With the lifting of US sanctions last October, aid organisations hoped the Sudanese government would ease restrictions on aid operations and allow access to parts of the country long kept off limits.
But six months after this major shift in strategy in dealing with President Omar al-Bashir, aid workers and rights advocates doubt the bureaucratic changes they’ve seen in Khartoum will translate into more people receiving humanitarian assistance over the long term.
They also worry that any new cooperation might be rolled back as Sudan normalises relations with the international community, especially if it is soon removed from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, opening the way to debt relief and foreign investment.
“The way we all see it here is that [access improvements] are a temporary measure to appease Western governments – there’s not been a core change in the government’s behaviour,” said an aid worker based in South Kordofan’s Nuba Mountains, for decades the target of oppression, alleged ethnic cleansing, and brutal counter-insurgency operations by Sudanese government forces and allied militias. “Once they get what they want, it’s going to go back to what it was.”
A February UN humanitarian appeal called for $1 billion in aid for 4.3 million people who need assistance – about 10 percent of Sudan’s total population. Donors have so far pledged only three percent of that total. And even if more urgently needed funds materialise, whether help reaches all those who need it is another matter.
The Sudanese government has a long history of blocking aid. Easing these restrictions was a condition for the United States – still the largest donor of aid to Sudan – to lift 19 years of economic sanctions. But the benchmarks for assessing progress remain vague, while rebel-held areas are still inaccessible, and the government is already starting to dial back earlier commitments to simplify access.
Greater access for aid workers and humanitarian supplies also seems to be falling lower on the list of priorities for the international community, as the EU focuses on stemming onward migration from Sudan and, like the United States, emphasises counter-terrorism efforts.
Aid groups say they have seen some gains post-sanctions, including less government red tape for travel and launching new projects. The government has also opened humanitarian aid corridors to South Sudan, where a civil war has raged since late 2013 – Sudan hosts some 455,000 South Sudanese refugees, with more arriving daily.
“There have been some limited improvements in humanitarian access, in terms of humanitarian actors facing fewer bureaucratic impediments to conducting assessments and delivering humanitarian assistance to people in need,” said Noah Gottschalk, senior manager and policy adviser at Oxfam, one of the major international aid groups operating in Sudan.
Directives issued by the government’s Humanitarian Aid Commission In December 2016 – supposedly to allow aid workers to travel more easily and give aid agencies more control over hiring staff – fuelled US and UN hopes that Sudan was set to facilitate humanitarian access. But observers say Khartoum failed to deliver convincingly on the increased flexibility outlined in the directives when it issued an “implementation note” in February 2017.
"That was the first bad sign – that the implementation note isn’t in the spirit of the original agreement,” said a Sudan analyst, who preferred to remain anonymous given their ongoing work in the country. “I think there have been a couple of points over the past year where progress happened, due to US pressure at the right moments. But there have been backslides in between these moments."
Travel outside of Khartoum still requires government permission, and the paperwork can take days or even weeks. The government is also heavily involved in the recruitment, screening, and staff selection at international organisations and tightly controls Sudanese humanitarian and civil society groups.
Aid organisations and workers in Sudan do not generally speak on the record for fear of Sudanese government repercussions. In 2009, after the International Criminal Court issued an indictment against al-Bashir for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide in Darfur, the president ordered 13 international humanitarian organisations out of the country.
In 2015, the Sudanese government bombed a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in the Nuba Mountains, prompting one of MSF’s sections to close its programmes. At the end of that year, the government raided the offices of Tearfund, a Christian charity that had been working across Darfur, confiscating the organisation’s cash and computers and expelling it in January 2016.
Blue Nile and South Kordofan: still cut off
Behind October’s US decision to lift sanctions was an understanding that Khartoum had stepped up its cooperation on counter-terrorism and would stop meddling in South Sudan. But the Sudanese government also pledged to do more to end its internal conflicts, while allowing humanitarian aid to more easily reach the civilian populations caught up in them.
This refers not only to long-running unrest in the western Darfur region, but also to less well-known conflicts simmering in the southern states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, where some territory is controlled by factions of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), a group that has been fighting the Sudanese government since 2011.
According to the UN, an estimated 545,000 people are displaced in Blue Nile and South Kordofan. In parts of South Kordofan, chronic malnutrition exceeds emergency levels, and in Blue Nile, almost 40 percent of households are severely food insecure, meaning they face a serious risk of hunger.
The government has banned international aid workers from travelling to rebel-held areas of South Kordofan and Blue Nile since the beginning of the conflict. Aid access has been a sticking point in the peace negotiations, the most recent of which occurred in Addis Ababa in February. Both sides have been unable to find a compromise to allow aid in.
The Sudanese government insists all aid must come directly from Khartoum to prevent any trafficking in other goods, such as weapons. The SPLM-N says it wants at least some to come through Kenya, Ethiopia, or South Sudan – countries it views as allies.
"Sudan is cooperative with the international community to solve the problem,” said Mekki Elmograbi, the media representative of the Sudanese embassy in Washington. “The SPLM/N is stuck in the position of refusing initiatives on humanitarian aid to [South Kordofan and Blue Nile].”
Those proposed initiatives include one from the UN, the African Union, and the League of Arab States, to set up a humanitarian oversight committee with representatives from both sides to oversee aid delivery, and an offer from the US government to deliver medical aid from Khartoum.
However, some observers consider it unsurprising that the rebels won’t shift their position.
“If people hear that aid is coming from Khartoum, they don’t believe it,” said the aid worker based in the Nuba Mountains. “They think the food will be tainted. People here don’t trust the Khartoum government at all – and they have reason not to trust them.”
Changes ahead in Darfur
In Darfur, protracted displacement stemming from the war that ignited in 2003 has left 1.6 million people living in some 60 camps. While security has improved, rebel groups and the Sudanese government still haven’t reached a peace agreement.
The Sudanese government wants displaced Darfuris to leave the camps. But many Darfuris, some of whom have lived in the camps for over two decades, say return is impossible because their former homes and land have been resettled by pro-government militias and communities. A few weeks ago, a group of 400 Darfuris trying to return to East Darfur reported being assaulted.
Since 2007, the UN has operated in Darfur under the protection of the joint African Union/UN hybrid operation, UNAMID, created to shield civilians and facilitate aid access after the war. UNAMID’s presence – which at its height included some 20,000 officers – has been wracked with controversy, including reports that troops failed to stop violence against displaced Darfuris or report human rights violations.
Last June, the UN restructured UNAMID and began scaling back its operations, closing 10 sites in Darfur, handing over two community policing centres to the Sudanese government, and reducing its military and police personnel. At the same time, it is trying to open a base in the mountainous Jebel Marra, where conflict persists between rebel groups and the Sudanese government.
Information on how UNAMID’s downsizing affects security and aid operations remains scarce. It could limit access for UN agencies, whose security rules mandate that all personnel travel in Darfur under UNAMID armed escort. “UN security rules in Darfur are restricting UN access,” said one Darfur-based aid worker, who preferred to remain anonymous.
“There’s almost no one on the ground to monitor developments,” said Maddy Crowther, co-executive director at Waging Peace, an NGO that focuses on human rights. “Changes are happening in the dark. For example, UNAMID has closed down various team sites, but instead of these being handed over to civilian bodies, there are reports that they’ve been taken over by the [government’s paramilitary] Rapid Support Forces in some cases.”
Some organisations in Darfur are less restricted. In 2017, MSF opened two projects in West and East Darfur states, one of which assists South Sudanese refugees. The International Committee of the Red Cross also recently announced an expansion there.
In addition to the United States, the EU and several member states, such as Norway, have traditionally been key advocates in pushing for humanitarian access. The EU is a main funder of humanitarian aid in Sudan, providing €46 million in 2017, the majority focused on food assistance.
But in response to the thousands of asylum seekers from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan passing through Khartoum on their way to Libya or Egypt and then Europe, Brussels has been steadily intensifying pressure on Sudan to control migration, allocating some 200 million euros to migration-related initiatives.
“Although humanitarian access remains a key demand of the EU, it has taken a back seat in recent years to other priorities, chiefly migration,” said Crowther.
Sudan is now pushing the United States to remove it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, a change that would pave the way for debt relief and foreign investment. Britain and other countries have rushed to explore economic opportunities there.
But Sudan is also in the midst of an economic crisis. In January, protests rocked Khartoum in response to government austerity measures that led to the price of bread doubling. The government responded to the protests with a violent crackdown that left at least three dead, arresting students, protesters, and journalists. The worsening economy could leave even more people in need of food, medical and other assistance.
Rights advocates warn that constant vigilance is needed, not only to expose human rights violations but also to ensure that the Sudanese government lives up to its promises on aid access.
“We need to put the brakes on the rush to normalise relations with Sudan before there is substantial reform,” said Crowther. “Individual member states have a responsibility to balance their own internal priorities – for instance Britain’s need to find new post-Brexit partners – against those of Sudan’s people, who deserve to be governed without the use or threat of coercion.”
“Now that the US is dangling the carrot of removing Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, humanitarian access and human rights benchmarks should take centre stage.”
Caitlin L. Chandler reported from Sudan with a fellowship from the International Reporting Project (IRP)