As violence subsides in eastern Sudan, activists allege vested interest behind conflict

The political and economic interests of many powerful people in the eastern Kassala State are reportedly pitted against the transfer of administrative authority from the military to the newly appointed civilian governor, Saleh Ammar

September 05, 2020 by Pavan Kulkarni
Radio Dabanga/Social Media

The week-long violence in Sudan’s eastern State of Kassala, which had prevented the newly appointed civilian governor from taking office, is reported to have subsided on August 31. At least seven people died and dozens were injured. 

The curfew — imposed after the clash between two tribes on August 25, but mostly unheeded by both — has been lifted. However, the situation remains tense as the conflict between the Beja tribesmen and the Beni Amer tribe has not been resolved. The conflict was allegedly fueled by the members of the ousted regime with vested political and economic interests in the region.

Heavy deployments of army and other paramilitary forces remain in place. Traders whose shops in the Grand Kassala Market were looted and torched on August 27 have returned to clear the debris and resume work. 

Supply of basic essentials like bread during the days of violence when food supply was running short was ensured by the community initiatives of the Resistance Committees. These committees had emerged as neighborhood organizations across the country during the Sudanese Revolution of December 2018, which deposed the dictator Omar al-Bashir.

Youth in the surrounding neighborhoods have been organized by these committees to work on the rehabilitation of the market. The Kassala police chief is reported to have donated SDG1 million (USD 18,083) for the purpose. 

However, Kassala activists have demanded his suspension, along with that of secretary-general of the Kassala government, for being “too late” to intervene after the clashes erupted. Sources say that the political and economic interests of many powerful people in the region are pitted against the transfer of administrative authority from the military to the newly-appointed civilian governor of Kassala, Saleh Ammar.  

Along with governors of 17 other States, Ammar was appointed by the transitional government on July 22. In accordance with the constitutional declaration which paved the way for the formation of this government after Bashir’s ouster, the civilian governors were selected by the Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces (DFCF). DFCF is a coalition of political parties which came together to represent the protest movement against Bashir’s regime.

In Kassala, however, the transfer of power to civilian authority has not yet been affected due to the conflict between two tribes. Soon after his appointment, by the end of the month, the Hadendawa clan which leads the Beja tribesmen protested with roadblocks, demanding that his appointment be withdrawn. 

After smaller clashes with supporters of Saleh Ammar, on August 25, members of the Beja tribe attacked a public demonstration by the Beni Amer tribe. The demonstrators were demanding that Saleh Ammar, who belongs to their tribe, immediately assume office and effect the transfer of power from military to civilian authority.

One person was killed and 17 others were injured in this attack. Curfew was imposed that afternoon. However, Beni Amer tribesmen took to the streets in thousands the following day, reiterating their demands and insisting that Saleh Ammar assume office within 72 hours. 

This further infuriated his opponents among the Beja tribes, among whom an image of Beni Amer as a foreign race loyal to Eritrea has been systematically promoted. Another clash followed, in which one more person was killed.

The following day, on August 27, “hundreds of people armed with knives and sticks plundered the Kassala Grand Market and set fire to a large number of shops. Police and military forces initially withdrew from their position at the market. They returned later with reinforcements, and fired in the air to disperse the crowd,” Radio Dabanga reported

Four more were killed and dozens of others were injured. Most of the shops that were damaged belong to Beni Amer tribesmen. While these attacks were taking place, Sayed Tirik, a leader from the Hadendawa clan, led thousands of Beja tribesmen on foot and in vehicles in a long rally to the Freedom Square in Kassala town. They were demanding the withdrawal of Saleh Ammar’s appointment.

“The two tribes have had their differences historically, but the violent conflict has been fueled by political interests” of the former regime’s elements, Ammar Salih, a member of a Resistance Committee in Kassala, told Peoples Dispatch.

Vested interests

One of them, according to Salih, is Al-Amin Tirik, father of Sayed Tirik. Tirik, he said, was a member of the National Congress Party (NCP) which was led by Bashir, and banned after his ouster. He was also a member of parliament from Kassala state under Bashir’s rule.

He also had considerable influence in the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS). Under pressure from protesters, the transitional government of Sudan dismantled the NISS which had unleashed repression during the Sudanese Revolution in December 2018. 

Salih claims that Tirik continues to remain a powerful figure in the security forces, in which members of the former regime remain deeply entrenched. Transfer of the state’s administration to a civilian authority is a threat to his power. 

The appointment of Saleh Ammar is particularly disconcerting to Tirik, who faces allegations of having embezzled money from the Eastern Sudan Reconstruction and Development Fund.

This fund was promised by the government as a part of the Eastern Sudan Peace Agreement (ESPA) which it signed in October 2006 with the Eastern Front — an armed coalition of multi-ethnic tribal groups including the Beja and the Beni Amer. 

The government had committed to pay a total of USD 600 million between 2007 and 2011 to the fund which was to be used to reconstruct and develop the economically backward and conflict affected eastern region. However, a large part of this fund was allegedly embezzled.  

“In his former role as a journalist, Saleh Ammar did a thorough investigation of the embezzlement of the Eastern fund”, a source, who is an acquaintance and supporter of the governor, told Peoples Dispatch. Saleh Ammar has information against many people with corrupt vested interests in the region. 

Those whom he can implicate “are the main drivers in this conflict. So this is not a tribal conflict as such. They are exploiting the tribal divisions to get rid of him.”