In August 2020, Port Sudan witnessed the worst episode of violent clashes since the first wave of politicised tribal violence erupted in 2019. Women activists recall the terror they felt as they rushed to hoard food for their families and locked themselves up at home as fighting raged in neighbourhoods all over the Southern part of the city. Dozens were killed and hundreds were wounded.
When Al-Bashir was ousted after 30 years in power in April 2019, the roadblock that prevented political change was finally removed, but new problems were emerging and old problems were resurfacing. In Port Sudan, for example, the tribal clashes of 2019 and 2020 had root in the parliamentary elections of 1986 and the actions of the government of Sadiq Al-Mahdi at the time.
It is evident that decades of dictatorship, marginalization, economic impoverishment and ethnic discrimination left the country deformed. So deformed that old conflicts were reignited in Darfur and new conflicts emerged in Eastern Sudan, which had been relatively peaceful for decades.
In May 2019 in Gedarif city, the capital of Gedarif state, a small dispute over water turned into violent clashes between two ethnic groups, killing at least seven. Soon afterwards, the Nuba people and the Beni Amir clashed in Port Sudan, the site of Sudan’s only port.
Zeinab O’Nour who is a lecturer and works at the Women Study Center at Red Sea University, had seen it coming.
“The conflict was constantly brewing, but it just came to the surface , the people of Eastern Sudan didn’t need fighting to victimise them, we have already been dying from hunger, poverty and drought, fighting made it worse,” said O’Nour.
‘People don’t just turn against each other like that’
Khalda Idris, a civil society activist from Kassala state, remembers the conflict that shook Kassala city in 2019 and 2020, with horror. Violent clashes have created a city that is always on edge. She argues that the conflict is much more complex than ethnic grievances.
“I believe that the fighting in Kassala is not merely ethnic fighting, we co-existed with each other for very long and we intermarried, I think this was planned and premeditated by forces from the old regime. People don’t just turn against each other like that. Eastern Sudan including Kassala is perhaps a very tribal region and this made it a perfect place to replicate the conflict in Darfur which pitted tribes against each other,” said Idris who is also a journalist.
Idris sees a larger picture. Insecurity in Eastern Sudan, a region housing the country’s only port, has pushed governors to impose emergency laws and it created a situation that only re-enforces the rule of the military. The military which gave up part of its power to a civilian governor a year ago wants full control of the East.
“They will simply impose themselves as the only force that can rule this unruly region,” added Idris.
The three states of Eastern Sudan have suffered for almost two years. Periodic fighting has led to hundreds of deaths and further complicated the political scene. The native administration has been empowered whereas the already weak political parties in the East have been further disempowered. It is no longer a question of how peace can be achieved in Eastern Sudan. It is a question of which group has the right to speak on behalf of the region and can actually bring peace.
How did Juba come to be?
After the ousting of Al-Bashir, the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC); a coalition that played a key role during the protests, and the Transitional Military Council (TMC); the military generals who removed Bashir and became Sudan’s de facto rulers, sat down at the negotiating table. When they signed Sudan’s new constitutional declaration in August 2019, two important priorities for the transitional period were made: Women’s empowerment and securing peace in the country. The latter was to be secured within six months of signing the declaration.
The peace process began quickly; meetings in September led to the signing of a pre-negotiation declaration of principles between the Sudanese transitional government (STG) and various opposition groups gathered under the umbrella Sudan Revolutionary Forces (SRF). A declaration with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army- North Sudan Faction (SPLM/A-N) was also signed as they are not part of the SRF. As the negotiations began, they did not follow the typical track system that is frequently used in modern peace-making processes, but were broken down into tracks representing the regional entities ; Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan, Central Sudan, Northern Sudan and Eastern Sudan. Some groups protested the track system itself, but there was also skepticism towards the negotiations between the STG and the non-armed groups: Some groups that have never taken up arms in Eastern, Central and Northern Sudan were also brought to the negotiation table. This move created dissent against the talks in communities in conflict areas as well as in the Northern and Central areas.
The issue of representation remains contentious in Sudan and is more about the individuals representing the issue than about their ideas and values. Youth and native administration leaders in Eastern Sudan have argued that the root causes of the problems have not been addressed even though several leaders were able to attend the talks in Juba. Perhaps they also felt that their constituencies and interests were not represented.
A non-inclusive process
Eastern Sudan does not share Northern and Central Sudan’s contemporary political history. What is sometimes described as the forgotten region of Sudan has been a site of armed conflict since the 1990s. Around the same time as the Darfur conflict started raging, groups in the East took up arms citing political marginalisation and economic impoverishment.
In 2006, the now ousted government of Sudan signed the Eastern Sudan Peace Agreement (ESPA) with the Eastern Sudan rebels. That year, three peace agreements were simultaneously implemented; the CPA with the SPLM/A representing South Sudan and the two areas, the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) with rebels from Darfur and the ESPA.
The CPA had several hiccups, and eventually led to South Sudan's secession. The DPA collapsed and its successor, the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (DDPD), also did not achieve peace. The ESPA had potential as it was funded through a donor-driven fund called the Eastern Sudan Construction Fund, but it was subjected to mismanagement and embezzlement and caused disagreement on the ground.
From the onset, Hamdok’s government argued that, unlike Al-Bashir’s government, they had the political will to bring peace. But if you ask women activists in Eastern Sudan, the process has been shoddy and problematic.
Only political parties that were part of the SRF were allowed to join the Juba talks. In Eastern Sudan, this meant that other political parties and civil society groups were shut out from the negotiations in a region in which most active leaders are not in political parties. This setup had dramatic consequences for women’s representation in the negotiations. In practice, only women who were members of the ‘right’ faction of the participating political parties were included in the Juba talks. This came on top of the fact that very few women in Eastern Sudan are politically active due to conservative gender norms.
Fatima Al-Amin, a human rights lawyer and activist in Gedarif haven't even heard about the track representing her region even though she is an active participant in civil society fora.
“I heard about the East Sudan track when it was signed, it was as if our perspective does not matter,” said Al-Amin.
Zeinab O’Nour argues that the weak women’s participation in the Juba peace agreement is not the entire problem:
“Women were not present in Juba, only a handful of women were there and we don’t even know most of them, this is why we saw that the different women issues that we continue to highlight are invisible in the document” said O’Nour who added that the groups that took part in Juba didn’t prepare and rushed to take part without doing enough outreach on the ground.
Khalda Idris from Kassala says that even though women’s participation in Juba was limited to female members in political parties, she welcomes anything that benefits the people of Eastern Sudan.
When it comes to women’s issues, the peace agreement states a 40 % quota for women, cements UNSC 1325 as the framework for women, peace and security, and encourages the signing of conventions that support the rights of women and girls. Yet, it does so without specifying which rights, prioritises girls’ education without making specific demands, and finally, sets forth that the government has to provide primary, reproductive and emergency healthcare at no cost.
Paying for Bashir’s divisive politics
After the agreement was signed, women continued to be left out. The Beja Opposition Congress for example, carried out sessions on the Juba agreement at the Beja Club in Port Sudan. Cultural and sports clubs in Sudan are male-dominated arenas, so again women were discouraged from participating. In Gedarif, a few women activists were invited to attend a presentation on the vision of the people of Gedarif in a consultative conference held in Khartoum, but they did not take part in Juba.
The political parties in post-revolutionary Sudan remain weak and inefficient due to years of political suppression. But Al-Bashir’s government also stifled civil society and denied it the opportunity to achieve real organic growth. In Kassala, Khalda Idris, said that the previous regime usually prohibited women from registering women’s rights organizations. The state-run women’s union, the Sudanese Women General Union (SWGU), had absolute control. In practice, this meant that women outside the control of SWGU could not organize as they lacked the required documents. All attempts at holding meetings or workshops would be rejected unless they came from the state-run women’s union.
Issues of representation led to polarisation on the ground. In Port Sudan, O’Nour said that the majority did not accept the Juba agreement, and so the government was forced to freeze the implementation of the track.
Women activists argue that there are a number of reasons why the process came to a halt. O’Nour for example believes that the absence of active and sustained conflict in Eastern Sudan led the government to not take the Eastern track seriously.
“The groups there don’t have arms, but our problems are deeply-rooted. We have poverty, discrimination against women, hunger and severe drought, those are all potential reasons for sustained conflict,” said O’Nour.
Sharifa Jafaar who also works at Women Study Center at Red Sea University says that the track was rejected in the East.
“The main reason for the rejection is the representatives in the track and not the way the negotiations were led and even the document which in my opinion is actually good. It is unfortunate that the real stakeholders were ignored and that we continue to pay for the mistakes committed by the ousted regime against the people of Eastern Sudan such as the division tactic they used between tribes in the region. They ripped apart the social fabric and people simply don’t and can’t accept each other now,” said Jaafar in an interview.
Jafaar thinks that the process could have ended differently had the local communities been included.
Writing in 2006, Sudanese political scientist Atta Al-Battahani argued that the political leadership “manipulate tribal, sectarian, ethnic and regional interests” for power and short-term interests and the central leadership uses peacemaking to bring “a powerful rival into its coalition, while dealing with other rivals sequentially through further agreements” (Al-Battahani 2006:13). This is exactly what the women activists argue; you cannot solve a problem by creating another problem.
The lack of representation and the STG’s mismanagement of the Eastern track has had dire consequences. Activists from Red Sea, Gedarif and Kassala argue that even though the Eastern track was discarded, the process had already contributed to worsening the situation on the ground.
Khalda Idris claims that one of the impacts is the accusations of racism:
“I don’t reject the agreement because I am racist or against another ethnicity and this is how the anti-agreement movement is now marketed, but I just wanted to see more diversity and representation of all the components of Eastern Sudan. We need to have discussions in the East about the way forward,” said Idris, a social activist.
The failed agreement led to violence. Between August and October 2020, various protests broke out in Eastern Sudan against the Eastern track. In October 2020, protestors blocked the main highway connecting Port Sudan to Khartoum.
In Kassala, the situation was dire. Bloody protests against the appointment of a governor and the Eastern track created a terrible situation. Roads were blocked, shops were burnt to the ground and people were killed in the worst outbreak of violence the city has seen since the 1990s.
“It was shocking. We live together in Kassala, we are together in the market and in neighbourhoods, but the situation in my opinion was escalated by people on social media who spread hatred and also the native administration leaders. I hold them accountable for the conflicts that happened. They are part of the former regime,” said Idris.
In order to build democracy, you have to build people
There is no straight answer to what ignited the conflict. Women activists believe that the violence had its genesis in various factors; widespread poverty, inequality between ethnic groups, the arrival of large communities of border tribes into Sudan driving competition over land and scarce resources, the failure of the 2006 peace agreement, and the immersion of Al-Bashir’s party into the political and social scene of the region.
The Juba negotiations brought to the forefront the fragile situation in Eastern Sudan. The government pushed for a consultative conference to solve any disagreements, but the attempts of gathering the different stakeholder groups failed: While representatives from Kassala and Gedarif attended, the conference was boycotted by the Red Sea state.
Disagreement between the parties is not the only complicating factor. The issue of funding was largely ignored in the Juba peace agreement and is critical to its success. One of the most controversial issues in Juba was the Eastern Sudan Reconstruction fund which brought unprecedented funds to the region. However, women activists believe that the money didn’t reach the constituencies and was instead embezzled by some of the leaders of the East. As much as there were attempts to discuss the grievances that this fund had caused and hold people accountable, this was not made possible in Juba. In 2014, Small Arms Survey reported that some funds allocated to the fund were “diverted to dam construction, a national project.” and that health centres built by the fund were all closed by 2014.
The agreement is now at a standstill. The region is poor and the funds are lacking. The dire economic situation has far-reaching consequences: In order to build democracy, you first have to build people. And without money, this is impossible.
Women activists in Eastern Sudan face many obstacles in their daily lives. In a conservative society, very few women get the opportunity to seek an education and become politically active. Sharifa Jafaar thinks she is lucky. Her father is educated and she has a supportive mother. This enabled her to get an education. But she still sees herself as part of a minority.
Jafaar and her colleagues are battling obstacles every day. As an activist and defender, she uses her social media platforms to share her opinions. But raising your voice involves risk: As violent clashes broke out in Port Sudan, she was targeted for her posts. Her family got increasingly worried as she faced personal attacks and attacks on her tribe and their morality.
“My family kept calling me and one time my sister called me at 6 am, I was terrified that something had happened. She told me to stop writing and commenting because they are worried about me and my children. Even my friends began talking to me about it. I stopped because I have children and I am worried that someone would use violence against me. I retreated from Facebook and stopped commenting,” said Jafaar.
Her story is sadly not unique. Hate speech is on the rise in Eastern Sudan.
Al-Battahani, Atta,. 2006. A Complex Web: Politics and Conflict in Sudan, in Mark Simmons and Peter Dixon (ed), Piece by Piece: Addressing Sudan’s Conflict. Accord: an International review of peace initiatives. London. Issue 18: 2006.