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A Tinderbox

Hassan Berkia
Conflicts over land rage in the far north of Sudan. With investors and locals vying for space, more tension is likely in the future.
10.04.2014  |  Khartoum
A farmer in Dongola, the Northern State.
A farmer in Dongola, the Northern State. (photo: Hassan Berkia)

For centuries the people of Sudan’s far north have settled along the two small strips of fertile soil running alongside the Nile. Land has long been considered sacred but the historic attachment to land in the northern states is increasingly under pressure, both from locals seeking to own the land and international investors.

Now people have the approach that 'it is better to own land rather than to earn
from it'.”
Tayeb Abu Medin
Tayeb Abu Medin, a law professor, blames the conflicts - and a flurry of lawsuits - on the large number of people trying to access limited resources. These days a single acre of land belongs to many families, who are determined not to lose it. Now people have the approach that 'it is better to own land rather than to earn from it'. Every self-respecting family in the north must own land, even if it yields hardly any crops.”

Conflicts over land ownership are particularly fierce in the far north of Sudan, the site of the Nubian resettlement. Here more than 50,000 Nubians lost their land when the Aswan High Dam was built in the 1960s. Some relocated to the east, moving to New Halfa, while others went to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. This controversy was aggravated in recent years with the construction of the Merowe High Dam.

An example of the clashes between investors and locals occurred in Alcold in June 2011 where agricultural land was awarded to an Arab investor on unknown terms. This triggered tension between the committee handling complaints and the Dams Implementation Unit. Local leaders intervened to prevent the conflict spilling over into violence.

Tensions are running high over the influx of foreign companies, particularly from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and China. Informed sources from Dongola, the capital of Northern State, say that the company building a road from Dongola to Erqan near the Egyptian border has acquired large tracts of land, about one kilometre to the east and west of the road being built and for a distance of 450 kilometres.

Wadi Halfa, in the north of Sudan, January 19, 2010.
© The Niles | Nosa Ahmed
However, the Minister of Investment Mustafa Osman Ismail has insisted that Sudan aims to ensure harmony between developers and locals. Arrangements have been made to eradicate conflicts about land for investment, without harming anyone,” he told a press conference in June 2013. We will work to set a common vision between the centre (the capital) and the states dealing with land ownership issues.”

But many doubt the promises of cooperation. Suad Ibrahim Ahmed, a member of the Sudanese Communist Party’s politburo and a Nubian leader told Al-Jareeda newspaper in May 2013. The sale of large areas in Northern State without guaranteeing rights to the citizens of the state, and to future generations, is a crime which should be punished. It cannot be right that the citizens of the north and their descendants lose their rights as enshrined in the access to the water needed to irrigate their farmland.”

Fikri Abul Qasim, an author who specialises in issues of the Nubian region, takes the criticism a step further. He argues the government is trying to take land under the pretext of development, a process to deny local citizens their rights as landowners.

The impact of investors being allocated large swathes of land is clear. Cities like Shendi and Atbara are short of residential land, a reality that Ali Khalifa Askuri, rural development specialist and a former leader of the SPLM-North, blames on international interests. Nile State has come into conflict because of grants and concessions made to Arabs and Turks,” he said. A lot of residential land has been seized and converted into commercial agricultural land and distributed to those foreigners.”

#TheNilesLandConflict between authorities and citizens over the ownership of land is creating insecurity, and could flare into violence, especially if officials do not back down from a plan to lease more land to foreign companies, without the consent or consultation of state citizens. This plan would tie up land for decades: The government typically leases out land with 99-year contracts.

And pressure on land in the north shows little sign of abating. Land disputes frequently end up in the courts. Last year alone there were around 900 land-related cases in the region. Many have little hope that this trend will reverse anytime soon. The issue of land is sensitive in Sudan,” said Ali Khalifa Askuri. It has led to violence in many parts of Sudan already.”