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East Sudan battles poverty, years after war ends

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The sun drops behind clouds as vendors set up for the evening against a backdrop of cargo ships docked in Port Sudan's harbour.

An outdoor cafe has readied its chairs, sea shells are piled at a souvenir stand, and billiard tables wait for action beside the Red Sea.

But a few minutes' drive from the relative prosperity of Port Sudan's clean sidewalks and paved streets, the scene becomes more typical of Red Sea state, part of the East Sudan region which is struggling to recover after more than a decade of war.

Just past the international airport, crude residential shelters patched together from cloth and wood appear among shrubbery in the sand.

As the road goes further south, past storage tanks holding South Sudanese oil waiting for export, the shacks become more numerous, clustering near the ancient port of Suakin.

Government figures show Red Sea's poverty rate at 75 percent, but officials say increased development spending over the past two years has reduced poverty from 90 percent.

Discontent lingers in the East, despite a 2006 agreement which ended years of low-level insurgency in the three states of Red Sea, Kassala and Gedaref.

"There is many problems for Beja population," Abdullah Ismail Osman, a former ethnic Beja rebel, told AFP in faltering English.

"I think that fighting will be again," he said in Kassala town, a few kilometres from Eritrea which once supported the Beja and other rebels.

The bare Taka Mountains, in places resembling a camel resting on the ground, overlook the town.

"No fighting, no rights," adds Osman, who says he fought for 12 years.

To him, East Sudan's problems are the same as those faced by far-west Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile states where rebellion continues.

The unrest is fuelled by complaints of economic and political neglect that similarly drove the East Sudan fighters.

"All Beja, no job," said Osman, who is in his late 30s.

The Muslim-non-Arab Beja, camel herders by tradition, fought alongside Free Lions rebels of the Rashaida tribe against what they said was marginalisation by the Arab-dominated Khartoum regime.

In Port Sudan, the region's main city, the state government admits help is still needed to improve rural health and other services but it also talks of "great promise of prosperity".

A video which Red Sea Governor Mohammed Tahir Aila screened this month for visiting European Union ambassadors promoted the city's modernisation efforts and pitched the area's investment and tourism potential.

The diplomats said they had come to show support for "peace and development", and to assess implementation of the 2006 Eastern Sudan Peace Agreement.

It is one of several deals signed by Khartoum over the past eight years in an attempt to solve rebellions and conflicts across the country.

Piecemeal approach has failed

Analysts say this piecemeal approach has failed, and points to the need for resolving Sudan's problems collectively, rather than one-by-one.

The International Crisis Group reported this year that "unequal relations between the centre and peripheries" are at the root of Sudan's conflicts.

"The Eastern Sudan Peace Agreement is similar to other agreements and faces the same challenges," Musa Mohammed Ahmed, now an assistant to President Omar al-Bashir, told AFP in an interview in Kassala town.

Ahmed, 43, leads the Beja Congress, a former rebel group.

Although it ended the shooting, much of the peace deal has not been implemented, he said under the shade of a tree at his rural property, where an old pickup truck missing its wheels sits on blocks beside his house.

Ahmed was appointed to his government post under peace terms that required participation by former rebels in the presidency, cabinet and parliament, as well as in Eastern governments and legislatures.

The legislative quota has not been met, he said.

The deal also said eligible ex-rebels must be integrated into Sudan's security forces, or assisted to return to civilian life.

Many have been, but an adviser to Kassala Governor Mohammed Yousef Adam told EU ambassadors that 1,500 ex-combatants still need re-integration.

"We are suffering from poverty", Ahmed said, citing under-development in health, education, agriculture, and shortages of drinking water.

Most of Red Sea state's income stems from its ports.

Newly-unloaded passenger cars are parked on the Port Sudan docks near colonial-era stone warehouses, as workers walk up a ramp to load sacks onto a freight train stopped in late-afternoon shadow beside a foreign ship.

The wealth generated from this port activity is unevenly distributed and "chronic poverty affects a majority of the population," the United Nations Development Programme in Sudan said, adding that landmines have severely affected fertile land south of Suakin.

The peace agreement recognised that "political, social, and economic marginalisation constitutes the core problem in Eastern Sudan", and set up a reconstruction and development fund.

Khartoum was to contribute $600 million up to 2011 but Ahmed says only $100 million has arrived so far.

Other donors and investors pledged $3.55 billion for East Sudan but just over $500 million has been received, according to a breakdown provided to the EU delegation.

The EU itself has given 57 million euros ($76 million) for development of agriculture, health and education in the Eastern region, and expects to spend more than 24 million euros additionally from 2014.

"Many people have benefited from the peace dividends," Governor Adam said.

Tribal leaders and local administrators, who addressed the EU delegation at Kassala's parliament, said more needs to be done.

"Peace in East Sudan and Kassala cannot last without stability in the other regions of Sudan," a gesticulating, white-bearded tribal leader said to applause from his colleagues.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/131117/east-sudan-battles-poverty-years-after-war-ends