KHARTOUM, Sep 17, 2011 (IPS) - The Sudanese government says that a majority of the tens of thousands of people displaced by the fighting in the country’s Blue Nile state have started returning to the area. This is despite reports by local and international aid agencies that say people are still fleeing the region.
On Tuesday the United Nations estimated that over 100,000 people have been displaced by the fighting that began two weeks ago. On Sep. 1, Blue Nile became another conflict area in Sudan when fighting erupted between forces loyal to the north Sudan faction of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) – the ruling political party in South Sudan originally formed to oppose Sudan’s rule – and government’s Sudan Armed Forces.
The Sudanese Red Crescent Society estimated that 35,000 households have been affected since fighting began in Blue Nile at the beginning of September. The U.N.’s Refugee Agency reported that 16,000 refugees fled the area into Ethiopia.
But Magdi Abdulwahab, who is responsible for compiling reports on the Blue Nile for Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP), said that the state is stabilising and internally displaced persons are returning to safe regions in Blue Nile and neighbouring states. Blue Nile is one of Sudan’s 15 states. It borders South Sudan to its west and south, Ethiopia to its east and has a population of just over 800,000.
"Seventy percent of displaced persons in places like Sennar (a state bordering Blue Nile) and Senja, the capital of Sennar, are returning," he told IPS.
He said government had urged the IDPs to return for the harvest. "The government is asking people to return as this is the agricultural season and the livelihoods of most of the state's citizens are tied to agriculture and livestock," said Abdulwahab. He added he receives daily reports confirming that the situation in the state is calm.
Media reports have shown that most of the heavy fighting has occurred in Damazin, the capital of Blue Nile state, and Kurmuk, a SPLM-controlled town near the Ethiopian border.
But political anaylsts say that the conflict has been a long-time coming.
Even the former governor of Blue Nile, Malik Agar, who has since been fired by government, warned of the possible conflict in the area since June. He said it would occur if government and the SPLM failed to complete the remaining proposals of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which was signed between both parties to end the country’s 21-year civil war. A military representative, Commander Yahya Mohamed Kheir, has since replaced Agar as governor and a state of emergency was enforced in the state.
Government and the SPLM were supposed to resolve various issues, including those of oil revenues, border demarcation and military arrangements in the border areas of Abyei, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile before South Sudan's secession in July.
But by late July, the Sudanese government still had a heavy military presence in Blue Nile and Agar had called for a review of the CPA on this matter. (Agar is also the chairman of SPLM-North, a faction of the SPLM that is comprised of people from Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan.) The Sudanese government called for the dissolution of the SPLM-North’s army, but Agar wanted further guarantees about the future of his soldiers.
"Agar did not refuse dissolving the army in principal, he asked for a political arrangement to secure the soldier's future in the Sudanese army, or as civil servants, or as members in their communities," said Dr. Khalil Al-Madani, the Dean of the Faculty of Commerce, Economic and Social Studies at Nileen University in Khartoum. He is also the head of a team of experts working on the council involved in the popular consultations between Blue Nile state and Sudan’s government. This is a CPA-mandated process that allows both Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan to voice their opinions on political and administrative arrangements with the government and to even vote for autonomous rule.
"The war did not happen now, all the factors leading to war were present, but it ignited now," said Al- Madani.
Al-Madani added that matters were tense as far back as April 2010 when Agar had won the governorship of Blue Nile by popular vote and the Sudanese government had been reluctant to acknowledge his victory.
"Agar believed that the government would cheat him out of the governorship, their decision could have unleashed a war at the time. But when they announced his victory, they stopped (a possible) war in Blue Nile," explained Al-Madani.
Blue Nile is an important state in the desert-like Sudan. The area is rich in livestock and agricultural resources and until last year, Blue Nile was the source of most of Sudan's hydroelectric power through the Al Roseires Dam. But it is also very poor. "There are no services, no schools and no access to water even though it has a lot of resources," Al- Madani told IPS.
Before the conflict, Blue Nile state was in the final phase of the popular consultations, which would have led to a decision on whether the state would call for a referendum to cede from Sudan. The popular consultations were delayed and the council responsible for carrying out the popular consultations wanted Agar to extend the period for another six months.
"Agar refused the proposal because he was not consulted before a decision was made to extend the timeframe. The protocol of the popular consultation states that the process should be finished before the secession (of South Sudan)," said Al-Madani.
However, the council that oversees the popular consultation process is made up of NCP and SPLM members and since both parties clashed on the matter, there was no one to meditate.
"The security arrangements, the collapse of the Addis Ababa agreement (an agreement on settling the security and military disputes and engaging in a political partnership) and the popular consultations… they are all reasons for the conflict. But the mistrust and suspicion between Agar and the government is the main ignition for the war. Nobody believes anybody," said Al-Madani.
Mohamed (name has been changed), who has been working on a project to monitor the popular consultations in Blue Nile since August 2010, said that the conflict was partially predicted.
"When there is tension between parties that work together you can expect all kind of problems," he told IPS.
He added that going back to the popular consultations is the only way out of this crisis. However, Al-Madani added that Agar had been democratically elected to his post as governor and his firing on Sep. 2 was against the constitution. "Since Agar was elected by the state through a vote, he could only be disposed of by the state and this is according to the constitution," explained Al-Madani.
Meanwhile, government insists that the state is returning to normal. Abdulwahab stated in a phone interview that the only problematic area was Kurmuk, but that government had issued a call to the SPLM for peace in the state.
"The conflict will be resolved soon, through negotiations or the battlefield," he told IPS.
Al-Madani, who has spent long periods of time in Blue Nile, believes that negotiations are the only way out.
"There is war in Darfur, in Southern Kordofan and now in Blue Nile. There will possibly be a conflict in East Sudan. We have been facing the same problems for the past 22 years. The government needs to come up with a political resolution, 95 percent of internal wars in the 21st century were resolved politically," said Al-Madani.
On Sep. 12, the Sudanese parliament endorsed the extension of the state of emergency in Blue Nile and voted for the continuation of military action by the Sudanese army.