The Western Deffufa, an ancient temple in Kerma
Courtesy Wikimidia Common
In 2010, as Officer-in-Charge for a humanitarian agency in Kenya, I facilitated an inter-agency contingency planning process in anticipation of an influx of Sudanese asylum seekers to Kenya in the wake of 2011 referendum on southern Sudan and Abyei.
The planning was based on a worst-case scenario that during the referendum period and its aftermath, several unprecedented risks are likely to emerge. Recognizing the humanitarian implications of these risks, we prepared a contingency plan for an estimated humanitarian caseload of approximately 2.8 million internally displaced persons, as well as an influx of asylum seekers to Kenya. We factored in an additional 3.2 million people who may be affected overall by the conflict and a breakdown in trade and social service delivery.
We did not get the anticipated influx, and overall the humanitarian impact from the referendum was not as bad as we planned for. Personally, I was not surprised that we did not have the level of humanitarian impact that we had anticipated. In my eleven years working in international humanitarian affairs in Africa, Sudan has always stayed above falling into a total humanitarian catastrophe. But the country in these eleven years has been on the list of countries appealing for international humanitarian assistance, most times one of the top three.
Between 1995 to 2007; a period of twelve years, ten countries dominated the humanitarian landscape in terms of volume of assistance received, Sudan was one of these. Seven countries received increased funding between 2003 and 2004 with the largest increase of $360 million in 2004 going to Sudan. And while many countries around this period faced funding shortfalls, Sudan saw an increase of 77 percent.
This trend continues in 2019 with Sudan appealing for $1.0 billion US to provide humanitarian assistance to 4.3 million people. The country hosts 1.2 million refugees, and sporadic fighting in parts of Jebel Marra have increased the number of internally displaced persons to 1.8 million.
But for decades of recurring conflict, Sudan would be a tourist paradise. The country is the location of almost 200 ancient pyramids: the Meroë pyramids, after the Meroitic Kingdom that reigned over the area for over 900 years, these pyramids were built over 2,000 years ago. Sudan is also housing one of the biggest archaeological sites in the region: Kerma, the site which existed over 5000 years ago includes an enormous tomb structure called the Western Deffufa. The joint flow, of the Blue Nile river and the White Nile river uniting in Sudan’s capital Khartoum and from the Nile river into Egypt is indeed nothing short of poetry in nature.
In addition to its physical beauty, Sudan is blessed with substantial amounts of gold, silver, zinc, tungsten, chromium ore, iron ore, and copper. Shortly after independence, the country was hailed as a potential breadbasket of the region, but sadly what we hear and what Sudan is known for globally are its decades of conflict that have left millions displaced to this day.
Many years of civil conflict continues to create conditions requiring humanitarian assistance. The failure of the 1956 constitution to address two crucial issues - whether Sudan should be a secular or Islamist state, and the country’s federal structure - at the time of independence - have been at the root of Sudan’s recurring and protracted conflict. At least 300,000 people were killed and 3 million displaced between 2003 and 2008 during the Darfur conflict between the rebel group and the government.
The largest country in Africa prior to South Sudan’s secession in 2011, Sudan lost 25 percent of its geographical area as well as most of its oil reserves, estimated between five and seven billion barrels to South Sudan. Since 2008, Sudan has not hit the peak of a major humanitarian crisis, but the threat of one continuously hovers quite close mainly due to the presence and increase in the level of poverty aggravated by the loss of oil revenue from the secession of South Sudan.
The current demonstration in the capital Khartoum tells strongly of how Sudan’s crisis is tied to chronic poverty that has almost erased the purchasing power of millions of its population. Once considered the breadbasket of the Arab region, it is an irony today that the Sudanese are taking to the street to demand reduction in the price of bread.
Recognizing the protracted nature of the humanitarian need in the country, and the linkage to poverty and lack of resilience the Government of Sudan and many national systems, have been focused on linking humanitarian assistance to development intervention. Perhaps the dominance of the humanitarian architecture in addressing the protracted nature; development challenges, in Sudan is a driver of the conflictual relationship between national authorities and international humanitarian footprint.
Casting doubts on the impact and intentions of these organizations and personnel, on several occasions, the Sudanese authorities have expelled international humanitarian workers and organizations from the country. Following one of these cases in 2008, the international community launched advocacy claiming that the lives of 3 million Sudanese dependent on humanitarian aid were at risk, unconvinced, the Sudanese authorities went ahead and expelled thirteen NGOs.
Seven months after the expulsion the African Arguments new media released the article: “Politics of Aid in Darfur: The NGO Expulsions Seven Months On” where Sudanese blogger Ahmed Hassan argued that `claims that without these 13 agencies, food aid deliveries for 700,000 people are jeopardized, water pumps could run dry and rust, refugee schools could close, vital medicines could run out, pregnant women could lack prenatal care did not materialize.’
‘If these claims were said with a certain degree of accuracy’ says Hassan, `we should be talking now about the death of around one million people in Darfur because of lack of food and other basic services that were solely and exclusively provided by these 13 aid agencies who manage over 60% of the total humanitarian aid funds to Darfur, as the media kept telling us….but…’
The dominance of the humanitarian narrative and presence in Sudan, like many of the countries in Africa that have been on the radar of protracted humanitarian footprints, clouds the fact that the country has also been the target of protracted natural resource exploitation from some of the same countries that have provided assistance. According to aid organizations, oil activities in the unstable region of southern Sudan fueled conflict between Khartoum and rebels. Aid organization Ecos reported in 2010 that `12,000 people were killed or died of starvation, exhaustion or disease directly linked to the conflict between 1997 and 2003 in the area where Lundin Oil was active.’
Despite the country’s doubts on the intentions and impacts of humanitarian assistance and presence in the country, Sudan has had the international humanitarian presence for over 30 years. In recent years, the country has been taking major steps in the right direction to bridge the gap between humanitarian response and building the resilience of its people. According to the Global Humanitarian Overview for 2019: `The situation in Sudan has evolved significantly in recent years, with a clear aim of the Government to shift towards peace and development programming. The collective outcomes framework that connects humanitarian and development programmes is a current focus of both the Government and the international community.’
The 2019 overview also urged `the international community to invest more efforts and resources in life-changing as well as life-saving activities and durable solutions. Collective outcomes – around livelihoods, social services, the environment, and governance – also provide an effective framework for the Government and the international community to engage so the balance can shift towards achieving sustainable development goals.’
This is the right way to go. What Sudan’s protracted humanitarian context needs is leadership that dares to present a vision and master plan on how to end it. 20+ years appealing for humanitarian assistance is a long time, especially in a country as proud as Sudan is. The Government national authorities and people of Sudan are demonstrating this leadership.