Civil War and Renewed Drought Inaugurate Second Famine in Sudan

By Mainer, Jean N. | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January 1991 | Go to article overview

Civil War and Renewed Drought Inaugurate Second Famine in Sudan


Mainer, Jean N., Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


The words above by Sudanese relief worker Abdul Mohammed could be applied to political disputes almost anywhere in the world, but they take on a devastating urgency in Sudan where, as a terrible drought spreads across the country, its people are faced with starvation for the second time in five years. The description of the country's political leaders is chillingly accurate.

On one hand, there is Brigadier Omar Hassan Al-Bashir's Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), the military regime in Khartoum. It is closely allied with and influenced by the fundamentalist National Islamic Front. Together, apparently, they are capable of little more than repressing dissent by jailing and allegedly torturing critics. On the other hand, there is the rebel movement led by Col. John Garang, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/SPLA), which has employed brutal tactics towards civilian populations such as besieging government-held towns in the south and preventing food and supplies from reaching townspeople.

While professing concern for the interests of all Sudanese, the RCC basically represents a very narrow segment of northern Arab, fundamentalist Muslim interests. Garang's movement draws most of its support from southern African Sudanese professing either Christian or traditional religious beliefs. Garang has called for a secular government in all of Sudan, one in which southerners have a fair share of control over their wealth and resources. The RCC rejects such a plan, and the civil war grinds on.

Even as regional Sudanese leaders sought to choose the lesser of two political evils, by early September of this year it was clear the normal four-month rainy season had failed to materialize in most of the northern half of the country, and parts of the south. The result is virtual total crop failure in some areas.

A Potential Catastrophe

The US Agency for International Development's Famine Early Warning System adviser in Sudan has characterized the evolving drought as potentially catastrophic. Recent estimates by other experts in the region suggest that millions of Sudanese could die of drought-related causes in the coming year.

Thousands of people are now searching for food and water, and emaciated children appear with haggard parents at relief camps in Kordofan and elsewhere. Yet the RCC denies there is a famine and persists in pursuing economic and political policies that have alienated virtually every remaining ally. The RCC's relentless conduct of the civil war has bankrupted the country and exacerbated the already serious shortages of essential commodities, such as soap and milk. In some areas, there has been an almost ten-fold increase in the price of the food staple grain sorghum, due to the drought-related crop failure. Aid workers returning tell of anti-government demonstrations in some towns.

Although many foreign governments and relief agencies stand ready to send food and other assistance, there is little chance such aid will reach the Sudanese people in the near future. Since June 1989, when Al-Bashir overthrew the democratically elected Sadiq Al-Mahdi administration, the official attitude toward Western non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other donors has soured, resulting in a pattern of obstruction of many donor activities.

NGOs often must wait for months before shipments of medicines, vehicles and supplies are released from customs. While one ministry may wish to be cooperative, another ministry, for undeclared reasons, will sequester letters and documents necessary for processing shipments through customs. Meanwhile, medicines and foodstuffs spoil in the blistering heat of an airfield hangar or on a dock in Port Sudan.

The hardest-hit programs appear to be those designed to benefit Sudanese from southern tribes, many of whom are supporting the SPLM/A, although many such programs provide assistance to both displaced southerners and local Arab Sudanese residents. …

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