Echoes of Darfur, SPLM in Eastern Sudan conflict
By ZACHARY OCHIENG
Khartoum faces rebellion from virtually all parts of the country except the Arab north. And the reasons have been the same ó marginalisation and discrimination.
Successive Sudanese governments have consistently marginalised the Beja people, who inhabit Eastern Sudan.
The Beja are nomadic herders living in northeastern Sudan, southern Egypt and northern Eritrea. The Eritrean civil war and the opening of Port Sudan led to an influx of people in the region, resulting in population displacement, increased competition for resources and grazing land and urbanisation.
In 1964, the Beja formed their own political party, the Beja Congress, to protect their rights as a minority group. While the Congress does represent a relatively unified Beja population, it ó like other political parties in Sudan ó has been consistently marginalised and undermined by the Sudanese government.
The governmentís presence in the region is mostly confined to exploiting resources and absence of an effective political administration means that there has been little development. Without proper education and medical services, the population has endured famine and malnutrition, disease and poverty. Officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross have said that eastern Sudan is one of the most under-served areas in the world and is in need of major humanitarian assistance efforts.
Observers note that the main problem is the control exercised by the central government over income generating resources such as land and mineral wealth and marginalising local people. This has depraved them of their rights to make decisions on governance. These remotest parts of Sudan have more or less become colonies of the centre, Khartoum, which dominates wealth and power and allocates little to services. Only a few people have power in eastern Sudan.
The Beja are also angry at their exclusion from the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) negotiation process, which included only the central government and the SPLM/A. Even after the CPA ended Sudanís civil war, the Beja continued to be dominated by the Khartoum government. Many of the issues addressed in the CPA, such as wealth and power-sharing arrangements and security also need to be addressed in the east.
The Beja Congress lobbied, unsuccessfully, to participate in the original CPA negotiations. However, the Washington and others involved in the negotiations believed that once the major civil war was stopped, the remaining issues in other regions could be addressed separately. But this omission disempowered the east.
Analysts argue that if the problems in eastern Sudan and other regions had been included in the CPA when Khartoum was vulnerable, then the CPA would have resolved all of Sudanís conflicts.
Furthermore, the CPA allowed Khartoum to make peace with the south while continuing with its violent policies in Darfur and elsewhere. Since the government has not yet addressed these grievances, the Beja have resorted to the low-level guerilla warfare in partnerships with similar groups.
They previously allied themselves with opposition forces in 1989, when they joined the National Democratic Alliance. In early 2005, the Beja Congress joined the Free Lions, which represented the Rashaida, another ethnic group in eastern Sudan, to form the Eastern Front. The Eastern Front was later joined by the Justice and Equality Movement, which is active in Darfur and similarly seeks more equitable wealth- and power-sharing arrangements.
The Beja, like other Sudanese, have learnt a lesson lesson from both the SPLM and Darfur situations ó that groups must shoot their way Only violence it would seem will compel Khartoum ó and the international community ó to act.
In January 2005, police fired on demonstrators protesting the exclusion of the Beja Congress from the CPA negotiations, killing at least 17 and wounding dozens. Demonstrations took place again in February 2006, and government security forces arrested Beja Congress leaders and activists. In June of the same year, the Eastern Front clashed with government forces in Tokar, near Port Sudan, although the government blamed Eritrea for the violence.
Khartoum cannot continue to ignore the east to the degree that it has other regions, since the Eastern Front could potentially cut the central government off from important ports, roads and crops and disrupt the governmentís main source of revenue by sabotaging the oil pipeline.
Like the southerners, the Beja also want issues of wealth and power-sharing and security to be resolved in a comprehensive, constitutional process. However, instead of secession, the Beja prefer increased regional autonomy within a federal political structure, giving them more representation in the federal government. Religion and language are not key issues; the Beja are Muslim, and although they are not Arabs, they have adopted the Arabic language.
Still, the population of eastern Sudan suffers from dire economic and social conditions and political marginalistion. The areaís residents have inadequate access to health care and education, suffer from high unemployment and poverty and must contend with persistent drought, famine, land degradation, and diminished pasture area; and harbour deeply rooted grievances of neglect by the central government. For nine years, the Eastern Front has waged a low-intensity war against the central government to protest at this state of affairs.
Yet, Eastern Sudan has rich resources and is strategically located. It has fertile agricultural zones, especially in Gedarif, vast grazing areas; gum arabic plantations and minerals such as gold, oil, and natural gas. Port Sudan in the Red Sea State is the regionís only outlet to the sea, making the area strategically important to the country. Yet, the region remains among the poorest in Sudan.
Even some of its positive attributes work against the interests of its residents. The mechanisation of Port Sudan effectively excludes many of them from employment, because they lack skills. Similarly, the gold mine and oil well projects that exist do not benefit residents and discriminatory hiring excludes local labour.
The distorted policies of the federal government also contribute to the regionís poverty, as it does not get financial assistance from the central government commensurate with its rich natural resources base. Moreover, the government has invested considerably less in the development of the regionís infrastructure as compared with other parts of Sudan.
The governmentís touted policies of pricing, taxation, and financial re-distribution from the centre to the regions lack transparency and accountability.
Furthermore the government also does not support the regionís negotiations of cross-border trade agreements, which could boost development by taking advantage of the regionís proximity to international markets, particularly across the Red Sea to the Gulf States. The cumulative result of these factors is not only a lack of development, but also a steady migration of labour from the rural to the urban areas.