Twenty four years ago, Sudanese writer Tayyib Saleh responded to the 1989 military coup with an article entitled Where did these people come from?” The question, referring to the Islamist officers who had ridden to power on their tanks, became a catchphrase.
These days it applies to the urban sprawl in and around Khartoum, where the population has swelled more than threefold over the past 20 years.
Over that timeframe, the city itself grew to twice its former size, because of the Sudanese custom of building horizontally rather than vertically. The dramatic growth sparked rows over land rights, including bloody conflicts between local landowners and authorities on various levels, like the one which killed a teenager as he and his family demonstrated against the government which was attempting to take their land for a commercial development last April.
But what has sparked this rapid urban growth? What does it mean for the capital?
In the districts of Omdurman, many residents are descendants of the original population. But elsewhere the population growth is due to people fleeing war in the south, west and east of Sudan. Others, meanwhile, fled to cities to access health and education.
Internal displacement and migration will not stop until you stop the wars on the periphery and basic services are available in the provinces as well as in the capital,” said Ibrahim Sahl, a development researcher.
In the 1990s, bloody clashes broke out in parts of Khartoum between slum-settlers and police. Deaths occurred in neighbourhoods like Khadeera, which overlooks the Nile in Omdurman. Local people complained their land was snatched and given to those with political clout.
Khalid Amin, professor of development at the University of Khartoum, blames the Unregistered Land Act of 1970, which he called flawed” because it failed to recognise the rights of local communities without a registration certificate. Although the law has since been repealed, the de-facto expropriation has not been reversed. Until this is changed, Amin sees no improvement in Sudan’s record of land disputes.
Internal displacement and migration will not stop until you stop the wars on the periphery.” But conflicts look set to continue. The Governor of Khartoum, Abdul Rahman Al Khidr, has unveiled new measures to protect the state of Khartoum, including more power for the police and prosecutors. The plan includes the continued removal of informal housing districts from government land.
Problems abound with land distributed to citizens by the state. These areas lack schools, health services and a sewage system. Sahl, the researcher, noted that in Dar es-Salam, in western Omdurman, the camp for the displaced enjoyed better services than the neighbouring regular township of Dar es-Salam because of international aid.
Many people advise migrants to live inside displacement camps rather than the districts on the periphery of the city, which are known as the housing projects.
And one thing is clear – unless there is peace in Sudan, Khartoum’s struggle to support its new arrivals will continue.