does in many other countries," he says. "The emphasis is on trying to find a political solution to Sudan’s problems. If the peace process is successful, the problems will be resolved. The NIF [National Islamic Front] won’t monopolise the government."

Asmara brushes off a recent spate of terrorist activity in the west of the country, near the border with Sudan. Earlier this month, at least three people were killed in a bomb blast at a hotel in the town of Tesseney. Other explosions have been reported, and last year a British geologist was murdered in western Eritrea, as were two local staff members of the international NGO Mercy Corps.

Eritrea blames these attacks on a Sudan-based Islamic extremist group, the Eritrean Islamic Jihad Movement (EIJM), which it says is supported by Khartoum - charges denied by Sudan.

The government has issued travel regulations for foreign organisations working in Eritrea, requiring them to apply for permission to travel in the country 10 days prior to the journey. Aid workers complain that this could have repercussions on their ability to reach needy people quickly, but Yemane says the measures are in place for security reasons and that the permits are rarely refused.

He declined to specify the reasons, but said the measures were temporary. But, he added, the government was not concerned by the activities of the EIJM.

"They don’t have a local constituency inside Eritrea," he said. "These attacks are sporadic, like terrorist acts everywhere."

The EIJM has previously claimed carrying out attacks on the Eritrean military, but denies targeting civilians.


Marianne Nolte comments that although the majority of political parties in Sudan are excluded from the formal peace process, they nevertheless have a vital role to play in the country’s future.

"Critics argue however that for democracy to be sustainable in a post-conflict situation in the Sudan, issues like factionalism and lack of internal democracy in political parties urgently need to be addressed," she warns.

"All hopes are pinned on the Kenyan talks in the apparent belief that if an agreement can be reached that ends the country’s longest rebellion, all others will simply fade into insignificance," says the newsletter ’Africa Analysis’. "It is obvious they will not - and they constitute a real danger of future fragmentation."

Salah is not at all optimistic that a peace deal will hold. Marginalised groups such as the Beja distrust the government intensely and believe Khartoum is being "compelled" to sign a peace deal by countries such as the US in order to have sanctions lifted.

"If fighting breaks out again, the whole strategy could be changed," he warns. "Now we are fighting for our land, but the fighting can shift. We can even go to Khartoum. If we are forced to, we will."


i. Marianne Nolte: ’A plethora of political parties’, Development Issues (Institute of Social Studies. Vol 5/no.2/September 2003

ii. Lionel Cliffe: ’Regional dimensions of conflict in the Horn of Africa’, Third World Quarterly. Vol 20. no 1. (1999)

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