Five years after a peace deal was signed to end a rebellion in eastern Sudan, a perceived failure to address the marginalization that sparked the uprising could unleash a new wave of violence, according to several officials.
Although the region has been overshadowed by war in Darfur, the secession of the South and fighting between Sudanese forces and rebels on the border with South Sudan, the east is "a volcano waiting to erupt", a well-placed international official in Kassala, who wished to remain anonymous, told IRIN.
“Beja soldiers are right now in the Hamid mountains, on the Eritrean side,” he said.
Bejas form the largest ethnic group in the east. The October 2006 peace accord was signed by the Sudanese government and the Eastern Front, an alliance of the Beja Congress and the smaller Rashaida Free Lions.
“Unofficial sources have already reported that they organized attacks in Sudanese territory three months ago,” said the official, predicting that conflict on the scale now taking place in South Kordofan and Blue Nile could erupt in Kassala state within a few months.
The prevalence of weapons in the region heightens this risk.
Yassin Abdallah, who manages the government disarmament office in Kassala, told IRIN that an operation conducted after the peace deal netted “guns and ammunition from 598 Beja fighters and 792 Free Lions fighters. This was only some of the fighters at that time, not the majority.
“And the Free Lions are nomads. They always use guns to protect the cattle,” he said.
Ahmed Tirik, a member of parliament, described the situation in Kassala, his home region, as “unpredictable”.
“But if relations between Sudan and Eritrea [which facilitated the peace talks] remain good, the border will stay safe and it will be very difficult for Beja fighters led by Cheikh Mohamed Taher to cross it,” he said.
"Humiliation and tyranny"
Beja community leader Mohamed Ali Adam said many in his community “think that the situation hasn’t improved for them even five years after the war. They have still no access to facilities such as schools as promised by the government. This is an important issue.
“But, since 2006, discussions with the authorities are better. For instance, they gave us the technical support to build water pumps,” said Adam, who chairs the Al-Gandoul network of 30 villages dotted around the town of Kassala, with about 36,000 residents.
This support was not enough for some in the Beja Congress, which on 15 November threw in its lot with the Sudan Revolutionary Front, an umbrella group set up a few days earlier with the aim of overthrowing the government of Omar el-Bashir.
Explaining why it joined the likes of Darfur’s Justice and Equality Movement and two wings of the Sudan Liberation Army, as well as the northern wing of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the Congress said the “misery and suffering of the [Beja] people is increasing due to poverty, starvation and other deadly diseases. The ruling regime in Sudan is subjecting its people to humiliation and tyranny. They are arrogant and killing the marginalized people. ”
According to a recent report by Japan’s International Cooperation Agency, “91 percent of households [in Kassala state] do not have enough food, only 39 percent have access to safe water and the maternal mortality rate has risen to 1,414 per 100,000 births compared with 500 pre-war.”
Humanitarian response is greatly impeded by landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) left over from the war, which is being removed.
“We should manage to clear the area by 2014 as expected,” said Kelly McAulay, country director for the Mines Advisory Group, which says Kassala is the most mine- and UXO-contaminated state in Sudan. “We have good support from the government. And we have got deminers who used to work in Blue Nile and South Kordofan. Now, we have about 80 deminers to clear some 2 million square kilometres.”
Drought has compounded these problems. This year, water flowed along the seasonal Gasch River only between August and September, rather than starting in July as usual. The just-completed harvest is expected to be poor and consequently the region is braced for higher food prices.
“Popular discontent is boiling,” warned Mohamed Dualeh, head of the UN Refugee Agency’s eastern Sudan sub-office. (There are thousands of Eritrean refugees in the area.)
“During the Eastern peace agreement, the authorities talked about development. It has not materialized as expected. The area is poorer than Darfur. If something has to happen, it will start from within the population, and not from abroad,” he said.
Discontent has already surfaced among students, hundreds of whom demonstrated in late October. There were several injuries and one death in these disturbances.
“The Arab Spring pushed people to act. In response, the authorities settled on very strict security plans,” said Ibrahim Omer Osman, local coordinator for Practical Action, an NGO.
“The atmosphere is like in 1964,” said Tirik, the Kassala parliamentarian, referring to the year when widespread strikes led to the fall of a military government.
“The difference is that the government can still ease the situation, if it helps the population to get food,” he said, suggesting failure to do so carried significant risks.
“Eastern Sudan is a strategic area for Khartoum. There is a big airport in Kassala, roads and the [oil] pipelines. You know, the region is big enough to hide in after attacking a pipeline.”
*This story was amended on 14 / 19 December