A Familiar and Painful Story is Playing Out in Sudan
A Familiar and Painful Story is Playing Out in Sudan
A Breakthrough in Sudan’s Impasse?
A Breakthrough in Sudan’s Impasse?
Op-Ed / Africa

A Familiar and Painful Story is Playing Out in Sudan

As the United Nations General Assembly meets, fighting between the Sudanese government and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM)-North in the states of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile grinds on, displacing entire communities and producing a humanitarian crisis. Tens of thousands are subsisting in internally displaced camps — and 200,000 more have been forced to flee abroad — where their main hope for survival lies in shipments of international aid. Yet, despite two memoranda of understanding signed by Khartoum, rebel fighters and international players — agreements that, among other points, require aid be delivered without interference — shipments are not getting through to those who need it most.

Ten years ago, the situation was nearly identical, only then Khartoum was squaring off against the SPLM, representing the entire South. As the International Crisis Group wrote at the time:  “Manipulation of humanitarian assistance has been throughout the conflict an integral part of the strategies of both warring parties — but especially the government, relying on its sovereign right to deny access to its territory.” The South since separated from Sudan in 2011, but the SPLM-North, old confederates of the SPLM, was left on the Sudanese side of the border and resumed its war with Khartoum.

As always, the victims are civilians caught in the middle. As it did in the South, and continues to do in Darfur, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, the government has sought to use access to humanitarian aid as part of its military strategy and as a bargaining chip, essentially using mass starvation as a negotiating tactic.

In August, Khartoum and the SPLM signed new agreements with the Tripartite Partners — the United Nations, African Union and Arab League — to permit the delivery of humanitarian aid to civilians internally displaced or severely affected by conflict in Blue Nile and South Kordofan. Current UN estimates put that number at nearly 700,000 people.

To date, no aid has been delivered. The current holdup? Khartoum has called for further discussion on the implementation details before Tripartite assessment teams, which are necessary to plan aid delivery, are authorized to deploy. Intense negotiations are underway to try to achieve a breakthrough in the coming week, but international pressure has had little effect.

A closer look at the opponents’ calculus reveals why such a seemingly uncontroversial cause, supplying desperately needed aid to needy people--has been so difficult to implement.

In fighting the SPLM-North, the Sudanese government forces have fallen back on their familiar counterinsurgency tactic. That is, striking at communities’ means of subsistence, so that the SPLM-North, unable to live off the surrounding civilian population, can no longer operate. Bombing cattle or setting villages ablaze might not strike at the rebels directly, but it makes it harder for the SPLM-North to base its forces in those areas. In addition, once civilians are driven into camps in government controlled areas, Khartoum can further squeeze the flow of supplies to the rebels.

For their part, the SPLM-North depends on the civilian population under their control for support. Humanitarian aid could very well be “taxed” by the rebels, and in remote areas it can be very difficult to verify that humanitarian aid is not assisting the SPLM-North’s war effort.

In short, aid has been thoroughly politicized. Even when deals are struck, such as August’s memoranda of understanding, implementation often proves trickier than forging a general agreement. Deliveries break down as the two sides argue over whether a particular NGO is truly independent. Rebel leaders worry that government intelligence might infiltrate aid groups with access to their territory.

The August memoranda sought to address many of these concerns, with provisions to identify neutral, impartial and independent implementing partners and grant joint oversight to the government’s relief and rehabilitation agency and the tripartite team to ensure that supplies go to civilians only. Yet the government won’t even allow a needs assessment to go forward, let alone aid to flow freely.

With aid delivery stalled and a humanitarian crisis looming, the international community should press instead for the delivery of aid from South Sudan — a measure Khartoum has adamantly opposed. Yet, delivery from the South would not be as susceptible to Khartoum’s habitual obstruction. There is also the chance that pressing for assistance from the South would be the push Khartoum needs to allow humanitarian groups already in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile to provide relief to SPLM-North territory.

Unless aid reaches South Kordofan and Blue Nile soon, thousands will die of hunger and hundreds of thousands more will flee to overcrowded refugee camps in Ethiopia and South Sudan. The international community needs to act with resolve and force Sudan to end its cynical use of human suffering as a bargaining chip.

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