By Eric Reeves
March 14, 2014 - Even by the extraordinary standards of the National Islamic Front/National Congress regime, the past few weeks have seen exceedingly grim news throughout Sudan, but especially in Darfur. No doubt convinced that the world’s attention is focused on the massive humanitarian and political crises in South Sudan, the ruthless survivalists of Khartoum have demonstrated yet again a capacity for unsurpassed cruelty, destructiveness, barbarism, and bad faith in negotiations. And yet in all this they remain unchecked by an international community apparently more interested in discussing debt relief for the regime than relief from the unending human rights abuses and regime-sanctioned violence causing suffering and destruction for millions of Sudanese civilians.
Over the past weeks Darfuris have seen with dismay the regime signal its unambiguous refusal to countenance any move away from the failure known as the “Doha Document for Peace in Darfur.” Signed in July 2011, the agreement has proved—like the Darfur Peace Agreement (May 2006) before it—worthless as a means of bringing peace or security to Darfur. Indeed, since the signing of the DDPD violence has steadily escalated and almost one million people have been newly displaced—almost half a million in 2013 alone (see new report on Darfur by Amnesty International: “We Can’t Endure Any More,” with an accompanying press release titled “Half a Million Civilians in Darfur Forced to Flee”).
Humanitarian relief has never been more tenuous; security never more precarious; and the chaotic nature of the violence never greater. Khartoum has failed to abide by the terms of the Doha agreement, most conspicuously the financial terms of the agreement that were to have begun the process of reconstruction. Moreover, even if it wished to abide by the financial terms, the regime has run the Sudanese economy into ruin and bankruptcy: it cannot meet many of its domestic and international obligations, and Darfur is far, far down the list of priorities.
The international community—especially the UN and African Union—have been flogging this dead horse of a “peace agreement” since it was signed by factitious, unrepresentative “rebel groups” in July 2011, failing to acknowledge how very little support it has among Darfuri civil society and the major rebel groups (who must answer for their own severe abuses of the civilian population). This “support for the Doha process” has persisted long after all observers not part of the AU or the UN clearly have come to see that it is a failure. It was left for expedient international actors to pretend that “progress” was being made in negotiating an end to the Darfur catastrophe, thus giving the Doha process a credibility that could hardly be provided by its Qatari auspices. The U.S. has been front and center in this pretense, shamelessly asserting the potential success of the DDPD. Both previous U.S. special envoys for Sudan—Scott Gration and Princeton Lyman—were complicit in this diplomatic travesty.
Finally this past week, U.S. ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, is reported by Sudan Tribune to have “called on members of the African Union Peace and Security Council to find an alternative forum to resolve the Darfur crisis, saying the DDPD has become outdated and cannot be relied on.” Power went on to emphasize the importance of a global approach to peace in Sudan, and thus the need to incorporate negotiations with Darfuri rebel groups with meaningful talks addressing the grievances of rebel movements in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. Such truth-telling was a breathtaking departure for the Obama administration on Darfur.
Predictably, the African Union balked at accepting this obvious diplomatic reality; so too did the UN/African Union joint special mediator for peace in Darfur, Mohamed Ibn Chambas. Some had expressed high hopes for Chambas after the dismal performances of his disastrous predecessors as Joint Special Representative for UNAMID—Ibrahim Gambari and Rodolphe Adada (Jibril Bassolé had the thankless task of serving as UNAMID mediator even as he was being undercut by infighting between Gambari and Thabo Mbeki). But whether his decision to continue supporting the Doha process reflected egregious bad judgment or a bowing to the will of the AUPSC, it is clear Chambas is no improvement in the effort to find peace for Darfur. Revealingly, Chambas said in a statement after his meeting earlier this week with Qatari officials that he:
…urged the movements to join the “national dialogue” proposed by Sudanese President Al Bashir in January, as a workable option towards bringing a comprehensive solution to the crises in Darfur and all of Sudan. [AU Commission] Chairperson [Nkosazana Dlamini-] Zuma similarly encouraged them to continue to work with UNAMID and other stakeholders to formulate a strategy on how to conduct the national dialogue. (Sudan Tribune, March 12, 2014)
Speaking of a meeting he had organized in Addis Ababa (March 7), Chambas “explained the outcome of the meetings that took place in Addis Ababa, where all the parties welcomed the initiative of Sudanese president Omer Hassan Ahmad Al-Bashir for national dialogue.” On its face, this “welcoming” of al-Bashir’s initiative is preposterous. Indeed, just how little such vaguely general characterizations can mean was made clear when in the same dispatch Sudan Tribune reports that “the [Darfuri] rebels claimed that Zuma supported their demand for a comprehensive process on Sudan conflicts and the unification of the two existing forums for peace” [the second forum, which exists only conceptually, is for South Kordofan and Blue Nile]. Radio Dabanga echoed this report with the headline: “AU agrees with unification of the peace negotiation platforms: rebels” (March 8, 2014). But Khartoum remains adamantly opposed to unification of peace negotiations, much preferring its diplomatic equivalent of “divide and conquer.”
Both characterizations here, by Zuma and Chambas, can’t be right, and the rebel groups (including the Sudan Revolutionary Front) have certainly not agreed to al-Bashir’s proposed “national dialogue.” But Khartoum is perfectly willing to let diplomatic confusion prevail. And it is more than willing to insist that the Doha process be the only diplomatic forum precisely because it has no chance of success, ensuring that an increasingly chaotic violence brings all of Darfur to its knees. It will pick and choose among those it supports (see “Janjaweed in Darfur Reconstituted as the ‘Rapid Response Force,’” February 28, 2014, http://wp.me/p45rOG-1aU). And while it remains concerned about the potential for gold (and thus hard currency) in the Jebel Amir region, it also realizes the difficulty in moving large quantities of the precious metal to Khartoum, some 900 kilometers away. Darfur is for Khartoum simply a “problem” that must be managed, using as much violence as necessary.
The wish to have Doha as the only process for peace in Darfur is meant to paralyze all other initiatives or diplomatic perspectives, and thus the harshness of Khartoum’s response to Ambassador Power’s attempt to break through the international façade of expediency concerning Darfur:
The Sudanese government has demanded that the US back down from its recent stance against the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (DDPD) and respect resolutions made by the UN Security Council (UNSC) and the African Union Peace and Security Council (AUPSC). The US ambassador at the UN, Samantha Power, who addressed the AUPSC meeting on Monday, reportedly called on council members to find an alternative forum to resolve the Darfur crisis, saying the DDPD has become outdated and cannot be relied on. (Sudan Tribune, March 12, 2014)
The perversity of Khartoum invoking resolutions and decisions of the UN and African Union would be laughable if not all too likely to intimidate various international actors. We must wonder whether Power will find company among Western and other nations that have for so long expressed a hand-wringing dismay over the fate of Darfur, even as diplomatically the region and its people have been betrayed to a dead-end peace process, while human security has been allowed to rest in the hands of a dysfunctional UN/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). It is time for Britain, Norway, Sweden, France, Germany, Canada, Italy, Spain, the countries of South and Central America, Japan, Korea, and others to declare that Darfur will not be abandoned to the fate that the African Union seems bent upon inflicting upon it. And countries within the African Union must break ranks with the African Union Peace and Security Council, which has long sided with Khartoum on any number of issues. The scale of the failure already registered in Darfur makes the future of the AU look increasingly doubtful, and in the event that present policies and commitments prevail, Darfur will be destroyed, rendered completely insecure, and thus left without humanitarian access. This massive failure to protect will haunt African Union peacekeeping for many years to come.
Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, and certainly worrying about what such a collapse in Darfur might mean politically, the Obama administration has also finally begun to express concern about the “recent” escalation of violence in Darfur,” failing to note in its statement of concern that violence in Darfur has been escalating for more than two years, and that displacement—which correlates very closely with violence—is approaching 1 million civilians during the past three years. The most plausible current estimate is that 100,000 civilians have been newly displaced in the past two weeks alone, following a total of almost half a million for 2013. From Agence France-Presse [Washington], March 8, 2014:
The United States on Saturday condemned recent attacks by government-backed mercenary fighters in Darfur, and urged the Sudan government to prevent further acts of violence. “We are deeply concerned by the recent escalation of violence by the Sudanese government-supported Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Darfur,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement, referring to a mercenary force of about 6,000 men fighting alongside the Sudanese Armed Forces.
“The United States strongly condemns attacks on civilians and calls upon the government of Sudan to prevent further violence,” Psaki said. The Darfur militia, which has been used to back recent government military operations, is believed to be behind recent attacks including looting, the burning of villages and other violence against civilians in the Um Gunya area some 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the South Darfur state capital Nyala.
Thousands have fled to displaced camps, putting pressure on an already stretched aid system.
“The people of Darfur have suffered insecurity, violence and atrocities for far too long,” the US spokeswoman added. “Together with the international community, we urge the government of Sudan and the armed movements active in Darfur to begin an inclusive and comprehensive political dialogue to achieve a peaceful resolution to the conflicts in Sudan and reestablish the rule of law.”
Such “urgings” have the hollowness that comes from countless previous iterations and an all too familiar belatedness (thus the events of late February in South Darfur and those in North Darfur in early March 2014 are not clearly distinguished in the press release, nor is the violence that is ongoing in “Central Darfur” (formerly West Darfur) given any prominence; the latter is the focus of the new Amnesty International report). Most conspicuously, there is nothing in the State Department’s “condemnation” that provides any sign of commitment of the necessary diplomatic resources. It is, after all, the Obama administration that has “de-coupled” Darfur from the most consequential bilateral issue between Khartoum and Washington (this extraordinary word choice is that of a senior administration official).
In the absence of diplomatic progress
Whatever anodyne words African Union and Qatari officials may offer, whatever urgent hand-wringing by the U.S. and its Western allies, there is no sign that they will do anything to diminish the pain of Darfuris, who continue suffering in what is now the second decade of genocidal counter-insurgency, with inter-tribal and ethnic fighting doing most of the work for Khartoum—a terribly familiar pattern. What has defined life for the people of Darfur over the past, especially these recent violent weeks?
The fighting southeast of Nyala (South Darfur) in the closing days of February has continued to have terrible consequences for the civilians of the area. Radio Dabanga reports (March 10, 2014):
Villagers, who fled the attacks of the Rapid Support Forces’ militias on the areas southeast of Nyala on 27 and 28 February, continue to arrive at the South Darfur camps for the displaced. Camp sheiks criticize the lack of aid by humanitarian organisations for the newly displaced persons. At El Salam camp for the displaced in Bielel locality, more than 3,000 newly displaced families have been registered by the Sudanese Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC). About 14,000 families have yet not been registered, sheikh Mahjoub Adam Tabaldiya of El Salam camp for the displaced in Bielel locality, told Radio Dabanga on Sunday. HAC distributed one plate of sorghum per capita to 2,000 families out of those registered. More than 1,000 registered families have not received food so far. (“Continuing influx of newly displaced at South Darfur camps, almost no aid provided”)
Conditions in North Darfur continue to slide into deeper violence and civilian suffering. An eyewitness reports, via a Darfuri intermediary, seeing
Musa Hilal kill citizens and burned districts in Saraf Umra [on the border between whatwas formerly West Darfur and North Darfur]. Reported to me that seventeen people were killed in the Saraf Umra in North Darfur state, the Saraf Umra market completely stolen [ransacked], four districts were burned by Hilal’s militias. On March 6, 2014 when people were doing Friday prayers militias attacked them, about 350 cars loaded heavy weapons; they burned districts and killed innocent citizens. women, children and the elders went United Nations headquarters, and now they are living under harsh conditions. (email received March 7, 2014; edited lightly for clarity)
Such reports, which comport entirely with those of Radio Dabanga—and which are almost entirely uninvestigated by UNAMID—continue endlessly (here again edited lightly for clarity):
Report: The Janjaweed military of the president Omer Al-Bashir was killed a displaced person he was a young man in Otash camp (Thursday, February 29, 2014)
Report: The Janjaweed attacked the head of Otash camp for the displaced. Citizen Mohamed Ahmed Abdullah when they were coming by the Car from Dooma area northeast of Nyala, on their way the Janjaweed fired on them and wounded Mohammed Ahmed, with serious injuries in his head and stomach.
Report: Osman Alsadiq Feedel was killed the Janjaweed, they shot him dead inside his house in the Morowel village east Mokjar [formerly West Darfur state]* on Tuesday, January 21, 2014.
Report: The head of butchers Osman Azrk was killed in Nyala; he was working in Malga market on Thursday (February 20, 2014) when the Janjaweed tried to stole his motorcycle; he had been killed and his friend wounded.
Report: more than one thousand and five hundred cars loaded with weapons belonging to Janjaweed reached Nyala city, after the burned villages (Hijer Tono) and raped women; the Government of the Nyala made celebration to congratulate Janjaweed; the celebration took place on Sunday (March 2, 2014) in Nyala city.
*Although Amnesty International has chosen to adopt Khartoum’s new administrative divisions of Darfur—which have no historical precedent and were made for purely political purposes—I continue to use the three-state division that existed prior to the conflict and is the basis for the comprehensive Darfur Field Atlas prepared by the UN. References to “Central Darfur” are inevitably to regions formerly part of West Darfur (“We Can’t Endure Any More: the Impact of Inter-Communal Violence on Civilians in Central Darfur“).
And the reports are, truly, endless—and they require no editing to make clear what is being experienced in a land that has been abandoned to cynicism, mendacity, and cruelty. The pain here is palpable, even as “Mohamed” tries to be as factual as possible about the information he has gathered:
Bombing aircraft Antonov and Heilkopetr government areas of south-east of Nyala Village Hjeer / Village Davani / village or a people , Bosta militia Janjaweed and the People’s Armed Forces and the forces of the Central Reserve commonly riding camels and horses and carts and armed with machine guns and heavy artillery to the villages and looted the property completely and the displacement of a number of more than 3000 thousand family to Kalma camp for internally displaced people , mostly women and children , the infirm Displacement of the village to camps around Nyala / Kalma camp /Dreege camp / Attach Camp /Salam camp thirsty.
The exodus of disease from 4:30 in Wednesday until today Saturday, 01/03/2014 , says the displaced that the militia killed a number of women and children are put at and killed a number of men , and burned a number of villages and raped 20 girls novels on the short and kidnapping number of women and lost 30 of the girls did not find so far camps. Says displaced demands of the international community to urgently intervene to save them and protections of the Sudanese government and demand of the United Nations humanitarian assistance from the Food and Drug Administration sooner.
The situation is no better in North Darfur, and since it is more recent, perhaps this is why the U.S. statement fails to distinguish clearly between occurences in South Darfur and North Darfur (the Darfur region as a whole is approximately the size of Spain). Radio Dabanga is much more geographically inclusive:
More than 3,200 newly displaced people from Kabkabiya locality in North Darfur arrived on Sunday morning at the locality’s Sibak Al Khel and Doumi camps for the displaced. On the same day, about 500 families arrived at the area of Fassi, east of Zalingei, the capital of Central Darfur. They had fled from Saraf Omra locality for fear of attacks by Musa Hilal militias on Friday. A sheikh of the Sibak Al Khel camp reported to Radio Dabanga that the newly displaced people had fled from 24 villages, located southwest of Kabkabiya town, after being attacked by Musa Hilal militias on Friday. The escapees told the camp elders that Musa Hilal militias on Land Cruisers, motorcycles, horses and camels had stormed their villages. Bullets fired in the air led to the injury of a number of villagers.
A number of houses burned down. The villages from which the citizens have fled are Hileila, Hileilat, Morlouz, Shilein, Moz Loz, Tanabeeg, Jemeiza, Jeldama, Um Laouta, Um Delo, Dade, Arba Buyout, Khartoum Bahri, Beni Mansour, Soba Beni Mansour East, Soba Beni Mansour West, El Hasira, Tamanga, Margouba, Arda Shouf, Um Hijara, Taran, Matawi and Hilat Sheikh Neel. The sheikh called on the authorities and humanitarian organisations to quickly aid the newly displaced. “They are sleeping in the open, without blankets, food, water, or medicines.” (“Thousands of Newly Displaced Arrive At North Darfur’s Kabkabiya Camps,” Radio Dabanga [North Darfur], 10 March 2014)
In a notable development, Agence France-Presse reports (with a Khartoum dateline) on developments that had previously been seen only in Radio Dabanga dispatches; it cites UN and intergovernmental organizations. I have myself recently received a good deal more information from the ground in Darfur, suggesting a campaign of desperation, as even the authoritative accounts of Radio Dabanga appear to make no difference to a world that has grown all too accustomed to Darfur’s invisibility:
Almost 40,000 people may have been displaced by militia arson and looting in Sudan’s Darfur region, according to new data obtained by AFP on Tuesday. More than 19,000 arrivals have been recorded at two camps for displaced people near the South Darfur state capital, Nyala, the International Organisation for Migration said. That is in addition to an estimated 20,000 whom the UN’s World Food Programme on Monday said fled to safety at Saniya Deleiba, a village about 35 kilometres from Nyala. A WFP team was to travel to the village on Tuesday to determine exactly how many are in need. Mario Lito Malanca, IOM’s chief of mission in Sudan, told AFP that his agency registered 5,473 displaced in Kalma camp and another 14,015 in Al-Salam camp. The African Union-United Nations peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID) said on Monday that it had reports of villages burned, looting, and civilian casualties. (AFP [Khartoum], March 4, 2014]
In fact, this account, while undoubtedly reflecting the data available to AFP, is likely a very significant understatement. Radio Dabanga, with a much wider range of reporting sources, indicates that the past two weeks alone have likely seen 100,000 newly displaced in both South and North Darfur, with no sign of a let-up:
Recent large displacements by armed conflicts in Darfur have caused an influx of 100,000 people to camps for the displaced in North and South Darfur over the past week. The main health risks in the camps are malaria and acute watery diarrhoea.
Around 45,000 newly displaced have arrived at South Darfur’s Sani Deleiba town and El Salam, Kalma, Otash, and Dereig camps following attacks by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in areas near state capital Nyala, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported on Monday. More than 35 villages were burned to ashes, and dozens of civilians were killed in attacks by the RSF in the areas of Hijer (Tunjo) and Um Gunja on 27 and 28 February.
As a result, “El Salam camp reported 15,600 new arrivals since late February. 8,400 people arrived at Kalma camp in the same time. 20,000 people have arrived at Sani Deleiba,” the WHO stated in its report. “During influx of people into camps, poor hygiene and sanitation is always a major concern.
Other humanitarian agencies estimated that more than 55,000 people were displaced from Saraf Omra in North Darfur over the past week owing to attacks and plundering by militias led by Musa Hilal. The UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported in its latest bulletin that the majority of the people fled to the African Union-UN Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) team site outside of Saraf Omra. UNAMID said it is in need of additional food, water and sanitation assistance to aid the newly displaced citizens. At least 50 people were killed and injured by Hilal’s militiamen on Saturday, sources from Saraf Omra told Radio Dabanga.
Notably, the brutal first vice-president of the regime, Bakri Hassan Salih, has invited Musa Hilal to be part of the “national dialogue” called for by al-Bashir. He may, however, simply be too busy with other matters.
The International Response
So what is the response of the UN? The ever-feckless Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon gives a superb example of temporizing, as Agence France-Press reports (March 10, 2014):
Restrictions by Sudan’s government and the inadequate equipment of some peacekeepers in the Darfur region are hindering their ability to protect civilians and aid workers as violence increases, the UN chief says. Ban Ki-moon made the comments in a review of the African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) which the UN Security Council ordered last July. AFP received a copy of Ban’s report on Sunday as the peacekeepers reported a third major outbreak of violence had occurred across the vast region in recent days. Ban called on the Security Council to endorse a set of measures, to be implemented over 12 months, “so that UNAMID can more effectively assist the many civilians affected by violence, insecurity and deprivation in Darfur.”
But all too clearly UNAMID cannot be militarily “re-booted” into an effective force for protecting either civilians or humanitarians. And the number, reach, and capacity of the latter continue to diminish. The attempt essentially to “stay the course” is emblematic of the international refusal to accept the disastrous decision to create a UN/AU “hybrid” force, as well as a parallel refusal to confront the Khartoum regime, whose political and military leadership is directly responsible for obstructing UNAMID and thus conferring on the Janjaweed, in all its guises and recyclings, an impunity that is complete.
This is the environment in which the world is asking humanitarians to operate: massive, chaotic violence; constant looting, theft, and assaults; continual denials of access; an inability to conduct thoroughgoing assessments or to publish what data they are able to assemble; and constant intimidation, obstruction, and harassment by the Khartoum regime, particularly Military Intelligence. It is outrageous that the world does not do more to protect and support these extraordinarily courageous individuals, Sudanese nationals and expatriates alike. We will soon know whether Ambassador Power has any company in offering publicly a realistic assessment of the Doha process. In the absence of such company, with a willingness to move forcefully, the status quo will prevail—as will Khartoum.
In the Viper’s Nest
With no human rights reporting on the ground, except through Darfuris, with no news reporting presence (excepting the recent AFP dispatch from Khartoum), the job of ignoring Darfur is made all too easy. (Again, it should be noted that Amnesty International, using a wide range of sources—including in Darfur and eastern Chad—has produced an authoritative new report that has no recent precedent.) Khartoum’s own increasingly sharp crackdown on news reporting has seen a great many newspapers suspended, fined, or put out of business; the message of intimidation is not lost on the editors of newspapers that continue to print. There is almost no access to news about Darfur that does not serve the regime’s propaganda purposes.
But not all the news can be controlled, and unsurprisingly, the very recent uprising by Darfuri students has gathered considerable news and human rights attention because it is located in Khartoum. Sources on the ground report that on Tuesday, March 11, 2014, demonstrations in Khartoum by Darfuri students claimed two lives, Ali Abkar Musa, Faculty of Economics, and Ahmed Abdullah Yahya, Faculty of Engineering; others were wounded by gunfire and at least one student was in critical condition as of Wednesday, March 12, 2014. In the wake of yet another brutal suppression of civilian protests in Khartoum, Amnesty International declared that:
“Credible accounts by eyewitnesses at the University of Khartoum protest point to police and National Security and Intelligence Services officers using tear gas and live ammunition to disperse the protesters. The authorities must rein in the security forces and prevent them from using such excessive force in violation of international law and standards,” [said] Netsanet Belay, Africa Director of Research and Advocacy at Amnesty International. (Amnesty International press release, March 11, 2014)
What we may sure of is that there will be more protests, and they will be met with precisely the sort of violence we have seen this week, and which we saw last September/October when security forces were given what Amnesty International called at the time “shoot to kill” orders. The regime knows that it faces an angry and deeply unhappy populace. Almost daily, the badly weakened Sudanese economy deteriorates further, with high inflation (in real terms, perhaps 60 – 70 percent, as opposed to an official figure of about 40 percent), a Sudanese Pound that continues to decline rapidly, certainly as measured on the “black market” for currency—and critically, a lack of foreign exchange currency (Forex) with which to purchase food and petroleum products (Sudan’s oil production and refineries are not great enough to meet domestic demand). The bread lines that have been reported several times in the past few months are directly attributable to the lack of Forex: there is no hard currency with which to buy the wheat from abroad which is made into bread by Sudanese bakeries:
“Severe bread and cooking gas shortages hit Sudan”
Several Sudanese states including the capital Khartoum have witnessed sharp shortages in bread and cooking gas as large numbers of people queued in front of bakeries and gas cylinders distribution shops. (Sudan Tribune, January 19, 2014)
Variously explained away by regime officials, bread shortages are certain to cause further unrest. One can’t eat technical explanations. Indeed, so bad is the economy that international banks are cutting relations with most or all of Sudan’s banks:
“Suspension Arab bank dealings heavy blow to Sudan”: experts
The decision of Saudi Arabian and some European banks to stop transactions with Sudan will clamp-down the public and private economic sectors in the country. According to economic experts, the suspension seriously affects the movement of cash transactions, and is a heavy blow to the already deteriorating economic situation, the Sudanese daily Akhbar El Youm reported today (Sunday)…. [S]uspension of financial transactions by Saudi and European banks will adversely affect trade dealings between Sudan and banks in those countries, and reduce the much needed hard currency inflow. (Radio Dabanga, March 2, 2014)
Fewer international air carriers are flying to Khartoum, refusing to be reimbursed in grossly devalued Sudanese Pounds. These now include Marsland Aviation as well as the last European carrier providing service to Khartoum, Germany’s Lufthansa. On March 8, 2014 Sudan Tribune reported that it had received unofficial reports that Etihad Airways, Gulf Air, Fly Dubai, and Air Arabia were among airlines planning to suspend flights to Khartoum by September.
And things will soon get even worse: all oil production in Unity State of South Sudan has been halted, and according to Platts, South Sudan expects oil exports for April to be 4 million barrels from its fields in Upper Nile, or 133,000 barrels per day—close to half the pre-level conflict level. This denies Khartoum the revenue for oil transit fees that have been hefty, but are now shrinking rapidly. And if violence in South Sudan extends to the oil regions of Upper Nile, a total shutdown is inevitable: expatriate engineers and technical workers will be evacuated and the pipeline infrastructure will have to be shut down. What will Khartoum’s response be to such a development? Opinions are divided.
The terrible state of the economy, besides occasioning growing political unrest, has generated a large-scale exodus of the very professionals that the economy most needs. Radio Dabanga, citing a report by the National Population Council of Sudan, reports (December 10, 2013): “80 percent of all health professionals in Sudan are leaving the country. Amongst the graduates and PhD students at least one of every three Sudanese migrates to another country for work.” In the short term, remittances from those who emigrate will be of help to the economy. But as Radio Dabanga rightly concludes, “a prolonged brain drain of professionals will put further pressure on the country’s already deteriorating public services.” Another study found that a majority of all Sudanese wish to emigrate.
The Khartoum Parliament seems to have a poor understanding of economics, and this has led to absurd demands as well as the concealment of bad economic news by ministers who fear coming under fire:
The Sudanese parliament is intending to summon the oil and finance ministers to inquire about reasons behind the new increase of jet fuel price which is expected to raise price of airline tickets by 25%. The secretary general of the Chamber of National Air Transport, Mustafa Al-Kordofani, said the decision to increase jet fuel price has forced airlines companies to either incur financial loss or cancel its flights. The chamber called on the parliament to intervene to cancel or delay the price increase decision. (Sudan Tribune, March 4, 2014)
But in a highly inflationary economy, and one that depends upon petroleum imports that must be paid for in hard currency, there is no way to escape such increases in the price of jet fuel. This is a classic case of blaming the messenger for the unhappy message.
Corruption and financial misrepresentations have a long history under the current regime; but sooner or later in a highly inflationary economy lacking hard currency, the consequences will be felt. In an extraordinary story reported by Radio Dabanga:
The Sudanese Ministry of Finance is accused of hiding SDG16 billion pounds in liabilities from its financial statements, according to a report by Sudan’s Inspector General. The head of the auditing body El Tahir Abdel Gayoum said in his report his office is in the process of tracking down the money, which was discovered when reviewing the central bank’s records. Other irregularities as noted in the report include that ministries retained funds destined to the finance ministry. These comprised $12.1 million in hard currency. Additionally, ten government units are spending money outside the budget and some government agencies continued to keep consultants whose contracts have not been renewed and had terminated employees who remained on the payroll long after they left. (Radio Dabanga, January 15, 2014)
In yet another extraordinarily blunt message about the economic implosion, Radio Dabanga reports:
The president of the Chamber of Importers, Samir Ahmed Gasim, said that the low value of the Sudanese Pound (SDG) against the Dollar will have negative impact on the inflation; it will cause a scarcity of goods, which will cause a continuation of the price hikes, and also may lead to increased unemployment. (January 13, 2014)
When will it collapse?
The Sudanese economy is, in short, unsustainable—and power can be retained by the current regime only with the increasingly violent use of force against civilian protesters. What we have seen so far is likely only a dim foreshadowing of what lies ahead unless there is serious and immediate international pressure—economic, political, diplomatic—by the countries of the European Union, the very countries that have recently been discussing with Khartoum the prospects for debt relief: Sudan has a gargantuan external debt totaling approximately US$46 billion (over two billion of which can’t be accounted for—and there can be many guesses as to who has pocketed the money). This is debt that Sudan can’t service, let alone repay. It is to this observer utterly baffling that at the very moment when this ruthless, brutal, illegitimate regime is on the brink of being brought down by popular uprising, Europe would think it sensible to throw it an economic lifeline. For with serious discussions of debt relief comes the possibility of renewed borrowing, something only the Chinese seem willing to consider at present.
What has done most to hold the regime accountable for its actions, including past and present support for international terrorism, are U.S. economic and financial sanctions dating from the 1990s (e.g., the recent action by European and Arab banks are considered by many a reflection in part of fears that transactions with Sudanese banks will violate U.S. sanctions). Unfortunately, in the interest of securing greater cooperation from Khartoum on the provision of counter-terrorism intelligence, the Obama administration has increasingly seen Sudan issues through this very narrow lens, and shows signs of weakening sanctions—something candidate Obama excoriated. This is what makes Ambassador Power’s comments so important. But to date, nothing has done more to explain Obama administration policy toward Sudan than comments made by former U.S. special envoy Princeton Lyman, who declared in December 2011, in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat:
“Frankly, we do not want to see the ouster of the [Sudanese] regime, nor regime change. We want to see the regime carrying out reform via constitutional democratic measures.”
Perhaps the Europeans also think that this regime—guilty of massive atrocity crimes over decades, currently denying humanitarian access to millions of people, and relentlessly bombing purely civilian targets—can oversee democratic and constitutional reform in Sudan. If so, if such a preposterous premise governs relations with Khartoum, then we know that the people of Darfur are doomed, short of a violent overthrow of the regime. But in fact this is not so difficult a prospect to imagine, given the potency of the Sudan Revolutionary Front and the growing disaffection within the military ranks (whose salaries are paid in increasingly worthless Sudanese Pounds). Sooner or later the regime will go; how violently and costing how many lives, that is unclear and sadly lies in the expedient hands of international actors who seem unmoved by the most shocking of horrors in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan.
Eric Reeves is Professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, US. He has spent the past fourteen years working as a Sudan researcher and analyst.