Home | Comment & Analysis    Sunday 7 March 2004

Is Blasting Eritrea Hotels a New Offensive against Sudan Peace Talks?


By Mahgoub El-Tigani*

March 7, 2004 — The 1st of March regrettable blast of the Hashferai Hotel that is actively attended by UN personnel and others at the town of Tesney nearby the Sudanese-Eritrean border, and the massacre of Eritrean and other civilians by the blast, have been correlated with the rising hostilities of neighboring states whose governments militate against the State of Eritrea and have convened summit conferences with the other hostile neighbor, Yemen, to isolate Eritrea.

Almost publicly identified, the hostility escalating summits against Eritrea seemed agreed to undermine the ruling regime of Eritrea. Denouncing the blast as "acts of terrorism," Mr. Abdallah Jabir, the Organizing Secretary of the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, officially accused the government of Sudan and Ethiopia with the terrorist explosions of the hotel.

The escalated events occurred within a short period of time after the NDA, Sudan’s largest opposition alliance versus the Sudan Government, completed an important meeting in Asmara (February 2004) which highly appreciated in its Final Communiqué the State of Eritrea as a gallant supporter of the people of Sudan in their struggles to establish regular democracy through the ongoing peace process in Kenya.

The coherent relations between the NDA and the Eritrean people and government since the hosting of the NDA’s Fundamental Issues Conference in Asmara (June 1995) by the Eritrean leadership have been a source of growing hostilities between the NIF ruling regime and Eritrea, although normalization intervals periodically occurred.

The situation was further improved by the IGAD US-led peace talks between the SPLM/A and the Sudan Government; however, the unwavering support of Eritrea, people and leadership, to the NDA constituted a permanent source of political tension between the two neighboring states in Eritrea and the Sudan. Throughout the 1990s decade, the borders witnessed recurring incidents of armed conflicts followed by complaints at the UN and the Arab League up to the open hostilities of the summits of Sudan, Ethiopia, and Yemen against Eritrea.

Aside from the 40 years’ wars of liberation between Eritrea and Ethiopia that finally culminated in the national independence of Eritrea, serious political hostilities increased between Eritrea and the ruling regime in Khartoum. Unlike the NIF rule, which failed to establish popular allies in Eritrea, the Eritrean leadership maintains warm relations with the Sudanese people of whom large sections are relatives of Eritrean people, or fled to Eritrea to save their lives from the NIF persecuting rule since June 1989 and have been thenceforth supporting the NDA. At the same time, a sizeable population of Eritrean refugees has been living in Sudan throughout the liberation wars as Sudanese nationals, although many are anxiously waiting to return to the homeland.

This intimate politico-demographic situation was politically operative in the modern history of the two nations since they co-existed in close ethnic, social, and economic relations over the centuries. The Eritrean 20th century struggles to assume national independence from Ethiopia were more than often waged through the Sudanese border; thus resulting in military tensions as well as political hostilities between the two neighbors without active skirmishes and several political dissidents were hosted by the other. The emergence and growth of the SPLM/A added a significant source to the de-normalized relations between Ethiopia and Sudan under active support of the Mangistu Dergu to the SPLM versus the Nimeiri regime. This shared background, however, created a special relation between the two Sudanese/Eritrean liberation movements: the SPLM and the next ruling Front for Democracy and Justice in Eritrea.

It was only when the NIF seized political power by the June military coup that the newly independent State of Eritrea, in addition to the strong ties maintained with the John Garang-led SPLM/A opposition movement, became a major asylum receiver for a largely organized civilian and military Sudanese democratic opposition led by Mohamed ’Uthman al-Merghani whose religious leadership as Guide of the Khatmiya Muslims in Sudan and Eritrea is equally recognized with his political leadership of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the prominent supporter of the Eritrean struggles for independence, as well as the present time NDA opposition umbrella.

The al-Merghani-Garang strong alliance within the NDA group based on their formerly nationally-supported Sudanese Peace Agreement 1988, which was immediately abrogated by the NIF 1989 coup, the Sudan Government has been permanently assured of the Eritrean deep alliance with the democratic opposition of Sudan.

The Merghani-led NDA strong alliance with President Afourki and the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice is not comparable with the hostilities and lack of confidence between the two governments: the Muslim Brotherhood stands at an extreme pole of religious fanaticism and rejection of the liberal states in the region while Eritrea, a State established by a popularly national liberation movement and army, occupies the other pole of secularism and openness towards the West, Africa, the Arab States and Israel on equal terms with top sisterly relations with the NDA.

Eritrea subjection to acts of terrorism by the Sudan Government is not based on a false assumption. Early in the 1990s, Asmara expressed serious concerns about her neighborly relations with Khartoum. This situation surfaced in the political life of the two governments as a result of indoctrinating attempts in the early 1990s to recruit Jihad groups in Eritrea by Hassan al-Turabi and his governing Brotherhood, to which the Eritrean leadership responded with strong condemnation and firm appeals to the International Community to stop the isolated rule of Khartoum from attempts to terrorize Eritrea with religious sedition.

The situation worsened when NIF-supported armed confrontation erupted inside Eritrea by Muslim groups; but these attempts were firmly subdued by the Eritrean authorities. In retaliation, Eritrea seized the Sudanese Embassy in Asmara, recognized the NDA as a legitimate democratic national opposition against the ruling junta of Sudan, and allocated the embassy building as official headquarters of the NDA. Since then, despite subsequent normalization tediously mediated by the IGAD and others between Eritrea and Sudan as two IGAD members, the hostilities were never abated and minor border skirmishes almost precipitated the two countries into war.

Little wonder, the NIF unrelenting attempts to encroach the Eritrean leadership were wittingly extended to increased relations with Dijbouti, Yemen, and Ethiopia as well as the Arab League, which nonetheless failed to move Eritrea to abandon the NDA as the main objective of the hostilities’ campaign.

The heroic stand of the people and the political leadership of Eritrea in support of the Sudanese democratic opposition have been suspiciously viewed by the Sudan Government, which repeatedly ignored Eritrean initiatives to reconcile the regime with the NDA. Added to several attempts by the opposition to attack the oil pipe and other similar operations in Eastern Sudan, the NDA sacking of Kassala later on caused havoc among the civilian population and seriously damaged the military control of the Bashir military rule.

The SPLA/NDA military operation in Kassala, however, was condemned by human rights groups. It was negatively received by many NDA civilian supporters in and outside the country who correctly placed the emphasis of the democratic opposition on the peace talks to reinstate regular democracy and the just peace rather than battling with the Khartoum war mongering regime or extending civil war to the non-warring cities of the country

The subsequent cessation of hostilities between the Sudan Government and the SPLM/A by the US-led IGAD peace process has partially dried out a watering source of tension. However, the unabated tension between Eritrea and Sudan never ceased to occur due to the deep lack of confidence between the two antagonistic power structures of both countries, in addition to the military presence of the NDA smaller armed groups, the Tahaluf (Sudanese Alliance Force). The Alliance leadership recently split into two competing military/civilian groups exchanging accusations of betraying the NDA to the comfort of the Khartoum rulers. The Tahaluf role, moreover, has been virtually terminated by the IGAD peace process.

Khartoum, however, has more reasons to fear the Eritrean alliance with the NDA despite the IGAD-guaranteed peace talks or the US-supported cease-fire agreements with the SPLA: the al-Merghani allied DUP-based Fatah force accompanied by the Rashaida and the Beja opposition groups maintain ethnic, familial, and social ties with the Eritrean border tribes; all of whom freely move along the border and pursue uncensored NDA’s military and political interests.

Most recently, the NDA approval of the DarFur Sudan Liberation Army as member of the NDA Leadership Council added a new trouble to the Khartoum rulers. In response, Khartoum resumed failing attempts to isolate Eritrea by accusing the NDA of violating the Jeddah Agreement. The Khartoum miscalculated decision to freeze the NDA-Government peace follow-up committee produced complex tensions to the Naivasha peace talks:

1) The NDA Eastern Sudan effective military groups are strictly controlled by the NDA Leadership Council; 2) the SLA made an acceptable appeal to join the NDA on behalf of the persecuted DarFur African Sudanese concerning the same military aggression and political persecution that the SPLA experienced for decades by the Sudan Government’s civil war in the South, Southern Blue Nile, and the Nuba Mountains; 3) the UN, the IGAD, the US Government, European Union, and human rights groups expressed grave concerns for the escalated war by the Khartoum military rulers against the people of DarFur and the ensuing humanitarian disasters for a million Sudanese victims of the new civil war in the region; and 4) US Congressmen seriously asked the White House to investigate the involvement of Sudan officials in acts of terrorism.

These worldwide condemnations largely consider the Sudan Government as a genocide perpetrator that is not genuinely interested in democracy or peace. As it appears then, the determination of the Khartoum ruling party to put pressure on Eritrea to abandon the NDA makes one of the biggest political failures of the Brotherhood’s foreign policy. The Khartoum freeze of the NDA peaceful participation in the peace process posits a new condemnation to the Sudan Government above all.

The NDA’s major concern is not principally based on military objectives that might depend on military support from the State of Eritrea. The NDA is basically interested in a comprehensive peaceful settlement to the Sudan’s Crisis, which is a diplomatic-political objective strongly and consistently supported by Eritrea as IGAD member.

The strong support Eritrea enjoys amongst the largest sections of the Sudanese people and their democratic opposition lies for the most part in the principled support of the people and State of Eritrea to the Sudanese will power to radically democratize the terrorist rule of Khartoum - a solid fact on which Eritrea confidently accused Khartoum of blasting Tesney. This might motivate the democratic government of Ethiopia to keep a distance from the NIF ruling party as a hostility maker repeatedly accused of war mongering, peace obstruction, and other acts of terrorism.

*Member of Sudanese Writers’ Union (in exile) and the president of Sudan Human Rights Organization Cairo-Branch.

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