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East Sudan insurgency

Updated: Wed, 10 Jul 2013

At A GlanceBack to top

A decade-long low-level revolt in the east threatened to flare into full-scale conflict, until a 2006 peace deal between the rebels and Khartoum signalled a new era of peace for one of Sudan's economically most important areas.

  • One of Sudan's poorest regions
  • Home to Sudan's largest gold mine and major oil pipeline
  • Drought has forced many to abandon nomadic lifestyle

The grievances of the Eastern Front, the coalition of former rebels in east Sudan, were similar to those of the rebel groups in Darfur and southern Sudan. Put simply, they wanted more political power and a greater share of Sudan's oil profits.

Under the October 2006 peace agreement, the Eastern Front joined the government and a reconstruction and development fund was established to help the region recover from war.

But tribes in the region remain angry, complaining that the money was slow to arrive and has not brought adequate development.

Some eastern rebel groups have joined armed groups in other parts of the country to build resistance to the government.

The region includes Port Sudan, the country's only deepwater and only oil-exporting port.

In DetailBack to top

The east is one of the poorest regions in Sudan, even though it has the country’s largest gold mine, its major oil pipeline and Port Sudan, site of all its oil exports.

It comprises the states of Kassala, Gedaref and Red Sea and has some of the most fertile land in the country.

It’s a vast area of 300,000 square kilometres, home to an estimated three to four million people.

Eastern groups took part in the war between Khartoum and the south, but the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which ended this did not address the political and social problems in the east. Rebel groups there continued a low-level revolt, demanding greater political power and more money for the impoverished region.

The Eastern Front rebels controlled a small strip of land on the border with Eritrea, attacking police stations and oil pipelines to get Khartoum's attention.

Khartoum took the Eastern Front threat seriously, even if the rest of the world did not. Amid fears that a stable of suicide bombers were prepared to attack military installations in the area and interrupt the flow of oil, the government prepared for war and stopped most foreigners from visiting the region, including aid workers and journalists.

A power-sharing agreement mediated by Eritrea was signed in October 2006, restoring peace. The deal gave the Eastern Front one junior minister in Khartoum, an assistant to the president, an adviser to the president, eight parliamentary seats in Khartoum and 10 parliamentary seats in each of the three eastern states.

A $600 million development fund was also established under the deal, to be paid over four years. This included funds for the demobilisation and reintegration of former fighters.

But implementation of parts of the peace deal was slow. Anger in east Sudan over the lack of promised funds from Khartoum and tension within the Eastern Front political party fuelled fears of a return to war in 2008. War was averted.

In January 2011, the Federal Alliance of Eastern Sudan, a splinter group of the former rebel Eastern Front, merged with Darfur's largest rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).

In November, the Beja Congress – which also comprised part of the Eastern Front – announced it had joined a new coalition of armed opposition groups, the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), whose stated aim is the overthrow of Sudan's ruling National Congress Party "with all possible means".

The SRF includes JEM and two other rebel groups from Sudan's Darfur region, and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North, which is active in Sudan's Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan states.

By July 2013, the demobilisation and reintegration of former fighters had been completed. But a reconciliation conference mandated under the 2006 peace deal had not taken place, and only 12 percent of the $600 million development fund had been allocated, according to Eastern Front leaders. The funds allocated had been spent on building schools and health centres, although some of these have no staff to run them, or they were built in areas where there is no population to use them, the Small Arms Survey said.

The widespread presence of landmines and illicit arms, and government restrictions on travel, hamper the work of aid agencies in the region.

East Sudan's population is predominantly rural, and conflicts sometimes break out over competition for scarce water, land and grazing.

Humanitarian situationBack to top

The region suffers from chronic poverty, food insecurity, lack of access to basic facilities, and limited support from central government.

At the end of 2012, the European Commission said the region had some of the worst hunger levels in Sudan. In March 2013, it said humanitarian indicators – including hunger levels – might be as bad in east Sudan as in Darfur.

There is little information available about the humanitarian needs. Government restrictions on international aid agencies in the area were tightened in 2012, and seven agencies serving more than 600,000 people were forced to stop work.

The situation had already deteriorated in 2011 when South Sudan seceded, reducing Sudan's income from oil and pushing up the price of food. Annual inflation in Red Sea State was 24.7 percent in September 2011, compared with 18.7 percent in Khartoum.

East Sudan is host to an estimated 180,000 internally displaced people and about 80,000 refugees, most of them from Eritrea, the U.N. Refugee Agency said in November 2011. Most are housed in camps in poor conditions. Some Eritreans have been here since the late 1960s.

Only 3 percent of the population can read and write, U.S. aid group the International Rescue Committee (IRC) found in 2000. The IRC says it was not until 2004 that the first books were published in Bedawit, the Beja language.

In recent years, persistent drought has led to recurrent food crises and ended the nomadic way of life of thousands of people, who have migrated to Port Sudan and other urban areas to find work.

For many years, the only humanitarian route into the rebel-controlled territory was through neighbouring Eritrea. Access gradually improved after the 2006 peace deal, though government restrictions remain. Landmines are a barrier to aid agencies in some areas, particularly along the former front line of the north-south war in Kassala state.

The government expelled 13 international aid agencies from Sudan in March 2009, after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudan's president for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.

Some of the agencies - including IRC and Oxfam - worked in the east.

The Eastern FrontBack to top

The Eastern Front, formed in 2005, was a coalition of rebels from two ethnically based rebel groups, the Beja Congress and the Rashaida Free Lions.

Both were backed by neighbouring Eritrea, in response to Khartoum's support for insurgents that Eritrea's government claimed were trying to destabilise Eritrea.

The Beja Congress first took up arms against the government in 1994. The Beja, who number 2.4 million, are the largest ethnic group in eastern Sudan and one of the largest ethnic groups in the country. They are Muslim and live as semi-nomads in an extremely undeveloped region.

Their largest support base is in Port Sudan, where thousands of Beja live in expansive slums on the outskirts. Years of drought have forced them to abandon their nomadic lifestyle and seek work in the region's cities, but jobs are scarce and many struggle to make a living.

The much richer Rashaida are nomads of Arab descent who migrated from Saudi Arabia in the mid-19th century and still maintain links with the Arabian Peninsula.

The Rashaida incurred Khartoum's wrath when they showed solidarity with Kuwaitis during the first Gulf War by supplying them with hundreds of jeeps after Iraq invaded in 1991.

After suffering killings and torture at the hands of their own government, as well as the confiscation of many of their own vehicles, the Rashaida joined forces with the Beja.

The Eastern Front had links with the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM) in the south, which deployed troops in eastern Sudan, in an area called Hameshkoreb, via Eritrea in the 1990s. These were withdrawn under the north-south peace deal signed in 2005.

One of Darfur's main rebel groups, JEM, was also an ally of the Eastern Front and offered support from a base in Eritrea.

TimelineBack to top

1994 - The Beja Congress, formed in the 1960s, first takes up arms against the government


May - Beja Congress sabotages the export oil pipeline to the port of Bashir


Jan - Government forces kill at least 20 Beja protesters in Port Sudan, eastern Sudan, and arrest scores of others. The protesters were calling for greater autonomy from Khartoum

Feb - Rashaida Free Lions and the Beja Congress rebel groups merge to form the Eastern Front

Jun - Beja Congress launches offensive around Tokar, 120km south of Port Sudan. Sudanese government says Darfur's Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and Eritrea are backing eastern rebels

May - Eastern Front rebels threaten uprising and kidnap three ruling party politicians near Eritrean border. Talks between government and eastern parties result in $88m aid promise to Red Sea state over three years

Rebel groups claim Sudanese warplanes have bombed targets, wounding civilians. The government denies the bombings

Jul - Sudan lifts the state of emergency, except in Darfur and the east


Jan - Government forces withdraw after clashing with Eastern Front troops in SPLA and Eastern Front-held Hamashkoreb. Peace talks scheduled for February

Feb - Eastern Front rebels indefinitely postpone peace talks with government

Mar - Eastern Front accuse the government of raising local militias to fan insecurity in the east, after a spate of militia attacks allegedly kill 12 civilians

Apr - In eastern Kassala, rebels attack government positions, killing 8. Khartoum asks Eritrea to mediate

May - The government and Eastern Front agree to hold talks in Asmara on Jun. 13, to be hosted by Eritrea

Oct - Sudan signs a peace deal with Eastern Front in the Eritrean capital, Asmara


May - Eastern Front agrees on a list of candidates for three government posts, to allow delayed 2006 peace deal to go ahead


Aug - Eastern Front leader warns former rebel fighters living in camps may return to war unless government releases the money needed to help them disarm, demobilise and reintegrate as required under the peace deal

Eastern Front suspends its chairman, accusing him of splitting the political party along tribal lines


Mar - International Criminal Court issues arrest warrant for Bashir over war crimes in Darfur. Government expels 13 foreign aid groups from Sudan, and closes three local aid agencies in Darfur. The expulsion threatens aid programmes in south and east Sudan, as well as Darfur

Bashir later says he wants all foreign aid agencies to stop distributing relief within a year, and to train up Sudanese organisations to replace them


Apr - Bashir and his National Congress Party win presidential and parliamentary elections


Jan - The Federal Alliance of Eastern Sudan, a splinter group of the former rebel Eastern Front, merges with Darfur's largest rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement

Jul – Republic of South Sudan is formed

Nov - The Beja Congress says it has joined a new coalition of armed opposition groups from across the country, called the Sudan Revolutionary Front

Dec - The U.N. Development Programme says tensions are rising, and Beja fighters have gathered on the Eritrean side of the border

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