Written by: Salih Amar*
On December 30, 2017, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir declared a state of “emergency” in Kassala, the largest state in eastern Sudan, adjacent to Eritrea and Ethiopia for the purpose of collecting weapons spread amongst the citizens of the state.
In the early days of the new year, crowds of the Sudanese army and the “Rapid Support” militia began arriving in Kassala. A story was circulated amongst the locals that the relationship with Eritrea was tense and that was why the travellers were sent back and border crossings were closed.
The governor of Kassala, “Adam Juma’a” denied this and went to the “Laffa-13” border between his state and Eritrea to confirm that everything was okay and went even further to say, “What is going on is unfounded and has no grounds and we have not received any orders to close the borders between the two countries.”However, the events proved that the regular visitors of the Cafes in Kassala and the Social Media users had more accurate information and analysis of the situation than the governor “Adam Juma’a”, who retracted his remarks hours after his initial announcement and issued a directive quoted by the state news agency SUNA “to close all borders with Eritrea as of the fifth of January 2018 and until further announcements.” Since then, citizens on either side of the border have waited for these other directives, which have not been met with the continuation of the state of “emergency” which has not been lifted despite the disappearance of its causes, as will be explained hereafter.Throughout January, groups from all branches of the Sudanese armed forces arrived in Kassala from different cities of Sudan, notably Al Obayid, Atbara and Khartoum. They were joined by thousands of the “Rapid Support” forces, the infamous militia, according to human rights groups, most of whose leaders and soldiers participated in the civil war raging in Darfur region. Amongst them were also the (Janjaweed) militia, the forces led by Lieutenant General Mohammad Hamdan (Hamidti). They settled in Aroma city (433 kilometres east of the capital Khartoum and 50 kilometres north of Kassala) and took it as their headquarters and spread throughout Kassala province, focusing on the border localities of Talkuk and Hameshkoreb.In those days, eyewitnesses confirmed that heavy weapons arrived in Kassala in unprecedented numbers and that the airport received for the first time in its history a large number of military aircrafts and missiles. (I personally saw part of these weapons and militias during my visit to the city in January).The sources stated that high-level officers, including two at the rank of Admiral, had visited the military base in Kassla at the time. The sources confirmed that Turkish experts were active in the base and participated in the training of officers.It is interesting to note, however, that the Sudanese government has made no effort to hide all this, and may have been eager for everyone to see those weapons and soldiers that turned Kassala into a large military barrack.
The “hidden” agenda of the militancy of eastern Sudan?
Observers assert that the military build-up was not intended for smugglers or disarmament as alleged by government officials in some of their statements. The arms and numbers of smugglers did not need to mobilise so many weapons and soldiers.Analytics view that the Sudanese government, were planning a military strike on Eritrean territories and then changed its mind and proceeded to withdraw troops gradually and end the army “overload” and media campaigns. Far from what is known of the relationship with Eritrea that continues to be tense, observers believe that there is another hidden reason for the mobilisation of troops on the Eritrean border which is the closure of the border to Eritrean migrants. According to sources, this comes within the framework of a European plan coordinated with the governments of the region, including Sudan, and European security experts who will be active in Sudan permanently.
The conflict with Eritrea may have been formulated to detract attention from a possible EU relationship with Sudan. This puts the EU governments in a difficult situation answering to the public as their laws put the Sudanese president on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity. Many indicators confirm that the number of arrivals to Sudan during the past months has already decreased significantly.For nearly two years, Hamidti has been making successive statements demanding that the European Union pay the price of his protection against immigrants because he has deployed his forces in the northern desert and prevented Horn of Africa immigrants from reaching Libya via Sudanese borders.
The Governor of Kassala and a close alliance with the Rapid Support Commander (Hamidti)
“Adam Juma’a” is closely linked to the leader of the Mujahideen Rapid Support Group, Mohamed Hamdan (Hamidti) and have worked together for many years handling security matters in the Darfur region. When he first arrived in Kassala after his appointment in June 2015, Hamidti arrived in Kassala with his group and deployed some of his forces at the points west of the city of Kassala, and contributed to a series of operations against members of the Rashaida tribe. Last March, Juma’a organised an unprecedented reception for Hamidti and toured with him throughout the state of Kassala.
One of the local leaders of Talkuk (north-east of Kassala) accuses the governor of Kassala Adam Juma’a with the implementation of an agenda unrelated to the region. He stated that the declaration of emergency was intended to cover the looting of land and mining for gold by influential companies in Khartoum, including those owned by Hamidti in addition to preventing immigrants from crossing the border. He ridiculed the presence of thousands of soldiers in the countryside of eastern Sudan under the pretext of preventing smuggling to Eritrea. He said that millions of Sudanese are eager to obtain fuel, wheat and other necessities of life that are not found all over Sudan so how will the smugglers find these necessities to pass through all checkpoints and security and rustle them into Eritrea? Why would they not sell them in Sudan itself with prices searing beyond imagination?!”The leader also revealed that the governor “Adam Juma’a” derives his strength from his alliance with the leader of (rapid support forces) Mohammed Hamdan (Hamidti) and exploits the emergency law to terrorise his opponents, the latest being the leaders of three major tribes left in the state Tork, Dokkl and Shkillay (Hadandawa, Bani Amer and Halanga) and was able, despite their opposition, to pass a new law of civil administration that gives him the right to appoint tribes leaders isolating them in the process and literally transferring the catastrophic Darfur experience to eastern Sudan.
Regional and international reactions
Despite being the direct target of the military and media campaigns of the Sudanese government, Eritrea remained silent and did not have a direct response until the end of March almost three months after the media campaign and security against it. It accused Sudan of harbouring and training the Eritrean opposition in the city of Kassala and has set out in minute details the circumstances of the event. However, the content of the Eritrean statement pointed out that Sudan is carrying out a national-Ethiopian agenda, as Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki said frankly in a dialogue with him earlier this year. He stated that “there is no enmity between him and Sudan and that Ethiopia is trying to divide between the two countries.”In parallel with the escalation against Eritrea, the Sudanese government launched a media campaign against Egypt on charges of having Egyptian troops in Eritrea intending to attack Sudan, leading to Sudan announcing the withdrawal of its ambassador in Cairo for consultation.Cairo followed the same route as Asmara and avoided escalation with Khartoum. On January 10, the Egyptian and Eritrean presidents held a summit in Cairo where no reference was made to Sudan or even Ethiopia. At the end of the same month, presidents Bashir and El-Sisi held a meeting on the side-lines of the African summit in Addis Ababa, ending the “sharp” tension between the two countries and closing the door to any military confrontation between them.
Internationally, the European Union Ambassadors to Sudan called in a statement in February to lift the state of emergency from the state of Kassala. The statement was issued on behalf of the embassies of the EU countries in Sudan (Italy, Spain, France, United Kingdom, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden and Romania).
The people of Kassala pay the price of the mysterious agendas of the Bashir government
As soon as the (rapid support) forces arrived and deployed in Kassala, stories of arrests, torture and confiscations were carried out without trial and with immediate execution. Punishments such as lashing and shaving of man’s moustache, which is a “humiliating insult to local customs” were carried out as they move in the border areas. Suspects were sent to the prisons of Kassala, Port Sudan and Khartoum and distributed between police, security and the army dependent on the charges.Inside the city of Kassala, a special group arriving from Khartoum, consisting of military intelligence officers, launched a random arrest campaign involving suspects involved in border trade, foreign currency, smuggling of people and regular visitors to Eritrea. Some of the detainees were deported to the capital, Khartoum. Some of the major tradesmen of the city were required to report to the NISS offices daily, returning to their families at night. All without coordination with the local state government, causing great confusion even to those in close collaboration with the authority.According to information received by the “Change”, eight truck owners were arrested on 23 January from Kassala city and transferred to Port Sudan city prison. They were released on 22 April: Muhammad Ahmad Fadhuli, Mohamed Ahmed Ochik and Onor Tahir Madani, Karar Hassan Ali, Abu Fatima Biraq, Hamed Hussein, Hussein Adam and Ahmed Adam Badanin.The source confirmed that the detention was carried out without trial under the Emergency Law, in addition to the confiscation of 8 cars belonging to the detainees, including a load of food items, even though they were carrying security clearance. The cars are still being detained by order of the state security committee. According to the sources, the owners of the eight cars, along with other traders, were victims of differences and conflicts between the security forces in the state of Kassala on the one hand, and the rapid support forces on the other. Forces coming from the capital, Khartoum secretly accompanied by special military intelligence, cancelled all the decisions and powers granted to the state, including the security authorities.“The Change” obtained testimonies from several locals in the border areas, who revealed continuing daily looting by members of the “rapid support forces” and “armed forces”, including food items and money. They informed the army and security leaders in the region of these violations and received promises to solve the problem but they received feedback from one of an officer ranked Captain stating that the army leadership are unable to control the soldiers because the government does not provide them with full supplies. The same complaint was made by the people of South Tokar (Red Sea State) who the “rapid support forces” and army were deployed in their area.In the early weeks of the “rapid support forces” presence in Kassala, the relationship between the government and its biggest ally in eastern Sudan, Sheikh Suleiman Bitai, was strained as his followers were hit by confiscations and closure of border trade. Leaders of the Bitai family submitted their resignation from the border guards’ forces, which was issued a central decision to dissolve and integrate them into the (rapid support forces). Kassala has more than 4000 soldiers and officers registered as receiving salaries and benefits whereas the actual number is 1500, most of them under the influence of the Ali Bitai family in the Taluk and Hameshkoreb districts, whose representative is Mohammad Tahir (State Legislature).Following the settlement of its conflicts with the Authority, the family returned to play the role of the main ally of the governor Adam Juma’a, who is expected to reward them in the coming period with the establishment of new leadership, thus completing their practical separation from the “Hadandawa” which existed for many years.
Calls for cancellation of “emergency”
Leader of the state of Kassala, Ali Nurai, to lift the state of emergency and said that “it is not necessary and did not have a positive impact on people’s lives.” Nuri, who is considered one of the prominent community leaders, stressed the severe damage to the people of Kassala and the rural population further by denying them access to the necessary goods and demanding security services to control the behaviour of their employees at the checkpoints.
Social Networking activists on various sites have called for the cancellation of the state of “emergency” that has restricted economic activity in the area which is worse than Darfur region in its need for humanitarian aid. Activists also demand that those involved in violations against the people are held accountable.Tribal leaders have met several times with government officials to release the detainees and lift the ban on hundreds of cars held by the authorities, but the response has always been rejection of these demands, especially from the governor Adam Juma’a, who threatened tribes to punish them if they intend to mediate in such cases.In February, more than 400 people, including senior leaders in eastern Sudan, made a memorandum demanding the withdrawal of the “rapid support” forces from the province following the killing of a resident in Kassala town when they attempted to loot his property. The members of these forces raided the city of Kassala on several separate occasions.The leaders of the “Eastern Front”, which signed the peace agreement in the Eritrean capital Asmara in 2006 with the central government after 10 years of war, have been silent for the last few months or barely touched on the issue even though the border areas adjacent to Eritrea and more affected by the emergency were the starting point for frontline fighters.
Six months of emergency: “mystery and absurdity” masters of the scene
Half a year after the announcement of the state of emergency, Kassala is still suffering from the consequences although it does not appear to be justified according to many of the locals. This is not the case of an anonymous tweet on social media and accurately reflect the “absurdity” and “ambiguity” of the “emergency situation”. The state police chief has gone to Umrah with his family, the commander of armed forces is in Turkey for a holiday, the director of the security forces is on holiday and the governor himself is going to Umrah… which indicates that there is certainly no emergency and it is all a big joke!! We demand that the state of emergency be lifted from the state with immediate effect.