A city divided

Ethnic enclaves are not unusual in many cities and towns across Sudan, but in Port Sudan, this polarized structure instigated and facilitated communal violence.

Image credit Ahmed Fouad via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

When I arrived in Port Sudan in September 2020, it was just a few weeks after communal violence ripped the city apart. It was already a transformed city. Military vehicles lined its clean streets and were present near hospitals and all public buildings. A month earlier, the city witnessed strict curfews for at least ten days to stop the bloodshed. When I arrived, the curfew had been pushed back to 10pm, but the atmosphere was still fearful: markets and shops closed by 5pm and people rushed home.They realized that once the violence is sparked, it spreads like wildfire.

To understand the bouts of violence  in Port Sudan, it is important to understand how the city is structured into ethnic enclaves and how these divisions deepen the violence that continues to impact the lives of those communities.

In general, the postcolonial Sudanese state  is always in crisis. The first military dictatorship arrived by force in 1958, two years after independence from Great Britain. It has ruled the country with an iron fist since then, except for brief years of democratic rule that were largely unable to confront the legacy of authoritarianism, and were marked by rival opposition parties struggling for power in a deeply fragile and impoverished state. Cities and towns across Sudan were largely shaped by the Mahdiya period, which moved entire communities and tribes to different parts of Sudan by force, as well as  by British rule which did the same to strategically populate towns that had imperialist investments that secured large funds for the empire’s coffers. The post-colonial period only facilitated the divisions between communities, and many ethnic groups found security and stability in clustering together to form social and economic networks to withstand everyday political volatility.

Port Sudan is no different. The city is built around the port and import/export businesses, where different ethnic groups have historically worked different jobs: in general, the Beja group, which is native to the East, works in the port and businesses around it; the groups that migrated from North and Central Sudan work as traders or as part of the civil service; groups that migrated from Darfur and Kordofan are employed in service jobs and in the port and, more recently, in the civil service. The city’s neighborhoods reflect this division of labor and the social and economic networks that are built around it. The authorities have not discouraged this division. The violence that occurred in the city between the Beni-Amer, who are part of the greater Beja group, and the Nuba, who migrated from the Nuba Mountains into Port Sudan, can be traced to at least 1986. The Beja group are Muslims, and the Beni Amer are especially pious while the Nubas adhere to Islam and Christianity.

In 1986—a year after the 1985 intifada that brought down the government of Jaafar Nimeri after 16 years in power—Sudan underwent general elections. Around that time, the two groups had a disagreement over the legal status of alcohol when a Beni-Amer candidate was running in a district. A brief, but bloody clash ensued and people lost their lives. The problem in 1986 was short-lived, but the government had an exceptional response. To avoid further clashes, they moved the Nuba outside the city to a neighborhood called Phillip. This move didn’t take into consideration that the city, which attracts migrants from all over the country, would continue to expand. Decades later, Phillip was across the streets from Dar Al-Naim, which is largely populated by the Beni-Amer.

The two communities have coexisted peacefully for years, but the period after the 2019 revolution saw instability all over Sudan and especially in Eastern Sudan. In the period after the fall of Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year rule, communal violence began in Gedarif, another state in Eastern Sudan and then communal violence and displacement increased in the already embattled Darfur region.

It was just a matter of time before Port Sudan was pulled into this cycle of deadly violence. Houses were burned, civilians were killed, sexual violence cases were confirmed in private settings and the social fabric was devastated. The aftermath of the violence led to more clustering. When I visited at the end of 2020 and again in mid-2021, I was told by friends and acquaintances that the demography of the city was changing and becoming less diverse. Some people left the city all together and others who have lived securely as minorities in different neighborhoods have now clustered with their tribesmen.

In July 2022, violence began abruptly in different cities in the Blue Nile region.  It began in Al-Damazine and Al-Rosereis, the two largest cities in the region and it pitted the Hausa, a farming group with roots in Nigeria, against other communities native to the region, such as Al-Hamj, Al-Berta and Al-Funj. The fighting began after the Hausa asked for an Amara (a tribal administration) in the region and they were denied because having a tribal administration is founded on having a historical and proven claim to the land.

The nature of the killings reflects the way many towns and cities in Sudan are built. Al-Rosereis, which is the historical capital of the region, is divided into five districts reflecting geographic locations. The recent violence there was concentrated in the northern and the southern districts of the town where neighborhoods are demarcated  by ethnicity. The concentration of the Hausa group in certain villages around the Blue Nile, for example, is tied to their economic activities in agriculture and fishing. Geneis, a fishing town very close to Al-Rosereis dam, saw massive fighting. The area is dominated by Al-Hamaj, a native group, and the Hausa have lived and worked there for at least two generations. In Geneis, conflict has been brewing for a long time as the Hausa advanced economically and a very dangerous narrative between so-called natives and settlers began forming.

A former state minister who resigned after the October 2021 military coup said that the narrative and divisions are longstanding and largely a result of impoverishment and dwindling resources, but the fighting was instigated by the request to formalize the presence of the Hausa through an Amara as well as political entities trying to take advantage of the narratives around land ownership.

Sudan is an embattled country and conflict has led to the loss of millions of lives since 1955. Dozens of peace agreements have been signed to bring an end to conflict and bring safety to citizens including the famous Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which led to the secession of South Sudan. Currently, the government is implementing the Juba peace process, which was hailed as one that would bring peace to Sudan, however, it has not stemmed the conflict. Similar to other peace agreements, the Juba Peace Agreement follows the liberal peace-making method, which focuses on power-sharing as opposed to preventing violence and supporting survivors of conflict.

Conflict resolution is an entire paradigm and not only about peace agreements. We can’t bring real peace to Sudan if we don’t observe and study the way towns and cities are constructed and find a new social contract that would allow citizens from different backgrounds to co-exist in the same realm and share economic interests. This model could perhaps tie their fate together and ensure that everyone has a lot to lose from violence.

Further Reading