War & Peace in Sudan: The Case of the Bejas
Published on: Feb 27, 2007

Overview of Eritrea’s Involvement

The main gap in most assessments of the crisis in northeast Sudan—not missing, but often underplayed—has long been an appreciation of the complex role of Eritrea, which became all-the-more obvious with that country’s central role in ‘mediating’ the 2006 peace talks. This role is necessary to grasp if we are to have any clue as to what is likely or even possible in the future. So let me back up and frame this with a closer look at Eritrea’s involvement over time and at the current conflict.

Eritrea’s relations with Sudan are driven by two strategic concerns:
  1. A long-range view that as a small, vulnerable state with extremely limited resources, Eritrea needs to keep its larger neighbors either in its thrall or Balkanized (in practice, if not in name) with the neighboring regime’s power to govern compromised and with Eritrea maintaining clear allies among the contending political forces there. 
  2. In the short and medium-term, the best defense of its borders against hostile acts by neighboring states or by oppositional groups based in them is the construction of effective insurgent forces that challenge these regimes from within and that will, as a quid pro quo, assist in patrolling Eritrea’s borders—in effect acting as buffers. With regard to the first point, the approach of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) to Ethiopia in the 1970s and 1980s models the Asmara regime’s current behavior and should be carefully scrutinized. After the fall of Haile Selassie in 1974 (and for a year or so prior to that), the EPLF invested heavily in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) as a vehicle for replacing the military junta led by Mengistu Haile Mariam with a political organization beholden to it and sharing its ideological and political roots in the student movement at Haile Selassie University in the 1960s, which also gave birth to the similarly named secret party, the Eritrean People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), which guided the EPLF throughout its existence (Connell, 2001; Connell, 2005). 
With the Ethiopian EPRP’s demise as a significant force in the mid-1970s—taking with it the option of an all-Ethiopia alternative to the ruling Derg—the EPLF redirected its support toward the ethnic opposition forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF) and others. However, within this loose constellation, the EPLF pushed the TPLF to abandon its ethnic nationalism and instead to build an integrated national (that is, Ethiopian) alternative to the Derg—a stance that contributed to the falling out between EPLF and TPLF in the mid-1980s and that was a continuing source of tension once they reconstituted their tactical alliance at the end of that decade, as the TPLF, itself torn between regional and national ambitions, chafed under Eritrea’s insistent interference in its political life (Connell, 1998B).

Both this strategic outlook and the accompanying pattern of behavior toward allied movements (treated as subordinates, rather than partners) informed the approach of the EPLF’s successor, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), to Sudan throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Among the groups the Eritreans supported were: a small force to the left of the Sudanese Communist Party in the 1980s that had grown out of the trade union movement and later merged into the Sudan Alliance Forces;3 the SPLM/A starting in the early 1990s; the Free Officers Movement, which became the dominant trend in the SAF, in the mid-to-late 1990s; and the NDA as a whole from 1995 onward. At the same time, and especially as these successive investments proved ineffective as national alternatives, the EPLF/PFDJ, operating through the Eritrean state, stepped up its investment in regional forces in Darfur, the northeast and elsewhere, even as it took advantage of these armed forces to strengthen its own border defenses.

The Development of the Eastern Front

There are two main Beja tribes (of at least four) that provide the bulk of the social base for the opposition in northeastern Sudan: the Hadendowa (termed Hedareb within Eritrea) and the Beni Amr. The former, residing in the Red Sea Hills and along the Sudanese coast from Suakin to the Eritrean border and in the Sahel region of northern Eritrea, were close with the EPLF through much of the Eritrean independence war. By contrast, the Beni Amr, straddling the Eritrea-Sudan border in the Gash-Barka region in Eritrea and the Kassala/Gedaref area in Sudan, were not only close to the ELF, they provided much of its membership. These historical alliances continue to heavily influence the politics of each group.

Though the Beja Congress was formally launched in 1958, its armed wing has been repeatedly manipulated by the EPLF/ PFDJ since the mid-1990s (much as had been the Ethiopian movements in an earlier era and as are religious and other social and political constituencies in Eritrea today). One of the most dramatic instances of tension over this came earlier in that decade when the Eritreans intervened directly in the Beja Congress’s internal affairs after the latter took a decision at odds with Eritrean strategy for them, triggering a bitter backlash that ended up strengthening the jihadist opposition forces operating out of Sudan—a miscalculation to which I will return in more detail below.4

Despite the oft-touted mutual solidarity among the Eritrean and Sudanese peoples, the EPLF had rocky relations with successive regimes in Khartoum throughout its independence war, and neither side ever truly trusted the other. Generalizations about Eritrean-Sudanese relations are risky—just as were those between the EPLF and TPLF prior to the outbreak of the border war in 1998, even as the two cultivated a myth of close relations that many outsiders bought into and then cited as grounds for surprise when the two fell out.

Eritrea trained and supported the forces of the NDA, including the Beja, from outset. NDA constituent organizations had bases in western Eritrea around Haikota, Tessenei and Sawa and received logistical support, training and arms from Asmara until the late 1990s, when Asmara engineered a rapprochement with Khartoum and moved the NDA’s camps across the border to a base at Belasid (once a redoubt of the EPLF’s arch rival within the national movement, the Eritrean Liberation Front), which I visited four times between 1999 and 2002. Once there, they received regular supplies of food, fuel, ammunition and more from across border, as well as political instruction and military training in or near their new base. Throughout, Eritrea maintained strict control over the NDA operation. To the best of my knowledge, no significant military action was taken without Eritrean permission, with one notable exception, to which I will return below.

Subsurface tensions in this alliance that mirror those between EPLF and TPLF have long been evident in the ways each described the development of the northeastern war front and their respective role in it. According to SPLM/A leaders, the first informal contact between it and the Bejas took place in Cairo in the early 1990s. The first official meeting between the SPLM/A and the Beja Congress took place in Asmara in December 1994 (several months after the congress in Asmara that marked the official launch of the SAF), with the SPLM encouraging the Bejas to take up arms and join the fight to displace the NIF regime in Khartoum while offering them aid to do so. In this narrative, SPLA training for the Bejas started in 1995, and the first joint operation took place in October 1996.5 For their part, the Eritreans saw the armed wing of the Beja Congress as a product of their initiative and design from the outset as a counter to Eritrean Islamic Jihad (EIJ) after a series of high-profile raids into Eritrea from Sudan in 1993 and 1994, and they have treated the Beja Congress as a surrogate ever since.

My first direct observation of the armed forces in the northeast came in 1996 when I traveled to the Eritrea-Sudan border with members of the SAF. (I also interviewed defectors from the Sudanese armed forces and from Osama bin Laden’s organization then.) I was told by SAF commanders that their forces, slim as they were, had been deployed along the border to fill in security gaps for the Eritreans as well as to position them to carry out ambushes and small-scale raids (Connell, 1998A)

In 1997 and again in 1998, I traveled with SAF escorts to the rebel-held village of Togan and its surroundings, stopping in small Beja settlements and encountering a number of Beja Congress irregulars and forces of the SPLA. During this period, I also traveled into SPLM/A areas in the south via both Kenya and Uganda, flew into the Nuba mountains from Lokichokio with a rebel-run relief group linked to SPLM/A and traveled into the northern Blue Nile area from Ethiopia with SAF. In the process, I developed stronger ties with the SPLM/A and grew increasingly skeptical of the strength and capacity of the SAF, especially as I learned about the extent of internal squabbling between military and civilian factions and among key personalities in the leadership following a period of promising growth in 1996-97 and after I met SAF defectors in Cairo and listened to their accounts of petty bickering, favoritism, recrimination and disorganization. As a consequence, the next time I traveled into NDA areas in the northeast, I made my arrangements through SPLM/A.

When I returned in 1999, as Eritrea was in the process of negotiating a rapprochement with Sudan, the NDA camps had been relocated across border from the Haikota/Sawa area to Belasid. By this time, the coalition included armed forces from SPLM/A, Beja Congress, SAF, Mohammed Osman Mirghani’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and a small though largely inactive (and insignificant) force from Sadiq al-Mahdi’s Umma Party, along with a host of smaller groups. Among the latter, whose numbers rarely ran more than a few dozen each, were the Sudan Federal Democratic Alliance (SFDA) from Darfur and the Sudan Communist Party (SCP), most of whose members deployed to the NDA base were medical personnel.

Meanwhile, the NDA, pushed by the Eritreans (whom the Sudanese characterized simply as ‘the friends’), was attempting to unite the various military forces under one command. SPLM had tried to achieve this on its own from the start, characterizing its troops as part of a ‘New Sudan Brigade’ rather than a northern branch of SPLA, and promoting the NSB as a home for all opposition forces. The other groups resisted this, however, rightly perceiving it as a bid for SPLM hegemony and fearing that the SPLM only intended to use the northeast front as a lever against the regime to promote its interests in the south; they were supported by the Eritreans, who also sought hegemony over the opposition alliance, which they hoped to develop into a political alternative to the NIF regime in Khartoum.

Through this period, there were three distinct efforts to bring these disparate units under a single command structure—first, in 1997, as the United Military Command, then in 1998 as a Joint Military Command and finally in 1999 as what they called a Unified Military Brigade. None were successful. However, a number of effective joint operations were carried out, mainly involving forces of the SPLA, SAF and Beja Congress with some participation by former government officers and men then with the DUP.6

Eritrea’s strategy was to build the NDA coalition while limiting the power of the SPLM/A whose armed forces completely dominated the alliance, holding onto the two major sect-based parties—the DUP and the Umma—as long as possible before they defected back to Khartoum (though containing their influence), and all-the-while working to strengthen the smaller forces and enhance cooperation among them so that they could play a more prominent role in the NDA and later a new regime.7

In addition to providing military training and substantial logistical support (including food, fuel, uniforms, vehicle maintenance and equipment), Asmara dispatched PFDJ organizational affairs head Abdella Jabr to carry out political instruction. His brief had long been to work with and nurture opposition movements across Sudan; he had traveled frequently to Chad in the 1990s toward this end; and he knew the players well. In July 1999, he conducted a seminar for 100 cadres drawn from NDA units, including 50 from the SPLA, as the NDA set up what it called a Political Military Office, calling its cadres PMOs. Eritrea’s intention here was to build a political movement within the military coalition in an effort to replicate the EPLF experience during its war for independence.

One incident during this time deserves special attention, not only for what it demonstrates about Eritrea’s method of handling its relations with the NDA, particularly the Bejas, but for the light it sheds on Eritrea’s own continuing problems with Islamist opposition centered around the EIJ. In 1999, Ahmed Bitai, the brother of a prominent Beja religious figure—Sheikh Sulieman—broke with the Beja Congress over internal differences and announced that he was taking his following to join NSB.8

The Eritrean response was decisive and swift: In August in a scene with eerie echoes of Badme a year earlier, they sent a large armed force supported by armor and infantry into the NDA base to demand that Bitai be turned over to them. The ensuing confrontation lasted three days, after which a humiliated NDA (SPLA included) acceded to Eritrean demands. Bitai was reportedly held for six months before being turned over to the Beja Congress and eventually released. At this point, the angry Beja leader defected to Khartoum from which vantage point he orchestrated further divisions among the Sudanese Beja and opened avenues through Beja areas for Eritrean jihadists to infiltrate across the border, heightening the security threat to government and party installations throughout northern and coastal Eritrea.

On a March 2000 visit to the NDA base at Belasid, just prior to the last round of the Eritrea-Ethiopia border war, I heard more such stories of Eritrean interference in Sudanese opposition affairs. SPLM leaders in particular nurtured resentment over Asmara’s attempts to foist SAF commander Abdel Aziz Khalid upon them as a potential alliance leader in the mold of Isaias. It was widely known that Isaias had for nearly 15 years been the nominal second in command of the EPLF behind his lowland Muslim ally Ramadan Mohammed Nur, even as he ran the secret party (the EPRP) that controlled the liberation front, and that this model was being played out in the NDA by elevating Mohamed Osman Mirghani as the front man for that alliance, though he exercised little actual power.

Eritrea initially put its full support into building the SAF, believing its members could spark a mutiny within the Sudanese armed forces as well as a popular uprising in Khartoum and contest for state power in Khartoum. As the SAF began to splinter from within and lose both membership and capacity, the Eritreans—as they had done in Ethiopia—then began to shift their focus to ethnic and regional forces, particularly in Darfur and the northeast.

Later that year, after its devastating losses in the third round of war with Ethiopia and newly eager to protect its western flank, Eritrea launched a diplomatic initiative that brought Isaias and his foreign minister, the late Ali Said Abdella, to Khartoum in October to thaw relations between the two countries. However, in a move that prefigured JEM operations in Darfur and the northeast in mid-2006, SPLA commander Pagan Amum led a surprise attack of his own on Kassala in November 2000 without seeking prior approval from ‘the friends,’ as was the standard operating procedure.9

Cmdr. Amum later told me that the SPLM feared the Eritreans were losing faith in the NDA and might sell them out for a tactical advantage. For this reason, he said, the NDA needed to demonstrate its strength with a dramatic move that would, as a byproduct, help undercut the Sudan-Eritrea rapprochement. Before he acted, he secured John Garang’s personal okay, as well as Mirghani’s approval. In the event, a 2,000-strong joint SPLA/DUP/Beja force captured the government garrison at Kassala and held it for nearly 48 hours, after which Khartoum’s relations with Asmara soured. Government forces then heavily bombed NDA areas and came down hard on the Bejas in the urban areas, causing many young Beja men left to flee and join the opposition.

At about this time, in a 180-degree reversal that portended a loss of confidence in the NDA among its own members, moves got underway to fold the flagging SAF into the SPLM. They were initiated by SAF’s head of political affairs Taisier Ali, a former activist at the University of Khartoum whose role in promoting dialogue between Khartoum and the SPLM/A in the 1980s won him enduring respect and trust among southerners, otherwise in extremely short supply toward northern political figures. And this time, the moves were not opposed by Eritrea, which saw in this a possibility to expand its own influence within SPLM in the future via SAF members in its debt.

I went back to Belasid for the last time in May-June 2002. SAF was then still negotiating its move into SPLM/A. The northeastern war front had been generally quiet  for almost two years, since NDA forces retook the strategic town with its important religious shrine at Hamesh Koreb. The main issue overshadowing the situation then was the continuing Eritrea-Ethiopia confrontation, one side-effect of which was Eritrea’s insistence on a tacit truce with Sudan on this front so as not to open itself to further subversion from this direction.

However, Eritrea and the SPLA continued to work to develop the Bejas as an effective fighting force, even though SPLA leaders bemoaned the fact that the Bejas lacked both military experience and a military orientation toward self-organization and discipline. With low level fighting reported in Darfur, SPLA commander Peter Wal from Upper Nile told me that ‘the ground is prepared for rebellion’ there.10 Meanwhile, there appeared to be stepped up activity by the EIJ in the border area and within Eritrea, suggesting that stability was eroding across the region despite the near absence of military initiatives from the NDA there.

The extent to which these issues were interconnected had been underlined in 1999 when the NDA captured two members of EIJ in the uniform of the Sudanese government and turned them over to ‘the friends,’ I was told. In fact, many jihadists had been integrated directly into GOS forces for the defense of Kassala in 2001-2002, following the NDA raid on that city the year before. Meanwhile, EIJ operatives were said to be infiltrating Eritrea with returning refugees and operating freely around Guluj, Barentu, and Agordat, occasionally burning crops, planting mines, setting ambushes, and shooting at military vehicles, and Sheikh Sulieman’s brother Ahmed Bitai was said to be in Kassala working with EIJ, paying $1,000 for each land mine set within Eritrea.11

But this was not the only regional confrontation engaging Eritrea’s attention. As I transited the border crossing at Hadish Maaskar on this last trip to the NDA base, I passed several small camps within Eritrea where Oromos, Amharas, and Beni Shangul were undergoing military training, an indication that Eritreaís commitment to fostering insurgency within Ethiopia had not lessened, whatever the situation in northeast Sudan.