SudaneseOnline-Through this extensive article, I will highlight on key issues of importance related to the condition of East Sudan, which are considered to be essential knowledge to fully grasp and understand of what is happening in the region.
It must be noted that issues are not covered comprehensively in this article, a task that requires proper teamwork. Moreover, themes in this article require further detailed and thorough research.
Given that I am from this region, I frequently travel around most of its cities and villages, communicate with its people, and up to date on its current events, I have witnessed suffering and misery of indigenous people that is rarely seen around the world. The question that jumps to mind is: Why are other Sudanese and those in the international community unaware of such conditions?
It certainly is a puzzling question, particularly if proximity of East Sudan to the Center’s cities and main roads are taken into account, as opposed to other geographically marginal regions such as Darfur or the Nuba Mountains.
What can be speculated in an attempt to answer this question is that near-complete lack of media coverage and documentation, high illiteracy rates in rural areas, and lack of skills among newer generations due to low levels of education, are all factors contributing to this obscurity and lack of information.
Furthermore, the rapid expansion and development of the larger and central cities of the East reflect a false impression about the actual situation in the region. Port Sudan is an ideal example of the blatant contradiction between the city and the huge surrounding tin towns the margins, and the rural areas of the Red Sea in general.
Thus, the goal of this article is to draw attention to what many are oblivious to in East Sudan, and to provide a database that will serve to direct research efforts towards these issues, with the main target being civil society as well as media, both inside and outside Sudan.
The article is divided into a prelude followed by nine points which are as follows:
1. Threats to stability in the East
2. The implementation of the East Peace Agreement
3. Human rights in the East
4. The main active powers in the region and their influences
5. The tribal system
6. The Egyptian and Ethiopian invasion of Halaib and Al Fashqa
7. The case of East Sudan in the context of Sudan’s other crises
8. The relationship with neighboring Eritrea
9. Recommendations for the national and international civil society, and media in dealing with East Sudan’s Crisis.
East Sudan is comprised of three out of the 17 Sudanese states, The Red Sea, Kassala, and Gedaref states. The three states span across an area of about 326,703 square kilometers; that is equal to the area of Ireland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Qatar, Lebanon, Israel, Rwanda, Kuwait, Jamaica or Palestine. It makes up approximately 18 percent of the total area of Sudan, about 1,882,000 km square.With the most northern points being Halaib and Garora, all the way to alkhiari in Gedarif state.
The region borders three countries: Egypt, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. The Sudanese coast, with an estimated length of 820 kilometers, lies within the region’s borders.Therefore, all the Sudanese states’ sea ports are located within it. The coast is of great importance due to its proximity to the Strait of Bab el Mandeb, in addition to overlooking a number of Gulf oil ports.
The estimated population in the East is six million. The results are those of the last census in April 2008, which was widely disapproved and deemed inaccurate by many in the East and the rest of the country.
Historically, Beja tribes were the overwhelming majority of the population, with ownership of the land. Historians’ views on their origins vary, with the most accepted and probable view being a mixture of tribes, with origins from India and the Arabian Peninsula as they were in close contact with Nubian and Aksum people. The Beja group is subdivided into a number of tribes; best known tribes are Al Amrar, Al Bani Amer, Al Hadandawa, Al Basharien, Al Habab, and Al Halnaga. Languages spoken are Bedawit and Tagri.
With the rise of the modern state at the hands of the Turkish and English colonial rules, resistance movements by indigenous groups ensued, attracting many groups of other Sudanese provinces to head East.
Since the mid-sixties of the past century, there were huge migrations to the East, due to droughts, and diminishing resources in other areas of Sudan in addition to the appeal of the East with its thriving agricultural and industrial projects. This migration movement towards the East shifted the composition of the population greatly, with now approximately half being non-Beja and with greater power over the economy. This shift has led to frustration amongst the Beja group, who lived at lower standards; this in turn led to the belief that the Central State systemically marginalized the Bejas, consequently resulting in their impoverishment, despite the region being one of the wealthiest and most generated wealth.
1. Threats to Stability in the East
For many decades, East Sudan was considered a model of stability, attracting people from within and outside Sudan. There were virtually no incidents or factors that threatened peace or social stability, with the exception of a few isolated incidents related to the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict and Eritrean faction clashes.
Among the key peace and stability indicators that prevailed in the East was its development and expansion. Some studies suggest that the cities of Gedaref, Kassala and Port Sudan are the most developed in Sudan and the most appealing to people from different regions within and outside Sudan.
Despite development and expansion of the East’s cities and towns, there is a near complete absence of the state and its civil institutions; therefore, leading to further underdevelopment of rural areas, mostly inhabited by the Beja, and continuously declining population.
Although the East faced a number of post-independence challenges — such as extensions of the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict as mentioned, and the drought and famine of 1984 — the bloody conflict that took place between the National Rally Forces and the Salvation Regime in the mid-nineties is considered to be the major turning point of unrest. The war took place in an area of more than 500 kilometers along the Ethiopian and Eritrean borders. It led to the displacement of large numbers of residents, as well as economic and social destruction.
Following the Naivasha, Cairo, and Asmara Agreements (2005,2006), the war ceased in the region and calmness prevailed. Though many consider ending the war in the region as the only tangible achievement by the East Peace Agreement, this achievement is threatened failure to achieve its purpose.
The current main challenges to stability in the region are:
1- Rising rates of extreme poverty, with existing famine in some areas.
2- Political and cultural absence of the people of the East at decision-making levels nationally or regionally, creating great frustration and bitterness among intellectuals and leaders.
3- The rising unemployment rates among young people and graduates.
4- Lack of accountability in dealing with human rights violations, borderline wars’ aftermath (1995, 2005), and the incidents of January 29th, 2005, in Port Sudan (which claimed the lives of 28 people).
5- Trading arms with Palestinians and other nationalities through the region. Subsequently, the region has been targeted by air attacks in the past three years, claiming the lives of many. This sort of activity renders the area as a hub of terrorism, with dire security consequences and negative international attention.
6- Escalation of human trafficking, organ trade, and kidnappings, with record high numbers were reported during the past few months. Initially, victims were mainly Eritreans living in Sudan; however, it is spreading to claim people of the East as well. The Sudanese government has recognized the trend, and Kassala State addressed it with legislation; however, human trafficking is on the rise. With rooted tribalism, especially in rural areas, war in the region is probable, particularly given that kidnappers are most likely to be of one tribe. This issue is directly linked to prevalence of the arms trade, as well as ease of mobility, specifically in Al Rashaida tribe’s region in West Kassala.
7- The presence of militias Al Fashga and the strategic region of Hamadaiet. This delta links borders of both Ethiopia and Eritrea, considered to be another crucial region in the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict. This issue is associated with cows, belonging to Sudanese shepherds, being taken by Ethiopian armed thugs.
8- Anti-smuggling police violations in a number of areas, notably rural Kassala, that led to the deaths of many citizens. This has resulted in friction between the police and locals on several occasions.
9- The Egyptian occupation of Halaib in the north; the continued Ethiopian occupation and incursion of farmlands in the provinces of Gedaref and Sennar; and, the expulsion of the indigenous population.
10- Expected displacement of Wad Al Helew inhabitants in the upcoming months due to the Setit Dam construction. Residents refuse to leave their region without proper compensation amidst agricultural land distributions to investors and foreighners.
2. Implementation of the East Peace Agreement
The East Peace Agreement was signed between the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), and the armed Eastern Front, with mediation from Eritrea in its capital Asmara on October 14, 2006. Its aim is to put an end to a decade of conflict in the region.
Following the course of the Naivasha Agreement, the East Peace Agreement consists of three protocols: power, wealth, and security arrangements.
Articles on allocating 60 positions in executive and legislative levels to the Eastern Front, the establishment of a fund for the development and reconstruction of the East, and the integration of a number of Eastern Front members in military and security institutions were all implemented; however, many other fundamental articles did not go through, and many terms were not executed.
Of the most essential unimplemented articles:
1- The Consultative Conference for East Sudan (Chapter 4), scheduled to take place 30 days following the signing of the agreement.
2- Council for Coordinating Eastern States (Article 5, Chapter 1), comprised of 15 members, three from the Eastern Front, governors from the three Eastern states, heads of the legislative councils, and representatives of political parties and civil society. The Council was meant to be an introductory platform of unity to the region; a purpose strongly opposed by NCP, as has been prior to 1989 as well.
3- National Conference for Evaluating the Administrative Structure of the State (Article 5, Chapter 1), with the purpose of evaluating and assessing the administrative structure of The State, this article had the rare potential of national benefit.
4- Representation in commissions and in civil service (Articles 10, 11, Chapter 1), in many details, to include people of the East and members of the Eastern Front to participate as deputy ministers, ambassadors, members and heads of councils, and in the Constitutional Court, the National Supreme Court, and other national courts, and membership of local councils. Additionally, an expert group was scheduled to present a report, no later than April 14, 2007, to address the disparity in representation of people from the East in the national civil service.
5- Fund for Developing and Reconstructing the East, with the end of 2012 being the final deadline for completion of the 5-year fund period. As mentioned in the Agreement, $600 million were scheduled to be paid from the treasury of the Central Government; however, what was paid, with the acknowledgment of the government did not exceed $125 million, a number considered to be unrealistic. The Fund was criticized harshly for its project priorities, and the geographical distribution of resources.
6- Security Arrangements: The estimated number of armed members of the Eastern Front is about 3000, with only 500integrated into military and civilian institutions. The number of those laid off or not reintegrated is about 2000 fighters across the cities and villages of the East. Indicators point to violence or another potential war by those who were not reintegrated, as they are believed to be in a valid state of frustration. More than four months ago, when realizing possible threat, Vice President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha announced a committee that is to deal with this particular issue and the laid-off fighters. However, no further decisions were made regarding the matter.
Aside from the controversial implementation, or rather non-implementation, of the East’s Agreement, observers believe that the main point both parties are trying to evade is the Agreement’s duration, which expired in April 2010, the date of the last elections, except for the Development Fund
The deadline of April 2010, coinciding with the national elections, is considered to be a clear term of the Agreement by observers. Evaluation on implementation of the Agreement was set to take place following the elections, to either draft another agreement or permanently terminate the current partnership. However, this assessment did not go through yet; therefore a number of negotiations took place, leading to shifting leaders of the Eastern Front to executive NCP positions. This puts Eastern leaders in vulnerable positions as they may now be dismissed by The President and governors, as they were not elected but merely appointed by the NCP.
This conniving approach avoids dealing with the process of assessment of the Agreement’s implementation, and to simply avoid what the evaluation reports might and will reveal. These reports not likely to be in favour of the NCP, exposing intentions of hindering the Agreement, shutting doors of possibilities to radical groups and voices of the East. Moreover, abovementioned reports are also not likely to favour the leadership of the Eastern Front, uncovering divisions within the Party, with the eventual removal of their positions.
3. Human Rights in the East
According to economic and social standards of the people of the East as defined by international covenants, it can be said that the region in general, and its rural areas in particular, are considered the worst of Sudan’s regions. Development reports, issued by international organizations, local communities, and even the government, document details of the situation.
As for civil and political rights, the region exhibits irregularities and flagrant violations, mostly caused by the state. While some of these violations have been exposed, the majority is unpublicized due to imposed blockade over large areas, and preventing media coverage, in addition to lack of awareness among people and their fear of authorities. Despite lifting of the state of emergency following signing the East Peace Agreement in 2006, it still remains in effect on the borderlines of Eritrea and Ethiopia, in both urban and rural regions.
South Tokar, located in the south of Red Sea state, serves as a prime example of this situation where mobility of people is limited and constrained with security permits. Organizations and media are prevented from providing humanitarian aid, and covering what is happening in the area.
Moreover, and accompanied by deliberate media blackout, evidence suggests human rights violations continue in the region, after their start in the mid-nineties, in the form of detentions, mobility restriction, and blocking aid to the region (where famine conditions have been described).
From time to time, it is demonstrated that authorities deal with citizens in rural areas with a strict and violent security mentality. Over the past few months, for example in September 2011, police opened fire at shepherds in Gedaref City’s center for refusing to abide to a local deportation order. In this incident two men were killed, and others were wounded. In October 2011, another incident occurded in Gedaref State’s Abo Rakham, where six girls drowned to their death after being chased by the police for unlawfully cutting trees.
In the State of Kassala, shooting incidents are common, where authorities fire at those deemed and described as smugglers. As a result, victims fall, both needlessly and frequently; the last of whom was a three-years-old child. An official, who wishes not to disclose his name, testifies to having shot and killed 61 individuals over the past two years. Frustration amid the population is result of such incidents, who believe they are targeted economically through border trade closure, the major source of income for many years, and the main reason for price stability, and goods availability.
Additionally, peaceful gatherings and demonstrations are also banned by authorities. In recent months, a large number of activists have been arrested, and many demonstrations in Port Sudan and Kassala were dispersed.
Authorities arrested 15 activists (of both sexes) in Port Sudan, early February 2012. The activists were demanding announcing the investigation results of the massacre of January 29th, 2005. Charges were filed against the detained, with convictions punishable by execution. However, due to pressure from angry families of the convicted, charges were dropped.
In Kassala, the authorities used excessive violence on students who protested several times in October 2011 against poverty, high unemployment rates, and some calls to overthrow the regime. Many students were injured, and the university suspended lectures and closed down.
4. The Main Active Powers in the Region and Their Influences
Historically, the active and influential powers in the region were the tribes, and later the Khatmiyya Order when the Unionist Party took over. Lacking connection to the Eastern roots, the Unionist Party keeps losing supporters in the regions. The Party is strongly tied with the Khatmiyya Order, also losing support as more are getting educated and migrating to the cities.
In 1958, the Beja Conference was established as an anti-Khatmiyya power, but it did not last long, continuously asbent from the political scene. Since 2003, the organization gained more support, and the party reached the height of it power following the events of Port Sudan and the Eastern Front, which the party helped established, signing the peace agreement. The Party, however, suffered from the poor results of the Agreement, and the divisions that tore it. The weakened Party, mainly the branch led by The President’s Advisor Al-Bashir Musa Mohammed Ahmed, has no power or effect on the people of the East it once represented.
As for the National Congress Party, like in other regions, it depends on the system of the State, without which it may not even exist. In the East, it is characterized by intense feuds and conflicts that often result in divisions.
The three parties and their affiliates, their branches or subsidiaries, suffer from weakness and paralysis, and all data indicates that they are not in touch with the daily lives of citizens of the region with no real popularity now.
In the past few years and recent months, groups and movements began to form in different parts of the East, where young graduates and students represent their main base. These groups are driven and motivated by shared beliefs and causes, the systemic marginalization and injustice of the East by the Central Government, and the high unemployment rates and low income among the East’s graduates and youth.
When coordination between these groups is strengthened, it becomes within reach for the East to establish a new body; one that rises against a regime pursuing violent tactics against the opposition parties, one that can set higher demands.
The future belongs to youth groups rejecting and rising against the existing conditions of the East and Sudan. It is believed that these youth groups need attention and support to help them to the right direction, so they are able to benefit from the experiences of other youth and revolutions in their region and in Sudan. Leaders of the Center and the margins should get involved with these groups and engage in discussions with them to develop their sense of democracy, and empower them to advocate for a new Sudan, where people of all races and ethnicities can come together.
5. The Tribal System
The tribal system and divisions in East Sudan has historical roots that deepened during the Turkish and British Colonial rule, when the system of tribal chiefs was used in administering the area.
Since the turn of the previous century, the civil administration system was formed to divide tribes and clans. Accordingly, the five major tribes, based on land ownership, are Bashreien, Amrar, Hadandwa, Beni-Amer, Halanja and later on, the Habab tribe. Moreover, there are a number of clans, including Artega, Al-Kemelab, Al-Ashraf and Al-Melhtknab.
The tribal system and its leadership had preserved peace in the region for centuries. It also set traditions and norms that have kept social peace before the government began pushing their agendas, which do not necessarily project the best interests of the groups.
Currently, the regime mainly depends on the support of chiefs and elders, providing them with many funds and bribes, directly interfering in their work, and even appointing and isolating them depending on their ‘loyalty’.
Despite their former influence and power, the rising levels of education along with growing migration to urban areas are deeming the chiefdom system invalid. Additionally, such leaders have become authority figures rejected by youth and declining in popularity.
The ruling regime of Sudan is using a dangerous tactic to cause a rift in the region, by using tribes against each other, a technique that was used and worked previously in Darfur.
Although there are differences between East Sudan and Darfur, and relative harmony between Eastern tribes in comparison with Darfur’s tribes, however, the high levels of poverty and frustration prevailing in East Sudan can be supporting factors in any attempt to ignite tribal conflicts supported by the regime.
While it is not of the regime’s best interest to create tension among the tribes of the East, it supports policies of division. Certain tribes in a number of areas have been armed, as well as distinguishing them based on power and wealth, and creating new tribal entities to serve their agendas.
These factors constitute a real danger, impeding stability and success in the region’s future, and are an obstacle to groups calling for positive change. If the government loses control of power in the East, it is likely to be pulled into a state of chaos, and civil war might ensue.
6. Ethiopian and Egyptian Occupation of Fashga and Halayeb
The total area of Smaller Fashga is 1.5 million acres, considered to be one of the most fertile agricultural lands. Armed Ethiopian farmers have taken it over in mid-nineties, kicking out the Sudanese farmers. The total occupied area is 500,000 acres. Unlike the situation in Halayeb, the Ethiopian government does not claim that Fashga is part of Ethiopia, and acknowledges that it is Sudanese.
The Sudanese government officially acknowledges the problem; however, no significant measures have been taken to regain control of the land, and to terminate unlawful Ethiopian presence. Moreover, the Government announced that dialogue is the way to settle this matter.
The Halayeb delta, situated on the Egyptian-Sudanese border, has a total area of 20,580 kilometers stretched on the Red Sea coast; it is divided into Halayeb, Abo-Ramad and Shalateen. Shalteen, the largest area, has 100,000 residents, mostly from the Beja tribe.
During British colonization, Halayeb was defined within Sudanese borders. The dispute over it began on 18 February 1958, when the Egyptian President at the time, Gamal Abdel-Naser, sent forces to occupy it, retreated after Sudan’s furious reaction.
The conflict arose again in 1992, when Egypt rejected giving Sudan permission to drill for oil in the water opposite to the Halayeb delta to a Canadian company. Following this, the company pulled out until an agreement could be reached on the land’s ownership.
The two nations withdrew their troops from the area in the 1990s. Since 2000, Halayeb has been considered to be Egyptian soil, with Egyptian administration, governance and investments.
The silence and less-than-impressive policies in dealing with Halayeb’s profile by the Sudanese government are disgracefully noticeable. It is widely believed by observers that the Egyptian government pressures Sudanese officials, while Sudanese officials uses Halayeb’s profile, via the Beja Congress, to pressure Egypt’s government on other matters.
It has been noted by visitors to Halayeb in recent years the dramatic ‘Egyptianization’ that took place. Egyptian authorities have made significant identity and infrastructural changes to the region, carrying out services to residents, and offering them Egyptian citizenship. Such actions demonstrate that the Egyptian authorities deem Halayeb as their land, without indications of settling the matter.
A state of frustration overshadows Halayeb, Fashga, and the whole East, as its natives feel severely marginalized by the Central power. Coming off as passive and apathetic, it becomes obvious that the government lacks long-term perspective, and does not consider Sudan as a whole and united entity, willing to do whatever it takes to stay in power.
7. The Case of East Sudan in the Context of Sudan’s Other Crises
Although it is geographically and socially distinct, the issues of East Sudan are those of other marginalized Sudanese regions.
Such regional conflicts develop in the lack of local presentation at decision-making levels, nationally and regionally, unable to participate in governance, legislation or resource management. Hurdled by extreme poverty, illiteracy, and diseases, the unique culture of the East is fading away and replaced by the Arab-Islamic culture promoted by the government.
In order to settle problems of the East, the central government must first recognize and acknowledge the diversity within the nation. Partial and regional solutions, as evidenced by the experience of the East Front, are ineffective. Conflicts of the East, and efforts towards economic development, are not separate from those of Sudan, and failing to see the bigger picture further complicates the situation.
Despite recent calls for secession, unity remains the favorable and likely option among residents of the region. This is partly due to the diversity of residents, with many having non-East Sudanese origins. Such diversity, and historical linkage of the East’s natives with others, have created economic and social entwinement, rendering the East very much integrated within the Sudanese fabric.
Nonetheless, oppression and marginalization, worsening economy, and the recent example of South Sudan’s experience, are all alarming factors needing immediate attention and lasting solutions.
The regional isolation, in which the East of Sudan exists, renders the area vulnerable to ideologies of extremists and separatists. The responsibility of de-marginalizing and reintegrating the East falls on democratic organizations and activists; as without core changes in the government, it will continue to fail in its governance.
8. The Relationship with Neighboring Eritrea
Eritrea shares a 605 km-long border with Sudan that lacks natural barriers. The people and tribes of East Sudan are socially and culturally connected to their Eritrean counterparts.
During the 30 year Eritrean revolution (1961-1991), Sudan sheltered half a million Eritrean refugees. Many Sudanese nationals, directly and indirectly, became a part of the Eritrean resistance; the Eritrean revolution can therefore be considered a common history between the two people.
After Eritrea decalred independence, Sudan had a very strong role in its agenda, contributing and supporting it in the 1990s. Later on, East Sudan Peace Agreement was signed in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, on the 14th of October, 2006.
Due to its geographic location, Eritrea is an important security asset to Sudan, not only to its East, but also to its center and the capital, Khartoum. Khartoum, contrary to popular belief, is geographically situated in eastern Sudan, with the geographical center being 600 km west, around Al-Obeid; Khartoum lies 300 km away from the Eritrean border, easily reached within a few hours.
Eritrea is an influential player in the matter of the East. Having good relations with the Sudanese opposition, as well as decent ties with the Sudanese government, Eritrea is poised to play a role in attracting East Sudanese opposition activists and impact security of the region, as well as serve as a platform for both the government and opposition, depending on its relation with the government, as was done before during the East Sudan Peace Agreement.
9. Recommendations for National and International Civil Society, and the Media
1 – Organize a conference to tackle the humanitarian situation, and focus the media’s attention on the deteriorating conditions in the region, especially the rural areas. As well as invite local and international aid organizations to the region.
2 – Demand intervention from the United Nations and international organizations; security embargo must be lifted off South Toker and Kassala’s countryside, allowing aid to reach the people, as well as securing freedom of mobility.
3 – Evaluate the East Sudan Peace Agreement, and its effect five years on, through workshops, in which concerned individuals and institutions participate.
4 – Mainstream issues of the East with others of Sudan, through media, workshops, and training programs, to combat government-sponsored tribalism and separatism.
5 – Empower youth leaders, with ideologies of democracy and unity, to develop and better their societies, and to foster leadership.
6 – Empower East Sudanese women, and get them involved in all aspects of life.
7 – Support university students, unions, and associations in taking a leading role in the process of change; these groups should be empowered to realize and execute their roles.
* Journalist and activist in democracy and issues of East Sudan