With conflict rife in Sudan’s troubled Darfur, and peace still tenuous in the south, another of Sudan’s marginalized regions could be set to erupt. Eastern Sudan exhibits many of the traits that led to war in Darfur since 2003 and in southern Sudan from 1983-2005.
Claims of marginalization exacerbated by national and local ethnic differences and clashes over natural resources has contributed to the conflicts southern Sudan and Darfur. The same dynamics are in place in eastern Sudan.
On 24 January 2005, three weeks after the Sudanese government and the southern-based Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), the Sudanese army opened fire on a demonstration in the eastern city of Port Sudan, on the Red Sea coast. At least 20 people were killed.
This incident plus the ongoing government clampdown, tensions both generated and exacerbated by the signing of the CPA, and the potent example of government tactics in Darfur all contributed to the formation of the Eastern Front in February 2005. The newly formed and relatively unexamined movement promises to forcibly resist Khartoum’s likely attempt to retake the Hameshkoreb enclave in eastern Sudan, near the Eritrean border, once the former SPLM/A withdraws.
Eastern Sudan comprises three states: Kassala, Gedaref, and Red Sea State. It has a population of around four million people. The main ethnic groups are the Beja and the Rashaida. The Beja are the largest group in the region, comprising numerous subdivisions. Indigenous to the area, they adhere to a Sufi brand of Islam that fits uneasily with the Wahhabite-influenced National Islamic Front (NIF), which forms the backbone of the National Congress Party (NCP) elite that now dominates the Khartoum government.
The Beja Congress is an established political-military force in eastern Sudan, contesting elections in the post-independence era, but mostly losing out locally to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is the political front for the local Sufi Khatmiyya sect to which most Beja adhere.
The Rashaida are nomadic descendants of Bedouin immigrants into the area from the Arabian Peninsula in the 19th Century. Retaining links to the Gulf and adhering to their traditional lifestyle, the relatively wealthy group remains simultaneously more marginalized, as government agricultural and pipeline policies cut into the land used for nomadic lifestyle. The Rashaida Free Lions, the other constituent part of the Eastern Front, is a relatively new entity.
Local grievances can be traced directly back to the aftermath of the 1989 NIF coup in Khartoum. Land expropriation in the name of larger agricultural schemes has seen many Beja move to the slums of Kassala and Port Sudan. Much of the land was given over to local and River Nile-based elites linked to the ruling regime.
In 1990, the extrajudicial execution of Mohammed Karrar, the Beja governor of the region, was seen as a direct attack on Beja consciousness and lay at the backdrop of a Beja Congress decision to join the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) armed struggle, linking northern opposition groups to the southern rebellion led by the SPLM/A. The Beja Congress joined the NDA in 1995 as it saw the need to push for greater self-rule for the Beja in particular and the east in general.
Divide and conquer
As a counter-insurgency tactic, Khartoum has historically sought to exploit ethnic and tribal differences in the south and in Darfur. Now, in the east, it seeks to divide easterners in general and ethnic groups in particular. For example, Beni Amer are a Tigrayan-speaking Beja people, who have received government support in the form of access to civil service jobs.
The NIF coaxed and coerced easterners to join its Popular Defence Forces (PDF), a quasi-civil defense militia active across Sudan, and allegedly synonymous with the Janjaweed in Darfur. PDF brigades are still present in the east, and the government seeks to populate these with Beja to divide the easterners against themselves.
Easterners have forged links with the rebels in Darfur – with particularly strong links between the Eastern Front and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the smaller of the Darfur rebel groups, and the one with an expressed nationalist/Sudanese agenda as well as a Darfurian. These links have been facilitated by the Eritrean government, as it seeks to attain a sort of strategic depth vis-à-vis Khartoum.
New conflict, or ongoing divide?
While eastern Sudan would, if it descended into open warfare, be a new venue for large-scale conflict, in reality the same dynamics that led to violent conflict in Darfur and between north and south have been long-present in eastern Sudan.
However, as some local men on the road to the east from the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, told ISN Security Watch: “We have been ignored and left out of decision making for as long as we can remember.”
“We do not want to see fighting here, not like in other parts of Sudan. I don’t want to fight,” one of the group said.
“There is no investment in the east – in education, health, medicine. The people here have nothing for themselves,” said another.
There has been a history of marginalization by the center against Sudan’s southern region and people. By incorporating power- and wealth-sharing arrangements, the CPA seeks to address the factors that exacerbated the ethic and religious differences that led to Sudan’s long civil war.
The inherent logic of the CPA is that equitable wealth-sharing and fair political representation become central aspects of governance. However, the deal only addresses these issues on a conventional north-south perspective. The east, like Darfur, is technically part of the north as outlined in the CPA, so is deemed “represented” by the new political and economic arrangements.
However, the reality is that despite the CPA, regions such as Darfur and the east remain marginalized as the central government – and now, arguably the SPLM/A as well – seeks to consolidate power under the CPA provisions, which allocates the governing entities (NC P and SPLM/A) various percentages of power at national and regional levels.
Hameshkoreb, a potential flashpoint
North of Kassala, the enclave of Hameshkoreb remains a flashpoint. Under the terms of the CPA, the SPLM/A garrison was to have left the area by 9 February, but citing logistical difficulties, has not yet pulled out.
The area has been occupied by the opposition – then led by the SPLM/A – since 2002. The offensive was taken in response to a government assault on a southern stronghold of Torit, as both sides sought to maximize gains as the peace process that resulted in the CPA got off to a shaky start. The Eastern Front vows to hold on to the enclave, and with the government in an uncompromising mood, the stage could be set for a military showdown.
Eric Reeves is a Sudan analyst based at Northampton College in the US. Speaking to ISN Security Watch he said: “To Khartoum, once the SPLA leaves Hameshkoreb, the remaining forces there will be deemed as mere outlaws. I predict we will see fighting when the SPLA withdraws”
Strategic significance and the oil factor
The region remains heavily militarized, with the government of Sudan having at least double the amount of troops in the east as it has in Darfur. This shows the strategic significance of the area, but also reflects the government’s strategic alliance with the Janjaweed militants, which it uses as it proxy force in Darfur.
Port Sudan is the economic lifeline of the country, through which much of trade comes and goes. Sudan’s oil pipelines – the source of much contention and bloodshed during the 1983-2005 civil war – pass through the eastern region to Port Sudan, cutting through rich agricultural land and expensive irrigation schemes.
For Khartoum, the stakes are high economically as well as politically. Rumors abound of Beja suicide bombers willing to attack pipelines and military installations. Memories of the fighting in southern Sudan in areas near oil installations only serve as a reminder how important the oil issue is to the government.
However, it also was important to the SPLM/A – whose 1983 rebellion came after the Sudanese government granted Chevron concessions, without any guarantees of wealth-sharing, to drill for oil in the south of Sudan. Now, the Eastern Front seeks to retain 70 per cent of what it terms “eastern wealth”, rather than have it go straight to Khartoum for “redistribution” from there.
Regional or international conflict?
The east borders Eritrea, with which Sudan has had a poor relationship since Eritrea won its independence in 1991. Despite helping the Eritreans defeat the Marxist Ethiopian regime, which itself supported the SPLM/A in Sudan, Eritrea soon began to help eastern insurgents in Sudan, as it encountered an Islamist insurgency of its own – whose provenance was blamed on Khartoum, which was seeking to impose Sharia law on its non-Muslim populace in the south of Sudan.
Now, the main worry is renewed war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which would send hundreds of thousands of refugees into eastern Sudan.
While this would shatter the precarious humanitarian balance in the east, it also would alter the strategic calculations of both Sudan and the Eastern Front. Eritrea could not afford to have Khartoum siding with Ethiopia and/or supplying Eritrean dissidents – and thus would almost certainly have to renege on its support for the Eastern Front.
Some would say the Eastern Front is Eritrea’s leverage against Sudan, given the latter’s support for the Eritrean Islamic insurgency. Without that support, which would be difficult to sustain if Eritrea and Ethiopia went back to war, the Eastern Front would lose strategic depth vis-à-vis Khartoum, which would almost certainly move in for the kill in the east.
However, Khartoum now includes the SPLM/A, which fought alongside the Beja Congress as part of the NDA in the mid-1990s and whose role in Hameshkreb will be potentially crucial in coming months.
It may come down to the SPLM/A to dissuade its NCP partners in government from sending in the Sudanese army to put down the Eastern Front once and for all. Whether the SPLM/A has the leverage or will to do so remains to be seen. In the meantime, the pragmatic policy decision may be to merely drag the withdrawal out pending a political solution.
Mediation attempts have been thin on the ground. The international community has scarcely mustered up the will to deal effectively with Darfur, as Khartoum issues thinly veiled threats to any possible UN peacekeeping force coming into the region. The UN has made some token efforts to get involved. However, the focus – such as it is – remains on Darfur and on ensuring that that CPA holds. Meanwhile, a Libyan attempt to mediate in late December passed without any apparent success.
Without international pressure – particularly from the US and China, Sudan’s biggest investor and oil purchaser – Khartoum has a history of acting coercively when it comes to internal affairs and insurgency.
As Reeves concluded: “The government of Sudan paid no price for genocide in the south, in the Nuba Mountains, and in Darfur. There’s no way that Khartoum will stand for another insurgency elsewhere and will use all means to quell it. The world has to force the government of Sudan to give up genocide as a domestic security policy.”Show