An ongoing blockade of Sudan's main port by political protesters is putting a huge strain on the country. The Sudanese government says it's at the point of running out of essential medicines, fuel, and wheat. Sudan is still going through a finely balanced transition following the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. Political expert, Abdu Mukhtar Musa, provides insights into who's behind the blockade and why it's been a challenge in getting it lifted.
Who is behind the blockade of the Port of Sudan?
The blockade is a reaction to the procrastination on the part of the central government of Khartoum to respond to the demands of the people of the eastern region of Sudan.
They are represented by Sayed Tirik, their major tribal leader. He is chairman of the "High Council for the Tribes of the Beja" - composed of six tribes - who live in the north-eastern part of Sudan.
They have put forward some demands as conditions to terminate the two-week-long blockade of the port. Chief among them is the cancelling of the Juba Peace Agreement which was signed in October 2020. They believe that it underestimated the injustice inflicted on the region by the successive central governments of Khartoum since independence.
There are also a number of theories circulating in Khartoum about the blockade. Among them there are:
- that people close to the deposed militant Islamists' regime are staging a "counter revolution",
- that members of the military component of the Transitional Council of Sovereignty who remain loyal to the toppled President Omar Al-Bashir are involved. The silence of the military component of the Transitional Council of Sovereignty has increased suspicions about a counter revolution.
These rumours have been fuelled by the attempted coup d'état on September 21 which was thwarted by the military.
What are the grievances against the government?
They believe that the government has neglected their demands particularly when it comes to sharing power and wealth and their fair representation in the central government. Their demands also include:
- deposing the cabinet of Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok and replacing him with a technocrat,
- the dismantling the system of the toppled regime,
- cancelling the Juba agreement which was signed October 3, 2020. This gives the eastern region some concessions which the leaders of the blockade consider far below their aspirations;
- allocating appropriate share for the eastern region from the revenues of the region.
- suspending any ongoing projects in the region, including in mining and agriculture, until an agreement is reached about how the region will get a fair share.
Are their grievances justified?
Yes, to a great extent. But the means they have pursued are not acceptable. The blockade will harm the entire nation instead of only disturbing the ruling elites.
In my view the leaders of the protest should strike a balance. They need to put pressure on the government to respond to their demands. But they need to do so without throttling the national economy. The blockade is stopping the flow of imports and exports of the country through the main Port of the Sudan. The cabinet said earlier this week that the country was running out of basic commodities notably essential medicines, fuel and wheat.
This suggests that Sudan is on the brink of a damaging crisis that may trigger popular discontent against the government.
The blockade is putting the government in a critical situation. It's adding more problems to a country that has a great many. People's living conditions are bad. And there are serious tensions in the civil-military relationship. This is bound to affect the mutual trust between the two components of civil-military alliance of the transitional government.
What must be done to resolve the situation?
It's a fact that the eastern region suffers from relative deprivation and marginalisation. But it is also true that the means the tribal leader is pursuing are not logical nor acceptable.
In addition, it's clear that Tirik doesn't represent the whole region nor is he supported by all ethnicities. The eastern region is a home for about 17 tribes besides the Beja - to whom Tirik belongs.
There are also other stakeholders, such as civil society organisations, political forces, religious groups, and the Native Administration (traditional tribal administrative system). According to the Juba agreement which was signed October 2020 all components of the region are to take part in discussing the problems and demands of their region in one common forum. But, the High Council of the Beja Tribes persists on having its own forum to channel its demands - aloof from other groups and components of the eastern region.
The government should take the following steps:
- Reject the tribalisation and politicisation of people. The central government has to declare its refusal to deal with any tribal leader. And that it won't approach problems (or demands) on ethnic lines.
- Invite communities and all forces of the eastern region to send representatives to negotiate in one forum to discuss possible alternative solutions. The invitation should go out to civil society organisations, political parties, trade unions and native administrations.
- Declare the blockade a threat to the national security of the country.
- Declare a state of emergency in the eastern region.
- Name a technical committee to work out a strategy for a comprehensive solution to the eastern question.