EASTERN SUDAN: SAVING PEACE IN THE EAST
|Www.ushmm.org, 12 Janvier 2006|
NARRATOR: Welcome to Voices on Genocide Prevention, a podcasting service of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Your host is Jerry Fowler, director of the Museum’s Committee on Conscience.
JERRY FOWLER: International attention on Sudan has mostly been focused in the past two years on the western region of Darfur, as well as efforts to implement a peace agreement that ended a twenty-year old conflict in Southern Sudan. Now the International Crisis Group has just released a new report titled “Sudan: Saving Peace in the East.” To fill us in, Suliman Baldo, Africa Program Director for the Crisis Group joins us from his office in New York. Suliman, welcome to the program.
SULIMAN BALDO: Thank you for having me.
JERRY FOWLER: Let us start with the basics. Why has the Crisis Group issued this report now about eastern Sudan?
SULIMAN BALDO: We are facing the same situation with a lot of attention on the Darfur crisis, but yet another regional problem in Sudan neglected by the international community is the problem of eastern Sudan where a rebellion is brewing.
JERRY FOWLER: What is the nature of the conflict there?
SULIMAN BALDO: It is basically the same problem like the one Sudan had struggled with for twenty years in southern Sudan. That is to say, structural injustice in the form of discrepancies in the location of national power and national wealth between the center, which is Khartoum—and the ruling elites of Sudan come from a very narrow shell and demographic circle around the capital region, and that is why we refer to it as the center—and all the peripheries, that is to say, southern Sudan, western Sudan and eastern Sudan.
JERRY FOWLER: One of the issues, obviously, that comes to the fore when we look at southern Sudan and at Darfur is a clash of identity. You have different ethnic groups, and in the case of southern Sudan, different religions. Who are the groups who live in eastern Sudan? Is identity an issue there?
SULIMAN BALDO: Identity is definitely an issue. In the case of southern Sudan, this was definitely a major factor driving the war there. With southerners agreeing to their identity as Sudanese, but not wanting to be acculturated and identified with Arab/Muslim Sudan—they are Africans; they are followers of African religion, traditional African religions and of Christianity—and they do not want to be converted to Islam, as the center has tried to determine that. In the case of Darfur, all Darfurians are Muslim, but their version of Islam is that of African Islam, a very tolerant version of the religion, dominated by Sufi sects, and has nothing to do with radical, political Islam, as the one which is promoted by the ruling National Congress Party in Khartoum, the ruling party in Khartoum. The same situation is happening in eastern Sudan. We have again a population which is entirely Muslim but the Islam is mainly Sufi, traditional, tolerant, very mild form of the religion which does not recognize at all the version of politicized, radicalized, militarized Islam that is promoted by the National Congress Party in Khartoum, therefore, people are fighting to protect their own identity from this invasion of the center.
JERRY FOWLER: I understand from the report that the largest ethnic group in the east is the Beja and that at least some of them have been organized since the 1950s into a political organization called the Beja Congress. Can you explain a little bit more about the growth of the Beja Congress and its relationship to this Beja Group?
SULIMAN BALDO: The Beja Congress is basically a regional organization which has very deep roots in Beja society. This is the dominant population group in eastern Sudan. It has its own language, it is a follower of Sudan—as I explained earlier—and they are totally impoverished, destitute, really left out from the wealth of the country, hence the bitterness and the resentment. Beja Congress has performed as a pressure group for the recognition of the rights of the people of eastern Sudan to have a fair share in national power and wealth, and it has also acted as a self-defense group for the identity issue; that is to say, to defend the culture, the language, the religion, and the identity of the Beja people against the acculturation programs, propaganda, from militant Islam in the center and the like.
JERRY FOWLER: What are the demands that the Beja Congress and the eastern front are making?
SULIMAN BALDO: They want a fair share in power and in the national wealth of Sudan, and they want that share to be determined by the percentage of the population of eastern Sudan in relation to the overall population of the country. We believe that is a fair demand and it could be easily negotiated based on the precedent of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. They also want Sudan to be divided into six regions whereby the east of Sudan, which now has three states would become a regional government based on the regional government of southern Sudan. We have a collective presidency of the governments of the six regions with the rotation of presidency. That would represent a symbolic participation of each region into the highest instances of the state, and therefore, give them assurances that they are part and equal members of the same community and the same country.
JERRY FOWLER: There is another group—as I understand it—the Rashaida, and there is also a political group that represents them called the Rashaida Free Lions. Who are they?
SULIMAN BALDO: The Rashaida are, interestingly, a group of recent migrants from Saudi Arabia into eastern Sudan. They migrated to eastern Sudan in the middle of the 19th century and, therefore, if there is any Arab group in the country, it has been the Rashaida. They are really Arab in the sense that they are ethnically, racially Arab. They are Muslim, they are nomads, living and moving over a large area, so they do not have a traditional, tribal land. They have maintained ethnic links with their culture in Saudi Arabia and in the Gulf countries. This is what brought them in conflict with the government in Khartoum. How did that happen during the first Gulf war when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991? The Rashaida expressed solidarity with the Kuwaitis, and the government accused them of having sent about 400-600 four-wheel vehicles to allow the Kuwaitis to reduce the Iraqi invasion. This is modern Nomadism. The Rashaida is a rich nomadic tribe and they use a lot of these four-wheel vehicles and that was one aspect of the resentment they had, that the government really punished them for the solidarity they had with Kuwait. They confiscated a lot of their vehicles. They cut down on them very severely, including with extrajudicial executions, detention of the shares, torture, and the like. The Rashaida has, therefore, decided to join the armed rebellion against Khartoum with the Beja, under the title of the Eastern Front, and together they have been fighting the government since 1996.
JERRY FOWLER: That brings us to the question of how strong is this rebellion? It has been simmering since 1996, what are really the prospects that the conflict could broaden and become as violent and widespread in the region as we are seeing in Darfur on the other side of the country?
SULIMAN BALDO: It is a very interesting question because the Rashaida and the Beja—this eastern front—are military and political allies of the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and Army. The strength of the northeastern front is due mainly to the presence of a major Sudan People’s Liberation Army force in northeastern Sudan as an expression of their solidarity. Now, in light of the peace agreement between Khartoum and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army is supposed to withdraw its forces from northeastern Sudan. There is a deadline for that which is now fast approaching, the nineteenth of January. The Beja and the Rashaida on their own do not have the military capacity for a major confrontation with the forces of Khartoum, as the armed groups in Darfur are capable of doing. But the Beja—in particular the Beja Congress—has a lot of following in urban areas of eastern Sudan. That is to say, the main port—Port Sudan—and these are major economic centers of the country imports and exports enter and leave the country. We have major pipe lines, highways, railways, a lodge and economized farming—areas that are the breadbasket of the country all falling in this region. The armed groups may be encouraged to, for example, conduct sabotage operations to disrupt the economic livelihood of Khartoum, therefore, Khartoum has very little tolerance of a possible threat. They are likely to try to step in and fill the security vacuum that would happen with the withdraw of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, and the Eastern Front is not likely to allow them to do that. Hence there is an urgency because of the likelihood of confrontation between the Eastern Front and the Government forces for the control of areas that are currently controlled together by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and the Eastern Front, but the Sudan People’s Liberation Army is withdrawing very soon.
JERRY FOWLER: As you mention, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which is the southern rebel group is pulling out because of this peace agreement that allowed it to become part of a so-called government of National Unity, which was formed last July. Has the presence of the southerners in the government in Khartoum had any kind of effect on the situation in the East?
SULIMAN BALDO: This is a very paradoxical situation because when we say Khartoum and the regime in Khartoum this is supposed to be a new government of National Unity with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army being the uniting part of that government, and other forces of the opposition also represented. That is to say that the objective and military and political allies of the Darfur rebels and of the Eastern Front rebels are represented in the government of National Unity, but in reality the government of National Unity is just a mask which is hiding a very concrete reality of the continued control of all the security structures and decisions by the National Islamic Front, which is known as the National Congress Party, the dominant partner in the government of National Unity. It is as if nothing has changed. That is why the situation continues deteriorating in Darfur, and that is why we are likely to head into major confrontation in eastern Sudan, because the core force behind the security and forces of Khartoum remains the same; unchanged.
JERRY FOWLER: Let me press on that for a minute. Is that an indication that this Comprehensive Peace Agreement with the southerners is not working or is there something that needs to be done to change that situation?
SULIMAN BALDO: This is an expression of a certain disfunctionality. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army has too many challenges in its hands and it is ill-equipped. It does not have sufficient capacity to really face all of these challenges at once. It is supposed to rebuild southern Sudan from scratch, govern that part of the country. This is its own turf and this is a top priority for it, but the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, the southern rebel group, is also a national force and it has been fighting alongside rebels from western Sudan in Darfur and alongside rebels in eastern Sudan. It is supposed to really continue within the government of National Unity to push for peaceful solutions for conflicts both in the east and the west. The Sudanese People’s Liberation Army does not have that capacity and it is really focused on the immediate task for succeeding in governing southern Sudan and maintaining a semblance of credible presence in the government of National Unity. It is a situation of lack of capacity which is hampering the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army from really being active for peace and for active solutions for the conflicts in the east and the west.
JERRY FOWLER: If the southerners have this problem with capacity, I suppose that the availability of extra capacity would have to come from outside of Sudan. What are you recommending that the United States government do, that the United Nations do, that other outside actors do?
SULIMAN BALDO: Because of this lack of capacity, we are not expecting much dynamics to happen from within Sudan. The National Congress Party does not have an interest in addressing the structural injustices which I referred to earlier. There was a Libyan mediation in place between the Eastern Front and the government in Khartoum, but that mediation collapsed over Christmas because the Libyans tried to play the interests of Khartoum in an attempt to divide the Beja and the Rashaida as they prepared for this meeting in Tripoli, therefore, the Libyan mediation shot itself in the foot and it is out; it is no longer on offer. The International Crisis Group is recommending that the United Nations take the lead and appoint a special envoy for political talks between the government and the Eastern Front.
JERRY FOWLER: That would be separate from the Secretary General’s special representative, Jan Pronk, who is already in Khartoum?
SULIMAN BALDO: Jan Pronk has made offers to Khartoum precisely for this mediation as recently as a couple of days ago, and Khartoum has rejected the involvement of the United Nations, and we know very well why it is rejecting this. Because it does not want to have to continue to give concessions to the marginalized regions of the country. We are proposing that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between Khartoum and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army offers a great framework on which to settle the conflicts in other regions of the country, in the north to be more specific. Therefore, we are asking for an additional special envoy that will be coordinating with the special representative of the Secretary General, Jan Pronk and the United Nations mission in Sudan to push for peace. We are asking the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, and the African Union to act as mediators and guarantors for such talks. We believe there is a real chance for such talks to succeed because the demands of the Eastern Front are very reasonable.
JERRY FOWLER: When you talk about talks between the Government and the Eastern Front, of course there are talks that are ongoing in the Nigerian capital of Abuja between the Darfur rebels and the government. Do you see these talks as being separate or do they need to be brought together?
SULIMAN BALDO: We see a need for the same framework, but not necessarily the same forum. That is to say, it is not necessary that the talks between the Eastern Front and the Government take place in Abuja with the mediation of the African Union because these talks have been going nowhere after eight sessions and months of talks. The same framework—that of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement—is very useful for the Government technology and the Eastern Front technology. There should be a philosophy of a framework for negotiations, but separate talks—one in Abuja for Darfur and one for eastern Sudan.
JERRY FOWLER: You mentioned the role of the Libyans which now has collapsed, as you said. Another important player in the region who has been very involved in the East is Eritrea. What are they doing now? How are they contributing or not contributing to the situation?
SULIMAN BALDO: Eritrea has been a supporter of this national democratic alliance with the opposition, and it is through Eritrea that the Sudan People’s Liberation Army was able to deploy its forces in northeastern Sudan to support the Beja Congress and the Rashaida and other groups that are fighting the Government in that region. Eritrea provides them with training and allowed the supplies to go through to the Eastern Front fighters in areas that are controlled by them. Now Eritrea is very concerned with the deteriorating security situation along its border with Ethiopia, and the likelihood that that situation may lead to a resumption of fighting and, therefore, both Ethiopia and Eritrea are doing a lot to neutralize the Government of Khartoum and to make sure at least that it would not take sides in the conflict with their adversary and, therefore, Eritrea may trade its support for the Eastern Front for the Government’s neutrality, in an eventual conflict with Ethiopia. All this tells us that there is really urgency to address all these regional issues at the same time. That is to say, try to put the Ethiopia/Eritrea situation on a political track, return these two countries to a negotiating track, and at the same time address Sudan’s structural imbalances through negotiations and through peaceful solutions.
JERRY FOWLER: Suliman Baldo, thank you so much for being with us today.
SULIMAN BALDO: Many thanks and you are welcome.
NARRATOR: You have been listening to Voices on Genocide Prevention, a podcasting service of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. To learn more about the Museum’s Committee on Conscience visit our website at www.committeeonconscience.org.