In January 2005 thousands of impoverished Bejas carried out public protests in Port Sudan in which they asked for essentially the same things the Fur were calling for: greater political representation, wealth-sharing, jobs, services and so on. They were met with violent repression by local security forces and regular army troops, during which at least 20 were killed, more than 150 arrested, and thousands more displaced from their homes, mostly improvised shacks in crowded coastal slums. This reinforced the notion that armed struggle was the only thing Khartoum understood—or left room for—when grievances arose, and it encouraged hundreds of young Beja men to go over to the armed wing of the Beja Congress. When the government arrested several key Beja Congress leaders in March 2006, it was like pouring gasoline on the fire. It was at this point that Eritrea took the initiative to propose itself as a facilitator of peace talks (Amnesty International, 2005).
Prospects for such talks took on momentum in early May when Eritrea’s Abdella Jabr met Omar al-Beshir in Khartoum to push Eritrea as the mediator with the Eastern Front—a proposal that both men understood as a cover for direct talks between Eritrea and Sudan or, more to the point, party-to-party talks between the PFDJ and the NIF’s successor, the National Congress Party (NCP), with the Bejas and the Rashaida tagging along as junior partners. By mid-June, the two sides initialed a Declaration of Principles that outlined the basis for agreements on military, political and economic issues that would be hammered out over the next several months.
Seeing the writing on the wall, JEM forces carried out a surprise attack on 2 May on a government convoy en route from Port Sudan to Kassala aimed at capturing the Kassala governor who reportedly stopped for coffee shortly before the attack, thereby avoiding it. Though the raiding party missed him and the chance to derail the talks, JEM guerrillas are said to have stripped those whom they did encounter of their valuables and then driven off with a small fleet of new Land Cruisers. Whatever the immediate consequences, JEM used this incident to assert its independence from Eritrean control there, much as it demonstrated in Darfur.12
With SPLA units withdrawing and the Eastern Front and Khartoum poised to fight for Hamesh Koreb, pressures built for a quick agreement before a major conflict broke out that would end prospects for a sustainable truce. The government mobilized large PDF forces (mostly Beni Amr) to play the role of the ‘janjaweed of the east’ if war did erupt—a war which would have had to be over quickly before there was a public outcry for international involvement similar to that in other regions of Sudan and because the area is so critical for the country’s road and rail transport and its oil pipeline to the Red Sea.
The Bejas were extremely vulnerable and, barring significant direct Eritrean intervention, could have been decimated in short order as a regular force, though with their Rashaida allies they had (and have) the capacity to sustain a hit-and-run campaign for the indefinite future in the largely uncontrolled area between the Egyptian and Eritrean borders.
Under these circumstances, it is crucial to remember that Eritrea’s involvement is not a simple quid pro quo for GOS support of EIJ. It is part of a strategic outlook in which Eritrea sees its future dependent on control of power levers within its larger neighbors, either at the center or, if that is not possible, through proxies at the periphery in weakened or balkanized states that provide opportunities for influence from outside.
Nor are the Beja purely a creature of Eritrea—as we will discover if Asmara sells them out. In fact, a key question for the future is the extent to which Eritrea will lose control of the Beja if the implementation of this agreement is either not to their liking or that yields a level of economic and political autonomy that enables them to break free of their dependence on Asmara. In either case, a likely consequence would be for the Beja Congress to move closer to the JEM in an alliance with parties in Darfur and other marginalized regions, no longer within the NDA framework.
For its part, Eritrea’s interest in acting as mediator arose both from its projection of itself as a regional power and its need to minimize Sudan’s aid to Ethiopia in the event of another round of Eritrea-Ethiopia fighting. This coincided with stepped up assistance to opposition groups within Ethiopia and to the Islamic Courts in Somalia. It also reflected the rising importance of the northeast to Asmara, as Eritrea’s influence in southern Sudan has waned since the death of John Garang and with the increasing preoccupation of the SPLM with the challenges it faces within the south.
From the standpoint of those in the international community eager to promote a durable peace in the northeast, the single most import objective must be re-engaging the SPLM there, as in Darfur, and working for a countrywide approach to conflict resolution. This should include pressure for a national conference on Sudan (something Eritrea supported in the past as an avenue for regime change, though it has lately backed away from this as it has invested in a tactical alliance with the NCP), and increased international involvement in Sudan through the provision of emergency assistance now and development assistance later.13
Though many have touted the CPA as a potential model for the northeast, as they did with Darfur, Sudan cannot afford continued piecemeal approaches to peace negotiations. Whatever Khartoum has been willing to give away to buy a truce here, such an approach risks laying the groundwork for new explosions in other regions just as the lid goes down on this one. To prevent this, the United States and the international community must have a new strategy, an overall blueprint that allows for power sharing among the contending regions and overall the achievement of a truly ‘new’ Sudan out from under NCP thrall.
Meanwhile, to curb Eritrea’s penchant for destabilizing its neighbors, the international community, led by the United States, must act to resolve once and for al the border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia by insisting that the latter implement the Border Commission’s 2002 decision, however distasteful that may be to any of those concerned. So long as this crisis is allowed to fester, Eritrea will use it as a rationale for finding ways to weaken its larger and more powerful foe through indirect means, much as it has done with Sudan and as we will shortly see through a stepped up insurgency in Somalia whose real target is, of course, Ethiopia.
1 Steve Bloomfield, ‘Crisis: Return to Darfur’ in The Independent, 28 October 2006.
See Dan Connell, ‘Rebel allies escalate civil war in Sudan’ in The
Guardian, 21 April
Interview with Abdel Aziz Dafala, Sudan Alliance Forces, Asmara, Eritrea, 17
4 Interview with NDA Political-Military Officers, Rubda, Sudan, 3 February 2001.
5 Interview with SPLA Cmdr. Pagan Amum, Asmara, 23 May 2002.
6 Interviews with NDA commanders in Belasid, Sudan, March 2000.
7 Interviews with members of the PFDJ Secretariat, Asmara, Eritrea, March 2000.
Interview with the ranking SPLA Political-Military Officer, Belasid, Sudan, 2
9 Interview with SPLA Cmdr. Pagan Amum, Asmara, 19 January 2001.
10 Interview, Belasid, Sudan, 31 May 2002.
11 Interview with SAF Political-Military Officer Tijani al-Hadj, Asmara, 5 June 2002.
‘Darfur Islamists emerge as key to east Sudan peace’, Agence France
Press, 8 June
2006, available at http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/RWB.NSF/db900SID/VBOL6QKEJZ?OpenDocument&rc=1&emid=ACOS-635PJQ.
For a discussion of such options, see the USIP’s November 2005 forum
Insecurity in Eastern Sudan,’ available at