Sudan’s Spreading Conflict (II): War in Blue Nile
Sudan’s Spreading Conflict (II): War in Blue Nile
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Slideshow: War in Blue Nile
Slideshow: War in Blue Nile
Report / Africa 3 minutes

Sudan’s Spreading Conflict (II): War in Blue Nile

The war in Sudan’s Blue Nile state will grind on until the Khartoum government re-engages in national dialogue with opposition forces, including the Blue Nile rebels.

Executive Summary

The war in Blue Nile state has had a horrible impact, with about a third of the state’s population in need of humanitarian assistance, including some 150,000 refugees in South Sudan and Ethiopia and approximately 200,000 displaced or severely affected within the state. It resumed in September 2011 because the root causes – mainly the concentration of power and resources in Sudan’s centre at the expense of its peripheries – had not been resolved by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). The war pits against each other old enemies, the long-ruling National Congress Party (NCP) regime in Khartoum and the northern branch of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) that won South Sudan’s independence, but was not able to achieve as much autonomy as it had hoped in Blue Nile. The conflict’s local and national dimensions are more intermingled than ever, and it will not end conclusively without a truly comprehensive national dialogue between the regime and both armed and unarmed oppositions.

Blue Nile state is a “microcosm of Sudan”, inhabited by an array of communities and deeply divided between “indigenous” and Arab and non-Arab “newcomers”. The area has long been marginalised, its natural wealth mostly enriching elites in Khartoum without them sharing power and redistributing resources. This feature is the main cause of Sudan’s multiple conflicts. Many had hoped the CPA would transform governance, but neither the NCP nor the SPLM focused on the reforms that would make “unity attractive” and prevent South Sudan from pursuing self-determination. Such a right was not granted to the “two areas” of Blue Nile and South Kordofan, and the CPA instead offered vague “popular consultations”. In 2011, the process allowed 76,000 Blue Nile citizens to air their grievances, and the SPLM used this to push for “self-rule”. The consultations were supposed to be finalised before South Sudan’s July 2011 independence, but once that deadline passed the NCP was less inclined than ever to share power, let alone to allow local autonomy.

The SPLM-North (SPLM-N) was supposed to become an opposition political party after July 2011, but it still had troops, which Khartoum wanted to expel or disarm expeditiously. This in particular led to the resumption of war in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. A last-minute deal between the NCP and the SPLM-N, the 26 June 2011 framework agreement, brokered by the African Union (AU) and late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, was rejected by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. Hardliners in his party in particular disagreed with the agreement’s commitment to a national solution. Since then, both humanitarian and political negotiations, with international players confused on whether they should be sepa-rated or linked, have largely stalled.

The SPLM-N in Blue Nile was less prepared for war than in South Kordofan, where the rebels managed to seize more territory and weapons than they ever had during the earlier war (1985-2005). In Blue Nile, they were rapidly pushed toward the South Sudan border and lost Kurmuk, their historical stronghold on the border with Ethiopia. Addis Ababa, a former SPLM/A supporter, has refused to help and cautiously remained a neutral mediator. Even South Sudan, under international pressure, has not proved willing or able to support former comrades as much as might have been expected given their historical ties.

The SPLM-N now has united with the main Darfur rebel movements under the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) with a more than ever national agenda. But divisions remain between South Kordofan and Blue Nile, and within Blue Nile itself, notably over whether the conflict should take a national dimension. Those differences are benefiting Khartoum’s strategy to limit peace talks and subsequent agreements to local issues in order to prevent reform – seen as dilution of NCP power – in the centre. While they partly supported SPLM-N calls for autonomy during the popular consultation, Blue Nile’s political elites, including NCP members, are now critical of the SRF’s national agenda and support a local solution. Yet a local deal is unlikely to address the root causes of the conflict in Blue Nile, which are not different from those of the other regions’ conflicts.

This report is the second in a series analysing the spreading conflict in Sudan’s peripheries. A comprehensive solution, including broader governance reform and meaningful national dialogue involving the whole armed opposition, is necessary to end the multiple conflicts and build a durable peace. Thus, many of the recommendations in the first report, Sudan’s Spreading Conflict (I): War in South Kordofan (14 February 2013) and the preceding, Major Reform or More War (29 November 2012), are relevant for solving chronic conflict in Blue Nile, which goes beyond local dynamics.

Since the 1980s, the state has become a major battleground for the ideological competition between two opposed models: Khartoum’s attempts at unifying and centralising the country with a dominant Arab-Islamic identity, which South Sudan’s separation is paradoxically reviving, versus the rebel SPLM/A’s and now SRF’s agenda for a more inclusive and devolved Sudan. Attempts to resolve Blue Nile’s past and current conflicts thus very much reflect Sudan’s existential dilemma as to how best it should define itself.

Nairobi/Brussels, 18 June 2013

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