War & Peace in Sudan: The Case of the Bejas
Published on: Feb 27, 2007
‘When the Janjaweed attacked our village, they came shooting and burning from all directions,’ rape victim Jamila Bochra Moham told a reporter in the summer of 2006. ‘I tried to run away, but they told me to stop or they would kill me. I was raped by five armed men. I saw other women raped and many people killed, including my mother and my mother-in-law. They were thrown into a fire while they were still alive, right in front of me.’ 1
This scenario, drawn from the civil war in Darfur in early 2006, could have taken place in any one of a number of marginalized regions in this chronically unstable, conflict-ridden country over the past half-century and almost certainly did (de Waal and Flint, 2006; de Waal and Ajawin, 1995; Human Rights Watch, 1996, 1999, 2004; Prunier, 2005). However, such incidents in Darfur, occurring on a regular basis and generating moral outrage around the world when they are covered by the media (though precious little action to halt them), are usually presented as if they were somehow unique to this region, elements of a stark human tragedy that has spun out of control as a fanatical militia known as the janjaweed has run amok. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

Khartoum piloted the use of local militias to divide its opposition and to decimate civilian populations thought to sympathize with its opponents in the mid-1980s under Sadiq al-Mahdi—first in the south, then in the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile. In 2003, 14 years after the National Islamic Front seized power, the strategy was used in the counterinsurgency in Darfur. This led to charges of 'genocide’ there that echoed those leveled at the NIF government in the 1990s in Nuba—but  with as little practical impact in Darfur as had been the case in Nuba (de Wall and Ajawin, 1995). Meanwhile, away from the spotlight, the people of the northeast were also subject to such assaults by regular army troops and by paramilitary forces backed by the government, as I personally witnessed in a series of visits to rebel-held areas there since 1996.

That this pattern held for the conflict in the northeast will not be news to anyone who has followed the unfolding crises in Sudan, but it is important to start with this recognition and look at the northeast’s commonality with other conflict areas across Sudan both to understand the regional and national currents that shape the tensions there and to focus on what is needed to resolve them in a lasting manner so that conflict does not erupt in the future with the sort of ferocity it has done elsewhere. At the same time, however, we need to be aware that the northeast is distinctive—in terms of who the actors are, what they need (or perceive themselves to need), how they are internally organized, how regional considerations affect them and the crisis of which they are a part, and more. And we need to pay attention to both aspects—commonality and difference—as we consider what the scope of the problem is, how it relates to national and regional tensions and crises, and what would be appropriate responses and effective interventions to limit conflict and promote stability.

I come to this issue via three decades of experience in Eritrea, much of which involved engagement with and travel across northeast Sudan, and through direct engagement with rebel groups in Sudan since the mid-1990s, including numerous visits to the northeastern front with members of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), several trips to the south with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), one trip to the Nuba Mountains with SPLM/A, and one visit to the Blue Nile region with the Sudan Alliance Forces (SAF). My last tour of rebel-held areas in northeastern Sudan came in June 2002. Much of what I have to say about the current situation is seen through this filter. I start by highlighting broad contextual points on the Bejas and the development of their armed militia, the Beja Congress, and go from there to present insights gleaned on my trips to the NDA base area in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Civil War(s): Setting the Stage

Sudan has been at war with itself since the day it emerged from colonial rule. In fact, fighting between north and south actually broke out before the formal transfer of power from London to Khartoum in 1956, for conflict was built into the structure of the new state. Glaring inequalities between the two regions—administered separately by the British out of Khartoum and Nairobi—were institutionalized from the outset with political power and control of the country's extensive natural resources, as well as decisions over education policy, language and cultural identity, centered in the north. Southerners, denied a viable forum to contest the inequities, took up arms in a pattern that has set the tone for relations between the riverine rulers and the rest of the country ever since (Lesch, 1999).

The initial phase of the north-south civil war halted in 1972 under an agreement mediated by Ethiopia's emperor Haile Selassie that gave southerners limited regional autonomy, but the accord did not hold. Fighting resumed little more than a decade later when Gen. Jaafar al-Nimeiri, who had signed the Addis Ababa agreement, unilaterally dissolved the regional government after receiving confirmation of extensive oil reserves there. When the self-declared imam imposed Islamic shari'a law throughout the country later that year, southerners joined the opposition in droves. The renewed revolt was led by the SPLM/A, which quickly captured much of the southern third of the country. Nimeiri was overthrown in 1985, but the civilian government elected a year later did little to change the country's basic policies, and it, too, lost ground in the conflict. At last, faced with a collapsing economy and rising political protest, Sadiq al-Mahdiís government offered to compromise. However, days before a truce was to be signed in 1989 that would have suspended the controversial application of shari'a , Mahdi was deposed by Gen. Omar al-Bashir, who seized power on behalf of the National Islamic Front (NIF).

The new regime quickly banned all political parties, trade unions and other ‘nonreligious institutions.’ It went on to impose tight controls on the press and strict dress and behavior codes on women as it moved to restructure the entire society in its image. More than 78,000 people were purged from the army, police and civil administration, thoroughly reshaping the state apparatus, while dissidents were routinely detained in torture centers. Conscription of child soldiers became widespread, and long dormant forms of slavery grew in scope and frequency, as the government encouraged tribal militias, developed under the Mahdi regime, to raid rebel-held areas for booty and captives and, in doing so, to act as proxies for the regime in the stepped-up counterinsurgency.

To facilitate its larger project, the NIF merged religious indoctrination and conversion with education, social services, economic development and political mobilization. It used the paramilitary Popular Defense Forces to enforce Arabisation and Islamisation along narrowly sectarian lines. This provoked many Muslims from other regions of Sudan to join the opposition, which gelled in the mid-1990s into a multi-ethnic, secular coalition, the National Democratic Alliance, whose largest armed contingent was the SPLM/A, but which also brought in new forces from the west, center and north. Though the NIF government scored major military successes in the south in its early years, the tide began to turn toward the middle of the 1990s, and in January 2005 the two sides finally signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that halted the fighting there after claiming more than a million lives, just as it began to erupt Elsewhere—a coincidence that hardly needs comment.

Thus, what had started as a conflict between the Arabised, Islamic north and the non-Muslim African south in the 1950s evolved over a half-century into a fight between the forces holding power at the country's center and a diverse array of peoples and political groups—Muslims, Christians and animists alike—who were challenging the government from the periphery. In the north-east, the fight was waged from the late 1990s until this year by the NDA, within which the SPLM was by far the largest, best equipped and disciplined military force. Other alliance members representing national or at least multi-regional constituencies, though smaller, ran the political gamut from the traditional Islamic sect-based movements shouldered aside by the ruling National Islamic Front to the Sudan Communist Party and a group led by disaffected military officers, the Sudan Alliance Forces. Two NDA member organizations drew their support from local Populations—the Beja Congress and the Rashaida Free Lions. These latter two formed the Eastern Front in 2005 after the SPLM/A signed the peace agreement with Khartoum.

During the last half of the 1990s, NDA forces had managed little more than sporadic ambushes and small surprise attacks, often fleeing east into Eritrea when pursued. By the end of the decade, however, they were fighting for the most part under joint command, and their attacks had escalated to the point where they were able to hold a swathe of territory along the Eritrea border, including the important religious center at Hamesh Koreb, and to briefly capture and hold the provincial capital of Kassala. This was accomplished after rebel leaders agreed to combine their forces under a unified command structure in 2001, which the SPLM augmented by redeploying almost 8,000 soldiers from the south.

However, with the signing of the CPA between Khartoum and the SPLM/A in January 2005, the NDA began to crumble, leaving the Bejas and the Rashaidas to fend for themselves in the northeast under the banner of the newly formed Eastern Front—but for the fact that they were not really alone. Eritrea had all along been deeply implicated in their military and political development and, in mid-2006, Asmara took center stage in proposing to ‘mediate’ a peace agreement there. That the Eritreans succeeded in defusing the conflict within a matter of a few months and presided over the signing of a regional pact to end the fighting by October 2006 is testimony to the hold it had over the combatants more than to its negotiating prowess, seemingly showcased here but entirely absent in its own row with Ethiopia.

An escalation of the fighting, as had been widely feared prior to the Eritrean intervention, would have pitted the Government of Sudan and its proxies in the paramilitary Popular Defense Forces not only against the Beja Congress and the Free Lions, but also the regional wing of the Justice and Equality Movement, just as it was becoming prominent in Darfur (and was not a party to the Eritrean-mediated pact in the northeast, though it had a small force there). An escalation also had the potential to draw in Eritrea’s regular armed forces, as such fighting had in the past. But Eritrea had its own reasons for interposing itself at this point, to do more with its ongoing confrontation with Ethiopia than with local factors. But I will come back to that after examining just those factors.

The Bejas: A brief sketch

Much of northeast Sudan is populated by ethnic Bejasóone of the largest tribal groups in Sudan, after the Dinka and the Fur. The Bejas are Muslim Africans with distinct languages and traditions and a proud history that stretches back nearly 4,000 years and remains a core aspect of their identity. Today, they can be found in a wide swathe of desert and savannah that extends from northern and western Eritrea to Egypt. Bejas constitute a majority of the four million people in the three northeastern Sudanese states of Red Sea, Kassala, and Gedaref (ICG, 2006).

The region itself is one of the most strategic in Sudan with its oil pipeline and its road and rail links to the country’s only deep water port and one of its richest, with Sudanís largest gold mine as well as a number of highly productive commercial agricultural schemes. But its more than two million Bejas are among the country’s poorest populations, with a growing number migrating to city slums in recent years in search of low-wage work and of services unavailable in the countryside, especially since the devastating drought of the mid-1980s that decimated their herds and from which they never bounced back. They find themselves increasingly marginalized in their traditional areas due to a combination of environmental and human factors, as climate change has made even harsher the stark land they inhabit and as the area has been steadily colonized from Sudan’s core, with the rapid growth of urban areas, large-scale plantation agriculture and new infrastructure (road, rail, ports, pipeline).

These trends have added pressure on them and further limited their ability to eke out a subsistence living, even as they served to highlight the yawning gap between the very rich and the very poor in the region, in terms of access to resources, services and political representation. In fact, this gap is more visible in this part of Sudan than in any other region of the country and was a factor in setting the stage for unrest, as the region boomed while the Beja sank ever deeper into extreme poverty. Red Sea state, with Port Sudan at its center, is one of the richest in the country, yet the per capita income was only $94 in 2004, barely 20 percent of its villages had access to healthcare and fully 44 percent of the children living there were malnourished (World Food Programme, 2005).

The Beja Congress, with roots in the 1940s, was formally launched in 1958, shortly after Sudan won its independence, and it succeeded in winning limited representation in the Parliament at first, though the number of its delegates decreased steadily. Early on, the Beja sought alliances with other depressed and ignored regions, including Darfur and the South, in an attempt to promote regionalism. However, they, like their counterparts in other regions, were shut out during the revolving door of military and riverine civilian regimes that came to dominate the country’s national political scene.

After the NIF seized power in 1989, the central government stepped up repression of Beja political figures, increased conscription of Beja youth for its army and paramilitary forces, increased appropriations of Beja land for state-run and privately-owne agricultural schemes (including several run by Osama bin Laden and his cronies), and sought to force its ideological and cultural version of Sudanese identity on the Bejas. In the face of this, the Bejas grew increasingly restive. In the mid-1990s, with Eritrean encouragement, they took up arms and joined the newly formed NDA.2

Nearly a decade later, as indicated above, the NDA was drawn into the periphery of the north-south peace process, and it soon began to lose constituent organizations as the Beja Congress shifted gears and joined with the Rashaida-based Free Lions to form the Eastern Front (EF). The EF went on to operate in alliance with the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) as a fellow traveler though not a charter member.

The Rashaida are one of several small Arab tribes in the area—late-comers from the Gulf in the mid-nineteenth century, many of whom were historically traders across northern Africa who morphed into smugglers with the rise of modern states. They are found today in coastal Eritrea and Sudan as well as on both sides of the common border and exhibit little loyalty to Eritrea or Sudan or to the opposition and continue to maintain strong ties to Gulf Arabs. In this respect, they are a wild card in the political and military mix.

Meanwhile, the joker in the deck, so to speak, is the JEM, whose role in Darfur thrust it onto the international stage but which has maintained a small, highly disciplined force in the northeast, as well, and offices in Asmara. Formed as the result of a split within the Islamist movement in Sudan, it takes its inspiration from Hassan al-Turabi, who headed the NIF when it took power in 1989 but who was jailed in 2004 after a falling out with Omar el-Beshir, released in 2005 and then placed under loose house arrest. At the start of 2006, the JEM joined the Sudan Liberation Front to form the Alliance of Revolutionary Forces of West Sudan, but it continued to define itself as a national movement.  

The low level conflict in the northeast after 1996 only increased the pressure on the civilian populations there, as markets were closed to them and aerial bombardment and government counterinsurgency operations stripped them of their already limited assets and further destabilized economic and social life, much as had happened earlier in Bahr el Ghazal, Nuba, and Darfur. An expansion of this fighting would have substantially intensified their plight, as a large share of the population lives on the knife edge of survival and is more precarious to start with than any other group in Sudan.