Home | Comment & Analysis    Friday 2 January 2009

Darfur enmeshed within Sudan’s broadening national crisis (1)


As Darfur’s humanitarian crisis deepens, potential intra-national
conflict reveals the broader failures of the National Islamic Front
regime---and the ultimate threats to international humanitarian and
development assistance throughout the country (Part 1 of three-part

By Eric Reeves

January 1, 2009 — With dismaying predictability, the continuing catastrophe in Darfur
commands less and less news attention, largely because it has settled
into a grim “genocide by attrition,” defined not so much by massive
atrocities---although these continue to occur---as by relentless, if
undramatic, human suffering and destruction consequent upon the Khartoum
regime’s deliberate exacerbating of insecurity confronting civilians
and aid workers. Most of the region has only a tenuous and fitful
humanitarian presence, and many distressed populations are completely
beyond reach (see UN access map at
Darfur’s visibility has diminished not only because the observational
presence of humanitarian workers is much reduced (even as their fear of
speaking out has increased), but because the Khartoum regime has imposed
severe restrictions on journalists seeking access to Darfur.

As the conflict enters its seventh year, with no end in sight, the risk
is that it will become perceived as a chronic problem rather than an
acute threat to the lives of millions of conflict-affected Darfuris.
This number has now reached a staggering 4.7 million civilians according
to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Darfur
Humanitarian Profile No. 33, representing conditions as of October 1,
2008 [hereafter DHP 33] at
)---three quarters of Darfur’s pre-war population. Conditions for
these people vary tremendously, but at least 3 million depend upon
international aid for all or some of their food. And yet because of
insecurity, the UN’s World Food Program can provide Darfuris with only
70 percent of the minimum daily human food requirements. Malnutrition
is again on the rise, and recent data from West Darfur reveal that
Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) has reached the emergency threshold (and
this comes following the fall harvests, an extremely ominous
development). Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM), affecting primarily
children under five, is approaching 3 percent, portending significant

Conditions in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) vary
greatly, but many face intolerable security conditions, inadequate
supplies of food and potable water, and a relentless determination by
Khartoum to shut the camps down. But the need for the camps is greater
than ever: there are, according to DHP 33, some 2.7 million IDPs, with
more than 300,000 newly displaced this year alone. A similar number of
people were displaced last year, and another 275,000 Darfuris are
refugees in Chad. Three million people, half of Darfur’s prewar
population, have lost their homes, and few see any prospect of returning
soon. They are trapped in the camps, with exceedingly few opportunities
for agricultural production or significant employment, and dependent on
international humanitarian assistance to survive. Tensions within some
camps are becoming explosive, and may soon lead to major violence. If
deteriorating security further attenuates humanitarian reach---or
compels withdrawal---many camp populations will be completely

But as massive and exigent as the Darfur catastrophe is, it cannot be
isolated from the broader context of growing political and economic
threats to Sudan as a whole; and these threats, receiving even scantier
news coverage than Darfur, may soon materialize in the form of expanding
violence and rebellion in Africa’s largest nation, posing a risk not
only to Sudan but to regional stability as well.

Khartoum’s ruling National Islamic Front regime (which has
expediently renamed itself the “National Congress Party”) faces a
series of challenges to its survival, most deriving directly from the
brutal and viciously self-serving policies of the past 20 years. A
series of recent developments---as well as the various timetables to
which the NIF committed itself in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with
the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A)
(Nairobi, January 2005)---suggest that 2009 will be a defining moment in
the history of Sudan.

[1] NIF President Omar al-Bashir faces the extraordinary prospect of
indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against
humanity and genocide. A decision by the ICC’s three-judge panel is
widely expected in January or February, and the inner cabal of the NIF
is already engaged in a tense struggle over how to respond to issuance
of an arrest warrant, and what role al-Bashir will play in this year’s
national elections.

[2] National elections within the coming year, mandated by the CPA,
would present insurmountable challenges to the NIF stranglehold on
national wealth and power---if they were free and fair. Precisely for
this reason the question is not whether the regime will attempt to
control the election results, but the manner, extent, and cost of
manipulation. A highly flawed national census, which excluded Darfur and
much of the population of South Sudan, is the first tool to be wielded
by the NIF; but the buying of local politicians, control of the
electoral machinery, and broader corruption of the electoral process has
only begun. The NIF will certainly not voluntarily surrender control of
the army, the security services, or indeed any claim on national power
and wealth; without enormous international support for the first
national elections since the regime came to power by military coup in
1989, the political status quo will be preserved in Khartoum.

[3] The various marginalized regions of Sudan all present significant
challenges to the ruling junta---electoral, political and finally
military. Darfur’s rebellion has been the most widely reported since
the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, but South Sudan
remains ravaged not only by the consequences of decades of immensely
destructive civil war, but by Khartoum’s failure to abide by various
provisions of the CPA, including border demarcation and the sharing of
oil revenues generated from reserves that lie largely in South Sudan.

Consequently, military tensions between Khartoum and the
SPLM/A---nominal partners in a merely notional “Government of National
Unity”---remain high, with several likely flashpoints for resumed
fighting. The most dangerous of these is the contested Ngok Dinka
border enclave of Abyei, which lies in the heart of the oil region,
specifically Concession Block 4 of the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating
Company (dominated by China). Abyei has already seen extremely serious
fighting in May of this year, and recent incidents may portend another,
perhaps uncontrollable series of clashes (see Roger Winter’s
first-hand account of the May 2008 violence, “Abyei Aflame: An Update
from the Field,” ENOUGH Strategy Paper 21, May 2008 at
The danger posed by the Abyei crisis was urgently highlighted by UN
Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes during a very recent visit to
the enclave:

“‘[The CPA] is fragile but it is fundamental; it is absolutely
vital to get it right because if the North-South agreement fails,
everything else will also fall apart…. If that goes, you can forget
about Darfur; it is just a side show.’” (New York Times [dateline:
Abyei], December 25, 2008)

Should fighting resume in Abyei, it will be in large measure because
the international community that invested so much diplomatic energy in
securing the CPA has invested so little in seeing that the terms of the
Agreement are honored. The large UN peacekeeping force in South Sudan
(UNMIS) has also proved weak, with a poorly conceived mandate and
ineffective deployment of resources (see report by Human Rights Watch,
“Abandoning Abyei: Destruction and Displacement,” May 2008 at
This is extraordinarily short-sighted, and in turn tells us all too much
about why Khartoum has failed to honor any of its many agreements made
concerning Darfur, including the ill-conceived Darfur Peace Agreement
(DPA). The north/south “Comprehensive” Peace Agreement, for
example, stipulated that the final boundary of Abyei be established by
an international panel of experts, since the parties could not agree on
this most contentious issue in final negotiations. Accordingly, an
authoritatively researched report by the Abyei Boundary Commission was
delivered to President al-Bashir in July 2005---and has been completely
ignored (for an excellent account of the Commission’s work, and an
explanation of how it fulfilled its mandate, see commissioner Douglas
Johnson’s account at
http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article25125). UNMIS, the
UN, and the broader international community have failed to hold the
regime accountable for this signal instance of bad faith, and Khartoum
has fully registered the encouraging implications of such failure going

Similarly, the long border between South Sudan and Southern Kordofan
State (a newly created northern administrative unit) has not been
delineated, despite the clear stipulations of the CPA. This has
enormous implications for any decision about precisely where oil
reserves (and ultimately revenues) lie. Southern Kordofan is also the
region of the Nuba Mountains, another exceedingly dangerous flashpoint,
with many of the features of Darfur before the current conflagration
began (see below).

The restive and deeply impoverished eastern region, chiefly Kassala and
Red Sea States, have seen none of the promised benefits of a peace
agreement signed in 2006. International assistance has not been able to
lower what are terribly high rates of malnutrition, morbidity, and
extreme poverty (see below). Khartoum simply ignored, again, its
commitments under the Asmara peace agreement. Along the Nile River
north of Khartoum, various populations have been forcibly displaced on a
large scale to make way for two large dam projects whose electrical
generation will primarily benefit Khartoum, Port Sudan, and mechanized
agro-business enterprises owned by the regime and its cronies. Violent
rebellion seems a distinct possibility in Nubia (see map at


[4] In the end, however, it may be the Khartoum-dominated economy that
proves the point of greatest stress for the NIF, despite the enormous
oil revenues the regime generates from production that is typically
estimated at approximately 500,000 barrels per day. The regime’s
budget continues to confront the challenges of massive external debt
(approaching $30 billion, according to US government figures), as well
as the impact of hugely profligate military spending (see below). Since
crude oil was first exported from Port Sudan in August 1999, the regime
has grown increasingly dependent in absolute and relative terms on oil
revenues. But oil prices have plunged over 60 per cent since their
recent all-time high, and a world-wide recession looms, with the clear
possibility of further reductions in global demand and yet lower prices
for crude oil.

At the same, the Sudan Tribune reports (November 26, 2008), “the
Greater Nile [Petroleum Operating Company] [GNPOC] has experienced
diminishing productivity lately, from 325,000 barrels per day to
200,000.” Reuters ([dateline: New Delhi] December 12, 2008) reports a
smaller decline (325,000 bpd to 250,000 bpd), but also notes that
Sudanese “Nile Blend” crude is now trading at a greater discount
against its benchmark “Dated Brent” crude.

[§§§ GNPOC is the producing consortium in Western Upper Nile/Southern
Kordofan provinces, and has long been the larger of the two consortia
operating in South Sudan. Petrodar, also dominated by the Chinese, is
located in Eastern Upper Nile Province, and lies almost entirely in
South Sudan; it produces substantially less of the much less valuable
“Dar Blend,” which has special shipping and port requirements,
and sells at a substantial discount to “Nile Blend” crude.]

This significantly reduced productivity may be related to repairs,
scheduled and otherwise; but it may also be a sign that the NIF
regime---in its haste to extract as much oil as possible from reserves
along the north/south border region before precise geographic
demarcation---has begun to exhaust reserves in certain areas.

The strain on Khartoum’s budget and economy has been publicly
acknowledged by Awad al-Jaz, the NIF finance minister:

“‘The Sudanese economy is hugely dependent on oil revenue. The
price collapse from $147 to $40 per barrel provides a realistic insight
into the impact,’ [al-Jaz said].” (The Sudan Tribune, November 26,

In fact, there is no such thing as a “Sudanese economy,” or a true
national economy. There is the Khartoum-dominated economy that controls
Sudan’s national wealth, now deriving overwhelmingly from oil and to a
lesser extent mechanized farming---and then there is the rest of Sudan,
a country the size of the United States east of the Mississippi River.
A narrow sliver of the Nile River Valley around Khartoum and its sister
city Omdurman reaps the economic rewards of all of the country’s
resources, while the vast marginalized regions receive virtually no
benefit (excepting primarily the oil revenues grudgingly and
insufficiently shared with South Sudan). Even the mechanized farming of
Gezira State and other fertile regions is controlled largely by regime
cronies, a practice that has extended to the Nuba Mountains in Southern
Kordofan State, another reason this key region is a potential flashpoint
for renewed north/south war.

All foreign investment and payments pass through the regime, which has
relentlessly insisted that the finance and energy ministries remain
firmly in its control following the signing of the CPA. This makes
transparency for oil production or revenue figures impossible, and has
ensured that South Sudan has been denied many hundreds of millions of
dollars in oil revenues desperately needed for reconstruction and
development. Indeed, the apparent frankness of Finance Minister al-Jaz
about declining oil revenues serves primarily to forewarn the Government
of Southern Sudan (GOSS) that Khartoum will be severely cutting back on
oil revenue distributions. But the regime itself has grown complacently
dependent on the prospect of steadily rising oil production and
revenues, and current budgetary difficulties may lead to a serious
fiscal crisis. One Sudanese source reports that there is talk in
Khartoum of borrowing money from China to finance the very large budget
deficit now forecast, adding to already massive external debt, and
holding any future Sudanese economy hostage to the deeply distorted
priorities of NIF spending.

The key example of such spending is military purchases made by the
“Government of National Unity:” these benefit only the Sudan
Armed Forces, which is entirely a creature of the NIF. Many purchases
are extraordinarily profligate, and serve no purpose but to threaten
South Sudan. This was the case when the regime purchased twelve highly
advanced Russian MiG-29s in 2002 at an obscene cost of almost $1 billion
(including purchase, maintenance, training, and servicing contracts).
And yet Khartoum very recently bought another twelve MiG-29s, an equally
profligate diversion of national resources from the acute needs of many
millions of Sudanese. The regime has also invested heavily in domestic
arms production capacity (e.g., at the vast GIAD industrial complex
outside Khartoum), and continues a substantial arms trade with China,
extending back well over a decade. Moreover, Chinese weapons and
military equipment continue to be deployed to Darfur despite a UN arms
embargo on the region (see report by Human Rights First, “Investing in
Tragedy: China’s Money, Arms, and Politics in Sudan,” March 2008 at

Beyond this, the NIF is importing immense quantities of medium and
heavy arms, including the helicopter gunships that have proved so deadly
in Darfur, as they did in the final years of the north/south conflict
(the years of the “oil war,” 1998-2003). This has forced South
Sudan to expend very significant resources of its own on military
equipment to ensure that it cannot be militarily intimidated or denied
by force the right to a self-determination referendum in 2011 (a vote
that will certainly be for secession, given Khartoum’s bad faith in
implementing the terms of the CPA). The leadership of the SPLM, which
dominates the Government of Southern Sudan, is acutely aware of how
little the international community has done to ensure that the terms of
the CPA are respected, and expects nothing more than condemnatory words
in the event of Khartoum’s military attempt to prevent South Sudan
from seceding. An arms build-up benefits no one in Sudan, and reveals
all too clearly that Khartoum is simply not committed to the terms of
the peace agreements it has signed.

There are other stresses upon the Khartoum-dominated economy and
budget, although these are rarely considered in assessing regime
expenditures (indeed, IMF reviews of Sudan have been particularly
scandalous in their omissions: e.g., the Fund’s 2003 overview devoted
not a single line item to military expenditures in its many pages of
economic and budgetary data, four years after oil revenues were first
exported and military purchases had more than doubled). The security
services, both Military Intelligence and the National Security and
Intelligence Service (NSIS), are vast and have in the past been given
unlimited budgets for domestic surveillance and political control. The
brutal domestic abuses by these security services, primarily in service
of suppressing political expression and dissent, especially in and
around Khartoum, have recently been well documented by the UN High
Commission for Human Rights (“Tenth periodic report of the United
Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human
rights in the Sudan,” November 28, 2008 at
www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/10thOHCHR28nov08.pdf). As elements
of the traditional northern political opposition attempt to find their
voice in opposing the continued destruction of Darfur and protesting the
regime’s contemptuous dismissal of the ICC, the need for these
security services only grows.

Moreover, the security services also require substantial funds to
sustain operations in Darfur and Chad (where Khartoum has supported
Chadian rebel groups seeking to topple President Idriss Déby). Many
agree with the assessment by Justice Africa that in Darfur, “Military
Intelligence is the most powerful governmental institution. For the Chad
policy, it is the National Security and Intelligence Service.”
(“Making Sense of Chad,” February 4, 2008 at
www.justiceafrica.org/2008/02/04/making-sense-of-chad). This
certainly comports with the experience of many humanitarian
organizations on the ground in Darfur.

Khartoum also funds a number of other paramilitary groups and
organizations for “security” purposes, including not only the
notorious Janjaweed militias in Darfur, but the longstanding Popular
Defense Forces, the Border Intelligence Guard, and the Central Reserve
Police. Many of the Janjaweed have been re-cycled into these and other
military or police guises. Even so, Darfur is proving more expensive
than Khartoum had calculated with its policy of turning the conflict
into an ethnically charged counter-insurgency that relied primarily on
Arab militias. The very Arab groups that were so easily recruited to
attack thousands of non-Arab or African villages and settlements when
cattle and land were readily available have in many cases grown
disaffected. Feeling that they have been short-changed by the regime,
or that division of the spoils of war has been unfair, Arab groups are
increasingly attacking one another, and in some cases even joining the
Darfuri rebels. This is one reason the NIF brought into the regime the
most notorious of the Janjaweed leaders, Musa Hilal: his task was to
regain the savage services of these brutal militia forces, especially
from among the “Aballa” (camel-herding) Arab groups of North Darfur
(see my January 31, 2008 analysis in The New Republic at
This is where Khartoum began its major military offensive in August of
this year, and where large-scale violence continues to be most intense.

Perhaps the greatest “expenses” the NIF regime faces in maintaining
its power are the financial inducements directed toward co-opting the
political opposition, especially among the three powerful Arab tribal
groups that have dominated Sudan’s political affairs since
independence in 1956. The Shaygiyya, Ja’aliyiin, and Danagla---the
so-called “Northern riverine elite”---have continued to benefit
enormously from their traditional status, dominating many of the key
positions within the regime, as well as in banking, agro-business,
construction, and oil and natural-resource development…so long as they
remain politically loyal to the National Islamic Front.

The NIF had insinuated itself deeply into the economic structures and
institutions of Sudan before it came to power by military coup in June
1989, and soon thereafter completed a ruthless purging of the army,
creating an institution that was fully loyal to the regime and its
Islamist ambitions. The development of powerfully effective security
services, with no compunction about the use of arbitrary arrest,
torture, and extra-judicial executions, completed not only the NIF
control of political power, but created the means to exercise a firm
grip on national wealth. And in the almost 20 years since the NIF seized
power, a second generation has emerged from the Arab elite, in which
many have come to see in the longevity of the regime the best predictor
of where their economic success might lie---and where at least passive
political loyalties should be given.

Elsewhere in Sudan the NIF engages in a crude but effective domestic
policy of bribery: local officials, competing militia groups, acutely
distressed civilians are all offered money or tangibles for behavior
that weakens either political opposition or potential military threats.
On a larger scale, this often leads to “divide and conquer” tactics
such as those that characterized the north/south conflict, especially
following the split within the SPLM/A in 1991. The same policies
defined the use of primarily Nuer tribal militias in Upper Nile Province
during the years of the “oil war,” and are once more fully evident
in Darfur. But again, one key difference in Darfur is that the regime,
anticipating an earlier resolution to its genocidal counter-insurgency
efforts, has not been able to satisfy the competing claims to land by
its various Arab tribal militia allies. Given the acute shortage of
arable land and pasturage, there is no obvious solution to growing anger
on the part of those Arab groups that feel short-changed. Large-scale
defections by Arab groups to the non-Arab rebel groups could easily tip
the military balance against Khartoum throughout Darfur.


As context for the economic and budgetary priorities of the NIF regime,
we should again recall how very little national wealth or foreign
investment benefits the marginalized areas of Sudan, and why this has
created festering sites of terrible poverty, disease, malnutrition---and
potential rebellion---throughout Sudan. For twenty years the NIF has
succeeded in its strategy of marginalization, largely because it has
been able to deal with insurgency threats seriatim. But this pattern
has been broken by Darfur, coming as it does with potential military
threats from several of the other marginalized areas. The overview
below suggests that 2009 will be a year of reckoning---for the NIF
regime, for Sudan as a whole, and for the moral credibility of the
international community in responding to ongoing genocide and crimes
against humanity, long Khartoum’s primary domestic security policy.

[a] Darfur is only the most conspicuous example of decades of economic
marginalization and neglect. It is hardly surprising that during the
current crisis, the NIF regime has resolutely refused to offer any
meaningful humanitarian assistance to Darfur’s civilian population.
Since its counter-insurgency strategy is genocidal in nature, this is
precisely what we should have expected. Such refusal, indeed
obstruction, of assistance also reveals much about the terribly skewed
economic priorities that prevail in Sudan, even in providing the most
basic commodity of human existence. In a highly revealing account, New
York Times correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman filed from Ed Damer (north of
Khartoum) a dispatch highlighting just how perverse national
agricultural policy is under the regime. Noting that Sudan “receives
a billion pounds of free food from international [aid] donors, [even as
it] is growing and selling vast quantities of its own crops to other
countries,” Gettleman asks, “why is a country that exports so many
of its own crops receiving more free food than anywhere else in the
world, especially when the Sudanese government is blamed for creating
the crisis [in Darfur] in the first place?” An excellent question,
which the international community refuses to ask with sufficient

The details of this ghastly perversion of priorities are revealing of
how ruthlessly the regime has arrogated to itself all opportunities for
significant economic gain:

“[Sudan] is already growing wheat for Saudi Arabia, sorghum for
camels in the United Arab Emirates and vine-ripened tomatoes for the
Jordanian Army. Now the government is plowing $5 billion into new
agribusiness projects, many of them to produce food for export.”

“Take sorghum, a staple of the Sudanese diet, typically eaten in
flat, spongy bread. Last year, the United States government, as part of
its response to the emergency in Darfur, shipped in 283,000 tons of
sorghum, at high cost, from as far away as Houston. Oddly enough, that
is about the same amount that Sudan exported, according to United
Nations officials. This year, Sudanese companies, including many that
are linked to the government in Khartoum, are on track to ship out twice
that amount, even as the United Nations is being forced to cut rations
to Darfur.”
(August 10, 2008 at

Even before the Darfur rebellion began in earnest in 2003, the region
had endured decades of neglect, leaving the region with few schools,
hospitals, and paved roads. The NIF regime’s interest in Darfur
extended only to attempting to secure political support from the Arab
tribal groups, recognizing this was one of the few places in Sudan where
stoking ethnic tensions, and encouraging Arab supremacism, might have
political benefits.

[b] South Sudan has historically endured an even deeper political and
economic marginalization, extending back to British administrative
practices during Condominium rule (1898 to 1956). Human health
indicators have long been appallingly poor, and education has been a
rare commodity. Until very recently there were no paved roads outside
Juba anywhere in South Sudan (excepting those built by China for oil
extraction), and no transportation or communications infrastructure of
any kind. Decades of civil war wrought havoc with the cattle-based
economy of the Nilotic tribal groups, as well as the agricultural
economies of the Equatorian tribal groups. Having inherited all the
desperately difficult needs of this ravaged region, the Government of
Southern Sudan is currently being deeply short-changed by a lack
equitable sharing of oil revenues. Rough estimation is all that is
possible without a clear delineation of the north/south border per the
terms of the CPA, and without transparency in either the finance or
mining and energy ministries. But it is likely that between $500
million and $1 billion in oil revenues has been diverted from South
Sudan to the coffers of the NIF regime.

There are many ways for this diversion to occur. For example, some
evidence suggests that at production sites near what will be the likely
north/south border, Khartoum and the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating
Company (GNPOC) are working as rapidly as possible to extract oil from
southern portions of these reserves, claiming that they lie in the north
and thus denying South Sudan the almost 50 percent of revenues to which
it is entitled from oil extracted in the South. Unlike the Petrodar
Consortium in Eastern Upper Nile, the GNPOC operates in both Southern
Kordofan State [northern Sudan] and Western Upper Nile and Bahr
el-Ghazal Provinces in South Sudan. This is why border demarcation is
so important in this region and why Abyei, which lies immediately on the
border, is so hotly contested. Khartoum’s refusal to abide by the
Abyei Protocol of the CPA, along with the regime’s militarization of
the region in defiance of both the terms of the CPA and the June 8, 2008
“Roadmap for Return of [Abyei’s] Internally Displaced Persons,”
augurs poorly for a sustainable peace. So, too, does its refusal to
abide by the negotiated terms of oil revenue sharing.

Khartoum’s rapacious instincts are all the more appalling given the
immense humanitarian needs that still define much of South Sudan. Oil
revenues denied to the South compound an already serious funding
shortage for food, potable water, and medical care. A UN News Center
dispatch (November 28, 2008) reports the concerns of UN Undersecretary
for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes:

“Health care is a particular concern, with southern Sudan
experiencing some of the worst child and maternal health indicators in
the world, due in part to exceptionally low immunization rates. One in
seven women, for instance, dies as a result of causes related to

In fact, despite Sudan’s enormous oil wealth, health care spending in
the country under the NIF regime has the perverse distinction of being
the lowest in all of sub-Saharan Africa ($14 per person per year).
Compounding this scandalous failure is the limited access to clean water
in much of Sudan: only about 40 percent of Sudan’s population has
reliable access to potable water.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has long worked in South Sudan and also
reports (July 2008 “Field News” at
http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/sudan) on chronic
malnutrition issues facing the impoverished South:

“Lack of food, especially during the ‘hunger gap’ of April to
July, is an issue that MSF teams identify in many areas where they work
in South Sudan. In Northern Bahr el Ghazal, food insecurity has even
worsened this year because of flooding the previous year that destroyed
crops, and lowered food availability in markets due to an interruption
of commercial traffic with South Sudan when fighting at the border

Here again we should recall that rather than feed its own people, the
Khartoum regime is engaged in large-scale food exports utilizing foreign
investment, with all profits benefiting the regime and its political
supporters. Senior NIF officials enjoy fabulous wealth, while children
in South Sudan are consigned to lives stunted, even destroyed for lack
of food.

[c] Economic marginalization and privation also define the Nuba
Mountains---a region roughly the size of Austria in Southern Kordofan
State. There too growing militarization, yet again along ethnic lines,
threatens to spark an uncontrollable outbreak of violence. As in South
Sudan, the people of the Nuba Mountains have seen nothing in the way of
national wealth devoted to improving their livelihoods. On the contrary,
they have suffered badly from northern appropriation of land and
resources. When in 1992 the National Islamic Front declared a
“jihad,” or holy war, against all in the Nuba Mountains who
supported the SPLM/A, the results were genocidal in character. A
culturally rich, ethnically diverse region---with Muslims, Christians,
and animists traditionally living together---became the target of a
total humanitarian embargo that lasted a decade. The African populations
of the Nuba, like those of the oil regions to the south and west, became
the particular target of Khartoum’s violence and policy of slow
starvation. Compulsory Islamization was common, as was violent human
displacement to effect land clearances benefiting Khartoum’s cronies
who had designs on the most fertile land in the Nuba. Areas such as
Kauda were subject to relentless aerial attacks, deliberately targeting
schools, churches, clinics, and what humanitarian relief managed to slip
through the blockade.

There is no scope in the present analysis for any substantial account
of the current situation in the Nuba, but an excellent report on the
region has recently been published by the Small Arms Survey/Human
Security Baseline Assessment (“The Drift Back to War: Insecurity and
Militarization in the Nuba Mountains,” August 2008, at
http://allafrica.com/stories/200808260530.html). This historically
informed and detailed account makes clear that the region is on the
verge of slipping into a Darfur-like conflict, with some of the same
ethnic tensions deliberately inflamed by Khartoum. Indeed, the report
concludes with an explicit comparison to Darfur:

“It is clear that security is the biggest immediate challenge in the
Nuba Mountains. A combination of weak political will, an international
community distracted by Darfur, and UNMIS’s underperformance has led
to the failure of CPA implementation in South Kordofan. Ethnic tensions
are mounting in the region, and recovery and development plans are
overshadowed by the danger of a return to open conflict. Discontent over
the CPA’s failure to deliver economic development is turning to anger,
and many now view war in the Nuba Mountains as inevitable. An emerging
local narrative sees parallels with the events that led to the Darfur

Among the most notable findings in the body of the report is the
account offered by the former head of Khartoum’s security apparatus
for the region, which anticipates similar instructions given to the SAF
and Janjaweed militias in Darfur:

“The head of security in South Kordofan, who later sought political
asylum in Switzerland, said the orders given to government troops were
‘to kill anything that is alive…to destroy everything, to burn the
area so that nothing can exist there.’”

The report speaks of Khartoum’s willingness to resort to “an
inflammatory mix of Arab supremacy and Islamic extremism” that has
been as evident in the Nuba Mountains as it has been in Darfur---and the
signs of a resurgence of this hateful and cruelly deployed ideology are
everywhere. The report notes:

“Concern over a resurgence of Arab supremacism deepened in mid 2007
after a series of ethnically-targeted attacks of unusual brutality.”

The report also cites the findings of the courageous Sudan Organization
Against Torture:

“‘This trend of attacks on innocent civilians has been repeated in
many areas of the eastern part of South Kordofan, and mainly carried out
by well-organized Arab militias determined to destabilize the area and
create a sense of insecurity among the population, mostly black African
tribes, to induce them to flee.’”

The report describes the Central Reserve Police (CRP), active in brutal
May 2008 assaults in the Tawilla area of North Darfur, as having strong
militia connections, including to Janjaweed leader and NIF regime member
Musa Hilal. The CRP is commanded by the interior ministry and is made up
of Arab militiamen extremely loyal to the NIF political leadership; this
force has been heavily armed, and because its membership is from outside
the Nuba region, it is more willing to engage in the most brutal forms
of warfare. The Popular Defense Forces in the Nuba are also “now being
rearmed with a strong ethnic bias”:

“Growing ethnic insecurity in the region has the potential to
deteriorate significantly over the coming months and needs urgent
attention to prevent it from spiraling out of control.”

These words could, of course, have been used to describe Darfur for
years prior to the outbreak of full-blown hostilities in 2003. And we
should have no doubt that Khartoum’s heavy militarization of the Nuba,
with corresponding responses from the SPLA, may well lead to a new
bloodbath, with huge numbers of civilians again caught in violence that
serves only the interests of Khartoum in its continuing arrogation of
national power and wealth. Indeed, one of the most important
observations in this report on the Nuba points to the clear electoral
implications of recent ethnic violence:

“Political analysts link recent violence in the east [of the Nuba
Mountains] to the 2009 elections and preparations by the government
hardliners to achieve political ends through military means in an area
of the Nuba Mountains where the SPLM/A has only recently begun to win

[d] In the east of Sudan, Red Sea and Kassala States receive almost no
news attention, despite the acute suffering and deprivation that define
the lives of the majority of people living in the region, especially the
non-Arab Beja. Poverty is extreme and widespread, as are malnutrition
and disease. The same intense feelings of political and economic
marginalization that have motivated other regional rebellions took form
in Red Sea and Kassala as the “Eastern Front,” made up primarily of
the Beja Congress and the Rashaida Free Lions. Supported by Eritrea and
allied with the southern SPLA, the Eastern Front was a potent threat to
Khartoum until Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki decided in mid-2006 to
abandon the rebels and seek rapprochement with Khartoum (this came as
Eritrea appeared on the verge of another war with Ethiopia, and had no
desire to have a hostile Sudanese regime to its west). After months of
negotiations, a tenuous peace agreement was reached between the rebel
movement and the NIF regime in October 2006. It offered very little in
the way of meaningful concessions, and subsequently no significant
economic investment or humanitarian relief has been provided by
Khartoum. Negotiating from a position of military weakness, the Eastern
Front had little choice but to capitulate.

But we may certainly catch a clear glimpse of the strategy that
Khartoum would bring to bear if the insurgency were to re-ignite. As
Julie Flint argued rightly argued (before Eritrea dropped its support
for the Eastern Front):

“Any counterinsurgency campaign in eastern Sudan will be run by those
who ran the war in Darfur. The security apparatus of the Sudanese state
is unchanged. Eastern Sudan is not only a challenge to the international
partners who drove through the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, turning a
blind eye to the death in Darfur. It is a litmus test for the unity
government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement’s ability to
make the leopard change its spots. Most importantly, it is life or death
for people who have already been patient long enough.” (“The Looming
Conflict in Eastern Sudan,” February 7, 2006;

Moreover, the same war of attrition on humanitarian aid we see in
Darfur was reported in the Eastern states by the UN and nongovernmental
organizations even as Khartoum was negotiating a peace agreement in
Asmara. The purpose was clearly to demonstrate how vulnerable civilians
were to the NIF’s tactics of humanitarian obstruction, civilians
(including Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees) already enduring terrible
privation in far too many cases:

The UN Integrated Regional Information Networks reported on June 19,

“UN staff have expressed concern about an apparent aid blockade in
the troubled eastern region. In recent days, aid workers had been
refused access to the area, despite formal agreements with the Sudanese
government allowing them to work in the region, da Silva said. ‘Since
the beginning of last week, we have been denied access to visit refugee
camps,’ he said. ‘This is a very strange development. If it is not
solved very soon, we are going to have enormous problems in these
refugee camps in the east.’” [ ]

“Rebels in Sudan’s east have complained that the impoverished region
remains underdeveloped due to neglect by the central government. A
similar grievance sparked the Darfur rebellion, in which rebels,
complaining about political and economic marginalisation, attacked
government positions in the region.” (Dateline: Khartoum).

Agence France-Presse offered one of the very few detailed and
well-informed accounts of the grim realities of Eastern Sudan (June 7,
2006 [dateline: Kassala, eastern Sudan]):

“Helicopter gunships and a humanitarian crisis greet the few
Westerners who make it to Kassala, an East Sudan town far from the
Darfur region, where analysts say a bad situation could be about to get
worse. With international media and aid groups focused on war-torn
Darfur in the West, restrictions on journalists and humanitarian workers
travelling to the East mean that a crisis in many ways worse than
Darfur’s goes largely ignored.”

“The crude mortality rate for this desert region [ ] is almost double
that of Darfur. There, 14,000 aid workers have been deployed to cope
with the humanitarian crisis, but only a small fraction of that number
work in the East, home to yet another Sudanese rebellion. A study
carried out last year found that acute malnutrition in the East stood at
around 19 percent, well-above the emergency level of 15 percent. In
Darfur the figure was less than 12 percent.”

[§§§ NB: Global Acute Malnutrition in Darfur rose to the emergency
threshold in much of Darfur during 2007, and has continued at these
dangerous levels in 2008.]

“[Only a few correspondents] manage to make it [to the East,] thanks
to World Food Program humanitarian flights. ‘The East is one of the
least served areas [of Sudan],’ the International Crisis Group’s
Suliman Baldo told reporters. ‘There are a lot of restrictions on
[humanitarian organizations] in the East, not like in Darfur.’ ‘The
humanitarian needs are not receiving any attention so therefore it’s a
bad situation. It definitely needs to be highlighted...the lack of media
attention is also responsible.’”

The restrictions Baldo refers to were in place for months, serving to
coerce both rebel negotiators and the international aid community:

“According to a May 20, [2006] [UN] World Food Program [WFP] report,
restricted humanitarian access is limiting food distributions and may
prevent WFP from pre-positioning food aid for tens of thousands of
Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees in eastern Sudan in advance of the rainy
season. WFP reported that due to an impasse over travel permit
requirements, [Khartoum-appointed] government officials have denied WFP
staff access to sites in 35 separate incidents countrywide between
mid-March and mid-May. According to the report, 20 of the incidents
occurred in eastern Sudan, resulting in no WFP access to Red Sea State
and reduced access in Kassala.” (US Agency for International
Development, “Sudan---Complex Emergency,” Situation Report #18, June
16, 2006)

It is important to bear in mind also that if fighting breaks out in the
Eastern states, through which the oil pipeline from South Sudan passes
on its way to Port Sudan, we may be sure that a savage cordon sanitaire
will be created, and that the means will include not only military
assault but a full-scale humanitarian blockade.

[e] There are still other places in Sudan where we see a comparable
brutality directed against civilian populations; they, too, loom as
threats or obstacles to NIF tyranny and exploitative economic
development. Some 350 kilometers north of Khartoum, the regime has
engaged in callous (and environmentally ill-conceived) dam construction
on the Nile River, thereby displacing many tens of thousands of
indigenous people (primarily from the Manasir, Hamadab and Amri tribes).
And they have been displaced not to land that is arable or suitable for
agricultural purposes, but to what is for all intents and purposes
desert. As the nongovernmental organization Rivers International Network

“The Merowe Dam is a US$1.8 billion hydropower project being built on
the Nile in Sudan. The 174-kilometer-long reservoir will displace more
than 50,000 people from the fertile Nile Valley to arid desert
locations. The environmental and health impacts have never been properly

[§§§ The Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology
found in March 2006 that Khartoum had produced a very poor quality
Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). The EIA ignored the fact that
“strong fluctuations will erode the river banks, making it
difficult for farmers to collect water and fish in the river and
reservoir; sedimentation will seriously diminish the capacity of the
project to generate electricity; the dam will block fish migration.”
(cited by the Sudan Tribune, March 23, 2006)]

“The Merowe Dam is being financed by China Exim Bank and funders from
Arab countries. Chinese, Sudanese, German and French companies are
participating in the project. The government has not consulted the
affected communities about the project, and is cracking down harshly
against their protests.”

Brutal repression of protests by Nubian people is also occurring
further downstream at the site of the Kajbar Dam. Predictably, these
dam projects offer nothing for regional populations but displacement.
Most of the electricity generated by these expensive projects will
benefit Khartoum, its immediate environs, as well as the critical
commercial and import/export center of Port Sudan (there will be a
minimal extension of the electrical grid to a few locations in northern
Sudan---Atbara and Dongala---but nothing for the marginalized regions).
Among the Nubians in particular there is talk of fighting Khartoum over
the dam project, a decision that would certainly provoke an extremely
violent crackdown to protect this massive investment.

[f] In Khartoum area itself, the regime continues with its harsh
policy of clearing “slums” that house families fleeing to the
capital in search of security and employment. Numerous previous
clearances have steadily pushed primarily non-Arab populations further
from the center of Khartoum, now to locations that are over 20
kilometers south of the capital. This month 4,000 homes were razed in
the Mandela Settlement, and another 6,000 are scheduled to be demolished
(UN Integrated Regional Information Networks [dateline: Mandela
Settlement], December 4, 2008). These people, like those in many
previous clearances, will continue to be pushed yet further away from
Khartoum, making commuting by bus to the city for work too expensive and
making access to basic human services (clean water, sanitation, schools,
primary medical care) much less likely.

And from within the capital city itself, the UN High Commission for
Human Rights offers in its November report on Sudan an account of NIF
tyranny at its most ruthless. The National Security and Intelligence
Services “systematically use arbitrary arrest and detention against
political dissidents.” Detention “can typically be accompanied by
additional serious rights violations such as incommunicado detention,
ill-treatment, torture, or detention in unofficial places of
detention.” “The human rights concerns related to the [National
Security and Intelligence Services] are longstanding and
institutionalized problems….”

We might hope that the UN High Commission for Human Rights would find
these gross human rights abuses more than “problems,” even as we
should applaud the report’s emphasis on the “systematic,”
“longstanding,” and “institutional” nature of NIF political
repression. In conferring legitimacy on the NIF regime, in refusing to
take serious action to halt the kinds of human rights abuses that
sustain NIF power, in acquiescing before the vast atrocity crimes that
continue to be perpetrated in the marginalized regions of Sudan, the
international community sends the signal that reports, words of
chastisement, and exhortation are all that really must be feared.


In a recent article in the British medical journal The Lancet (Volume
372, October 4, 2008 at
authors John Kraemer, Dhrubajyoti Bhattacharya, and Lawrence ask in
their title whether “Blocking humanitarian assistance is a crime
against humanity?” Their analysis is framed around the actions taken
by the Burmese junta in severely restricting international humanitarian
assistance in the wake of Cyclone Nargis this past May, and actions by
Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe in cutting off much humanitarian
assistance to his country for callously self-serving political and
electoral purposes. The authors have recourse to a wide range of
international law and covenants in their brief scope, as well as to the
UN Charter and the UN World Summit (2005) “Outcome Document,” which
notionally commits nations to a “responsibility to protect”
civilians threatened or unprotected by their government---from war
crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

What we have seen over many years in Eastern Sudan, the Nuba Mountains,
South Sudan, and most conspicuously in Darfur is precisely what these
authors conclude is a “crime against humanity”: the deliberate
obstruction of humanitarian assistance to civilians for political and
military purposes (for an account of the kind of humanitarian
obstruction that defined war in South Sudan, see my Washington Post
op/ed [“The Terror in Sudan”] of July 6, 2002 at
http://www.sudanreeves.org/Sections-article49-p1.html). They
conclude that such a crime obliges wealthier and militarily capable
nations to intervene in as robust a fashion as necessary to protect
civilians at risk, including from disease and malnutrition that might be
readily addressed. If we take their argument seriously, we must be
prepared to confront in Darfur a stark and painful contradiction between
what we declare to be international law, and what we are actually
prepared to enforce.

For Darfur reveals precisely a willingness to leave civilians and
humanitarian workers unprotected, vulnerable to extreme levels of
insecurity---insecurity that is clearly engineered by the Khartoum
regime. Two years ago six nongovernmental humanitarian organizations
and all fourteen operational UN humanitarian organizations in Darfur
made an impassioned appeal for improved security. The UN statement

“In the face of growing insecurity and danger to communities and aid
workers, the UN and its humanitarian partners have effectively been
holding the line for the survival and protection of millions.”

“That line cannot be held much longer. Access to people in need in
December 2006 was the worst since April 2004. [§§§ Security and access
continued to deteriorate in 2007 and 2008---ER.] The repeated military
attacks, shifting frontlines, and fragmentation of armed groups
compromise safe humanitarian access and further victimize civilians who
have borne the brunt of this protracted conflict. In the last six months
alone, more than 250,000 people have been displaced by fighting, many of
them fleeing for the second or third time. Villages have been burnt,
looted and arbitrarily bombed and crops and livestock destroyed. Sexual
violence against women is occurring at alarming rates. This situation is

The concluding statement by these UN organizations was equally

“The humanitarian community cannot indefinitely assure the survival
of the population in Darfur if insecurity continues. [ ] Solid
guarantees for the safety of civilians and humanitarian workers is
urgently needed. At the same time, those who have committed attacks,
harassment, abduction, intimidation, robbery and injury to civilians,
including Internally Displaced Persons, humanitarian workers and other
non-combatants, must be held accountable. If not, the UN humanitarian
agencies and nongovernmental humanitarian organizations will not be able
to hold the fragile line that to date has provided relief and a measure
of protection to some four million people in Darfur affected by this
tragic conflict.” (Joint Statement on Darfur, January 18, 2007;
source: UN High Commission for Refugees)

Of course there have been no such “solid guarantees” as demanded,
even as insecurity has continued to deteriorate and humanitarian access
to contract. Indeed, Khartoum’s promises are the very opposite of
“solid guarantees,” and only military protection on the ground
can now afford any meaningful guarantee, which is precisely why the NIF
regime has so strenuously, and successfully, blocked deployment of an
effective peacekeeping force for well over two years.

Truly honest and realistic debate about a sufficiently robust
international military intervention in Darfur---sufficient to halt
episodes of mass civilian destruction and ensure security for
humanitarian operations---essentially ended with authorization of the
current UN/African Union “hybrid force” (UNAMID, UN Security Council
Resolution 1769, July 31, 2007). Whatever its weaknesses (to be
analyzed in a subsequent analysis), UNAMID bears a UN imprimatur that
makes any parallel unilateral or multilateral military action
exceedingly difficult to imagine, especially in the long shadow of Iraq.
UNAMID will, for good or ill, be the final word on security in Darfur.

The international community was set on this shamefully disingenuous
path, with UNAMID’s palpable shortcomings all too well known
(including by the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations), long before
initial deployment of this compromised force. Indeed, with the
capitulation by the UN Secretariat before Khartoum’s adamant rejection
of a previously authorized UN peacekeeping force (Security Council
Resolution 1706, August 31, 2006), the path to failure was all too
clear. Deployed in timely fashion, with its robust protection mandate
and UN Chapter 7 authority, this earlier force, as authorized by
Resolution 1706, might well have forestalled the increasingly chaotic
violence that emerged following the disastrous Darfur Peace Agreement
(May 2006)---and might also have partially stanched the flow of
genocidal violence into Eastern Chad. With adequate resources and
personnel from militarily capable nations---unfettered by Khartoum’s
ability to veto the participation of particular countries---there was at
the time still opportunity to prevent much of the splintering of the
rebel movements, and to forestall the widespread emergence of
opportunistic banditry that now plagues rural areas and largely
precludes ground transport for humanitarian workers. But that moment
has passed.

Are we too late, then, to provide the “solid guarantees” for
security demanded by UN and nongovernmental humanitarian organizations
two years ago? Is UNAMID indeed the last word in responding to ongoing
crimes against humanity and genocide?

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times proposes in his December 28,
2008 column (“A New Chance for Darfur”) a series of stand-off
military actions that could be taken unilaterally against Khartoum by
the United States: a two-day jamming of all electronic communications in
Khartoum; a naval blockade of Port Sudan (denying Khartoum the ability
to export oil); and an escalating series of strikes against the NIF
regime’s aerial military assets. But Kristof does not explain what the
jamming exercise would accomplish, other than to demonstrate a
capability Khartoum is already well aware we possess. The question is
whether we would continue to jam communications, knowing that there
would be significant and immediate compromising of humanitarian
operations coordinating out of Khartoum, and that retaliation in kind by
the NIF regime throughout Darfur would certainly follow. Nor does
Kristof even allude to the most serious problem with a naval blockade:
the prospect of military confrontation between the US navy and a
Chinese-flagged oil tanker. If such a tanker were to force the issue
and attempt to enter Port Sudan despite the blockade, are we really
prepared to engage in an act of war with China? While easily enforced
from a purely military point of view, a blockade that threatens Chinese
shipping is an exceedingly high-stakes geostrategic gamble.

Finally, in proposing highly consequential military strikes against the
regime’s air force, Kristof fails to address the critical issue of
reprisals by Khartoum and its militia allies against humanitarians,
peacekeepers, and civilians in Darfur---reprisals that might be extreme
if Khartoum were determined to raise the stakes in an effort to halt US
military actions (international pressure to halt the attacks would be
enormous if even a few humanitarian aid workers were killed, or aid
organizations were precipitously expelled). Here again, the US would be
committing to a tremendous gamble, with millions of lives potentially

These are all “stand-off” military actions, like the thoroughly
impracticable “no-fly zone” that has so often been suggested as a
way of curtailing Khartoum’s savage aerial military actions in Darfur.
But not only is there no way to base and enforce such a NFZ, there
would be no way to ensure against the accidental shoot-down of
humanitarian cargo planes or helicopters, especially given Khartoum’s
penchant for attempting to disguise the identity of its Antonovs and
helicopters, and the crisscrossing flight patterns of military and
humanitarian aircraft.

If we are serious about changing the deteriorating security climate in
Darfur, we cannot do it from afar or episodically. We must supply
UNAMID, for all its patent shortcomings, with the critical assets it has
been requesting for a year and a half (including tactical and transport
helicopters, not one of which has been offered by the US or its NATO
allies). We and particularly our European allies---who in many cases
continue commercial “business as usual” with the NIF regime---must
pressure Khartoum relentlessly. And we must pressure, in truly serious
fashion, China to pressure Khartoum. Kristof’s idea of threatening a
naval blockade may be a way of forcing the Darfur issue; but it will
require Chinese cooperation to avoid unacceptable strategic risk, and
this entails making clear to Beijing that there will be a significant
cost if China does not cooperate. Such diplomatic investment has simply
not been made by the current US administration.

There are no simple means of compelling Khartoum to change its brutally
destructive ways: two decades of accommodation and acquiescence have
ensured as much. We must act, but with a decisiveness, focus, and
determination that leave no doubt in the minds of these génocidaires
that their days of impunity are over. If we do not, economic strains
and multiple conflicts in the marginalized regions of Sudan may well
prompt a threatened regime to engage in yet bolder actions against
civilians and humanitarians. The urgency of these potent dangers could
not be greater.

[Part 1 of 3; Part 2 will analyze the implications of potential ICC
action against NIF President Omar al-Bashir, the prospects of the
Qatari-led “Darfur peace process,” and the current status of the
UNAMID peacekeeping force.]

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