By Alex de Wall, Parliamentary Brief
February 2005 — Could eastern Sudan explode into conflict, massacre and famine, bringing disaster down on millions more Sudanese and jeopardising the hard-won gains of the Naivasha agreement?
There are many warning signs that indicate precisely this scenario, and if the disaster in Darfur has one big lesson to teach, it is that we ignore such warnings at our peril.
Parts of eastern Sudan, specifically the Beja areas of the Red Sea Hills and the Funj areas along the Blue Nile, have a history of marginalization and exploitation similar to other Sudanese peripheries.
Ten years ago, several of these groups took up arms to fight as components of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), with the backing of Eritrea and Ethiopia. The biggest insurrection was launched by the Beja Congress, but we should not overlook others, notably the mobilization of Darfurian migrants in eastern Sudan a particularly combustible element.
The Beja Congress began life in the 1960s as a political party formed to represent the aspirations of the Beja people, who had until then been subservient to the Democratic Unionist Party and its closely-associated Khatmiyya sect. During the 1970s, as an attempt to build a counter-weight to the sectarian forces, President Jaafar Nimeiri promoted a Beja Sheikh and Imam, Ali Betay, as a local potentate.
His headquarters at Hamush Koreb became a centre for Islamic education and agricultural settlement, among a people otherwise bereft of schools and employment opportunities. Ali Betay’s was an austere Islamism, bringing material benefits but also excluding women from almost all aspects of public life.
The Beja Congress resurfaced during the democratic period of the 1980s, and joined the opposition NDA after the 1989 coup. ln 1994, the Eritrean government began training and arming the Beja as a counter-force to Sudan-backed Islamist guerrillas that were destabilizing Eritrea. Many Beja flocked to the rebels, especially as the government crackdown intensified, and a number of the mosques and schools of Ali Betay’ s followers were destroyed.
Between 1995-1997, in alliance with other NDA forces and especially the SPLA’s New Sudan Brigade (due to be relocated to the South under the Naivasha accords) the Beja fighters occupied and controlled significant if remote areas of eastern Sudan adjacent to Eritrea.
When war broke out with Ethiopia in 1998, the Eritrean preoccupation with Sudan waned, and the NDA leadership opened avenues of negotiation with Khartoum. Some Beja leaders split away and made individual agreements with the government.
The territories controlled by the guerrillas were reduced significantly. But the Beja rebels remain a significant force, drawing on the deep resentment of the people and their fighting traditions-it was Beja forces who famously broke the British squares during Kitchener’s campaign in 1898. They were involved in two significant if brief incursions during 2000-2002, the latter resulting in missions from the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union) and Libya.
A particular grievance of the Beja leadership is that the NDA leader, Mohamed Osman al Mirghani, has sold them out. Al Mirghani is also head of the DUP and spiritual leader of the Khatmiyya, and is suspected of wanting to keep the Beja subservient to his own political party.
The Beja have not formalised their demands, but it is clear that they are looking for a deal similar to the Nuba and Blue Nile: i.e. regional autonomy and a greater share of the nation’s wealth. But al Mirghani agrees with Khartoum that the process of decentralisation has gone far enough.
ln December, the Beja Congress walked out of the peace talks between the NDA and the government, held under Egyptian auspices in Cairo. They justifiably claimed that their concerns were simply not on the agenda.
The Beja were joined in their walkout by the Rashaida Free Lions, a smaller guerrilla force also based in Eritrea, representing the Rashaida who live along the Red Sea coast, and who share their grievances. Neither are party to the NDA peace agreement made with the government on 16 January 2005.
The Beja are unlikely to take any military action without the blessing of their host, Eritrea. For two years, all has been quiet. But the Khartoum-Asmara cold war continues, with the Eritrean opposition active in Sud an, and launching occasional forays across the border. The unpredictable Eritrean President, Isseyas Afeworki, could find reason to spark a war if he so chose.
Further to the south is another fragile area. The support of significant populations of southern Blue Nile (Ingessena, Uduk and others) for the SPLA is well-known, and the Naivasha agreement contains provisions for this region.
What is less appreciated is the antipathy for the government among a range of other communities slightly further north, including both marginal groups along the Ethiopian border (for example the Gumuz) and a range of groups known as Funj.
Between 1995 and 1999, the Sudan Alliance Forces (an NDA group) occupied a small piece of territory adjacent to the Ethiopian border, which they planned to use as the springboard for a spreading insurgency in eastern Sudan. This plan was eut short by the Ethio-Eritrean war of 1998.
But local discontent remains, fuelled by a history of marginalisation, exacerbated by land expropriations for commercial farming schemes in the 1990s and what was seen as government bias towards Fellata and Arab groups in the area.
At present it is unlikely that a large-scale rebellion would take root in this area again, given the warm relations between Addis Ababa and Khartoum, but the potential for local violence is very real.
However, the most explosive component in eastern Sudan is the much-neglected population of Darfurian migrants. Driven by poverty in their homeland, an estimated one million Darfurians left to seek work in eastern and central Sudan. Some arrived recently, some have been there for the best part of a century.
Most Darfurian migrants are not seasonal labourers, but relocate to settle for several years before returning home, if indeed they ever do return. The groups include large numbers of Fur farmers in the Gezira scheme, Masalit who have settled south and east of Gedaref, Zaghawa in most towns, and Baggara Arabs in all of the above.
From 1996 the Sudan Federal Democratic Alliance, an NDA group headed by the Darfurians Ahmed Diraige and Sharif Harir (the latter now a negotiator for the Sudan Liberation Movement), was based in Asmara and actively recruited fighters from among these groups.
Although the SFDA is militarily inactive, the fighters are still there, and the SLM and the Justice and Equality Movement have both opened offices and camps in Eritrea. It is not impossible that, with Eritrean backing, these Darfur groups could open a second front in this area.
The Sudanese security services are not inactive in the face of these threats. There is substantial mobilisation of the army and Popular Defence Forces in eastern Sudan and intensified surveillance of the Darfurian population in the region. Detentions and harassment have become routine, and it would only take a single violent incident by a panicky or overzealous local security chief to spark a localised conflict, with unpredictable consequences.
Whoever brings war to eastern Sudan will take responsibility for a war with immense repercussions, including violence against large and vulnerable civilian populations and famine in an area already suffering drought and food shortages.
Clearly, settling the Darfur war is an essential component of stabilising the east. The second major element is creating a forum in which the indigenous easterners (chiefly but not exclusively the Beja) can present their political demands, and obtain concessions from the government.
John Garang, who has championed the cause of the Beja along with other marginalised peoples, and whose SPLA has fought alongside them, has both responsibility and capacity to take the lead on this.
Internationally, Eritrea and Sudan need to step back from their current armed standoff and mutual destabilisation by proxies. Two years ago, the Libyans took a lead in containing an imminent conflict along that border: they should be encouraged to repeat the exercise, this time in partnership with the governments that facilitated the Naivasha peace process, including Britain.
Alex de Waal is a director of Justice Africa and author of ‘lslamism and Its Enemies in the Horn of Africa, (London, Hurst, 2004). His book, ‘Famine that Kills: Darfur, Sudan,’ was republished by Oxford University Press in January 2005.