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Making Famine in Sudan

Queueing in the Pakor Supplementary Feeding Centre

David Keene, researcher and author of 'The Benefits of Famine' gives the political history and context surrounding the crisis in southern Sudan 1998.

In the post-independence period (and to a large extent under British rule, political and economic power in Sudan has been concentrated in the hands of a northern minority. Particularly after independence, this elite has been able to manipulate traditional religious loyalties to maintain its own hold on political power and its near monopoly on the most profitable commercial enterprises. Particularly when suppressing rebellion, divide and rule has been a key tactic for financially strapped governments (including the British) attempting to assert control over the largest country in Africa. After the Addis Ababa agreement that ended the first civil war in 1972, protection for the peoples of southern Sudan was dangerously dependent on Nimeiri's manoeuvrings in Khartoum. This system of protection fell apart in the late 1970s when Nimeiri began to reconstruct his power base turning away from the south and towards Islamic fundamentalist interests and the Umma and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The military government of Nimeiri faced a growing threat from the supporters of these traditional parties from Islamic fundamentalists as well as an economic crisis that encouraged him to step up attempts at extracting resources, notably oil from the south. The old tactic of divide and rule was revived once more, this time in its most vicious and destructive manifestation. Critical to this strategy in the early 1980s was Khartoum's policy of turning the politically restive and increasingly well-armed western Sudanese Baggara against the south. Many Baggaras access to grazing had been hit by a major expansion of mechanised farming in southern Kordofan and (to a lesser extent) southern Darfur in the 1970s and 1980s. Drought in the 1970s and early 1980s added further pressure on Baggara grazing. Meanwhile, the prosperity of significant northern groups came to depend increasingly on their ability to exploit the resources of the south (whether these took the form of land, cheap labour, cheap livestock or cash exchanged for northern grain).

Partly in order to cut off Nimeiri from his political support in the south, the northern parties pressurised him into abrogating in 1983 the Addis Ababa agreement. Crucially, oil revenues were now to go to central government. This helped to prompt a rebellion in 1983. Facing pressure to repay escalating international debts and unable to afford a large, salaried army, the Sudan government resorted to a strategy of turning the dissatisfaction of economically marginalised Baggara against the Dinka. In these circumstances the arming and encouragement of Baggara militias offered central government a cheap means of quelling southern opposition. The government provided militias with immunity to prosecution for theft, killings and other violations of the law.

Partly through inducing man-made famine, the use of Baggara and Nuer militias in particular offered the prospect of depopulating oil-rich lands and decimating the Dinka, who were seen as the principal supporters of the rebel SPLA. The militia strategy also offered an opportunity to confuse the international community and to deflect recriminations away from the Sudan government itself.

Increasingly through the 1980s the rebellion came to be used by a coalition of politicians, traders, soldiers and discontented Baggara to portray the Dinka and the Nuba and other non-Arab groups as rebels and as people who could legitimately be attacked, exploited and deprived of relief. Raids on the Dinka, Nuba and other ethnic groups often preceded and precipitated affiliation with the SPLA. The desire to exploit Sudan's oil reserves was a critical factor both in alienating the south and in motivating northern militia attacks on southern Sudanese. Following the discovery of oil in 1978, the idea of a 'Unity Region' was proposed in government circles. This region was intended to embrace the major oil-rich areas of Bentiu and Gorgrial councils in the south and Abyei area council (where additional oil deposits had been discovered) and some other parts of southern Kordofan. Precisely those areas (together with the garrison towns of Aweil and Wau which served as a refuge for those displaced by militia attacks) were the most severely affected by famine in 1986-8. This was more than a coincidence. The policy of using militias to create famine led to more immediate economic benefits. These included the profits from escalating grain prices and from plummeting livestock and labour prices. A further set of economic gains from violence centred on mechanised farming interests in areas subject to attack and depopulation (such as Renk and the Nuba Mountains). Prominent among the beneficiaries of land 'clearances' have been traders and army officers.

Famine was a political, military and economic weapon for the government of Sudan and its coalition of allies in civil society. In Sudan, the pattern of famine relief - concentrating on refugee camps in Ethiopia and on government garrison towns in the south - tended to assist the Sudanese government's attempts to depopulate parts of the south (notably, the oil-rich areas). With backing from Mengistu in Ethiopia, Garang was able to unify these ethnic militias to a large extent. However, when Mengistu was toppled in 1991 and Ethiopian support was withdrawn from the SPLA, the southern coalition rapidly unravelled. Divisions within the south were growing. In 1993, African Rights described the SPLA as "essentially a coalition of ethnic militias - a fact disguised by its national political aspirations". The removal of the protection from Ethiopia (and the active cooperation between the Ethiopian and Sudanese governments) posed particular dangers for SPLA forces and commanders near the Ethiopian border. These new dangers came on top of a growing resentment within the south at human rights abuses by the SPLA and at the slowness of progress towards democratising the SPLA as it consolidated its administration over much of southern Sudan. A breakaway faction under Riek Machar was formed in Agust 1991. The 'SPLA mainstream' under Garang was the dominant faction in Bahr el Ghazal, Equatoria and part of Upper Nile. Riek Machar and his 'SPLA United' also known as 'the Nasir faction' and the South Sudan Independence Movement or SSIM attracted support from the Nuer in Upper Nile.

Just as the government has consistently targeted civilians, this pattern has been repeated in fighting between factions in the south. These have repeatedly attacked civilian populations affiliated with their opponents - both to reduce support for the opposition and to get supplies for their own soldiers. The split in the SPLA had apparently removed some of the previous restraint on the Nuer-Dinka tensions that had been achieved with the Anyanya 11-SPLA pact of 1987. It is widely believed that all of the 'SPLA' factions except Garang's Mainstream SPLA have, at some point, received arms form the Khartoum government.

From the mid-1990s, the military balance in Sudan began to tilt back in favour of the SPLA and the other armed groups participating in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) which succeeded in bringing together the SPLA and northern political opponents of el Beshir's military government. The Sudan Allied Forces of the NDA benefiting from Eritrean support became active across northern Sudan from Ethiopia to Darfur. The Sudan Peace Agreement (SPA) of April 21 1997 seems to have been an attempt by Khartoum to divide the opposition, to buy time for government forces that have suffered a series of military reverses, and to end the increasing isolation of Machar. It also offered a distraction from the government's rejection of the peace process sponsored by the Inter-governmental Authority of Drought and Development (IGADD). The Sudan government was apparently continuing with its attempts to turn the North-South element in the war into a South-South conflict by its strategy of arming and strengthening the forces of Machar and those of Kerubino, and indeed by including them in a peace settlement.

Kerubino had been a former political prisoner of Garang, as well as second in command and SPLA founder. He escaped at the end of 1992 and then with assistance from Khartoum and Machar, he embarked, as Africa Rights puts it " on a career of destruction and looting in Bahr el Ghazal". He concentrated on looting relief food distributions and raiding civilians.

Arming and strengthening such forces held out the prospect of liberating government forces for fighting in the far south and east, of blocking the SPLA's attempt to push northwards through Upper Nile and Blue Nile provinces and of securing the oil fields around Bentiu in Upper Nile.

The SPA did not imply peace in northern Bahr el Ghazal. A paramount concern for the Baggara has been ensuring access to grazing and water, and this appears to have prompted a partial reconciliation with the SPLA from 1989. However, in July 1997, Baggara militias resumed raiding on the Dinka, with encouragement from Khartoum.

The GoS (government of Sudan) has regularly banned access to different air-strips. This is only supposed to be done on grounds of insecurity but in practice the pattern of airstrip bans reflects the political and military priorities of the GoS and factions allied with it. In response to a major SPLA military offensive in early 1997, Khartoum banned 334 of the airstrips requested by UNICEF for March 1997. The pattern of the bans was very significant. All except one fell in territory administered by the SPLA/M. There were no flights bans in the area controlled by Kerubino's SPLA Bahr el Ghazal group, and only one in the area controlled by the SSIM.

This discriminative banning was part of a broader and continuing pattern of discrimination in aid distributions. The Nuba Mountains and the Southern Blue Nile have never been accessible to OLS relief. But the government has provided relief to displaced Nuba in so-called 'peace villages', which have also served as centres for the economic and sexual exploitation of the Nuba as well as military recruitment into the Popular Defence Forces (PDF), created in 1989 as a co-ordinated government militia.

The GoS has tried to isolate the Nuba Mountains and Southern Blue Nile from all humanitarian assistance, and they have only had access to limited and illegal cross-border efforts. In northern Bahr el Ghazal in March 1997 - before the traditional hungry season - aid workers found acute malnutrition level in excess of 30 percent. MSF staff in the area reported that the degree of starvation was critical and the whole area was on the verge of a major disaster. The GoS had helped compound the effect of Kerubino on the local population by banning the use of the C-130 (the only plane viable for responding to the scale of the emergency) and by banning most airstrips in the area where the war-affected displaced people were living. Selectively withholding aid has created additional pressures for southern factions to ally with Khartoum. By October 1997, on almost every front, government forces appeared to be in retreat, with army officers continuing to defect to the rebels, and garrisons increasingly cut off. After the fighting in Wau in January 1998, Khartoum banned all flights until the end of the March. Drought was also causing shortages in some area. However, as ten years earlier, it was a largely man-made famine in 1998 which appeared on the world's television screens.

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Reference this page

Making Famine in Sudan. Field Exchange 6, February 1999. p5. www.ennonline.net/fex/6/making