Members of the Beja Congress have expressed dismay at news that the international non-governmental organization (INGO) the International Rescue Committee (IRC) are planning to suspend operations in the rebel-controlled area of eastern Sudan.
An IRC press release has stated that the organization ‘has decided to suspend humanitarian aid programs in opposition-controlled region of northeastern Sudan’. According to the press statement his move follows ‘a request by the UN Mission in Sudan to cease cross-border activities from Eritrea in light of negotiations underway with Sudanese authorities to gain access to the region from Sudan’.
The area where the IRC has been in operation for several years is one of the poorest areas of the world. The population of the area is mostly from the Beja tribe, members of which have been in opposition to Khartoum governments for over forty years, claiming severe marginalisation.
Rumours have been circulating that the IRC suspension was a result of demands from the Government of Sudan that the INGO leave the area. According to recent Reuters reports, the rebels were given formal notice from the IRC that it was to suspend activities in their area. The same Reuters report states that journalists were shown a letter by the Eastern Front (a coalition of the Beja Congress and the Free Lions rebel groups) from the IRC saying that Khartoum had ordered the organization to suspend its humanitarian activities there.
Sulieman Derar, a lobbiest for Beja rights told the Mirror that “This shows the criminal intentions of the regime to fight the Beja with hunger and diseases. It (this latest move) will deprive Beja of important services”.
Last week the Beja Congress delivered a memorandum to UN Human Rights Rapporteur Sima Samar calling for an investigation into the January 2005 killings in Port Sudan (see page 19 for more) listing the names of the victims. According to the AlAyaam news report, the memo also highlighted fears over Greek toxic wastes being dumped in the east and the transformation of the Aroma hospital into a military camp which has reduced medical services.
The IRC is one of only two INGOs in the area, the other, Samaritans Purse, is still in operation. They are the only international charity groups providing food aid, basic health care, vaccination, safe drinking water and education services as well as training midwives in an effort to curb high rates of deaths during childbirth in the region.
Nicola Smith, who oversees the IRC’s aid programs in Sudan has said that “we are now focusing our efforts on accessing this area from Sudan rather than Eritrea and we hope to restart humanitarian services there as soon as possible”. She added that in the meantime the IRC is taking steps in the area to ensure that the departure of IRC aid workers would have minimum impact on the communities they serve.
"The IRC remains committed to assisting the population in this neglacted area" she said.
Beja: Shame of CPA
By Skye Wheeler
Mid March and talks between the rebel Eastern Front (EF) and the Sudanese Government have failed to happen. These were supposed to lead to an agreement that would echo the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). The recent circumstances under which the NGO the International Rescue Committee (see p1) have suspended their EF-controlled area programmes indicate that these talks are more vulnerable than ever.
Talks didn’t happen half way through 2005 after renewed fighting in Tokar region, which the BBC called the ‘biggest offensive in years’ by eastern rebels. They did not happen in September or December and talks agreed for late January were also postponed.
The February postponement was ‘indefinite’. The EF want Eritrea – who has admitted ‘moral’ but not military support to rebels in the east - to be involved in negotiations, the Sudanese Government won’t allow this, accusing Eritrea of smuggling arms into Sudan (a recent UN panel suggests that this is likely).
IRC, which has been working in the rebel area from Eritrea, has said that they will access the “very neglected region” from Sudan itself before they can restart their vital humanitarian work. The suspension is a result of a UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) request to IRC to suspend their work ‘in light of negotiations underway with Sudanese authorities to gain access to the region’ (IRC).
‘Vital’ is not NGO propaganda. Pronk himself, head of UNMIS, made this clear in a January press briefing. He said he was very worried about the eastern situation saying “humanitarian work is not keeping up to pace with the need for assistance”. It remains unclear what the – presumably political - benefits of the suspension of IRC’s activities might be for this region.
A Beja Congress (the larger part of the EF) member, Sulieman Dirar is clear however that the withdrawal would “put at risk 45, 000 people”, would lead to a food gap for a population who “rely on IRC efforts for clean water, basic health supplies and education”. He has asked the IRC to reconsider before expressing “our great appreciation for IRC efforts in assisting our people in alleviation of poverty and vulnerability imposed upon them”.
As far as talks go, there are clearly high levels of suspicion on the part of the EF: in February an EF spokesman said in an Asmara press conference that they believe that if the Tripoli talks had happened, the Government would have used the absence of EF leaders to prepare ‘an assault on camps of the Eastern Front’.
Instead of talking, the EF will spend its time planning ‘to confront the National Congress machinations designed to destroy the cause of the Eastern Front’ (AFP).
A new report from the end of 2005 by Sara Pantuliano of Dar es Salam University gives a full picture of the causes of renewed anger in eastern Sudan which suffers ‘rampant poverty and shockingly high mortality rates’ (Pantuliano).
Together with on-going reports of pain, bloodshed and the dislocation of thousands in Darfur, continuing ‘low-scale’ conflict in Eastern Sudan and the on-going recorded marginalisation of its people, has pushed international and national political commentators into a position of skepticism about the true potential of the CPA’s peace in Sudan.
The question that has been asked many times since the CPA’s first anniversary is: can be used as a framework for peace in other, marginalised, regions of the country? Or will it be used to give international legitimacy to two (supposedly) empowered parties even as they fail to fulfill political obligations to their fellow countrymen women and children in their east and west?
During the Condominium period British administration oversaw the confiscation of prime Beja land in order to construct agricultural schemes, such as in Gedarif. Nimeri’s ‘Unregistered Land Act’ of 1971 made the situation worse for the traditionally nomadic Beja, who had found themselves forced to get work as casual laborers on the schemes. Thousands of animals died as prime grazing land was taken, those that didn’t the Beja were forced to sell cheap.
The suffering of dispossessed Beja in both rural and in urban areas where they are ‘gypsies in the cities’ (Dirar) has resulted in some of the worst malnutrition and health statistics in Sudan, including the highest rate of tuberculosis.
Port Sudan is the major trade platform for Sudan, but roads and oil pipelines built through what is traditionally Beja land to serve the port have not brought them any benefits. Gold is taken from the ground in areas with barely any schools or healthcare, the process using precious water and making the constant threat of drought worse.
Beja families have been working in the port as laborers for generations but recent job losses Government figures say up to 28, 000, after the mechanization of the port have compounded feelings of anger towards a central government who is releasing large amounts of oil to the world from here.
Dirar of the BC writes ‘customs of Port Sudan harbour were moved to Khartoum to give jobs to government party members and to prevent Bejas from claiming their share of regional custom’s revenues’. Less well-educated than their counterparts in the capital, the Beja suffer great unemployment in the urban areas. White collar jobs are given to other northerners. Professor Osheik Adam Ali suggests that Bashir’s removal of a policy of free education caused a sharp decline in the number of Beja who went to school. And the conflict has made the problem of education very severe, Professor Ohsheik adds that in past years 36 schools in Kassala province have been closed and 17 in the Red Sea province after the severe destruction of towns and villages. The ‘free’ areas, rebel-controlled by the National Democratic Alliance have had almost nothing put into them at all in recent years: the only services here were those two NGOs who operated from Eritrea.
Now there is one.
This ‘freed’ land has also been devastated by the presence of the former rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army, now the CPA partner in the Government of National Unity, previously EF’s rebel allies, who cut down vast numbers of trees to sell for cash.
Rebels in the East
The EF was created in early 2005, the union of the Beja Congress (BC) and the Rashaida Free Lions.
The population of eastern Sudan is mostly Beja. Formed from strong feelings of marginalisation from Khartoum Governments that have never gone away, there has been serious support for the BC since its creation in 1958. In the last decade even more faith has been placed in it, taken from the party the Beja traditionally supported, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The BC enjoyed some representation for short periods but was shut down for a second time when Bashir took power in 1989. It then joined the NDA which also included the SPLM and the DUP.
The Free Lions, a more recently formed group, is from the smaller Rashaida tribe. Like the BC, like the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justices and Equality Movement in Darfur, they have taken up arms against a government they feel abuses their rights.
The BC lobbied to be part of the IGAD talks that led up to the CPA but were refused. It was partly in reaction to this that there was a protest in Port Sudan on the 29th of January last year. The police fired into crowds, killing at least 19.
No report has yet been made public on the killings and blood money has not been paid to families.
Arrests of senior BC leaders followed in February, including that of Abdalla Musa Abdalla, the General Secretary of the BC. According to a Sudan Tribune article, no reasons where given for these arrests. The EF formed at around this time.
Particularly since these Port Sudan killings there has been growing unrest in the east, both an increase in military offences by the rebels and a noted increase in dissatisfaction in the urban population of the Beja, who are now half the population of Port Sudan.
The BC and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) which has gained an international profile from its offensives in Darfur signed an MOU in July 2004. Pantuliano points out that the JEM has been central in joint operations with the BC (e.g. the kidnapping of three gov. MPs, June attacks in Dolobiay. The JEM will probably not be allowed to sit at talks despite that ‘without JEM resistance the increase of activity in Eastern Sudan would probably not have happened, especially as the SPLA stopped all military operations in the region’.
The JEM has vocalized disappointment that the SPLM has not helped eastern Sudan since the signing of the CPA.
Because of the CPA the SPLM/A are of course no longer ‘rebels’. When he was alive Garang advocated for something similar to their agreement for the east. Pantulino notes that Lt. Gen. Salva Kiir made a passing comment to the NCP in August last year that the power sharing agreement, between the north and south needed to be amended to incorporate this severely marginalised area.
The SPLM have now received their oil money but nothing has changed for the east.
Kiir’s angry January speech where he was reported as saying (Rueters) ‘I believe I am part of the Government but whether I have influence or not is another thing’ perhaps indicate that this might be harder for the other big party of the GNU to ‘use their position to get serious negotiations’ for the east, as the International Crisis Group (ICG) has advocated, than it might seem.
Hamesh Koreb: reactions to the standoff
Part of the CPA agreement was that the SPLM/A were supposed to have removed their troops from Eastern Sudan by the 9th of January. When this failed to happen (the SPLA said for logistical reasons) and four tanks and 3, 000 government troops arrived any way a ‘standoff’ occurred.
This failed to happen last month in Hamesh Koreb, an NDA controlled town. Prior to the 9th the SPLM warned the UN and government officials that for logistical reasons they would not be able to leave.
But the four tanks and 3, 000 troops of the Government forces arrived
presumably to take over anyway. The interested world watched with held breath at the ‘stand-off’ between the two. The SPLA’s spokesman used the words ‘violation’ and ‘CPA’.
However, EF reports that they had been attacked by these or other government forces seemed not to interest and remained ‘unconfirmed’, even amongst strong EF statements that ‘we will never give up Hamesh Koreb’.
Jan Pronk stated that the problem had occurred because of the failure of the SPLA to withdraw. The ICG saw what other commentators such as Eric Reeves think is a wiser perspective said that it was ‘thankful’ that the late departure had stopped a power vacuum from occurring.
What will happen now that that the SPLA are now again supposed to have left – they were given a month and are now late again - is uncertain.
Abu Amna, a Beja, is still certain that ‘The Beja forces will fight to protect their positions in the town’.
Whether the Beja Congress and their allies in east Sudan, who are many and militant, will be given a chance to have their grievances listened discussed by March is uncertain. Eastern Sudan was not mentioned in the Oslo Donor Conference: commentators like Salih are frustrated by an international community who are full of praise and watchfulness over a CPA, ‘a flawed peace deal’, that does not protect or help his people.
If the east is not given more attention many, including the ICG who have called the region a ‘powderkeg’ worry that there is new potential for conflict over old and deep greivances.
As Prof. Osheik Adam Ali writes ‘some people, (and he also says) especially the youth, feel that their voices may be too soft or mild to be heard by Khartoum’s officials who are accustomed to voices accompanied by mortar shellings and machine guns’. It is these same youth that have recently made it clear that the CPA has ‘heightened their feeling of exclusion’ (Pantuliano).
In a Mirror interview a Great Lakes MP made assurances that the SPLM would never “forget its brothers in the East, this is not the NCP’s private problem, but one for all of Sudan”. The New Sudan, he said was for all marginalized areas: west, south, east and far north.
The CPA was meant to be a model for solving the Khartoum/East conflict. But given this latest move by the CPA’s international guardian, UNMIS, and given how little tangible political support the SPLM have given their former allies it will not be surprising if the CPA continues to be a reason for anger rather than hope for the people of eastern Sudan.