‘When the Janjaweed attacked our village, they came shooting and burning from all directions,’ rape victim Jamila Bochra Moham told a reporter in the summer of 2006. ‘I tried to run away, but they told me to stop or they would kill me. I was raped by five armed men. I saw other women raped and many people killed, including my mother and my mother-in-law. They were thrown into a fire while they were still alive, right in front of me.’ 1Steve Bloomfield, ‘Crisis: Return to Darfur’ in The Independent, 28 October 2006.

This scenario, drawn from the civil war in Darfur in early 2006, could have taken place in any one of a number of marginalized regions in this chronically unstable, conflict-ridden country over the past half-century and almost certainly did (de Waal and Flint, 2006; de Waal and Ajawin, 1995; Human Rights Watch, 1996, 1999, 2004; Prunier, 2005). However, such incidents in Darfur, occurring on a regular basis and generating moral outrage around the world when they are covered by the media (though precious little action to halt them), are usually presented as if they were somehow unique to this region, elements of a stark human tragedy that has spun out of control as a fanatical militia known as the janjaweed has run amok. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

Khartoum piloted the use of local militias to divide its opposition and to decimate civilian populations thought to sympathize with its opponents in the mid-1980s under Sadiq al-Mahdi—first in the south, then in the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile. In 2003, 14 years after the National Islamic Front seized power, the strategy was used in the counterinsurgency in Darfur. This led to charges of ‘genocide’ there that echoed those leveled at the NIF government in the 1990s in Nuba—but  with as little practical impact in Darfur as had been the case in Nuba (de Wall and Ajawin, 1995). Meanwhile, away from the spotlight, the people of the northeast were also subject to such assaults by regular army troops and by paramilitary forces backed by the government, as I personally witnessed in a series of visits to rebel-held areas there since 1996.

That this pattern held for the conflict in the northeast will not be news to anyone who has followed the unfolding crises in Sudan, but it is important to start with this recognition and look at the northeast’s commonality with other conflict areas across Sudan both to understand the regional and national currents that shape the tensions there and to focus on what is needed to resolve them in a lasting manner so that conflict does not erupt in the future with the sort of ferocity it has done elsewhere. At the same time, however, we need to be aware that the northeast is distinctive—in terms of who the actors are, what they need (or perceive themselves to need), how they are internally organized, how regional considerations affect them and the crisis of which they are a part, and more. And we need to pay attention to both aspects—commonality and difference—as we consider what the scope of the problem is, how it relates to national and regional tensions and crises, and what would be appropriate responses and effective interventions to limit conflict and promote stability.

I come to this issue via three decades of experience in Eritrea, much of which involved engagement with and travel across northeast Sudan, and through direct engagement with rebel groups in Sudan since the mid-1990s, including numerous visits to the northeastern front with members of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), several trips to the south with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), one trip to the Nuba Mountains with SPLM/A, and one visit to the Blue Nile region with the Sudan Alliance Forces (SAF). My last tour of rebel-held areas in northeastern Sudan came in June 2002. Much of what I have to say about the current situation is seen through this filter. I start by highlighting broad contextual points on the Bejas and the development of their armed militia, the Beja Congress, and go from there to present insights gleaned on my trips to the NDA base area in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Civil war(s): Setting the stage

Sudan has been at war with itself since the day it emerged from colonial rule. In fact, fighting between north and south actually broke out before the formal transfer of power from London to Khartoum in 1956, for conflict was built into the structure of the new state. Glaring inequalities between the two regions—administered separately by the British out of Khartoum and Nairobi—were institutionalized from the outset with political power and control of the country’s extensive natural resources, as well as decisions over education policy, language and cultural identity, centered in the north. Southerners, denied a viable forum to contest the inequities, took up arms in a pattern that has set the tone for relations between the riverine rulers and the rest of the country ever since (Lesch, 1999).

The initial phase of the north-south civil war halted in 1972 under an agreement mediated by Ethiopia’s emperor Haile Selassie that gave southerners limited regional autonomy, but the accord did not hold. Fighting resumed little more than a decade later when Gen. Jaafar al-Nimeiri, who had signed the Addis Ababa agreement, unilaterally dissolved the regional government after receiving confirmation of extensive oil reserves there. When the self-declared imam imposed Islamic shari’a law throughout the country later that year, southerners joined the opposition in droves. The renewed revolt was led by the SPLM/A, which quickly captured much of the southern third of the country. Nimeiri was overthrown in 1985, but the civilian government elected a year later did little to change the country’s basic policies, and it, too, lost ground in the conflict. At last, faced with a collapsing economy and rising political protest, Sadiq al-Mahdiís government offered to compromise. However, days before a truce was to be signed in 1989 that would have suspended the controversial application of shari’a, Mahdi was deposed by Gen. Omar al-Bashir, who seized power on behalf of the National Islamic Front (NIF).

The new regime quickly banned all political parties, trade unions and other ‘nonreligious institutions.’ It went on to impose tight controls on the press and strict dress and behavior codes on women as it moved to restructure the entire society in its image. More than 78,000 people were purged from the army, police and civil administration, thoroughly reshaping the state apparatus, while dissidents were routinely detained in torture centers. Conscription of child soldiers became widespread, and long dormant forms of slavery grew in scope and frequency, as the government encouraged tribal militias, developed under the Mahdi regime, to raid rebel-held areas for booty and captives and, in doing so, to act as proxies for the regime in the stepped-up counterinsurgency.

To facilitate its larger project, the NIF merged religious indoctrination and conversion with education, social services, economic development and political mobilization. It used the paramilitary Popular Defense Forces to enforce Arabisation and Islamisation along narrowly sectarian lines. This provoked many Muslims from other regions of Sudan to join the opposition, which gelled in the mid-1990s into a multi-ethnic, secular coalition, the National Democratic Alliance, whose largest armed contingent was the SPLM/A, but which also brought in new forces from the west, center and north. Though the NIF government scored major military successes in the south in its early years, the tide began to turn toward the middle of the 1990s, and in January 2005 the two sides finally signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that halted the fighting there after claiming more than a million lives, just as it began to erupt Elsewhere—a coincidence that hardly needs comment.

Thus, what had started as a conflict between the Arabised, Islamic north and the non-Muslim African south in the 1950s evolved over a half-century into a fight between the forces holding power at the country’s center and a diverse array of peoples and political groups—Muslims, Christians and animists alike—who were challenging the government from the periphery. In the north-east, the fight was waged from the late 1990s until this year by the NDA, within which the SPLM was by far the largest, best equipped and disciplined military force. Other alliance members representing national or at least multi-regional constituencies, though smaller, ran the political gamut from the traditional Islamic sect-based movements shouldered aside by the ruling National Islamic Front to the Sudan Communist Party and a group led by disaffected military officers, the Sudan Alliance Forces. Two NDA member organizations drew their support from local Populations—the Beja Congress and the Rashaida Free Lions. These latter two formed the Eastern Front in 2005 after the SPLM/A signed the peace agreement with Khartoum.

During the last half of the 1990s, NDA forces had managed little more than sporadic ambushes and small surprise attacks, often fleeing east into Eritrea when pursued. By the end of the decade, however, they were fighting for the most part under joint command, and their attacks had escalated to the point where they were able to hold a swathe of territory along the Eritrea border, including the important religious center at Hamesh Koreb, and to briefly capture and hold the provincial capital of Kassala. This was accomplished after rebel leaders agreed to combine their forces under a unified command structure in 2001, which the SPLM augmented by redeploying almost 8,000 soldiers from the south.

However, with the signing of the CPA between Khartoum and the SPLM/A in January 2005, the NDA began to crumble, leaving the Bejas and the Rashaidas to fend for themselves in the northeast under the banner of the newly formed Eastern Front—but for the fact that they were not really alone. Eritrea had all along been deeply implicated in their military and political development and, in mid-2006, Asmara took center stage in proposing to ‘mediate’ a peace agreement there. That the Eritreans succeeded in defusing the conflict within a matter of a few months and presided over the signing of a regional pact to end the fighting by October 2006 is testimony to the hold it had over the combatants more than to its negotiating prowess, seemingly showcased here but entirely absent in its own row with Ethiopia.

An escalation of the fighting, as had been widely feared prior to the Eritrean intervention, would have pitted the Government of Sudan and its proxies in the paramilitary Popular Defense Forces not only against the Beja Congress and the Free Lions, but also the regional wing of the Justice and Equality Movement, just as it was becoming prominent in Darfur (and was not a party to the Eritrean-mediated pact in the northeast, though it had a small force there). An escalation also had the potential to draw in Eritrea’s regular armed forces, as such fighting had in the past. But Eritrea had its own reasons for interposing itself at this point, to do more with its ongoing confrontation with Ethiopia than with local factors. But I will come back to that after examining just those factors.

The Bejas: A brief sketch

Much of northeast Sudan is populated by ethnic Bejasóone of the largest tribal groups in Sudan, after the Dinka and the Fur. The Bejas are Muslim Africans with distinct languages and traditions and a proud history that stretches back nearly 4,000 years and remains a core aspect of their identity. Today, they can be found in a wide swathe of desert and savannah that extends from northern and western Eritrea to Egypt. Bejas constitute a majority of the four million people in the three northeastern Sudanese states of Red Sea, Kassala, and Gedaref (ICG, 2006).

The region itself is one of the most strategic in Sudan with its oil pipeline and its road and rail links to the country’s only deep water port and one of its richest, with Sudanís largest gold mine as well as a number of highly productive commercial agricultural schemes. But its more than two million Bejas are among the country’s poorest populations, with a growing number migrating to city slums in recent years in search of low-wage work and of services unavailable in the countryside, especially since the devastating drought of the mid-1980s that decimated their herds and from which they never bounced back. They find themselves increasingly marginalized in their traditional areas due to a combination of environmental and human factors, as climate change has made even harsher the stark land they inhabit and as the area has been steadily colonized from Sudan’s core, with the rapid growth of urban areas, large-scale plantation agriculture and new infrastructure (road, rail, ports, pipeline).

These trends have added pressure on them and further limited their ability to eke out a subsistence living, even as they served to highlight the yawning gap between the very rich and the very poor in the region, in terms of access to resources, services and political representation. In fact, this gap is more visible in this part of Sudan than in any other region of the country and was a factor in setting the stage for unrest, as the region boomed while the Beja sank ever deeper into extreme poverty. Red Sea state, with Port Sudan at its center, is one of the richest in the country, yet the per capita income was only $94 in 2004, barely 20 percent of its villages had access to healthcare and fully 44 percent of the children living there were malnourished (World Food Programme, 2005).

The Beja Congress, with roots in the 1940s, was formally launched in 1958, shortly after Sudan won its independence, and it succeeded in winning limited representation in the Parliament at first, though the number of its delegates decreased steadily. Early on, the Beja sought alliances with other depressed and ignored regions, including Darfur and the South, in an attempt to promote regionalism. However, they, like their counterparts in other regions, were shut out during the revolving door of military and riverine civilian regimes that came to dominate the country’s national political scene.

After the NIF seized power in 1989, the central government stepped up repression of Beja political figures, increased conscription of Beja youth for its army and paramilitary forces, increased appropriations of Beja land for state-run and privately-owne agricultural schemes (including several run by Osama bin Laden and his cronies), and sought to force its ideological and cultural version of Sudanese identity on the Bejas. In the face of this, the Bejas grew increasingly restive. In the mid-1990s, with Eritrean encouragement, they took up arms and joined the newly formed NDA.2See Dan Connell, ‘Rebel allies escalate civil war in Sudan’ in The Guardian, 21 April 2000.

Nearly a decade later, as indicated above, the NDA was drawn into the periphery of the north-south peace process, and it soon began to lose constituent organizations as the Beja Congress shifted gears and joined with the Rashaida-based Free Lions to form the Eastern Front (EF). The EF went on to operate in alliance with the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) as a fellow traveler though not a charter member.

The Rashaida are one of several small Arab tribes in the area—late-comers from the Gulf in the mid-nineteenth century, many of whom were historically traders across northern Africa who morphed into smugglers with the rise of modern states. They are found today in coastal Eritrea and Sudan as well as on both sides of the common border and exhibit little loyalty to Eritrea or Sudan or to the opposition and continue to maintain strong ties to Gulf Arabs. In this respect, they are a wild card in the political and military mix.

Meanwhile, the joker in the deck, so to speak, is the JEM, whose role in Darfur thrust it onto the international stage but which has maintained a small, highly disciplined force in the northeast, as well, and offices in Asmara. Formed as the result of a split within the Islamist movement in Sudan, it takes its inspiration from Hassan al-Turabi, who headed the NIF when it took power in 1989 but who was jailed in 2004 after a falling out with Omar el-Beshir, released in 2005 and then placed under loose house arrest. At the start of 2006, the JEM joined the Sudan Liberation Front to form the Alliance of Revolutionary Forces of West Sudan, but it continued to define itself as a national movement.

The low level conflict in the northeast after 1996 only increased the pressure on the civilian populations there, as markets were closed to them and aerial bombardment and government counterinsurgency operations stripped them of their already limited assets and further destabilized economic and social life, much as had happened earlier in Bahr el Ghazal, Nuba, and Darfur. An expansion of this fighting would have substantially intensified their plight, as a large share of the population lives on the knife edge of survival and is more precarious to start with than any other group in Sudan.

Overview of Eritrea’s involvement

The main gap in most assessments of the crisis in northeast Sudan—not missing, but often underplayed—has long been an appreciation of the complex role of Eritrea, which became all-the-more obvious with that country’s central role in ‘mediating’ the 2006 peace talks. This role is necessary to grasp if we are to have any clue as to what is likely or even possible in the future. So let me back up and frame this with a closer look at Eritrea’s involvement over time and at the current conflict.Eritrea’s relations with Sudan are driven by two strategic concerns:

  1. A long-range view that as a small, vulnerable state with extremely limited resources, Eritrea needs to keep its larger neighbors either in its thrall or Balkanized (in practice, if not in name) with the neighboring regime’s power to govern compromised and with Eritrea maintaining clear allies among the contending political forces there.
  2. In the short and medium-term, the best defense of its borders against hostile acts by neighboring states or by oppositional groups based in them is the construction of effective insurgent forces that challenge these regimes from within and that will, as a quid pro quo, assist in patrolling Eritrea’s borders—in effect acting as buffers. With regard to the first point, the approach of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) to Ethiopia in the 1970s and 1980s models the Asmara regime’s current behavior and should be carefully scrutinized. After the fall of Haile Selassie in 1974 (and for a year or so prior to that), the EPLF invested heavily in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) as a vehicle for replacing the military junta led by Mengistu Haile Mariam with a political organization beholden to it and sharing its ideological and political roots in the student movement at Haile Selassie University in the 1960s, which also gave birth to the similarly named secret party, the Eritrean People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), which guided the EPLF throughout its existence (Connell, 2001; Connell, 2005).

With the Ethiopian EPRP’s demise as a significant force in the mid-1970s—taking with it the option of an all-Ethiopia alternative to the ruling Derg—the EPLF redirected its support toward the ethnic opposition forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF) and others. However, within this loose constellation, the EPLF pushed the TPLF to abandon its ethnic nationalism and instead to build an integrated national (that is, Ethiopian) alternative to the Derg—a stance that contributed to the falling out between EPLF and TPLF in the mid-1980s and that was a continuing source of tension once they reconstituted their tactical alliance at the end of that decade, as the TPLF, itself torn between regional and national ambitions, chafed under Eritrea’s insistent interference in its political life (Connell, 1998B).

Both this strategic outlook and the accompanying pattern of behavior toward allied movements (treated as subordinates, rather than partners) informed the approach of the EPLF’s successor, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), to Sudan throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Among the groups the Eritreans supported were: a small force to the left of the Sudanese Communist Party in the 1980s that had grown out of the trade union movement and later merged into the Sudan Alliance Forces;3Interview with Abdel Aziz Dafala, Sudan Alliance Forces, Asmara, Eritrea, 17 March
the SPLM/A starting in the early 1990s; the Free Officers Movement, which became the dominant trend in the SAF, in the mid-to-late 1990s; and the NDA as a whole from 1995 onward. At the same time, and especially as these successive investments proved ineffective as national alternatives, the EPLF/PFDJ, operating through the Eritrean state, stepped up its investment in regional forces in Darfur, the northeast and elsewhere, even as it took advantage of these armed forces to strengthen its own border defenses.

The development of the Eastern Front

There are two main Beja tribes (of at least four) that provide the bulk of the social base for the opposition in northeastern Sudan: the Hadendowa (termed Hedareb within Eritrea) and the Beni Amr. The former, residing in the Red Sea Hills and along the Sudanese coast from Suakin to the Eritrean border and in the Sahel region of northern Eritrea, were close with the EPLF through much of the Eritrean independence war. By contrast, the Beni Amr, straddling the Eritrea-Sudan border in the Gash-Barka region in Eritrea and the Kassala/Gedaref area in Sudan, were not only close to the ELF, they provided much of its membership. These historical alliances continue to heavily influence the politics of each group.

Though the Beja Congress was formally launched in 1958, its armed wing has been repeatedly manipulated by the EPLF/ PFDJ since the mid-1990s (much as had been the Ethiopian movements in an earlier era and as are religious and other social and political constituencies in Eritrea today). One of the most dramatic instances of tension over this came earlier in that decade when the Eritreans intervened directly in the Beja Congress’s internal affairs after the latter took a decision at odds with Eritrean strategy for them, triggering a bitter backlash that ended up strengthening the jihadist opposition forces operating out of Sudan—a miscalculation to which I will return in more detail below.4Interview with NDA Political-Military Officers, Rubda, Sudan, 3 February 2001.

Despite the oft-touted mutual solidarity among the Eritrean and Sudanese peoples, the EPLF had rocky relations with successive regimes in Khartoum throughout its independence war, and neither side ever truly trusted the other. Generalizations about Eritrean-Sudanese relations are risky—just as were those between the EPLF and TPLF prior to the outbreak of the border war in 1998, even as the two cultivated a myth of close relations that many outsiders bought into and then cited as grounds for surprise when the two fell out.

Eritrea trained and supported the forces of the NDA, including the Beja, from outset. NDA constituent organizations had bases in western Eritrea around Haikota, Tessenei and Sawa and received logistical support, training and arms from Asmara until the late 1990s, when Asmara engineered a rapprochement with Khartoum and moved the NDA’s camps across the border to a base at Belasid (once a redoubt of the EPLF’s arch rival within the national movement, the Eritrean Liberation Front), which I visited four times between 1999 and 2002. Once there, they received regular supplies of food, fuel, ammunition and more from across border, as well as political instruction and military training in or near their new base. Throughout, Eritrea maintained strict control over the NDA operation. To the best of my knowledge, no significant military action was taken without Eritrean permission, with one notable exception, to which I will return below.

Subsurface tensions in this alliance that mirror those between EPLF and TPLF have long been evident in the ways each described the development of the northeastern war front and their respective role in it. According to SPLM/A leaders, the first informal contact between it and the Bejas took place in Cairo in the early 1990s. The first official meeting between the SPLM/A and the Beja Congress took place in Asmara in December 1994 (several months after the congress in Asmara that marked the official launch of the SAF), with the SPLM encouraging the Bejas to take up arms and join the fight to displace the NIF regime in Khartoum while offering them aid to do so. In this narrative, SPLA training for the Bejas started in 1995, and the first joint operation took place in October 1996.5Interview with SPLA Cmdr. Pagan Amum, Asmara, 23 May 2002. For their part, the Eritreans saw the armed wing of the Beja Congress as a product of their initiative and design from the outset as a counter to Eritrean Islamic Jihad (EIJ) after a series of high-profile raids into Eritrea from Sudan in 1993 and 1994, and they have treated the Beja Congress as a surrogate ever since.

My first direct observation of the armed forces in the northeast came in 1996 when I traveled to the Eritrea-Sudan border with members of the SAF. (I also interviewed defectors from the Sudanese armed forces and from Osama bin Laden’s organization then.) I was told by SAF commanders that their forces, slim as they were, had been deployed along the border to fill in security gaps for the Eritreans as well as to position them to carry out ambushes and small-scale raids (Connell, 1998A)

In 1997 and again in 1998, I traveled with SAF escorts to the rebel-held village of Togan and its surroundings, stopping in small Beja settlements and encountering a number of Beja Congress irregulars and forces of the SPLA. During this period, I also traveled into SPLM/A areas in the south via both Kenya and Uganda, flew into the Nuba mountains from Lokichokio with a rebel-run relief group linked to SPLM/A and traveled into the northern Blue Nile area from Ethiopia with SAF. In the process, I developed stronger ties with the SPLM/A and grew increasingly skeptical of the strength and capacity of the SAF, especially as I learned about the extent of internal squabbling between military and civilian factions and among key personalities in the leadership following a period of promising growth in 1996-97 and after I met SAF defectors in Cairo and listened to their accounts of petty bickering, favoritism, recrimination and disorganization. As a consequence, the next time I traveled into NDA areas in the northeast, I made my arrangements through SPLM/A.

When I returned in 1999, as Eritrea was in the process of negotiating a rapprochement with Sudan, the NDA camps had been relocated across border from the Haikota/Sawa area to Belasid. By this time, the coalition included armed forces from SPLM/A, Beja Congress, SAF, Mohammed Osman Mirghani’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and a small though largely inactive (and insignificant) force from Sadiq al-Mahdi’s Umma Party, along with a host of smaller groups. Among the latter, whose numbers rarely ran more than a few dozen each, were the Sudan Federal Democratic Alliance (SFDA) from Darfur and the Sudan Communist Party (SCP), most of whose members deployed to the NDA base were medical personnel.

Meanwhile, the NDA, pushed by the Eritreans (whom the Sudanese characterized simply as ‘the friends’), was attempting to unite the various military forces under one command. SPLM had tried to achieve this on its own from the start, characterizing its troops as part of a ‘New Sudan Brigade’ rather than a northern branch of SPLA, and promoting the NSB as a home for all opposition forces. The other groups resisted this, however, rightly perceiving it as a bid for SPLM hegemony and fearing that the SPLM only intended to use the northeast front as a lever against the regime to promote its interests in the south; they were supported by the Eritreans, who also sought hegemony over the opposition alliance, which they hoped to develop into a political alternative to the NIF regime in Khartoum.

Through this period, there were three distinct efforts to bring these disparate units under a single command structure—first, in 1997, as the United Military Command, then in 1998 as a Joint Military Command and finally in 1999 as what they called a Unified Military Brigade. None were successful. However, a number of effective joint operations were carried out, mainly involving forces of the SPLA, SAF and Beja Congress with some participation by former government officers and men then with the DUP.6Interviews with NDA commanders in Belasid, Sudan, March 2000.

Eritrea’s strategy was to build the NDA coalition while limiting the power of the SPLM/A whose armed forces completely dominated the alliance, holding onto the two major sect-based parties—the DUP and the Umma—as long as possible before they defected back to Khartoum (though containing their influence), and all-the-while working to strengthen the smaller forces and enhance cooperation among them so that they could play a more prominent role in the NDA and later a new regime.7Interviews with members of the PFDJ Secretariat, Asmara, Eritrea, March 2000.

In addition to providing military training and substantial logistical support (including food, fuel, uniforms, vehicle maintenance and equipment), Asmara dispatched PFDJ organizational affairs head Abdella Jabr to carry out political instruction. His brief had long been to work with and nurture opposition movements across Sudan; he had traveled frequently to Chad in the 1990s toward this end; and he knew the players well. In July 1999, he conducted a seminar for 100 cadres drawn from NDA units, including 50 from the SPLA, as the NDA set up what it called a Political Military Office, calling its cadres PMOs. Eritrea’s intention here was to build a political movement within the military coalition in an effort to replicate the EPLF experience during its war for independence.

One incident during this time deserves special attention, not only for what it demonstrates about Eritrea’s method of handling its relations with the NDA, particularly the Bejas, but for the light it sheds on Eritrea’s own continuing problems with Islamist opposition centered around the EIJ. In 1999, Ahmed Bitai, the brother of a prominent Beja religious figure—Sheikh Sulieman—broke with the Beja Congress over internal differences and announced that he was taking his following to join NSB.8Interview with the ranking SPLA Political-Military Officer, Belasid, Sudan, 2 February 2001.

The Eritrean response was decisive and swift: In August in a scene with eerie echoes of Badme a year earlier, they sent a large armed force supported by armor and infantry into the NDA base to demand that Bitai be turned over to them. The ensuing confrontation lasted three days, after which a humiliated NDA (SPLA included) acceded to Eritrean demands. Bitai was reportedly held for six months before being turned over to the Beja Congress and eventually released. At this point, the angry Beja leader defected to Khartoum from which vantage point he orchestrated further divisions among the Sudanese Beja and opened avenues through Beja areas for Eritrean jihadists to infiltrate across the border, heightening the security threat to government and party installations throughout northern and coastal Eritrea.

On a March 2000 visit to the NDA base at Belasid, just prior to the last round of the Eritrea-Ethiopia border war, I heard more such stories of Eritrean interference in Sudanese opposition affairs. SPLM leaders in particular nurtured resentment over Asmara’s attempts to foist SAF commander Abdel Aziz Khalid upon them as a potential alliance leader in the mold of Isaias. It was widely known that Isaias had for nearly 15 years been the nominal second in command of the EPLF behind his lowland Muslim ally Ramadan Mohammed Nur, even as he ran the secret party (the EPRP) that controlled the liberation front, and that this model was being played out in the NDA by elevating Mohamed Osman Mirghani as the front man for that alliance, though he exercised little actual power.

Eritrea initially put its full support into building the SAF, believing its members could spark a mutiny within the Sudanese armed forces as well as a popular uprising in Khartoum and contest for state power in Khartoum. As the SAF began to splinter from within and lose both membership and capacity, the Eritreans—as they had done in Ethiopia—then began to shift their focus to ethnic and regional forces, particularly in Darfur and the northeast.

Later that year, after its devastating losses in the third round of war with Ethiopia and newly eager to protect its western flank, Eritrea launched a diplomatic initiative that brought Isaias and his foreign minister, the late Ali Said Abdella, to Khartoum in October to thaw relations between the two countries. However, in a move that prefigured JEM operations in Darfur and the northeast in mid-2006, SPLA commander Pagan Amum led a surprise attack of his own on Kassala in November 2000 without seeking prior approval from ‘the friends,’ as was the standard operating procedure.9Interview with SPLA Cmdr. Pagan Amum, Asmara, 19 January 2001.

Cmdr. Amum later told me that the SPLM feared the Eritreans were losing faith in the NDA and might sell them out for a tactical advantage. For this reason, he said, the NDA needed to demonstrate its strength with a dramatic move that would, as a byproduct, help undercut the Sudan-Eritrea rapprochement. Before he acted, he secured John Garang’s personal okay, as well as Mirghani’s approval. In the event, a 2,000-strong joint SPLA/DUP/Beja force captured the government garrison at Kassala and held it for nearly 48 hours, after which Khartoum’s relations with Asmara soured. Government forces then heavily bombed NDA areas and came down hard on the Bejas in the urban areas, causing many young Beja men left to flee and join the opposition.

At about this time, in a 180-degree reversal that portended a loss of confidence in the NDA among its own members, moves got underway to fold the flagging SAF into the SPLM. They were initiated by SAF’s head of political affairs Taisier Ali, a former activist at the University of Khartoum whose role in promoting dialogue between Khartoum and the SPLM/A in the 1980s won him enduring respect and trust among southerners, otherwise in extremely short supply toward northern political figures. And this time, the moves were not opposed by Eritrea, which saw in this a possibility to expand its own influence within SPLM in the future via SAF members in its debt.

I went back to Belasid for the last time in May-June 2002. SAF was then still negotiating its move into SPLM/A. The northeastern war front had been generally quiet  for almost two years, since NDA forces retook the strategic town with its important religious shrine at Hamesh Koreb. The main issue overshadowing the situation then was the continuing Eritrea-Ethiopia confrontation, one side-effect of which was Eritrea’s insistence on a tacit truce with Sudan on this front so as not to open itself to further subversion from this direction.

However, Eritrea and the SPLA continued to work to develop the Bejas as an effective fighting force, even though SPLA leaders bemoaned the fact that the Bejas lacked both military experience and a military orientation toward self-organization and discipline. With low level fighting reported in Darfur, SPLA commander Peter Wal from Upper Nile told me that ‘the ground is prepared for rebellion’ there.10Interview, Belasid, Sudan, 31 May 2002. Meanwhile, there appeared to be stepped up activity by the EIJ in the border area and within Eritrea, suggesting that stability was eroding across the region despite the near absence of military initiatives from the NDA there.

The extent to which these issues were interconnected had been underlined in 1999 when the NDA captured two members of EIJ in the uniform of the Sudanese government and turned them over to ‘the friends,’ I was told. In fact, many jihadists had been integrated directly into GOS forces for the defense of Kassala in 2001-2002, following the NDA raid on that city the year before. Meanwhile, EIJ operatives were said to be infiltrating Eritrea with returning refugees and operating freely around Guluj, Barentu, and Agordat, occasionally burning crops, planting mines, setting ambushes, and shooting at military vehicles, and Sheikh Sulieman’s brother Ahmed Bitai was said to be in Kassala working with EIJ, paying $1,000 for each land mine set within Eritrea.11Interview with SAF Political-Military Officer Tijani al-Hadj, Asmara, 5 June 2002.

But this was not the only regional confrontation engaging Eritrea’s attention. As I transited the border crossing at Hadish Maaskar on this last trip to the NDA base, I passed several small camps within Eritrea where Oromos, Amharas, and Beni Shangul were undergoing military training, an indication that Eritreaís commitment to fostering insurgency within Ethiopia had not lessened, whatever the situation in northeast Sudan.

Summing up

Relations between the Bejas and the Khartoum government always had an internal dimension related to but distinct from the Eritrea connection, as the Beja Congress continued to maintain a political presence in Sudan, headquartered in Port Sudan, though it often found itself targeted by the regime in reprisal for actions taken by the armed wing. One event deserves particular mention for its impact on contemporary developments.

In January 2005 thousands of impoverished Bejas carried out public protests in Port Sudan in which they asked for essentially the same things the Fur were calling for: greater political representation, wealth-sharing, jobs, services and so on. They were met with violent repression by local security forces and regular army troops, during which at least 20 were killed, more than 150 arrested, and thousands more displaced from their homes, mostly improvised shacks in crowded coastal slums. This reinforced the notion that armed struggle was the only thing Khartoum understood—or left room for—when grievances arose, and it encouraged hundreds of young Beja men to go over to the armed wing of the Beja Congress. When the government arrested several key Beja Congress leaders in March 2006, it was like pouring gasoline on the fire. It was at this point that Eritrea took the initiative to propose itself as a facilitator of peace talks (Amnesty International, 2005).

Prospects for such talks took on momentum in early May when Eritrea’s Abdella Jabr met Omar al-Beshir in Khartoum to push Eritrea as the mediator with the Eastern Front—a proposal that both men understood as a cover for direct talks between Eritrea and Sudan or, more to the point, party-to-party talks between the PFDJ and the NIF’s successor, the National Congress Party (NCP), with the Bejas and the Rashaida tagging along as junior partners. By mid-June, the two sides initialed a Declaration of Principles that outlined the basis for agreements on military, political and economic issues that would be hammered out over the next several months.

Seeing the writing on the wall, JEM forces carried out a surprise attack on 2 May on a government convoy en route from Port Sudan to Kassala aimed at capturing the Kassala governor who reportedly stopped for coffee shortly before the attack, thereby avoiding it. Though the raiding party missed him and the chance to derail the talks, JEM guerrillas are said to have stripped those whom they did encounter of their valuables and then driven off with a small fleet of new Land Cruisers. Whatever the immediate consequences, JEM used this incident to assert its independence from Eritrean control there, much as it demonstrated in Darfur.12‘Darfur Islamists emerge as key to east Sudan peace’, Agence France Press, 8 June
2006, available at http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/RWB.NSF/db900SID/VBOL6QKEJZ?OpenDocument&rc=1&emid=ACOS-635PJQ.

With SPLA units withdrawing and the Eastern Front and Khartoum poised to fight for Hamesh Koreb, pressures built for a quick agreement before a major conflict broke out that would end prospects for a sustainable truce. The government mobilized large PDF forces (mostly Beni Amr) to play the role of the ‘janjaweed of the east’ if war did erupt—a war which would have had to be over quickly before there was a public outcry for international involvement similar to that in other regions of Sudan and because the area is so critical for the country’s road and rail transport and its oil pipeline to the Red Sea.

The Bejas were extremely vulnerable and, barring significant direct Eritrean intervention, could have been decimated in short order as a regular force, though with their Rashaida allies they had (and have) the capacity to sustain a hit-and-run campaign for the indefinite future in the largely uncontrolled area between the Egyptian and Eritrean borders.

Under these circumstances, it is crucial to remember that Eritrea’s involvement is not a simple quid pro quo for GOS support of EIJ. It is part of a strategic outlook in which Eritrea sees its future dependent on control of power levers within its larger neighbors, either at the center or, if that is not possible, through proxies at the periphery in weakened or balkanized states that provide opportunities for influence from outside.

Nor are the Beja purely a creature of Eritrea—as we will discover if Asmara sells them out. In fact, a key question for the future is the extent to which Eritrea will lose control of the Beja if the implementation of this agreement is either not to their liking or that yields a level of economic and political autonomy that enables them to break free of their dependence on Asmara. In either case, a likely consequence would be for the Beja Congress to move closer to the JEM in an alliance with parties in Darfur and other marginalized regions, no longer within the NDA framework.

For its part, Eritrea’s interest in acting as mediator arose both from its projection of itself as a regional power and its need to minimize Sudan’s aid to Ethiopia in the event of another round of Eritrea-Ethiopia fighting. This coincided with stepped up assistance to opposition groups within Ethiopia and to the Islamic Courts in Somalia. It also reflected the rising importance of the northeast to Asmara, as Eritrea’s influence in southern Sudan has waned since the death of John Garang and with the increasing preoccupation of the SPLM with the challenges it faces within the south.

From the standpoint of those in the international community eager to promote a durable peace in the northeast, the single most import objective must be re-engaging the SPLM there, as in Darfur, and working for a countrywide approach to conflict resolution. This should include pressure for a national conference on Sudan (something Eritrea supported in the past as an avenue for regime change, though it has lately backed away from this as it has invested in a tactical alliance with the NCP), and increased international involvement in Sudan through the provision of emergency assistance now and development assistance later.13For a discussion of such options, see the USIP’s November 2005 forum ‘Emergent Insecurity in Eastern Sudan,’ available at

Though many have touted the CPA as a potential model for the northeast, as they did with Darfur, Sudan cannot afford continued piecemeal approaches to peace negotiations. Whatever Khartoum has been willing to give away to buy a truce here, such an approach risks laying the groundwork for new explosions in other regions just as the lid goes down on this one. To prevent this, the United States and the international community must have a new strategy, an overall blueprint that allows for power sharing among the contending regions and overall the achievement of a truly ‘new’ Sudan out from under NCP thrall.

Meanwhile, to curb Eritrea’s penchant for destabilizing its neighbors, the international community, led by the United States, must act to resolve once and for al the border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia by insisting that the latter implement the Border Commission’s 2002 decision, however distasteful that may be to any of those concerned. So long as this crisis is allowed to fester, Eritrea will use it as a rationale for finding ways to weaken its larger and more powerful foe through indirect means, much as it has done with Sudan and as we will shortly see through a stepped up insurgency in Somalia whose real target is, of course, Ethiopia.


Steve Bloomfield, ‘Crisis: Return to Darfur’ in The Independent, 28 October 2006.
See Dan Connell, ‘Rebel allies escalate civil war in Sudan’ in The Guardian, 21 April 2000.
Interview with Abdel Aziz Dafala, Sudan Alliance Forces, Asmara, Eritrea, 17 March
Interview with NDA Political-Military Officers, Rubda, Sudan, 3 February 2001.
Interview with SPLA Cmdr. Pagan Amum, Asmara, 23 May 2002.
Interviews with NDA commanders in Belasid, Sudan, March 2000.
Interviews with members of the PFDJ Secretariat, Asmara, Eritrea, March 2000.
Interview with the ranking SPLA Political-Military Officer, Belasid, Sudan, 2 February 2001.
Interview with SPLA Cmdr. Pagan Amum, Asmara, 19 January 2001.
Interview, Belasid, Sudan, 31 May 2002.
Interview with SAF Political-Military Officer Tijani al-Hadj, Asmara, 5 June 2002.
‘Darfur Islamists emerge as key to east Sudan peace’, Agence France Press, 8 June
2006, available at http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/RWB.NSF/db900SID/VBOL6QKEJZ?OpenDocument&rc=1&emid=ACOS-635PJQ.
For a discussion of such options, see the USIP’s November 2005 forum ‘Emergent Insecurity in Eastern Sudan,’ available at