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We've been here before: the struggle for access in Sudan

Written by Irina Mosel


The Sudanese people of the Nuba Mountains region in Southern Kordofan state and of Blue Nile state are no strangers to war.  Over the past two years, they have again suffered regular, indiscriminate aerial bombardment and gunfire.  People have been forced to hide in caves, with limited access to food, water and health care.  Over 1.4 million people have been displaced by the current conflict.  The majority – an estimated 1 million – are in the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement - North (SPLM-N)-controlled areas of Southern Kordofan and neighbouring Blue Nile state.  These people are in desperate need of aid.  But aid to these areas won’t be coming anytime soon.

Since 2011, the Government of Sudan (GoS) has refused aid agencies and other external organisations access to SPLM-N-held areas.  Humanitarian negotiations seeking to gain access to the Nuba Mountains region and Blue Nile state have been limited, and not yet yielded concrete results. Remembering the GoS expulsion of international aid agencies from Sudan in 2009, many agencies are hesitant to push for access to the blockaded areas for fear of jeopardising their humanitarian programmes in other areas of Sudan. 

SPLM controlled areas of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states were excluded from the 1989 Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) agreement between the GoS, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) and the UN during Sudan's last civil war.  The aid blockade lasted for 13 years, during which countless people died from malnutrition and disease.  The severe 1990-93 Nuba Mountains food crisis, which occurred during this period, was the direct result of the aid blockade.

Starting in 1995, a few aid organisations began to operate across international borders into the Nuba Mountains without GoS consent.  While this aid addressed only a tiny proportion of the enormous need, at least some suffering was alleviated. Eventually, as a result of consistent and strategic high-level diplomatic engagement with the GoS, the rebel group and other stakeholders, and the convergence of other geopolitical factors, a ceasefire agreement was brokered in 2002.  The ceasefire allowed the establishment of an innovative, multi-agency, cross-line mechanism for assistance to all conflict affected areas.

With today’s crisis, we have yet to see the high-level engagement with all parties to the conflict necessary to achieve access to blockaded areas.  Our research has shown that relationships between all sides have deteriorated over the past two years due to the lack of sustained engagement. Trust between the SPLM-N and the GoS is low.  Similarly, the SPLM-N’s initially positive view of aid agencies has given way to distrust and resentment due to the ongoing aid blockade and disappointment over the lack of international engagement to break the impasse.  Collective strategies for negotiations with the GoS on access to both SPLM-N and GoS controlled areas have failed, with many aid agencies preferring instead to pursue individual approaches.   

Humanitarian agencies seem reluctant both to push the GoS harder for access, and to use alternative ways to reach those in need, with deep divisions among aid agencies and donors regarding the feasibility of non-consensual access.  Cross border aid seems to be an accepted way of working in Syria today, but not in Sudan.

If we have learnt anything from history, we can be sure the blockade isn't about to end any time soon.  Humanitarian organisations must therefore continue to push for negotiated access, including exploring different ways of delivering humanitarian aidthat respect sovereignty, such as working more closely with African and Arab NGOs who might be less constrained by GoS restrictions.  At the same time, humanitarian agencies should consider other alternatives to access those in need.  These range from working through local civil society, community groups and religious organisations to provide aid and support local protection initiatives; cash or market based responses that support the longer term resilience of communities; and international agencies crossing the borders from South Sudan or Ethiopia without consent to reach people in blockaded areas.