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Story Publication logo March 2, 2006

Q & A with Chris Milner on the Beja's Armed Struggle


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As the world watches Darfur to the West, government harassments in East Sudan have forced hundreds...

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Click below to view Chris Milner's responses:

Q#1: With the Darfur Peace Agreement in rags, how much weight should I place on the eastern peace deal?
Q#2: What is the most urgent humanitarian need in the East?
Q#3: Small arms are obviously the tools of violence in Sudan on a daily basis. What kinds of impacts did you see these weapons have and where are they coming from?
Q#4: Aren't the Beja Arabs?
Q#5: Is this conflict another product of colonialism?

Q#1: With the Darfur Peace Agreement in rags, how much weight should I place on the eastern peace deal?

Thanks for this large and important question. The deal does more for the National Congress Party than it does for the East. I'll first highlight the weaknesses of the agreement and the challenges associated with its implementation, and then we'll see if there is anything in this agreement on which to build.

Weaknesses abound

The peace agreement ends a long running State of Emergency in the East and by this measure is a step forward for the region. However, the Eastern Front went into the Asmara negotiations inexperienced and under-prepared. The Front's bargaining position had also been reduced by the pullout of the SPLA from the East. Relocation of SPLA troops, their heavy artillery and T-55 tanks to the South was completed in June 2006.

The peace agreement signed in Asmara on October 14 2006 reflects these weaknesses. The document offers few concrete benefits to the Eastern Front or the East. The three protocols do not deal with significant issues central to explaining the tension in the East that led to 12 years of fighting.


The first of the protocols to be agreed concerns Security arrangements. Power within the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) stationed in the East shall remain firmly unchanged. The agreement stipulates that no more than 33% of SAF units will be former combatants of EF. The timescale for military integration is extremely ambitious with the first phase of the integration process to be completed by mid-January. Both of these stipulations remove a bulwark against dishonouring the economic and social promises made in the agreement.

A High Joint Military Committee will supervise the ceasefire agreement with a representative of the Government of Eritrea carrying the crucial vote. However, there are questions as to whether Eritrea can act as a neutral actor. Until recently, Eritrea openly housed and supported Sudanese opposition movements and relations between the two countries broke down entirely in 2002. The recent improvement in relations is a significant win for both governments. Relations are set to improve further but the dynamic is a new one; and untested.

Sudan and Eritrea both want the African continent itself to play a more central role in solving African problems. However, the involvement of a third party as a witness to oversee the assessment and evaluation of implementation – for example the AU, UN, EU or Arab League would be a positive addition.

Reconstruction and development

The Government's pledge of $600m over five years will do little to produce real change in the East. If the money is paid on time it will be spread too thinly over issues ranging from from 'rehabilitation of war-affected areas' to 'development of infrastructure'; and from 'eradication of poverty' to 'ensuring the return and rehabilitation of displaced people'. Moreover, the Eastern Front can only be sure of 3 of 11 seats on the committee governing this fund.

The agreement simply does not address the economic marginalisation that drives conflict in East Sudan. Eastern Sudan has rich resources and is strategically located. It has fertile agricultural zones - especially in Gedaref; vast grazing areas; and minerals such as gold, oil, and natural gas. Port Sudan in Red Sea State is the region's only outlet to the sea, making the area strategically important to the country. Yet, the agreement contains nothing more than a set of ambiguous principles regarding rights to the benefits of these resources.


The agreement maintains the political hegemony of the National Congress Party at both National and State levels. The Eastern Front gained just 8 seats in a National Assembly of 450 and only deputy-Govenorships at the State level. The representation ratio of easterners into the civil service is also undefined. Only at the local level did the Eastern Front obtain significant administerial posts. These could be the doorway to real change.

There is also the significant danger that this latest agreement replicates the shortcomings of the Darfur Peace Agreement through it's exclusion of other parties in the region. Representatives of the Justice and Equality Movement, although active in the East, were not invited to join the table in Asmara. If the significant minority of people with Darfurian origin in the East do not reap the benefits of the peace accord, then fighting will return. Although some have called for the immediate inclusion of the JEM into the peace agreement, the danger of this oversight is not yet clear.

So, should we champion the agreement as a step towards long lasting peace? Or is it just the latest performance of Khartoum's disregard for its people?

It is certainly the latter but support for the agreement is appropriate assuming certain conditions.

There are two possible paths towards solving the imbalances of wealth and power in Sudan; violent struggle and elections. The ruling National Congress Party is making profound preparations for the forthcoming ballots and so should civil society and former rebel groups.

From this perspective, the eastern Sudan Peace Agreement presents a window of opportunity. The gains made at the local level must be exploited in the interests of the region. The Eastern Front can and must use the local administrative positions they have gained to create a solid base as a political party, and to encourage and develop democratic mores - just as they have done within the 'liberated territories'.

This process will be a race against time. The SPLM were silenced by the NCP at the eastern peace talks in Asmara. The eastern people will ask what they can hope to achieve with their votes when even the SPLM can do nothing. If conditions continue to deteriorate on the ground, frustrations may boil over into conflict before there is time for easterners to gain meaningful influence in government; and further war would bring with it a humanitarian catastrophe.

Importantly, the Eastern Front must work hard to include non represented groups such as the JEM in their development strategy and encourage them to take part in the democratic revolution slowly taking hold in Sudan. It should also stress the need to reconcile all three of Sudan's recent peace agreements, making them as consistent and inclusive as possible.

Q#2: What is the most urgent humanitarian need in the East?

East Sudan is a diverse region. The problems facing urban populations in Port Sudan are not the same as those facing rural communities.

However, urban squalor in Port Sudan is driven by lack in the villages. Illiteracy reaches 90% in Halaib province, only 20% of rural Red Sea State have access to health clinics, and income is less than a third of US$1 dollar a day. Destitute at home, young people have flocked to the city.

The humanitarian crisis strangling the East is food insecurity. "The boys and girls must come to school, but first they must eat", says the teacher at Telkook school for boys. Without adequate nutrition, any development project will founder.

Malnutrition and malnutrition related diseases are chronic. Global Acute Malnutrition stands at 19.4% in Red Sea State (pop. 724 000) and 17% in Kassala State (pop. 1.5 million), and up to 21% in the Eastern Sudan Front controlled areas; well above World Food Program emergency levels. UNICEF data suggests that neo-natal, post neonatal, and infant mortality in Red Sea State are the highest in Sudan. Anaemia is endemic, especially among lactating mothers and children under 5. Tuberculosis claims a large number of adult males and malaria is rife.

Adequate nutrition would take the sting out many of these diseases.

"Food aid is not the long term answer to the chronic food insecurity, nutrition and livelihood problems in the East" say WFP who "will be focusing on planning interventions that will best assist in providing sustainable livelihoods." Yet, nutrition considerations will play a central role. Food for Work/School/Training programmes will feed local populations whilst creating assets for their communities.

The displaced populations in the Eastern Sudan Front controlled areas and along the Sudano-Eritrean border still need emergency food assistance. "The biggest problem facing the displaced in the eastern area is, I think, food", says Aklilu Lijam, Country Director for Dutch Interchurch Aid (DIA). "This doesn't mean that the other needs for shelter and water are not urgent but at present food aid is not reliable, and it is not enough. Food aid intervention is the priority".

Q#3: Small arms are obviously the tools of violence in Sudan on a daily basis. What kinds of impacts did you see these weapons have and where are they coming from?

As you rightly suggest, even in this age of weapons of mass destruction, the vast majority of all warfare continues to be conducted using conventional weapons: machine rifles, grenades, landmines, explosives, and light rockets. These small and light arms, and the ability to obtain them, are the operational means of warfare.

The case complex, protracted intrastate wars in Sudan clearly demonstrates the terrible hazards of the global small arms market.

This said, although the testimonies of displaced people from East Sudan do include Sudan Armed Forces mobile attack unit activity in the region; the majority of destruction in the East is a result of aerial bombardment. Victims mention 'Antonovs', 'MIG' jets, and 'helicopter gunships'. Forgive me then if I first turn to these instruments of violence.

The school in Telkook lies in rubble. The local community have not finished rebuilding it since it was destroyed in an aerial attack. The bombing has encourages displacement within East Sudan and across the border into Eritrea.

In Darfur, aerial bombardment is used to clear the path for mobile militias carrying small arms. In the East, the main instruments of government harassments have been military and dual use aircraft.

The UN Register on Conventional Arms reports that Belarus (Mi-24B attack helicopters), China and Iran (J-6, J-7, F-7, MiGs), Lithuania (Antonov repairs), Russian Federation (MiG-29 jet fighters), UK and Ukraine (Antonovs 'crop sprayers') have supplied military or dual use aircraft to Sudan. Many continue to do so; the latest UK-Ukrainian deal was approved in May 2004. This list should not be considered exhaustive.

Some form of anti-aircraft missiles became essential for Sudanese opposition groups in East Sudan. Partnership with the SPLA gave the easterners some medium fire-power. The SPLA possessed tanks, heavy armour, artillery, and various medium arms collected from Uganda, Ethiopia ,and Eritrea following military assistance given to those countries by the United States and the Soviet Union.

The SPLA pull-out from the East required by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement left the Eastern Sudan Front without the SPLA's tanks and heavy artillery. And this goes some way to explain the weak position held by eastern rebels at the recent Asmara negotiations.

But small arms play their part too. The estimated 1800 rebel troops in the East are equipped with G3 rifles and AK-47s.

Along the Line of Control, empty cartridges litter deserted villages.

According to Comtrade data, the Government of Sudan has received shipments of small arms from China (worth over $1 million since 2002), France ($750 000 between 2000 and 2002), Iran (over $8 million since 2000). Sudanese authorities provided Comtrade with a trade entry of over $4 million from Switzerland but the figure was denied by the Swiss government in July 2004. As late as June 2004, an End Use Certificate was signed by the Sudan government that authorised a UK firm, Endeavour resources, to negotiate 5000 M973 semi automatic weapons "for internal law enforcement" purposes.

For their part, most of the weapons used by the Beja Congress are those seized from the Sudan Armed Forces. However, Eritrea has provided bases and training in western Eritrea for a wide range of opposition groups including the Beja Congress and it is accepted that Eritrea supplied the SPLA with tanks in the late 1990's. It is, however, unclear whether they offered 'hard' support to Beja rebels. The official line from the Government of Eritrea has always been that they would only provide 'moral and logistical support'. For example, the National Democratic Alliance (of which the Eastern Front were a part) has its headquarters in Eritrea.

Uganda, Ethiopia, and Eritrea all have large stockpiles of cold war era arms resulting from military aid given to the region by the United States and the Soviets vying for influence. The alternating support from the two superpowers left a ready market of arms available for Sudanese opposition forces, later to be supplemented by weapons seized by the SPLA from government forces.

Lastly, but importantly, parts of East Sudan are littered with landlines. The Sudanese government estimate that landlines cover 32% of the country. The original exporters of the landlines were Russia, China, the UK, Iraq, Iran and the USA.

Landlines have had a terrible effect on the pastoralism and agro-pastoralism of the Beja. Unexploded ordinance and mines constrict movements. Traditional methods of coping with adverse environmental conditions are simply not possible. Food insecurity is aggravated.

A Beja soldier showed us some mines in East Sudan. 'Made in Iran' was stamped on each one. Nine different forces planted mines in East Sudan (all seized from SAF bases) but there is no comprehensive map.

I hope that this answer does something to introduce how arms have affected East Sudan and hints at some of the ways they got there.

Weapons facilitate conflict. They are sold to be used.

Q#4: Aren't the Beja Arabs?

The name Beja is applied to a grouping of non-arab Muslim peoples primarily living in Sudan, Eritrea and Egypt. They are most populous among the Red Sea Hills of north-eastern Sudan. The Beja language and customs have survived despite regular Arab migrations to their region.

The Beja are the indigenous people of this area, and we first know of them in historical references from the Sixth Dynasty of Old Kingdom Egypt (2345BC-2183BC), long before the Arab invasion of Egypt. The three main groups making up the Beja are the Bishiriin, the Atmaan, and the Hadendowa.

Population estimates vary between 2 and 3 million. 80% of the total number live in Sudan.

However, there are groups of Arab origin who gradually adopted the Beja language (To-Bedawei) and culture and have been largely subsumed into the Beja. For example, the Helenga of Kassala are thought to be of medieval Arab origin mixed with Beja.

The Beja are not to be confused with the Arab-Rashaida, who migrated to the same region from the Arabian peninsula in the 19th century and maintain cultural and economic link with their ancestral home.

Q#5: Is this conflict another product of colonialism?

Conflict in East Sudan is a result of a large and complex set of inter-related factors that undermined traditional mechanisms for coping with adversity and resolving conflict.

Historical feelings of socio-economic marginalisation, political and cultural side-lining, inequitable distribution of economic resources, underdevelopment of infrastructure and services, and environmental factors play their part in explaining the outbreak of war in the East.

However, you are right to suggest that the colonial experience is relevant here.

Under the Anglo-Egyptian condominium (1899-1955) the Beja suffered from colonial policies which undoubtedly contributed to the feelings of marginalisation that erupted into violence in 1994.

The condominium built upon the policies of the previous Turkish colonial administration. The British and Egyptians expanded agricultural schemes depriving Beja of pasture, built dams that deprived Beja of water supply, seized land in gold rich areas, undermined traditional leadership by imposing an inappropriate system of native administration, and planned towns along ethnic lines (with Beja in the lowest class).

It is certain that the colonial experience contributed to the feelings of historical and socio-economic marginalisation that boiled over into war. A visiting Indian dignitary had advised the Beja to form an opposition movement as early as 1938.

The whole burden for the conflict can not be placed upon the colonials alone. Since independence, it is clear is that successive regimes in Khartoum continued to actively marginalise the eastern peoples whilst exploiting their region's natural resources.

The region saw little investment despite its central role in creating oil export, customs duty, gold, and agricultural export revenue.

Successive governments in Khartoum purged the Beja from the armed services, disbanded their political organisations, and redistributed their land to migrants.

By the late 1980's the East was showing shocking malnutrition rates and rampant poverty. When a newly instated President Omar- al-Beshir told opposition movements that he only understood the language of artillery fire, the Beja Congress picked up arms to fight.





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