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Uprising in Sudan: What we know now (November 4, 2013)

Economic Realities: The engine of discontent (Part 2)

By Eric Reeves

November 4, 2013 (SSNA) -- Over the past month the fierce uprising that began in Sudan in late September has largely been quelled by the Khartoum regime’s brutal security forces.  Ruthless intimidation by these forces makes it difficult to imagine a moment of similar explosiveness in the near future, though it is certainly possible.  The “shoot to kill” orders given by the regime—resulting in as many as 300 civilians killed and several times that many wounded or injured—were quickly recognized as such by demonstrators, who responded with well-justified caution subsequently.  Estimates of those arrested range as high as 2,000.  Those thought to be potential leaders were targeted most aggressively.  International news coverage—which lasted for only about a week following the regime’s lifting of fuel subsidies—disappeared.  Politically significant and personally courageous efforts at essential reform in Sudan where either invisible or quickly dismissed.  The regime also ensured that there was a shut-down of all domestic news sources that might be useful to those seeking to depose them.

Should there be another uprising, it is likely to move very quickly with a much clearer sense of strategy and a well-articulated, unifying platform.  Social media were under-utilized by Sudanese, despite early indications that it might be a potent means of sustaining the uprising; this will likely change as well, following the savage suppression that made so much of Khartoum, Omdurman, and other cities danger zones.  At the same time, we may be equally sure that the effort to put down any new actions will be just as bloody and heartless.  Recent statements by National Islamic Front/ National Congress Party President Omar al-Bashir have strongly suggested that demonstrators were and are an extension of the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF)—the armed rebel coalition seeking regime change.  By extension, al-Bashir made it clear that demonstrators would be treated as would enemies on the military battlefield, where “shoot to kill” is the norm:

The Sudanese president Omer Hassan Al-Bashir has pledged to beat off those whom he described as saboteurs, arms bearers, bandits and infiltrators before the end of this year and accused them of leaking information to the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutors. (Sudan Tribune, October 26, 2013) (all emphases in cited passages have been added)

The mood in Khartoum and elsewhere in Sudan seems to many to be sullen, resentful, angry—and wary.  This of course is not an adequate characterization of Darfur, where active rebellion continues and human security remains in free-fall; violence affects the entire region, bringing humanitarian operations to the point of precipitous withdrawal.  Yet another aid worker, the fourth this year, was killed on October 23 (Agence France-Presse [Khartoum], October 31, 2013).  Chaos now prevails, leaving those in the displaced persons camps most vulnerable.  Rape, murder, violent land appropriation, arson, brutal extortion schemes, and savage banditry are the order of the day.  The Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) continue their relentless campaign of aerial bombardment against civilian targets, primarily in the Jebel Marra region (see September 2013 update to “‘They Bombed Everything that Moved: Aerial Attacks on Civilians and Humanitarians in Sudan, 1999 - 2013,"  The UN/African Union “hybrid” mission (UNAMID) remains completely impotent, both as a protection and reporting force.  It is presently little more than the international fig-leaf for the terrible and precedent-setting failure in Darfur of the notional “responsibility to protect” endangered civilians, regardless of claims of national sovereignty (§138, §139, UN World Summit Outcome Document, September 2005).

South Kordofan and Blue Nile also remain victims of Khartoum’s ruthless aerial campaign of civilian destruction, a campaign that continues without meaningful challenge from the international community.  The humanitarian embargo on aid humanitarian assistance to civilians in rebel-held territories in the two states continues, and the number of people facing dangerous levels of malnutrition rises ominously.  Nuba Reports continues to report with great regularity and detail on the consequences of indiscriminate aerial attacks as well as deliberate attacks on civilians in the Nuba Mountains.

As they have for years, humanitarian conditions in eastern Sudan continue to be appalling, though rarely discussed by the international community, in part because of Khartoum’s severe restrictions on access to both news organizations and humanitarian relief operations.  Seven international organizations were expelled without meaningful explanation in May 2012).  Unsurprisingly, a rebel group from the eastern states (Red Sea, Kassala, and Gedaref) recently joined the SRF.

This is hardly a country at peace with itself, or lacking in the volatile elements of uprising, armed or otherwise.

There have been a number of commentaries on the situation over the past month, a few of them useful.  Those that are most cogent and persuasive put at the center of their argument a basic fact: the Sudanese economy continues to implode, and there is nothing to halt that implosion.  This is already translating into terms that are felt on a daily basis by average citizens of Khartoum and riverine Sudan: inflation continues to grow, despite official figures; food and fuel are especially affected by recent developments, including the lifting of fuel subsidies by the regime, which sparked the late September uprising.  Foreign investment is drying up, and that process is likely to accelerate in the wake of the revelation by India’s ONGV that Khartoum has defaulted on four payments due for oil production investment, most recently in December 2012 (Sudan Tribune, November 2, 2013).

Frequently it seems that those assessing the Sudanese economy have failed to connect important dots.  Perhaps the pattern is clearest if we look first at the sharp deterioration in the agricultural sector under the NIF/NCP; this has led to the need for massive imports of food, particularly wheat; 200 million tons of wheat will alone cost the regime some US$900 million this year.  With a rapidly dwindling supply of foreign exchange currency (Forex), purchases of all sorts have become more difficult, and frequently impossible; fertilizer imports may soon become a casualty.  At the same time, the NIF/NCP is mortgaging Sudan’s future by selling agricultural land and land rights to Arab and Asian companies seeking to ensure their own food security.  There could hardly be a more short-sighted agricultural policy.  Given the enormous agricultural potential the country possessed at the time of the NIF coup in June 1989, this severe decline may be the single most consequential legacy of economic mismanagement by the regime.  And its consequences are part of what energizes a popular uprising that if temporarily quiet, will certainly burst out again.

It is too rarely mentioned that Khartoum contributes virtually nothing to the vast amounts of food needed for humanitarian operations in Darfur, whose people are all Sudanese.  Indeed, al-Bashir recently gave a particularly pungent assessment of the response he expects to be given to Western relief organizations, this during a speech in North Kordofan: “If a white man brings you relief, don’t take it and whip him on his back” (Sudan Tribune, October 25, 2013). The fact that so many millions of people in Sudan depend to a greater or lesser extent on this “white man’s relief” seems of no concern to al-Bashir.  Perhaps this explains why last year his regime expelled seven “white man’s relief” organizations from eastern Sudan, where malnutrition levels are chronically extremely high—over the past decade—perhaps the highest in all of Sudan. A more global picture of Sudan as a whole is captured all too well in the UN’s Work Plan for Sudan (2013):

Even during periods of stabilized prices and steady supplies, and not counting those affected directly by conflict, more than 3 million people in various regions of Sudan have neither sufficient productive resources, nor the purchasing power and ability to acquire food through traditional coping mechanisms, nor access to safety net programmes. (“Sudan: United Nations and Partners Work Plan, 2013“)

These are the fruits of twenty-four years of NIF/NCP gross economic mismanagement of a nation rich in natural resources.  When will these desperate realities re-ignite the uprising?  When will remembering that so many were deliberately killed and wounded as security forces followed lethal “shoot to kill” orders become intolerable?  When will there be no “security” sufficient to deter larger, more determined, and better organized popular efforts?  Will the move to support the SRF become more pronounced, as violence comes to seem the only way to remove the brutal tyrants?  Will there be a mutiny within the middle officer ranks of the SAF, many deeply unhappy with recent events and the persistence of the generals in pursuing war in three regions of the country?  Will there be riots over food shortages?  This past week reports of a lack of bread in the capital made their way rapidly through the streets.  We may be sure that there will be no secrets about the impact of past economic policies on current food prices and the general cost of living.

It should be noted in this context that we have no way of knowing the extent to which the financial fruits of decades of graft and theft have been moved out of Sudan by those senior regime officials able to do so.  The son of oil minister Awad al-Jaz was widely reported to have been stopped in Dubai Airport with bags of $10 million in cash.  No doubt some of this cash found its way into the pockets of Dubai officials, who allowed al-Jaz to proceed, thus encouraging more officials to use this small country as an exit portal for wealth, some of staggering proportion.  Associated Press reports from Khartoum (October 6, 2013): “U.S. diplomatic cables revealed by Wikileaks, the anti-secrecy website, said al-Bashir has stashed $9 billion in London banks.”  One would think this might be of considerable concern to British authorities, given the indictment of al-Bashir by the International Criminal Court on multiple charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Once the flight of wealth begins, it will prompt others to move their wealth abroad by any means possible; it is unlikely these movements will be apparent, and may be accelerating even now.  For the shambles that is the Sudanese economy will only deteriorate further.  I analyzed in some detail the causes of the economic wreckage (October 9, 2013), but even in the intervening weeks we have learned much of significance beyond the revelation that Khartoum defaulted on payments due to India’s ONGV.

External Debt

Presidential advisor and long-time NIF/NCP survivor Nafie Ali Nafie, representing Sudan at a development conference in Azerbaijan, an appropriately repressive country in its own right (see Human Rights Report for 2012), revealed Khartoum’s frustration at the world’s unwillingness to help the regime deal with its crushing punishing debt load, now (according to the IMF) up to US$45.6 billion: “Sudan’s presidential assistant, Nafie Ali Nafie, has accused unnamed western countries of using its influence within the World Bank to prevent Sudan from obtaining its rights and pressing other countries to not cooperate with Sudan” (Sudan Tribune, November 2, 2013).

Given the regime’s continuing and highly profligate military expenditures, its manifest incompetence in managing the economy, the extent to which the agricultural sector has declined during the same time this debt was being accrued, Nafie’s frustration seems thoroughly misplaced.  Certainly Khartoum has no “rights,” as Nafie would have it; they have obligations, none of which they have lived up to.  To be sure, the International Monetary Fund has always been a soft touch for the regime (see October 12, 2013 analysis of this perversely enabling relationship); but the reality is that the Paris Club members who could provide the debt relief the regime seeks are under considerable political pressure not to assist a ruthless gang of génocidaires, leaving aside the inclinations of the IMF.

It would be of considerable political significance if those members of the Paris Club with most power declared collectively that debt relief for Sudan will not be considered until there is a dramatic opening and democratization of political space in Sudan, and the wars of attrition against civilians in Darfur, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan are ended completely.  All bombing of civilian targets—and thus all use of the highly indiscriminate Antonov “bombers”—must cease.

Simply to enumerate these basis conditions should signal to Khartoum that it has no hope of debt relief, even as such a declaration would place—visibly—a fully appropriate opprobrium on this criminal regime.

In this context it is particularly dismaying to hear from Washington sources confirmation of a story in Sudan Vision (October 24, 2013):

A delegation from a U.S. company met on Tuesday with officials in Sudan’s Gezira state to discuss investment opportunities in the field of agriculture. According to Sudan official news agency (SUNA) the U.S. company identified as “Treasure Resource” expressed particular interest in cultivating new varieties of wheat over an area 1,000 acres in the first stage as well as establishing new mills.”

And Sudan Tribune reports (October 10, 2013) that Foreign Minister Ali Karti, after his meetings with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, “pointed out that several US companies which applied for licenses to operate in Sudan were granted, which he said is an indicator that investments and commercial relations could overcome political difficulties.”

This would seem to be borne out by a development reported by the Sudan Tribune on November 3, 2013:

White Nile Sugar Company announced on Sunday (November 3, 2013) that it has signed an agreement with the US-based General Electric (GE) by which it will receive parts and services for its billion-dollar sugar plant. 

The economic sanctions put in place by previous administrations and the Congress seem to have become irrelevant by means of “technical adjustments” to the restrictions supposedly enforced by the U.S. of Foreign Assets Control.  The Obama administration has sold its soul in dealing with a regime that candidate and President Obama had previously accused of “genocide” in Darfur, where of course terribly destructive ethnic violence continues to this day, having escalated significantly during the time since senior officials of the Obama administration simply “de-coupled” Darfur from the main bilateral issue between Washington and Khartoum (November 2010). We begin to see more clearly that U.S. investment interests—despite a raft of Congressional and presidential sanctions—are now being put in service of cultivating a more prolific counter-terrorism intelligence relationship.  Perhaps this stealth rapprochement also explains the bland nature of U.S. comments on continuing, deliberate aerial attacks on civilians, as well as the brutally cruel humanitarian embargo imposed on the people in rebel-held territories of Blue Nile and South Kordofan. If we had any doubt, there can be little now that the Obama administration Sudan policy is sailing without a moral compass (see “U.S. Counter-terrorism in Lieu of Foreign Policy: the Case of Sudan,” 29 October 2013, Sudan Tribune

What is clear is that Khartoum’s annual balance of trade deficit continues to be enormous and—without greater revenue from transit fees for oil from South Sudan—will only grow.  Remittances from Sudanese workers abroad provide over US$1 billion per year (see discussion of emigration below); but Reuters reports that the annual goods and services trade deficit is estimated by the IMF (no doubt conservatively) at US$6.7 billion (Khartoum, May 15, 2013).  This is completely unsustainable, even if a great deal more of the export gold the NIF/NCP lusts after could be extracted.

Food Shortages

If people are without food, they soon lose fear as well.  Sudan Tribune  (October 23, 2013) reports:

Large parts of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum have been witnessing a shortage in bread over the past few days apparently due to an increase in the  cost of production following removal of government subsidies on cooking gas cylinders. Last September, violent clashes erupted between demonstrators and security forces in different parts of the country following Khartoum’s decision to lift fuel subsidies leading to at least 70 deaths according to official figures and more than a 200 according to activists, human rights groups, and opposition. Cooking gas cylinders are now priced at 25 pounds ($5.68) from 15 pounds ($3.40)…. [Khartoum residents] also complained that several flour mills have cut production while some bakeries are selling their flour quotas into the black market.

We may be sure these price increases have not yet made their way fully into either the regime’s or the IMF’s calculations of inflation for the country. Moreover such market distortions as have been introduced with the precipitous increase in fuel prices—part of the IMF’s “austerity plan” for Sudan—can have highly unpredictable and destructive economic consequences.

Khartoum’s response when food crises become inescapably obvious is to blame others.  In a particularly vehement outburst, the regime’s Secretary General of the General Administration for Protection of Plantation, Khidir Gibreel, declared revealingly:

[The UN Food and Agriculture Organization] FAO is plagued with politics. He singled out FAO’s Executive Secretary of the Commission for Controlling the Desert Locust in the Central Region Mamoon Alalawi, whom he said is leading the conspiracy. Gibreel said that Sudan will seek to have Alalawi removed from his post over his hostile stance against Sudan. He said that his position is backed by the federal agricultural minister and the president. He claimed that Alalawi blocked a $25 million grant from Saudi Arabia in the form of vehicles and other equipments.  Furthermore, the FAO official sent a spying device to Sudan that is disguised as one used for locust control.

Locusts swarmed across Sudan from the East and moved into Egypt and Israel since last month prompting emergency measures from farmers and governments alike. The head of the pro-government Sudanese Journalists Union Moyideen Titawi suggested in an op-ed last month that Israel is behind the locusts which attacked the country. ”I don’t rule out much that the first and last enemy of our country and our people and our products Israel and its agents [had a hand] in the launch of this scourge on our country in order to impoverish us and strike our production of food, especially wheat, beans, pulses and dates.”  (Sudan Tribune, March 10, 2013)

Rabid ideology will not feed people, and here only makes the regime look powerless to address problems that are of longstanding and may be expected again in the future.

The Long-term Future of Agriculture Looks Grim

If the regime continues to sell or lease or “allocate” prime arable land to non-Sudanese investors, the consequences will be dire.  The money gained now—enriching regime officials and only secondarily helping a crumbling economy—works to mortgage Sudan’s economic future and ensures that food shortages will become endemic. Reuters recently reported (October 26, 2013; translation from the Egypt Independent):

Sudan’s Investment Authority has allocated an area of approximately two million acres for agricultural projects run by Arabs investors, namely from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Qatar and Lebanon. Sudani Investment Minister Sadiq Muhammad Ali said in a Friday statement on Friday that the authority granted investment holdings in the states of River Nile and Kassala, Shamaliya, Kordofan and Sennar.

There are other telling reports.  Some of the worst problems in the agricultural sector are a function of the attitudes of a regime that simply doesn’t care about its people, or the investments required to provide sufficient food.  One telling example:

The Strategic Reserves department at the Agricultural Bank of Sudan (ABS) has acknowledged that the lack of storage capacity in the country has resulted in losing a quarter of grain production in the country. The department’s director at the ABS Fadul Hassan Mohamed, disclosed that 25% of grain production was damaged due to poor storage. (May 11, 2013, Sudan Tribune)

A lengthy dispatch by the Sudan Tribune (March 11, 2013) on the failing Gezira agricultural project depicts especially well how the broader agricultural sector has been betrayed by this self-enriching, profoundly corrupt regime:

The governor of Sudan’s Gezira state al-Zubair Bashir Taha slammed a government law adopted in 2005, saying it has done nothing to improve productivity of the country’s largest agricultural scheme that contains one of the world’s biggest irrigation projects. The Gezira project, which includes over 2 million feddans of land by the Blue and White Nile rivers and employs 130,000 farmers, traces its origins to British colonial times. It initially developed land for cotton through a system of canals. There has long been a struggle between farmers and the government over ownership of the land, as Khartoum wants to ensure it has control over the project in order to make it subject to its economic and agricultural policies.

The Gezira governor, who addressed a committee tasked with evaluating the project, said that seven years after the law was enacted there has been no improvement in productivity, which has led to increased unemployment and displacement of entire families due to the closure of textile mills and other factories that were benefiting from the project. He urged the government to either annul or amend the law, which he said hit production of cotton and other crops compared to the pre-law period. Taha also criticised the fact that the Gezira project’s administrators are not accountable to a higher body, as well as the non-existence of a general assembly to govern it. He proposed giving his state a stake in the project in terms of administration and overseeing it and noted that the scheme has not benefited from development loans received by the country over the years.

The Sudanese government has long pledged to bring about a turnaround  in the project in order to make it the breadbasket of the country and beyond. But farmers say none of that has come to pass due to spiralling production costs which have eaten into their margins, with many were jailed over outstanding debt. Observers say that the eroding value of the Sudanese pound has also raised the cost of imports such as fertilisers and other materials.

“There has long been a struggle between farmers and the government over ownership of the land as Khartoum wants to ensure it has control over the project in order to make it subject to its economic and agricultural policies.”  What this really means is that the regime wants to retain control of revenues and to be able to use the Gezira project, indeed all agricultural projects, as a means of rewarding its legion of business and political cronies.

Macroeconomic Trends

There are larger developments that will govern the particular economic issues discussed above.  For example, the IMF, despite being a soft touch for Khartoum, has decided to use as a small stick public acknowledgement that Sudan’s external debt as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will have increased from 82.2 per cent in 2012 to 87.6 per cent in 2013—a very hefty increase indeed. Generally, however, the IMF seems determined to do whatever it takes to secure debt relief for Khartoum, even if it means misrepresenting Sudan’s past economic performance.  Edward Gemayel, the IMF’s Mission Chief for Sudan, declared recently that “Sudan has a long track record of implementing sustainable economic policies” (IMF – International Monetary Fund: Press Release: Sudan—Meeting of the Technical Working Group on External Debt, 10/12/2013, Press Release No. 13/404).  This absurd assessment is dangerous on many levels—not least as a characterization of the “economic policies” that, in fact, generated US$45.6 billion in external debt.  One may only surmise that a politicized IMF can no longer serve as a neutral arbiter in cases such as Sudan, or even speak the truth.

Khartoum’s Forex problems will not go away anytime soon; indeed, what Forex remains is rapidly diminishing and the only question is how many weeks are left before it exhausts this small reserve (the IMF estimated four weeks ago (October 7) that the Central Bank of Sudan had only eight weeks of Forex in reserve.  When the Forex is exhausted, and Khartoum has no hard currency with which to pay creditors or to buy imported goods or products, the Pound will plummet and inflation will skyrocket.  Qatar reportedly deposited US$1 billion in the Central Bank of Sudan in early October in an effort to stabilize exchange rates; we should remember, however, that Qatar has reneged on its financial commitments to Sudan in the past: this present helpful gesture may be truly only for show.  The Sudanese Pound continues its relentless decline, compounding a number of problems, including inflation and the ability to import (no one wants to be paid in a currency in free-fall, and the “Qatar stratagem” was probably irresistible).  But as the Sudan Tribune reports (October 7, 2013):

Some observers accuse the government of deliberately feeding false news on Forex receipts in a bid to scare the black market into selling its Forex holdings to ease pressure on the local currency. The Sudanese pound is now trading at 7.8 to the dollar on the black market which sharply contrasts the official exchange rate of 4.4 but still lower than 8.2 reached over the last few weeks.

Notably, the IMF is urging even stricter fiscal policies on the regime (what it calls “adjustment efforts”); and this means that, in addition to ending fuel and other subsidies, there must be deep spending cuts (“most of the adjustment efforts will need to focus on reducing expenditures”).  Yet one Sudanese economist estimates that expenditures in 2013 have actually increased by 18 percent over 2012.  This is not entirely surprising given the commitment exactly a year ago, made by the Khartoum Parliament at the direction of regime officials and senior military figures:

The Sudanese parliament revealed on Sunday that the country’s military budget will be increased next year to strengthen the army’s defense capabilities as criticism grows over the failure to respond to an Israeli airstrike that allegedly destroyed an arms factory in the capital Khartoum last month. (Sudan Tribune, November 5, 2013)

This translated into the purchase of a number—perhaps a dozen—Sukhoi SU-24 ground attack planes, with advanced guidance systems, as well as a number of other expensive weapons systems, both air and ground.  It is not clear how this comports with the IMF’s Gemayel in his assessment that “Sudan has a long track record of implementing sustainable economic policies.” 

Gemayel’s account, disingenuously benign and deeply expedient, seems content to ignore the more pressing problems confronting Sudan’s economy.  Having squandered more than a decade of large-scale oil revenues (1999 – 2011)—all petroleum exports were paid for in hard currency or in kind—the regime is now without the Forex to facilitate even critical purchases (the IMF was supposedly monitoring Khartoum’s economic performance as oil revenues came on line; it failed miserably—see October 12, 2013 analysis).  In March of this year, suggesting how relentless the problem has become, “Sudan’s largest flour company has been forced to cut its production by 50% because of foreign currency shortage,” according to research by Sudan Tribune:

Sayga Flour Mills, which is part of DAL Group, relies on Byblos Bank, Abu Dhabi National Bank and Saudi Sudanese Bank to provide Guarantee Letters for the purposes of importing wheat and other production items. Those banks informed Sayga that the Bank of Sudan did not inject the needed Forex supply in their accounts to issue new Guarantee Letters. (Sudan TribuneMarch 10, 2013)

This bespeaks mismanagement and a desperate currency shuffling that seem to have no part in the IMF narrative about Sudan.

The Near-term Future

In the near term, inflation will take an ever-increasing toll on average Sudanese people; the poor will suffer particularly.  The Sudanese pound, backed by no Forex, may soon become worthless in the international monetary system, with unpredictable and severe consequences for domestic inflation (as measured in January 2013, for example, year-over-year inflation for meat was 83.8 percent and 70.2 percent for transportSudan Tribune, January 2, 2013).  Real inflation is already over 50 percent according to economists not associated with the regime or the IMF, and given the additional inflationary pressures which are only now working their way fully into prices of basic commodities, hyper-inflation remains distinctly possible—destroying the currency completely, and the economy along with it.

One consequence of this economic implosion is an increasing exodus of those Sudanese with the means to leave.  A recent poll suggested that 54 percent of Sudanese wish to emigrate (Sudan Tribune, June 26, 2013).  Among these people are some of Sudan’s most talented and well-trained professionals and skilled workers of all sorts—precisely the people necessary for an economic revival.  Reuters reports that for lack of professional opportunities, “more than 6,000 doctors left for Saudi Arabia alone between 2009 and 2012" (Khartoum,  May 15).  Given the desperate health needs of so many millions of Sudanese, especially for primary health care, the irony could hardly be grimmer.  Agence France-Presse reported almost contemporaneously:

Nurses and other skilled health workers are also moving abroad as part of what [Dr. Al Shaikh Badr] called “massive migratory flows” of medical personnel. “The magnitude is of real concern to the Ministry of Health,” said Badr, the ministry’s deputy director general for human resource development. Low salaries are not the only reason for the flight, said Anshu Banerjee, the World Health Organisation’s representative in Sudan. “If the drugs are not there, if the instruments are not there, if you’re trained as a doctor and you don’t have the means to perform your profession, then of course, it becomes demotivating,” he said. Nationwide there were 1.3 health workers per 1,000 people in 2011, against the WHO benchmark of 2.3. ”I think it is hard to find one person in Sudan who is not tempted to work abroad,” said Badr. (Agence France-Presse [Khartoum], March 7, 2013)

The “drugs” and “instruments” are not there because they have not been of sufficient importance to the regime, whose senior officials typically fly abroad for serious medical treatment.  Increasingly there will be no Forex with which to purchase them, and then only the very rich will have access to real medical care.

The May 2013 Reuters dispatch also offered a broader account of the disposition to leave Sudan:

Analysts estimate unemployment is running at between 20 and 30 percent, although there is no official data. [The official rate of] annual inflation topped 41 percent in April and the Sudanese pound has more than halved in value against the dollar since South Sudan’s independence, making life unbearable for many. Nearly 95,000 Sudanese, from laborers to teachers, nurses and engineers, left the country last year compared to only 10,032 in 2008, according to official data. Some analysts say the number is even higher because travel movements are hard to monitor. Net migration contrasts with some other African countries, including South Sudan, that are seeing skilled professionals return home as the continent’s economic development and increasing foreign investment create career opportunities. (Reuters [Khartoum], May 15, 2013)

The regime has trotted out one official after another to speak about new development projects, new agricultural schemes, new and glowing possibilities all around.  President al-Bashir, First Vice-President Ali Osman Taha, Second Vice-President Mohammed Haj, and others have been stumping in the hinterlands in ways we have not seen before, making preposterous claims in all quarters: Mustafa Osman Ismail, Minister at the Higher Council for Investment, claimed that Sudan has “attracted more than $30 billion dollars from across the world” as part of its effort to “boost the investment sector” (Sudan Vision, October 6, 2013).  But for many Sudanese, such obvious mendacity is simply a sign of desperation and, far from assuaging concern, only increases fears that the times are becoming truly desperate.

Al-Bashir may “renew” yet again his “government pledge to implement development projects and provide health services, water, and education in the rural areas to prevent migration to urban areas and maintain values and heritage of the rural areas.” But however much he may promise, these promises have all been heard many times before and won’t do a thing to resolve the vast economic crisis confronting Sudan, one that requires true political democratization to be addressed meaningfully.  Regime officials are simply too heavily invested in the economic status quo.

Powerfully destructive economic forces have been set in motion; their most greatest impact is yet to be felt; when this occurs, we may have a much better sense of the “weather” in Sudan, and how likely it will enter an “Arab Spring.”

Eric Reeves is author most recently of Compromising With Evil: An archival history of greater Sudan, 2007 – 2012; available without cost at

U.S. Counter-terrorism—in Lieu of Foreign Policy: the Case of Sudan

By Eric Reeves

October 29, 2013 (SSNA) -- The Obama administration's refusal to say more than that the U.S. is not now, and will not in the future, tap the official cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel (and other senior officials) leaves us with an obvious inference, already made by many: the U.S. has done so in the past.  While significant in its own right, this remarkable intrusion by U.S. intelligence officials—very likely senior officials—brings into sharp relief the competing claims of rational foreign policies based on cooperation with allies (none more valuable than Germany) and the pervasive, uncontrolled lust for intelligence bearing on counter-terrorism.  In this competition, the U.S. intelligence community is now clearly having its way; and its willingness to engage in such high-risk activities as tapping the phone of the democratically elected leader of a major international ally—as well, evidently, of official and unofficial phones of other allies—is a measure of the breathtaking arrogance with which the NSA and the broader U.S. intelligence "community" understand their role in defining America's place in the world, and even the priorities of our society.

To be sure, competition between the Secretary of State and National Security Advisor to the president goes back many administrations.  But it was a competition that took place, in its broadest outlines, in public, at least on most occasions and in the shaping of broader U.S. policies abroad.  In the present case, it is unclear who knew what about the tapping of Merkel's cell phone: did Secretary of State John Kerry know?  Did President Obama?  Did they approve these actions?  Acquiesce? Answers don't seem likely to be offered in the near term, although the New York Times (October 29, 2013

) reports that the Obama administration "may" "stop eavesdropping on the leaders of American  allies."

But the very arrogance and presumption defining this action by the intelligence community—increasingly opaque and beyond the control of the State Department—help make sense of any number of otherwise bewildering features of U.S. foreign policy.

In Sudan, for example, the Obama administration has known for more than two years that the campaign by the Khartoum regime against the people of South Kordofan and Blue Nile is genocidal in nature—targeting the Nuba and other African tribal groups in these two northern states.  The deliberate assault on agricultural production through relentless aerial bombardment; the destruction of food- and seed stocks; the cold-blooded murder of civilians, including women and children—the Obama administration knows about all this and yet issues only an occasional, largely perfunctory condemnation.  The U.S. has also failed to show leadership in creating humanitarian corridors to the populations in rebel-held territory, upon which Khartoum has imposed a virtually total humanitarian blockade.

In Darfur terrifying security conditions continue in free-fall and wholesale withdrawal by humanitarian organizations could occur at any time, leading to catastrophic human destruction. There has been a virtually total breakdown in security throughout the region.  The epidemic of rape, targeting African women and girls, continues unabated; those who have been forced from their lands and villages—civilians again overwhelmingly from non-Arab or African tribal groups—face increasing violence in the vast camps for displaced persons, more than 2 million people altogether. Arab militias have occupied farmlands as "payment" for their brutal predations, undertaken at the behest of the Khartoum regime.  In the Jebel Marra region of central Darfur, there are virtually daily bombings of civilian targets—not "collateral damage," but the deliberate bombing of civilians thought to be supportive of rebel groups.  These are shocking, unspeakably cruel atrocity crimes, both in their persistence and extent; and the Obama administration certainly knows that they are occurring, or could easily devote the satellite reconnaissance resources necessary to confirm the extremely detailed reports that come from Radio Dabanga.  Instead of a consistently articulated outrage, however, we again get perfunctory condemnations, often accompanied by a grim "moral equivalence" between Khartoum and its numerous rebel adversaries.

What is going on here?  Why not at least powerful condemnations of acts that are war crimes and, in aggregate, constitute crimes against humanity as defined by the Rome Statute, the basis for the International Criminal Court?  Why have we heard the tendentious skepticism about realities in Sudan—military and humanitarian—that has characterized statements by Obama's previous presidential special envoys?  Why in May 2011, on the eve of Khartoum's military seizure of Abyei—the region now most likely to serve as catalyst for renewed north/south war—did the Obama administration do nothing to warn off the regime from this explosively provocative action, even as the military assault had become increasingly obvious for many weeks?  Why did the U.S. not publicly warn Khartoum about the consequences of its military onslaught in South Kordofan, which began two weeks after the failure of the U.S. to condemn in appropriate terms the seizure of Abyei?

Notably, the military action in South Kordofan began on June 5, 2011; on June 2, 2011 John Brennan—current head of the CIA, and a career man at the agency, most recently with primary responsibility for counter-terrorism—was in Khartoum talking to senior regime officials.  We were told by the Obama administration that this was merely coincident with Brennan's travels "in the region." But Brennan had no diplomatic experience, and diplomacy can hardly have been his mission.  With so many warnings about an impending attack on South Kordofan, the U.S. intelligence community certainly knew what was about to occur, and Brennan's task was likely to re-set the relationship between the regime and Washington concerning the provision of "counter-terrorism intelligence" in anticipation of the attack.

To be sure, the excessive value placed on Khartoum's provision of counter-terrorism "intelligence" precedes the Obama administration.  Salah Gosh, the ruthless head of Khartoum's security services and minder of Osama bin Laden during his years in Sudan (1992 - 1996), was flown to Washington on an executive jet by the CIA in June 2005.  Notably, the State Department had been kept out of the loop, as we discovered in a fine piece of investigative reporting that appeared in the Los Angeles Times.  Gosh had been deeply complicit in a wide range of atrocity crimes at the time, but this seemed not to trouble the CIA in its insatiable quest for counter-terrorism intelligence.  Ken Silverstein of the Times reported at the time:

The CIA and Mukhabarat [Khartoum's intelligence and security services] officials have met regularly over the last few years, but Gosh had been seeking an invitation to Washington in recognition of his government's efforts, sources told The Times. The CIA, hoping to seal the partnership, extended the invitation. "The agency's view was that the Sudanese are helping us on terrorism and it was proud to bring him over," said a government source with knowledge of Gosh's visit. "They didn't care about the political implications."

Here we should remember that in November 2010 the Obama administration explicitly "de-coupled" Darfur from "counter-terrorism" issues in the bilateral relationship between Washington and Khartoum. The very public announcement of this "de-coupling" proved deeply embarrassing to the Obama administration, and so we must ask: was South Kordofan also being very quietly "de-coupled" from the bilateral relationship by Brennan?  This would go a long way toward explaining the morally shameful acquiescence of officials throughout the Obama administration.

The U.S. feels it has a lot at stake in its relationship with Khartoum's génocidaires.  A few "missteps" in following international law were not going to end that relationship, Brennan may well have suggested.  Certainly we must wonder about the perversely stubborn skepticism concerning the genocidal nature of the campaign that ensued in South Kordofan following Brennan's June 2, 2011 trip.  Evidence included satellite photography of mass graves, first-hand accounts of ethnic targeting reported by journalists in the area where fighting began, as well as additional reports of roadblocks and house-to-house searches targeting people of Nuba ethnicity.  And in early July 2011 the UN human rights team that had been in Kadugli (capital of South Kordofan) the entire month of June produced an extraordinary report of atrocity crimes committed by the regime's forces, many witnessed by the UN reporters themselves (the report was leaked in a matter of days).

If, however, the U.S. is willing to tap the phone of a major European ally, why should we believe that it would have any scruples about distorting what U.S. intelligence knew at the time of Khartoum's plans and actions in South Kordofan?

The intelligence community would have us believe that they are getting very useful counter-terrorism information from the regime; many knowledgeable Sudan experts doubt this, but of course all is classified and the matter can't be settled.  Perhaps a new release by Edward Snowden will clarify matters.  But for now U.S. priorities seem best measured by the $172 million U.S. embassy that has been completed in Khartoum—and this doesn't include the pricey bits of intelligence and surveillance equipment that likely more than double this cost.  Clearly some sort of quid pro quo has been arrived at secretly for the U.S. to be allowed to build the facility and equip it as our intelligence people wish.  From the standpoint of establishing an ideal "listening post" for North Africa, Khartoum could hardly be better.  And certainly the movement of international terrorism suggests that the migration from Afghanistan to the Arabian Peninsula to North Africa is well underway.

But are we as a country really willing to pay not only hundreds of millions of dollars for this listening post, but turn away from the human cost imposed by the continuing brutal tyranny of a regime that we refuse to confront with real determination?  Change is coming to Sudan, sooner or later, as the economy continues to implode and popular unrest explodes.  Will a new government in Sudan be content simply to ignore our many egregious sins of omission?  That question is at present unanswerable.

Eric Reeves is author most recently of Compromising With Evil: An archival history of greater Sudan, 2007 – 2012; available without cost at

Abyei: A brief annotated chronology—key moments in its history following the CPA

By Eric Reeves


October 22, 2013 (SSNA) -- Greater Sudan's multiple crises frequently work to obscure one another, as well as their often significant relationships.  No region has suffered more from the complexity of interlocking crises than Darfur, but Abyei has also been under-reported and too often misunderstood, not least because the chronology of events is so infrequently recalled.  There is also frequently a factitious "impartiality" in reporting that does more to obscure realities than present a balanced picture of what is occurring.  Recent reporting on the murderous spree in Jonglei State—by what all evidence suggests are elements of David Yau Yau's brutal militia force—have included no references to the source of Yau Yau's supplies and weaponry, even as we have clear and compelling evidence that this source is the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime in Khartoum.  This evidence comes from several sources, including a UN sighting of an unidentified and radio-silent Antonov cargo plane flying directly over an area where Yau Yau's forces were known to be concentrated.  The Small Arms Survey recently (July 2013) presented compelling military forensic evidence that the weapons and ammunition used by Yau Yau originated in Khartoum.

But perhaps nowhere is the lack of an awareness of chronology more consequential than for Abyei.  I offer here a brief chronology of events from the signing of the Abyei Protocol (May 26, 2004)—which would become part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (January 9, 2005)—through October 22, 2013, and the occasion of a failed summit on the Abyei issue in Juba between President Salva Kiir of the Republic of South Sudan and President Omar al-Bashir of the NIF/NCP regime. 

For a brief but highly informed and authoritative history of Abyei before 2004, Douglas Johnson's "The Road Back from Abyei" (Rift Valley Institute, July 2011) is excellent.  So too is his explanation of the Abyei Protocol itself, and the workings and assumptions of the Abyei Boundaries Commission ("The Abyei Protocol Demystified," Sudan Tribune, December 2007,  The language of the Abyei Protocol itself may be found at:

Other recent publications of note include a powerfully argued piece by Tim Flatman in the Sudan Tribune (September 25, 2013) and a series of highly informed essays by Luka Biong Deng, most appearing in the Sudan Tribune.  These offer in detail what is presented here in only the most schematic of terms (see also an "interactive" timeline recently produced by the Enough Project).  I have this past year offered a lengthy timeline of events that includes in greater detail various moments in Abyei's recent history (Annex I of Compromising With Evil: An archival history of greater Sudan, 2007 – 2012,

As Abyei approaches the moment of truth in what was promised in the Abyei Protocol nine years ago, the danger of renewed conflict if terrifyingly high, with the potential to involve not only regional groups but the larger armed forces of Sudan and South Sudan.  Just today the Satellite Sentinel Project published satellite photographs showing unusually high military activity in the military bases around el-Obeid; as the report accompanying the satellite photography suggests, the targets of this military activity may well include not only locations south of Kadugli (capital of South Kordofan) but Abyei itself.  The purpose might be a renewed military offensive in South Kordofan, now that the dry season is beginning.  

But it may well be to prepare a response to the "unofficial" self-determination referendum organized by the Dinka Ngok of Abyei, scheduled for later this month, with results to be announced on October 31, 2013.  The date is hardly arbitrary: in its proposal of September 21, 2012  ("Final Status of the Abyei Area"), the African Union negotiating team led by former South African President Thabo Mbeki proposed that an October 2013 referendum be held in which only "residents of Abyei" would vote, thus excluding the migratory Misseriya Arab populations, who are in or pass through Abyei for a few months a year.  This proposal was ratified by the African Union Peace and Security Council, which has since backed away from that commitment in the face of adamant opposition by Khartoum.  The AU Peace and Security Council had originally committed to referring the matter to the UN Security Council if the northern regime continued to refuse to participate in arrangements spelled out in the AU proposal; all too predictably, this has not happened.

The inconsistent and feckless behavior of the AU negotiators and the AU Peace and Security Council in particular has convinced Khartoum that it can delay the "official" referendum indefinitely, and has already demonstrated an impressive array of stalling tactics.  But instead of calming the situation, inaction by the AU has left the Dinka Ngok of Abyei feeling that they will never have the support they need from the AU, and their referendum must be of their own making.  This aspiration collides with the reality of Khartoum's military seizure of Abyei in May 2011, and the creation of what has become—from a military point of view—a fait accompli.  The presence of the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) is hardly an encouraging bulwark against renewed conflict (a single armored brigade from Ethiopia that has not proved effective in demilitarizing Abyei and has no mandate to protect civilians).  Given the proximity of Abyei to South Kordofan, where Khartoum's Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) have suffered consistent and substantial defeats at the hands of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army-North, it is all too easy to imagine how conflict in the two regions may merge under the pressure of military action by Khartoum.

Annotated chronology (all emphases added)

• May 26, 2004: The Abyei Protocol is agreed to by negotiators from Khartoum and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) in Naivasha, Kenya. The Abyei Protocol specifies, inter alia:

1.1.2  Abyei is "the area of the nine Ngok Dinka chiefdoms transferred to Kordofan in 1905

1.3  Simultaneously with the referendum for southern Sudan, the residents of Abyei will cast a separate ballot. The proposition voted on in the separate ballot will present the residents of Abyei with the following choices, irrespective of the results of the southern referendum:

(a) That Abyei retain its special administrative status in the north;

(b) That Abyei be part of Bahr el Ghazal.

6.1 The residents of Abyei Area shall be:

(a)  The Members of Ngok Dinka community and other Sudanese residing in the area;

(b)  The criteria of residence shall be worked out by  the Abyei Referendum Commission.

There shall be established by the Presidency, an Abyei Boundaries Commission (ABC) to define and demarcate the area of the nine Ngok Dinka Chiefdoms transferred to Kordofan in 1905, referred to herein as Abyei Area.

At the time, the Protocol also designates Abyei as having a "special administrative status."  This was a signal that the two other areas of contention in peace negotiations—the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan and Blue Nile—would enjoy no equivalent status or self-determination referendum, a decision that has culminated in renewed war in these regions and a campaign of civilian annihilation by Khartoum reminiscent of the genocidal assault on the Nuba during the 1990s.

• January 9, 2005: The Comprehensive Peace Agreement is signed, including the Abyei Protocol (Naivasha, Kenya).

• July 2005: The Abyei Boundaries Commission, stipulated by the Abyei Protocol, submits its report, which is immediately and peremptorily rejected by Khartoum (despite having chosen five members of the commission).

• October 2007: tensions between the SPLA and government are steadily rising, as the terms of the CPA are increasingly ignored by Khartoum; this results in the SPLA temporarily suspending its participation in the Government of National Unity created by the CPA. Among the concerns precipitating the suspension were several deadlocked issues, most prominently Abyei.  Presciently, the International Crisis Group stated at the time: "What happens in Abyei is likely to determine whether Sudan consolidates the peace or returns to war" (October 12, 2007).

Many of the problems derived from an aggressive disinformation campaign by Khartoum, an effort to convince the Misseriya that they would lose their grazing rights if the Abyei self-determination referendum occurred per the terms of the CPA.  This is simply not true; on the contrary, the Abyei Protocol is quite specific in guaranteeing these rights.  Khartoum's propaganda campaign persists, however, including through Misseriya proxies who are often well remunerated by the regime.  As time has passed, however, the Misseriya have come to trust Khartoum less and less.  But militarily, they still depend on the SAF to control Abyei; this is so despite earlier commitments by Misseriya leaders (January 2011) to the Dinka Ngok chiefs to negotiate grazing, water, and transit rights as they had traditionally done.

December 2007 and March 2008: There are armed clashes in Abyei, killing scores.

May 2008:  Khartoum deploys the notorious "Brigade 31" of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) to Abyei town on March 31, 2008.  During fighting between the SAF and the SPLA, scores of people are killed, and as many as 50,000 people displaced mainly south to Agok in Warrap State and Northern Bahr el-Ghazal. Much of Abyei town is completely destroyed; Roger Winter of USAID was present shortly after the fighting and declared that, "the town of Abyei has ceased to exist"  (

June 2008: Khartoum and Juba agree to refer the issue of Abyei's boundaries to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (The Hague).

July 2009: The Permanent Court of Arbitration rules on Abyei in a way quite favorable to Khartoum: Abyei is considerably reduced in geographical size, and in  the process the highly productive oil sites at Heglig and Bamboo are moved beyond Abyei's boundaries (only the weakly productive Diffra site remains in Abyei, representing less than two percent of total oil production at the time).  Notably, the PCA rules only on the boundaries of Abyei; it makes no further determination about any other boundary issue, including the 1956 North/South boundary, which is the cartographic touchstone throughout the CPA.

Abyei is currently approximately 10,500 square kilometers, or just over 4,000 square miles (almost the size of the U.S. state of Connecticut).  The PCA ruling was accepted by both Juba and Khartoum as "final and binding."

July 2010: Salah Gosh, former head of the powerful National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) and also at the time a senior member of the NIF/NCP regime, declares that the Abyei issue is still not resolved: "The Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling did not resolve the dispute."  It is clear that even with a favorable ruling from the PCA Khartoum had no intention of allowing the Abyei crisis to be resolved (  Many wondered of course just what "final and binding" means to the NIF/NCP.

Fall 2010 - 2011:  Sensing that the "Abyei problem" may compromise the self-determination referendum in South Sudan in January 2011, the international community—led by the U.S. and the African Union—begins a slow but unmistakable abandonment of real commitment to an Abyei self-determination referendum, despite its status as a key element of the CPA.  The voices from the U.S. are most explicit, and thus destructive (see here especially Douglas Johnson's incisive criticism of U.S. diplomacy in "The Road back from Abyei").  Senator John Kerry, now Secretary of State, said of Abyei at the critical moment that "a few hundred square miles cannot be allowed to stand in the way of progress when the fate of millions of people is at stake," referring to the January 2011 self-determination vote in South Sudan (Reuters [Khartoum], October 25, 2010) (again, Abyei is approximately 4,000 square miles in size even after the PCA ruling).

The message from the U.S. to Juba was clear: "compromise on Abyei, or we won't support you as vigorously."  Declaring that now is the time for "compromise" on both sides, U.S. special envoy Scott Gration insists in October 2010—just days before an aborted meeting in Addis Ababa scheduled to discuss Abyei—that,

"There's no more time to waste The parties must be prepared to come to Addis with an attitude of compromise [over Abyei]. The entire world is watching and will make judgments based on how the parties approach these talks, on how they act in the next couple of months." ( ) 

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted that,

"Most urgently, the parties [Khartoum and the southern leadership] must make the tough compromises necessary to settle the status of Abyei." (

This stunning failure to understand just how much the South had already compromised over Abyei virtually ensures that violence around Abyei and elsewhere would continue (Khartoum actually bombs Southern territory at the time of the January 2011 referendum—sending a potent signal).

January 2011 – May 21, 2011: Continual reports from the region, as well as extensive satellite reconnaissance by the Satellite Sentinel Project reveal a clear movement of SAF forces toward positions from which Abyei may easily be seized militarily.  A number of Dinka Ngok villages are targeted by both the SAF and its Misseriya Arab militia allies (e.g., Todach, Maker Abior, and others).  Encountering no serious international resistance to or even criticism of these military actions, SAF generals create a factitious casus belli on May 21 and in the space of two days seize all of Abyei, including Abyei town in the south of the region.  Some 120,000 Dinka Ngok are forced to flee to South Sudan.  Tens of thousands remain displaced to this day; tens of thousands of others live in Abyei but only in the most tenuous and makeshift of conditions.

The lack of vigorous and consequential objection to Khartoum's actions has made it inevitable that Juba accept in place of withdrawal by Khartoum's forces a new UN peace support mission (UN Interim Security Force for Abyei, UNISFA).  The force is authorized by the Security Council in June 2011, and takes the form of a very partially effective, significantly under-manned Ethiopian armored brigade.  Despite the presence of UNISFA, military and militia units allied with Khartoum remain in Abyei, especially in the northern region.  Moreover, UNISFA has no UN civilian protection mandate or human rights reporting responsibilities—terms insisted upon by Khartoum. 

Russia reiterates at this moment its proposal to partition Abyei, with the southern part going to South Sudan but the northern part going to Khartoum.  This is but another version of what is for Juba a completely unacceptable "compromise."  It will undoubtedly become Khartoum's fallback position, if only because the regime knows Juba's attitude to the proposal.

Abyei had effectively been annexed to the north, where al-Bashir and other senior NIF/NCP officials claimed it had always been and would always be.  Militarily, the situation was a fait accompli; Khartoum is prepared to wait out UNISFA before taking full military control.

[For a more detailed discussion of issues and responses in late 2010, see my discussion of the Abyei crisis in "Encouraging Khartoum: South Sudan Victimized by 'Moral Equivalence,'" Sudan Tribune, December 21, 2010,]

June 5, 2011:  Encouraged by the lack of vigorous response to the military seizure of Abyei, the SAF launches a brutal campaign in South Kordofan, one that quickly becomes genocidal in nature in its assault on the Nuba people.  On September 1, 2011, still facing no strenuous international response or reaction, the SAF launches its military assault on Blue Nile.

June 27, 2011: The UN Security Council adopts Resolution 1990, authorizing UNISFA; its initial mandate is for six months—almost two and a half years ago.

2011 – 2013:  The Dinka Ngok displaced militarily from their homeland have not for the most part recovered their lands and livelihoods; humanitarian access is limited by Khartoum to the southern part of Abyei.

September 21, 2012:  The AU proposes formally a detailed plan for Abyei that envisions a referendum in which only "permanent residents" will be allowed to vote (  The AU proposal further specifies that to be "resident" one must have "permanent abode in the Abyei area."  The proposal—entirely consistent with the original Abyei Protocol (2004)—is endorsed by the African Union Peace and Security Council.  There is even an implicit threat of referral to the UN Security Council should Khartoum not accept the plan.  Khartoum holds fast in refusing, however, and the AU blinks.

January 27, 2013: The African Union Peace and Security Council reaffirms its support for the Abyei referendum as outlined in the September 21, 2012 proposal by African Union mediators:

The Peace and Security Council of the African Union (AU), at its 353rd meeting held at the level of Heads of State and Government, on 25 January 2013, adopted the following decision on the situation between the Republic of Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan…

Reaffirms that the Proposal submitted by the AUHIP, on 21 September 2012, on the Final Status of the Abyei Area represents a fair, equitable and workable solution to the dispute, which takes into account existing agreements and antecedents, as well as the needs and interests of the communities on the ground.

May 4, 2013: Misseriya militia kill Kuol Deng Kuol, Paramount Chief of the Dinka Ngok.  For many Abyei residents, those displaced, and those in the diaspora, this is the last straw: the killing of a good and thoughtful man while traveling in Abyei in an effort to bridge gaps in understanding between Dinka and Misseriya.  This has become the prism through which many now view the Abyei crisis; it has given tremendous energy and commitment to the holding of an "unofficial" Abyei self-determination referendum, one that has brought people of the region home from as far away as Australia.  For a detailed account of the form this referendum will take, see Asharq Al-Awsat (London), October 21, 2013,

It should be noted that there have been many additional killings, lootings, and burnings in Abyei, a fact noted by South Sudan's Foreign Minister Nhial Deng:

"The killing of [the] chief was not just an incident. It was preceded by reports of regular killings in the area. The list of those who have been killed has been filed and the United Nations has the details and we believe the killing of the chief will not be taken lightly nor [do] we expect the international community to consider [Kuol's death] a normal thing or usual business … We hold the government of Sudan responsible because those who killed the chief are under the control of the government of Sudan. They are no stranger to Sudan," he added. (Sudan Tribune, May 8, 2013) (for further details, see Sudan Tribune, May 4, 2013,

October 21, 2013: The African Peace and Security Council (yet again) "reiterates"

…its earlier communiqués and press statements on the issue of Abyei, including its acceptance of the Proposal submitted by the AU High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP), on 21 September 2012, as representing a fair, equitable and workable solution to the dispute between the two countries, which takes into account existing Agreements entered into by the Parties, as well as the needs and interests of the communities on the ground. Council called on the two countries to resume their discussions on the final status of Abyei on the basis of the AUHIP Proposal, bearing in mind the need to ensure that Abyei serves as a bridge between Sudan and South Sudan, as envisaged in the Abyei Protocol of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

Despite a proposal that is "fair, equitable, and workable," the AU can't do more than bring itself to call on Juba and Khartoum to "resume discussions on the final status of Abyei."  But the "final status of Abyei" was precisely what the September 2012 AU proposal settled.  This not a plea for more reasonable discussion, but a desperate play for time by an irresolute body that has no will to confront the regime in Khartoum.  It is an effort to forestall even the unofficial referendum, which is—in any form—almost three years belated: "[The AU Peace and Security Council urges] the Parties to refrain from any unilateral action and statement that may impede progress towards the search for a lasting solution."  But it is precisely because of such dithering and disingenuousness that the AU has made no progress whatsoever in convincing Khartoum to accept the proposal, which the regime adamantly rejects.  If we are looking for an example of unjustified "unilateral" action, we should of course look no further than Khartoum's May 2011 military seizure of Abyei.

October 21, 2013: In a blunt effort to put more pressure on Juba, the Wall Street Journal reports (October 21): "[A] spokesman for Sudan's foreign ministry Rabie Abdelaty said that Khartoum may be forced to exert more pressure on its landlocked neighbor, including blocking oil exports, "should the two nations fail to agree on Abyei."

October 22, 2013: A summit meeting between Kiir and al-Bashir in Juba, widely believed to have Abyei as its overwhelming concern, yields nothing of substance.  This will gives strong impetus to the self-organized referendum by the Dinka Ngok. 

The Future

What does this brief retrospective suggest about the future of Abyei?  On October 22, 2013, the Satellite Sentinel Project released satellite photography with alarming implications:

DigitalGlobe imagery confirms increased troop movements and a significant buildup of ground and air materiel at several military installations [particularly in and around el-Obeid and Kadugli].

These indicators together point to a potential military campaign threatening vulnerable communities in the region. When considered along with the recent destruction of Buram Bridge in South Kordofan, this buildup suggests a possible new offensive, even before the rainwaters subside. Since the strategic advantage from destroying the Buram Bridge would be limited once the river dries, the Satellite Sentinel Project's analysts warn that an offensive might come earlier than expected. Increased aerial assets could also play a role in an offensive against the disputed Abyei region, where the Ngok Dinka community is planning a unilateral referendum.

The number of tanks has more than tripled at El Obeid Headquarters Garrison, and the number of heavy equipment transporters and armored personnel carriers has grown, signaling a level of activity that has not been observed in the past year. A sequence of DigitalGlobe images collected between October 2 and 12, 2013 at El Obeid West show the massing and departure of a military convey. The Satellite Sentinel Project is issuing a human security warning for civilians living in Buram, Tess, and other areas to the south of Kadugli in Sudan’s South Kordofan state. Re-positioned aerial assets also place the highly contested Abyei area within range of the Sudanese army's arsenal. 

This is the context in which to understand a series of bellicose and extravagantly tendentious statements from Khartoum and its surrogates:

The former [Khartoum-backed] official of Abyei administration [Mac Yak Kor] further urged the Sudanese government to take precautionary security measures to protect civilians there in the event of any problem with "SPLM groups." (Sudan Tribune, October 19, 2013)

And Khartoum's UN ambassador ominously claimed on May 29th of this year:

Daffa-Alla Elhag Ali Osman said the Comprehensive Peace Agreement clearly stipulated that Abyei was an integral part of the territory of Sudan, and that all its people were Sudanese citizens. Moreover, Sudan was responsible for protecting them until the final status was decided. (UN document at

There is a political reason for this transparent mendacity; and an astute political assessment of the implications of Khartoum's willingness to use all necessary means not to "lose" Abyei has been offered by John Ashworth (UN IRIN [Nairobi], October 10, 2013):

"Perhaps the most valuable commodity in Abyei now is political capital: neither Juba nor Khartoum can afford to lose what has become a zero-sum game," [said Ashworth].  In terms of natural resources, water (notably the River Kiir, also known as the Bahr al-Arab), pasture and some arable land are Abyei's main assets. For South Sudan, and most Ngok Dinka, Abyei is historically and culturally part of the south, as well as a cause the Juba government uses to unite its disparate peoples. 

In addition, the Ngok Dinka link their physical security to being part of South Sudan. Their right to hold a referendum is enshrined in the CPA.  For his part, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, already criticized for having "lost" the south to the "enemy," is facing widespread social unrest and "determined that no other parts of Sudan are lost on his watch," said Ashworth. Nor can Bashir afford to antagonize the Misseriya, who have already spoken out against Khartoum's perceived failure to fully protect their interests.

Does the African Union understand this political dynamic?  Its negotiators and Peace and Security Council give no sign that they do.

What should be done?

African Union dithering has likely lost all opportunity to create a "soft border" of Abyei, possibly serving as a model for the entire North/South border.  But the idea has much support in many quarters, and is perhaps best articulated by Jérôme Tubiana:

"This [a referendum determined purely by numbers] puts Abyei at risk of becoming an encysted problem like Western Sahara," he said, adding that crisis-easing options such as power-sharing were almost impossible to invoke now because a referendum had been promised to the Ngok Dinka and even, via the CPA, agreed to by Khartoum. 

"The real question is whether the border needs to be an ethnic one. Why can't a Dinka be a Sudanese citizen, a Misseriya a South Sudanese? This question goes beyond Abyei area and extends on all parts of the new border. The AU insists on this border being a 'soft border.' Now it's time to give substance to this idea, and define which kind of freedoms should be given to the people living on both sides: freedom of movements, of trade, to vote, dual citizenship.  Everything should be open to discussion, and Abyei, rather than the deadlock it is, should be turned into a model for this soft border.

"These discussions should involve more than just the governments, but engage the border communities, including the Ngok Dinka and the Misseriya in Abyei."  In a recent report, Kush, a Juba-based peace-building NGO, advocated a similar pan-out from the referendum, warning that a mere ballot was unlikely to resolve animosity on the ground. Barely 10 percent of displaced Ngok Dinka surveyed by Kush thought a peaceful resolution of the crisis was likely.  Without radical changes to the area's "security, economy, governance, rule of law, and the overall social wellbeing of the population," lasting peace will elude Abyei, the report argued. (UN IRIN [Nairobi]. October 10, 2013)

That this proposal for a "soft border" now has so little chance of success is a function of Khartoum's relentless move southward over a period of decades and the regime's adamant refusal to compromise—even as the Dinka Ngok and Juba are being pressured by many to give up entirely on the idea of an Abyei that has a chance to break free from Khartoum's domination (here it might be noted that Abyei was promised a self-determination referendum by the 1972 Addis Ababa peace agreement that ended Sudan's first civil war; the referendum was never allowed).  Diplomatic malfeasance has abounded; reasonable proposals have been ignored; and the end result is that Abyei is on the verge of becoming the catalyst for greater Sudan's third North/South war in the past half century.

Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College and has published extensively on Sudan; his most recent book is Compromising With Evil: An archival history of greater Sudan, 2007 – 2012, available at no cost: www.CompromisingWithEvil.

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