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All talk and no humanitarian action
Donald Booth, the U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan under the Obama administration, on January 16 met with the rebel SPLM-N in Paris along with representatives from France, Norway and Britain to discuss humanitarian access for the two conflict areas of South Kordofan and Blue Nile states. Washington proposed USAID would deliver assistance from Khartoum directly to the Two Areas after Sudanese authorities inspected the aid.
The issue of humanitarian access is sensitive – so much so that the last peace talks in August collapsed over a disagreement concerning aid access routes. Both sides suspect the other of misusing aid deliveries to smuggle arms. The rebels do not want all aid to emanate from Khartoum, while the government refuses that any aid to come from outside the country. Last August, Khartoum refused to sign the rebels’ compromise agreement whereby 80 percent of aid would be delivered across frontlines from government-controlled areas while 20 percent would come cross border from Asosa, western Ethiopia, with Sudanese government supervision. The same issue marred November 2015 peace talk negotiations.
The USAID proposal, originally made in November last year, adheres to the stance of the government over that of the SPLM-N. SPLM-N Secretary General Yasir Arman said they requested an amendment to the proposal but lacked sufficient time to implement due to the U.S. change in administration. Since then, Arman has said humanitarian and political issues should be separated in future talks.
Booth criticized the SPLM-N in a public lecture for not directly accepting the proposal, accusing the rebel leadership of putting their own personal political ambitions ahead of their people. The UK Ambassador to Sudan, Michael Aron, also expressed his disappointment at the SPLM-N for not accepting outright the USAID proposal.
Sudan has never allowed humanitarian agencies to work in the Two Areas in the past. Khartoum has gone as far as bombing aid agencies that have attempted to help the war-affected rebel controlled areas. In 2015, for example, Khartoum bombed a hospital run by the international medical organization, Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) in the Nuba Mountains.
What it means…
The rebel movement’s concerns over Sudan manipulating are not unfounded. Khartoum routinely denied aid to war-affected civilians in Darfur, according to the former UN-AU peacekeeping force spokesperson Aicha Al-Basri. Between December 2004 and April 2005 alone, the Sudan government arrested or detained at least 20 aid workers in Darfur. This government tactic of blocking aid but denying such actions publicly as witnessed in Darfur is exactly what the SPLM-N want to avoid, says spokesperson Mubarak Ardol. By insisting 20 percent of aid stems from outside the country is the only aid the SPLM-N suspect will actually reach the war affected in the rebel-controlled areas.
Further, the Sudan government has reneged on past humanitarian access agreements. The SPLM-N and Khartoum signed two memorandums with the UN, in February 2012 and August 2013, to allow unhindered access for humanitarian aid. Despite signing the documents, the government never upheld its commitments.
In 2016, America and other western countries made a policy shift in regards to Sudanese foreign relations, showing more engagement and support to Khartoum. The recent lifting of U.S. economic sanctions and insistence that the SPLM-N follow the government’s humanitarian access plan are indicative of this trend. Whether this policy will continue under U.S. President Donald Trump is still under debate. Trump issued an executive order on January 28 banning citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries – including Sudan – from entering America. Sudan’s Foreign Minister summoned U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Steven Koutsis the following day to protest the decision to restrict Sudanese nationals access to the United States.
While politicking continues between the government and SPLM-N over humanitarian access points, the civilians in the war-affected areas continue to suffer. According to the UN, 600,000 people are in need of assistance in the Two Areas, especially in the southern and western parts of the Nuba Mountains and in southern Blue Nile State.