The Looming Conflict in Eastern Sudan


On February 9, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), now part of a government of national unity, must start withdrawing its forces from eastern Sudan under the terms of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the war in Southern Sudan a year ago.

In anticipation of a withdrawal, government troops are poised a few kilometers outside Hamesh Koreb, the main town in the opposition-controlled swathe along the Eritrean border, which the SPLM's allies in the Eastern Front have said they will not surrender without a fight - or an agreement. But, with only days to go before the withdrawal is supposed to begin, agreement is lacking. With luck, the deadline for withdrawal, already extended once, will be extended once again and there will be another chance, perhaps a last chance, to save eastern Sudan from a conflict that threatens to be, in a worst-case scenario, more like downtown Baghdad than Darfur.

Eastern Sudan is one of the richest and the poorest regions of Sudan. It has some of the most fertile agricultural land in the country; gas, gold and other minerals; livestock; fisheries and possibly even oil. Port Sudan, capital of Red Sea State, is the country's major seaport and export terminal. It is the terminus for three pipelines worth more than $1 billion and has recently begun tempting foreign tourists with cheap flights and expensive hotels. But in the slums of Port Sudan, the Beja and other pastoralists displaced from the surrounding rural areas by drought, the seizure of prime land and food shortages live on less than $1 a day. Until the Darfur conflict began - and perhaps even now - more babies and more children were dying in Red Sea State than in any other part of Sudan. Easterners have even more reason than Darfurians to be aggrieved. Eastern Sudan's plight is not so very different from that of Sudan's other peripheries. The region is marginalized politically, exploited economically and neglected every which way. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) has accomplished nothing in this regard. There are seven Darfurians in the unity government but just one easterner - and he (like the Darfurians) is not representative of the region. In the last decade, the Eastern Front has fought side by side with the Sudan People's Liberation Army (which became the SPLM) on the latter's second front. Southerners in the unity government now have a special responsibility to help secure a fair, just peace for their former allies.

Eastern Sudan has a conventional guerrilla force in the Eastern Front - an uneasy and unconvincing coalition of the old-established Beja Congress and the Free Lions, a relatively young militia that represents the nomadic Rashaida. If there is a battle for Hamesh Koreb, it is the Eastern Front that will fight it.

But another battle threatens in the cities - and perhaps not only in the cities of the East - where suicide bombers are ready to attack a range of targets, including economic targets, should all hope of justice die. These potential attackers are believed to number in the hundreds. The figure may be an exaggeration (although it is only a fraction of the more than 28,000 who have been pushed into unemployment just by the mechanization of Port Sudan port). But their readiness, and determination, are certain. From being a tiny minority in Port Sudan for most of the last century, the Beja alone now account for at least half the city's population. They and other destitute urban pastoralists have seen the initial, stunning successes of the Darfur rebels, Khartoum's crushing response and, as in Southern Sudan in earlier years, the subsequent failure to make any headway using conventional tactics.

'The slums in which the Beja live in Port Sudan are one of the most horrific sights you can imagine,' says one of the very few outsiders who has met some of the men - and women - who are ready to kill themselves to make their voices heard. 'Displaced camps in Darfur are manifestly better. These people have seen all their livestock die. Their children are constantly sick with malaria and diarrhea and many are dying because of inadequate nutrition and access to drugs. They see the big roads, the bright lights and the hotels, the rich Sudanese living in their fancy houses and they say: 'What's the point of living if you don't have enough money to feed your children? Better to sacrifice yourself.''

If eastern Sudan goes the same way as Darfur, whether or not Hamesh Koreb is the place where the fuse is lit, the tragedy will be compounded by the fact that conflict is preventable. Both sides say they want a negotiated settlement.

'All Eastern Front political and military leaders stressed vigorously that recourse to further violence would be the last option and that they are keen to find a settlement with the government,' says Sara Pantuliano, author of an as-yet-unpublished report on the East. 'Even the youth in Port Sudan want peace and are prepared to find a solution through negotiations. But the negotiations will have to be genuine and constructive and address people's grievances.'

The only forum for negotiations thus far, so very late in the day, is Libya. Talks begin in Tripoli on February 7 - 48 hours before the SPLM withdrawal. An offer six months ago by Jan Pronk, special representative of United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, to identify a venue and a mediator for the talks came to nothing. The fault was not Khartoum's, but rather Pronk's empty promises and the UN's inability to deliver on them. This failure deepened the Eastern Front's belief that Khartoum does not want genuine negotiations. To make matters worse, there is little confidence that Libya can negotiate a fair deal for the East. Tripoli, which once looked like an honest broker in the Darfur conflict, no longer does. The least that is required of the international community now is strong involvement to support the Libyan initiative and, should that fail, quick identification of a serious alternative forum.

It should now be painfully clear to all that the CPA, which sacrificed Darfur on the altar of the South, is anything but comprehensive. Major adjustments in power-sharing percentages are needed if the conflicts in the West and East are to be resolved. No matter how difficult it is, no matter how costly, Sudan needs a holistic approach to its problems - not piecemeal peace-making. Eastern Sudan already has a government-backed paramilitary force - the Popular Defense Forces - recruited largely on tribal lines, and efforts are under way to split the Rashaida. It is the old game of divide and rule that gave Darfur the Janjaweed.

Any counterinsurgency campaign in eastern Sudan will be run by those who ran the war in Darfur. The security apparatus of the Sudanese state is unchanged. Eastern Sudan is not only a challenge to the international partners who drove through the CPA, turning a blind eye to the death in Darfur. It is a litmus test for the unity government and the SPLM's ability to make the leopard change its spots. Most importantly, it is life or death for people who have already been patient long enough.

Julie Flint has written extensively on Sudan. She is the author, with Alex de Waal, of 'Darfur: A Short History of a Long War.' She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.