Sudan said Wednesday that government and rebel leaders had met to begin implementing a deal that aims to end a war in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed.
Rebel commanders from the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) and the transitional government met face-to-face on Tuesday, one day after striking the deal, state news agency SUNA said.
“This was the first joint meeting after the inking of the accord,” said Alhadi Idris, the head of the SRF rebel coalition, SUNA reported.
“We discussed in this meeting what will happen going forward,” Idris said, adding that there were “still issues related to the timeline to implement the deal”.
The SRF, founded in 2011, is an alliance of five armed rebel groups and four political movements from the vast western region of Darfur, and the southern states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile.
“Our priorities now are economic progress and humanitarian issues related to people displaced by the conflicts,” said Minni Minawi, who leads a faction of the Darfur-based Sudan Liberation Movement.
Monday’s peace deal covers issues around security, land ownership, transitional justice, power sharing and the return of people who fled their homes because of fighting.
It also provides for the dismantling of rebel forces and the integration of the fighters into the national army.
Sudan’s transitional government, which took power after the April 2019 ouster of hardline leader Omar al-Bashir, has made forging peace with rebel groups a priority.
Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity in the Darfur conflict, where fighting killed 300,000 people and displaced 2.5 million others, according to the UN.
The former president, who is in jail in Khartoum convicted of corruption, is now on trial for the 1989 coup in which he grabbed power.
Sudan’s rebels are largely drawn from non-Arab minority groups that long railed against Arab domination of the government in Khartoum under Bashir.
Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok said on Tuesday that the deal “creates a new Sudanese state, and remedies all injustices of the past”, as he appealed to two rebel holdout movements who refused to take part.
Previous peace accords in Sudan, including one signed in Nigeria in 2006 and another signed in Qatar in 2010, have fallen through.
Sudan’s main rebel alliance has agreed a peace deal with the government aimed at ending 17 years of conflict, official news agency SUNA said Sunday.
The Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), an alliance of rebel groups from the western region of Darfur and the southern states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, inked a peace agreement with the government late on Saturday.
A formal signing ceremony is planned for Monday in Juba, the capital of neighbouring South Sudan, which has hosted and helped mediate the long-running talks since late 2019.
Senior government officials and rebel leaders “signed their initials on protocols on security arrangements” and other issues late Saturday, SUNA reported.
However, two key holdout rebel forces have refused to take part in the deal.
The final agreement covers key issues around security, land ownership, transitional justice, power sharing, and the return of people who fled their homes due to war.
It also provides for the dismantling of rebel forces and the integration of their fighters into the national army.
Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and several ministers flew to Juba on Sunday, the news agency said, where he met with South Sudan President Salva Kiir.
– ‘Start of peace-building’ –
Hamdok said that finding a deal had taken longer than first hoped after a initial agreement in September 2019.
“At the Juba declaration in September, everyone expected peace to be signed within two or three months, but …we realised that the questions were of one great complexity,” Hamdok said.
“However, we were able to accomplish this great work, and this is the start of peace-building.”
The rebel forces took up arms against what they said was the economic and political marginalisation by the government in Khartoum.
They are largely drawn from non-Arab minority groups that long railed against Arab domination of successive governments in Khartoum, including that of toppled autocrat Omar al-Bashir.
About 300,000 people have been killed in Darfur since rebels took up arms there in 2003, according to the United Nations.
Conflict in South Kordofan and Blue Nile erupted in 2011, following unresolved issues from bitter fighting there in Sudan’s 1983-2005 civil war.
Forging peace with rebels has been a cornerstone of Sudan’s transitional government, which came to power in the months after Bashir’s overthrow in April 2019 on the back of mass protests against his rule.
Two movements rejected part of the deal — a faction of the Sudan Liberation Movement, led by Abdelwahid Nour, and a wing of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), headed by Abdelaziz al-Hilu.
Previous peace accords in Sudan, including one signed in Nigeria in 2006 and another signed in Qatar in 2010, have fallen through over the years.
UN officials reported a fresh massacre of more than 60 people in Sudan’s West Darfur, as the country’s prime minister promised fresh troops for the conflict-stricken region.
Attackers targeted members of the local Masalit community, looting and burning houses and part of the local market, a statement said.
Around 500 armed men attacked Masteri Town, north of Beida, in Darfur on Saturday afternoon, said the Sunday statement from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
“This was one of the latest of a series of security incidents reported over the last week that left several villages and houses burned, markets and shops looted, and infrastructure damaged,” said the statement, from the OCHA’s Khartoum office.
Following Saturday’s attack on Masteri, around 500 local people staged a protest demanding more protection from the authorities.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok said the government would send security forces to conflict-stricken Darfur to “protect citizens and the farming season.”
The force will include army and police, he said in a statement after he met a delegation of women from the region.
On Friday, armed men drove into a village and killed 20 civilians returning to their fields for the first time in years, an eyewitness and a tribal chief told AFP.
Darfur has been devastated since 2003 by a conflict between ethnic minority rebels and forces loyal to now ousted president Omar al-Bashir, including the feared Janjaweed militia, mainly recruited from Arab pastoralist tribes.
A government scorched-earth campaign to crush the rebels left 300,000 people dead and displaced 2.5 million.
Violence in Darfur has eased since Bashir’s ouster by the army amid mass protests against his rule last year.
The government and a coalition of nine rebel groups, including factions from the region, signed a preliminary peace deal in January.
Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court over charges of genocide and crimes against humanity in the conflict.
Farmers displaced by the fighting had since started to return to their land under a government-sponsored deal reached two months ago, in time for the July-November planting season.
But the bloodshed has continued, particularly over land rights, according to expert Adam Mohammad.
“The question of land is one cause of the conflict,” he said.
“During the war, peasants fled their lands and villages to camps, and nomads replaced them and settled there.”
The recent killings have targeted the African farming communities in conflict with the nomadic Arab tribes over the land.
In late June and early July, hundreds of protesters camped for days outside a government building in the Central Darfur town of Nertiti to demand that the government beef up security after multiple killings and looting incidents on farmland and properties.
After Saturday’s attack on Masteri, around 500 local people staged their own protest demanding more protection.
“The escalation of violence in different parts of Darfur region is leading to increased displacement, compromising the agricultural season, causing loss of lives and livelihoods and driving growing humanitarian needs,” said the OCHA statement.
Sudan’s government on Wednesday said it will devalue its currency and cut fuel subsidies due to a huge budget deficit and an economic crisis aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic.
“State revenues have dropped by 40 percent and this has created a huge deficit in the budget,” acting Finance Minister Hiba Mohammed said in a statement released by the government.
“The government must take urgent measures and change the official rate of the (Sudanese) pound,” she added.
The pound’s official rate is 55 to the US dollar, compared to 140 on the black market.
Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok later announced at a news conference that the government would “gradually cut subsidies on petrol and diesel”.
But he said that subsidies on medicine, electricity, bread and cooking gas would remain in place.
Sudan’s transitional government has grappled with an acute economic crisis since its formation last year following the army’s ouster of veteran dictator Omar al-Bashir amid huge street protests.
Annual inflation reached 136 percent in June and that same month tens of thousands of protesters flooded the streets of Khartoum and other cities to demand economic reform.
The country’s economic woes have seen citizens queue for hours to buy essential foods and fuel.
“The government must take the necessary measures to mitigate the effect of the coronavirus pandemic” on the economy, Mohammed said.
On Sunday the UN made an urgent appeal for $283 million to help Sudan tackle the coronavirus pandemic and its economic consequences, warning that millions could face hunger.
“COVID-19 arrived in Sudan at a time when an increasing part of the population was already struggling to meet their basic needs and the health system was already under extreme stress,” the UN’s Sudan humanitarian coordinator Gwi-Yeop Son said on Sunday.
“Unless we act now, we should be prepared for a series of human tragedies,” she said.
Sudan has officially registered more than 11,000 cases of the COVID-19 illness and 706 deaths.
Sudan’s former autocratic president Omar al-Bashir, ousted amid a popular pro-democracy uprising last year, faces trial from Tuesday over the military coup that brought him to power more than three decades ago.
Bashir, 76, who is already behind bars for corruption, could face the death penalty if convicted over his 1989 coup against the democratically elected government of prime minister Sadek al-Mahdi.
The Khartoum trial starting at 0800 GMT against him and 16 co-accused comes as Sudan’s post-revolution transitional government has launched a series of reforms in hopes of fully rejoining the international community.
Sudan has also pledged to hand over Bashir to the International Criminal Court to face trial on war crimes and genocide charges related to the Darfur conflict, which left 300,000 people dead and millions displaced in a scorched earth campaign against a 2003 insurgency.
It is the first time in the modern history of the Arab world that the architect of a coup goes on trial, although the man dubbed the true brain behind the military overthrow, Hassan Turabi of the National Islamic Front, died in 2016.
“This trial will be a warning to anyone who tries to destroy the constitutional system,” said Moaz Hadra, one of the lawyers who led the push to bring the case to court.
“This will safeguard Sudanese democracy. In this way, we hope to bring an end to the era of putsches in Sudan.”
Bashir will be in the dock with 10 military personnel and six civilians, including his former vice presidents Ali Osman Taha and Bakri Hassan Saleh, as well as former ministers and governors.
They are all accused of having plotted the June 30, 1989 coup when the army arrested Sudan’s political leaders, suspended parliament and other state bodies, closed the airport and announced the putsch on the radio.
Bashir, who was later elevated to the rank of general, stayed in power for 30 years before being overthrown on April 11 last year after several months of unprecedented, youth-led street demonstrations.
First coup trial
Hadra told AFP that Bashir and Saleh “have totally refused to cooperate with the commission of enquiry, but they will be present at the court”.
The lawyer said the accused are charged under crimes including Chapter 96 of the 1983 Penal Code, which had been abolished by Bashir, and which carries the death penalty for attempting to destroy the constitutional order.
Hadra said that “this is the first time someone who launches a coup will be brought to justice” in Sudan, which has seen three coups d’etat since its 1956 independence from Britain.
One of the 150 defence lawyers, Hashem al-Gali, charged that Bashir and the others would face “a political trial” being held “in a hostile environment on the part of the judicial system against the defendants”.
“In fact, this trial is aimed at the Islamic movement and its sole purpose is to present it as a terrorist movement, but we have prepared our defence and we will prove the contrary,” Gali stressed.
He argued Bashir’s overthrow of Mahdi took place so long ago that it was beyond the statute of limitations and should therefore no longer be dealt with by a court.
Former police general Salah Mattar, who was head of internal security in 1989, welcomed the trial, recounting how he had anticipated the overthrow.
“I had observed movements and meetings of the National Islamic Front six months before the coup and made a report to interior minister Mubarak al-Mahdi, but he ignored it,” Mattar recounted to AFP.
“After the coup I was chased out with six high-ranking police officers.”
The trial takes place at a time when Sudan’s joint civilian-military transitional government is introducing a host of reforms and has relaunched peace talks with rebel groups.
Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok’s administration has recently abolished rules restricting women’s movements, outlawed the practice of female genital mutilation, scrapped a law against apostasy and relaxed a ban on alcohol.
Khartoum hopes to soon be taken off the US State Department’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism, a significant hurdle to receiving foreign aid and investment.
Ethiopia on Wednesday acknowledged that water levels behind its mega-dam on the Blue Nile River were increasing, though officials said this was a natural part of the construction process.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has been a source of tension in the Nile River basin ever since Ethiopia broke ground on it in 2011, with downstream countries Egypt and Sudan worried it will restrict vital water supplies.
Addis Ababa has long intended to begin filling the dam’s reservoir this month, in the middle of its rainy season, though it has not said exactly when.
Cairo and Khartoum are pushing for the three countries to first reach an agreement on how it will be operated.
The latest round of tripartite talks overseen by the African Union has so far failed to resolve the dispute.
“The GERD water filling is being done in line with the dam’s natural construction process,” Seleshi Bekele, Ethiopia’s water minister, was quoted by state media as saying Wednesday.
He did not, however, say whether Ethiopia had taken steps to store the water in the reservoir, which has a capacity of 74 billion cubic metres.
Ethiopia is in the middle of its rainy season, and an official at the dam site told AFP this week that heavy rains meant the flow of the Blue Nile was exceeding the capacity of the dam’s culverts to push water downstream.
“We didn’t close and nothing is done. It looks like, when you see some photos, it looks like the river is getting higher and higher because of the amount of water coming from upstream, which is above the charging capacity of the culverts,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A separate official, an adviser at the water ministry who also insisted on anonymity, stressed that water continued to flow downstream.
“As the construction progresses, the water level behind the dam also will rise, so that’s what’s happening, nothing more,” said the adviser.
Ethiopia has long insisted it must start filling the dam’s reservoir this year as part of the construction process, though filling will occur in stages.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed reiterated the point in an address to parliament earlier this month.
“If Ethiopia doesn’t fill the dam, it means Ethiopia has agreed to demolish the dam,” he said.
“On other points we can reach an agreement slowly over time, but for the filling of the dam we can reach and sign an agreement this year.”
The joint United Nations and African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) condemned Tuesday “violent incidents” in North Darfur state which left nine dead and 20 wounded.
“UNAMID is deeply concerned about the violent incidents that erupted in Kutum town on 12 July and the attack by unidentified armed men on the Fata Borno IDP (internally displaced people) camp on the morning of 13 July 2020 which left 9 IDPs dead and 20 injured,” the peacekeeping mission said in a statement.
“It is regrettable that these incidents have taken place while the transitional government of Sudan and the armed movements are close to concluding negotiations expected to bring peace and stability… to the Darfur region and the whole of Sudan,” it added.
Darfur has long been plagued by poor security and armed groups.
In 2003, a deadly ethnic conflict broke out in Darfur between African minority rebels and forces backed by the government of ex-president Omar al-Bashir, who was ousted in April 2019.
Bashir is wanted by The Hague-based International Criminal Court over charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in Darfur.
The United Nations says the conflict killed 300,000 people and displaced 2.5 million.
Sudan’s current transitional government, comprised of military and civilian figures led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok since last year, has engaged in talks with three key rebel groups to reach a peace deal to end the wars in Darfur, the Blue Nile and South Kordofan.
A signing ceremony with various rebel factions slated for Tuesday was delayed once again.
In the wake of the recent unrest, North Darfur’s governor announced a state of emergency on Monday.
Sudan’s sovereign council, the highest authority in the country, on Friday ratified a law criminalising female genital mutilation, the justice ministry announced.
The council, comprising military and civilian authorities, approved a series of laws including one “criminalising” the age-old practice known as FGM or genital cutting that “undermines the dignity of women,” a statement said.
Earlier this year, Sudan’s cabinet approved amendments to the criminal code that would punish those who perform the operation with up to three years in prison and a fine.
Nearly nine out of 10 girls in Sudan fall victim to FGM, according to the United Nations.
In its most brutal form, it involves the removal of the labia and clitoris, often in unsanitary conditions and without anaesthesia.
Rights groups have for years decried as barbaric the practice, which can lead to myriad physical, psychological and sexual complications and, in the most tragic cases, death.
The justice ministry’s statement said doctors or health workers who carry out genital cutting would be penalised under the new law, and hospitals, clinics or other places where the operation was conducted would be shut.
As Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan struggle to resolve a long-running dispute over Addis Ababa’s mega-dam project on the Nile, some of their citizens are sparring online over their rights to the mighty waterway.
For nearly a decade, multiple rounds of talks between Cairo, Addis Ababa and Khartoum have failed to produce a deal over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
Anxiety has mounted in downstream Sudan and Egypt, which fear for their vital water supplies after upstream Ethiopia declared plans to start filling Africa’s largest dam reservoir in July.
As tensions have run high in the political arena, they have also amped up online.
In one widely viewed video originally shared on TikTok, an Ethiopian woman pours water from a pitcher into two cups representing Egypt and Sudan.
She fills Sudan’s cup to the brim but only pours a trickle of water into Egypt’s, before emptying the water back into the pitcher.
“This is my water. When I give you water, it’s my call, not yours,” she says.
In response, an Egyptian woman created a compilation of the video and one of her own in which she knocks down a dam-shaped block structure with the Ethiopian flag superimposed on it before triumphantly downing a cup of water.
The video had been viewed more than 55,000 times on Instagram by Wednesday.
Social media “platforms are powerful,” said Wubalem Fekade, communications head at the intergovernmental ENTRO-Nile Basin Initiative.
“People on the social media platforms aren’t accountable, so it’s easy to disseminate unverified, incorrect, false, even conspiracy theories,” he said.
But, he added hopefully, “when used creatively and judiciously, they can help defuse tensions”.
-‘Psychological war’- The online row over the dam has been particularly heated between Egyptian and Ethiopian social media users.
Egypt has long enjoyed the lion’s share of the Nile water under decades-old agreements that were largely viewed by other Nile basin countries as unfair.
On Twitter, Egyptians echoed authorities’ fears that Ethiopia’s dam would severely cut their country’s supply of water from the Nile, which provides 97 percent of the arid nation’s water needs.
“We will never allow any country to starve us” of water, Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris wrote on Twitter.
“If Ethiopia doesn’t come to reason, we, the Egyptian people will be the first to call for war,” he threatened.
Egyptian cartoonist Ahmed Diab has weighed in with a drawing of an outsized Egyptian soldier, rifle slung over his shoulder, facing a diminutive Ethiopian man with the dam in the background.
“You idiot, try to understand that I care for you… ever heard about the Bar Lev Line?” the soldier tells the Ethiopian, alluding to Egypt’s military strength in referring to the Egyptian destruction of an Israeli defence line along the Suez canal in 1973.
Diab called the cartoon part of a “psychological war”.
“Besides a show of military might and strong media discourse, arts can boost people’s morale,” he said.
For their part, Ethiopians have rallied behind their country’s mega project, set to become Africa’s largest hydroelectric installation.
On social media, they have rejected any conditions of reaching a deal before filling the dam.
Filling the dam should not be held “hostage” to an agreement with Cairo, Ethiopian activist Jawar Mohamed wrote on Twitter.
“If agreement is reached before the filling begins in the coming days, it’s great. If not, the filling should begin and the negotiation shall continue,” he said.
Ethiopia, one of Africa’s fastest growing economies, insists the dam will not affect the onward flow of water and sees the project as indispensible for its national development and electrification.
– ‘Healthy discussions’ – Khartoum hopes the dam will help regulate flooding, but in June it warned that millions of lives will be at “great risk” if Ethiopia unilaterally fills the dam.
In a letter to the United Nations Security Council, Sudan raised concerns that water discharged from the GERD could “compromise the safety” of its own Roseires Dam by overwhelming it and causing flooding.
Omar Dafallah, a Sudanese artist, depicted Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed overseeing the water flowing from the dam through a faucet to fill a jug held by Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.
The drawing also shows Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi with a large water container, waiting in line.
Last month, Egypt also appealed to the UNSC to intervene in the crisis — a move Sisi said underlined his country’s committment to a political solution.
Egyptian lawmaker Mohamed Fouad views the online debate as a way to “break the stalemate” in the diplomatic talks, “so long as they remain within the boundaries of healthy discussions”.