Reports: Peoples

The Beja

The Beja of the deserts of Eastern Sudan are among the country's longest-established peoples. For the four thousand years of their known history they have watched civilisations flourish and decay with their own lives almost unchanging until very recently. They have been referred to as "Blemmyes" in Roman times, as "Bugas" in Axumite inscriptions in Ethiopia, as the "Fuzzy Wuzzy" by Rudyard Kipling, and since Medieval times as "Beja".

During the 1950s the Beja population in Sudan was 285,000, and is probably double that figure today. As well as extending into Egypt and Eritrea, they inhabit some 110,000 square miles of Sudan between the Egyptian border and Eritrea and the river Setit; from the Red Sea coast to the river Atbara and the Nile.

Most of the Beja are regarded as being of Hamitic origin and are sub-divided into three main groups: the Hadendowa, the Amar'ar, and Bisharyyin. There are also groups of Arabic/Semitic origin who gradually adopted the Beja language (To-Bedawei) and culture and have been largely subsumed into the Beja. Another large group, the Beni Amer, who live mostly in Eritrea or around the border town of Kassala, share a common ethnic background with the Beja. Some of the Beni Amer are To-Bedawei speakers while others speak Tigre. Smaller groups in the area include the Helenga of Kassala (supposedly of medieval Arab origin mixed with Beja), Tigre, and other Sudanese tribes, who speak a `pidgin' form of To-Bedawei; and the once powerful tribe of Hamran who reside further south along the basins of the Setit and Atbara rivers. Finally, there are the Rashaidah who migrated in the last century to the Sudan from Arabia and have maintained their distinct identity. Apart from the Rashaidah, all the other tribes and groups may be regarded as part of the `Beja confederation', whilst the Hadendowa, the Bisharyyin and Amar'ar constitute the `Beja proper'. Among the three main groups of the `Beja proper' the Hadendowa are perhaps the most numerous and powerful.

The Beja have traditionally followed a nomadic way of life, mostly as camel herders. The Bisharyyin, and to a lesser extent the Amar'ar, raised only camels, while the Hadendowa additionally tended cattle and sheep. The various Beja sub-groups were also involved in grain cultivation (`dura' sorghum), and caravan services. In the early 20th century under the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, new economic ventures were introduced which partially affected the life-style of the Beja. These included the development of cotton plantation schemes in the `deltas' of the Baraka and Gash rivers, and opening of a new port at Port Sudan. Several of the Amar'ar clan took jobs as workers on the dock, whilst the Hadendowa and some of the Bisharyyin took up seasonal cultivation in the Tokar and al-Gash schemes. Pastoralism, however, continued to be the main Beja livelihood, especially for the Hadendowa, who showed less inclination towards urban life.

In addition to their direct influence on the Beja and their mode of living, the colonial economic ventures attracted various groups from outside the region, particularly from riverain and Western Sudan, as well as from West Africa. The same pattern was repeated decades later when mechanised farming was introduced in Eastern Sudan during the 1940s. Most significantly, as a result of the construction of the Aswan High Dam (1964-67), the Nubian inhabitants of Wadi Halfa were re-settled around the Khashm al-Girba scheme in the southwestern part of the Beja land. These demographic changes had an inevitable impact both on the social fabric of the Beja country as well as on its ecology.

Beja country is essentially desert and semi-desert across the vast plateau to the west of the Red Sea hills. The land is only sparsely covered with vegetation, a factor that made it suitable only for camel breeding and whatever limited cultivation was permitted by good rainy seasons. Its inhospitable nature had for several centuries prevented the settlement of other ethnic groups in the Beja area, and at the same time provided the basis of the Beja lifestyle. The development of Port Sudan and cotton schemes during the colonial period did not have an immediate effect on the Beja, though they did derive some benefit from these schemes. While they continued to focus on pastoralism they began using their incomes from agriculture and waged employment either to cover periods of need, or better still, to multiply their herds.

Drastic change began with marked ecological degradation and constraints caused by the increased numbers of `intruders' from other groups. A three year drought in the early 1940s seriously affected the animal wealth of the Beja and set it on a declining path. This was particularly evident among the Amar'ar sub-group, who by the 1970s had shifted the emphasis of their livelihood from camel-rearing to breeding smaller animals and working in the port. The bitter drought of the 1980s caused gross depopulation of the Beja herds, with losses estimated at 80% of their animal wealth.

Famine apart, a complex of human and other factors combined to produce a situation wherein the area available for the Beja livestock rearing was rapidly diminishing during the last fifty years. The development of cotton plantation schemes around the Gash and Tokar had ultimately robbed the Hadendowa of their grazing reserves in these areas. The expansion of mechanised farming further south has, according to some assessments, caused a general decrease of humidity in the area which in its turn affected vegetation. The construction of the Aswan Dam had inundated areas that constituted important pastures for the Bisharyyin who used to raise the best riding camels in the Arab world. The result was massive impoverishment for the Bisharyyin Beja. Those who survived were forced to move south, thus imposing further constraints on the grazing areas of their cousins the Hadendowa. The other impact of the Aswan Dam was, as mentioned above, the resettlement of the Nubians in the New Halfa area and the development of the Khashm al-Girba scheme. Though the scheme lay outside the Beja territory it was a zone of population concentration, and eventually a source of pressure on the scarce land resources.

The lengthy civil war in Eritrea drove the Beni Amer, who used to graze near and across the Eritrean border, further north into the Beja heartland. The Rashaidah, who were able to increase their herds as a result of their wealth gained from smuggling and commercial activities between Saudi Arabia, Eastern Sudan, and Ethiopia/Eritrea, also moved in. The arrival of ethnically diverse groups complicated social composition and increased tensions. There was competition over resources: water, and land (both for pasture and cultivation), and potential and actual conflicts arising from the divergent social groups, customs, and cultures, particularly in the rapidly growing urban centres.

The destruction of the animal wealth of the Beja has motivated them to fend for themselves and families in the urban areas. The current urbanisation of the Beja is radically different from the pattern of urbanisation to which they were partially exposed when the dock was first constructed at Port Sudan. Then the choice of reverting to pastoralism, regarded by the Beja as socially superior, was open and viable. The current wave of urbanisation has no apparent alternatives. Socially, the process might take some time to generate substantial changes in culture and tradition, but some of its political manifestations may already be observed.

The Beja were effectively integrated in the political structure of Sudan only during the Condominium era (1898-1956). Then, and throughout most of post-independence history, they were administered indirectly through their tribal structures which continued almost intact. Most of the Beja are regarded as followers of the Khatmiyya sect, having embraced Islam under the guidance of the founder of the sect Mohammed Uthman al-Mirghani and his son, the legendary Hassan al-Mirghani of Kassala. Beja territory became a stronghold of the Khatmiyya, whose current political manifestation is the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). After independence, however, the Beja gradually realised that the Khatmiyya loyalty which they shared with other groups in riverain Sudan was not sufficient for the articulation of their interests. For this reason the Beja Congress was formed in 1964 by educated Beja and prominent personalities within their tribal administration such as chief Mohammed Mohammed al-Amin Tirik. In the 1965 elections the Beja Congress returned ten MPs to the Constituent Assembly, and three MPs in the 1968 elections. The high number of seats in 1965 was mostly due to the boycott of those elections by the Khatmiyya.

Colonel Nimeiri's coup in 1969 suppressed the activity of the Beja Congress, as it did with other political organisations, which it attempted to supplant with the Sudan Socialist Union, as the sole legitimate party. The Congress surfaced again after the ousting of Nimeiri in 1985, its re-emergence coinciding with substantial changes in Eastern Sudan, as elsewhere. The most conspicuous changes were the increased urbanisation of the Beja, the numerical rise of non-Beja groups in the region (particularly in Port Sudan and other urban centres), the intensification of the Ethiopian/Eritrean civil war and the resulting influx of refugees in Eastern Sudan, and the arrival of some of the drought-stricken groups from Western Sudan. These radical demographic changes have had a severe impact on the Beja. With their herds mostly lost, the Beja have to compete with these successive waves of "foreigners" and "intruders" for jobs (in towns and on farming schemes) and services. Gone are the days when the extremely proud Beja could contemptuously turn his back on the town to face the endless and comforting desert.

These new economic and social circumstances inevitably affected Beja politics, leading to the emergence of the Beja Congress as a potentially unified political entity in relation to other groups in the region. In practice this may be more uncertain. Since its foundation in the 1960s the Beja Congress has been divided between a leftist tendency associated basically with the Communist Party (CP) and a more traditionalist one that sought alliance with the Khatmiyya's rivals, the Umma Party (on the basis that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend"). After 1985 these two tendencies re-emerged, with new complicating factors. The first of these was the appearance of the NIF in the politics of the region and of the Congress, in competition with both the DUP and CP. The other factor is the appearance of divisions in the Congress on a sub-ethnic basis (the Amar'ar, Bisharyyin, and Hadendowa), probably aggravated by the rapid urbanisation of the Beja. Before the end of the third "democratic" period in 1989, the Beja Congress was split along ideological and sub-ethnic lines.

The politics of the region underwent an important shift after 1985. Whereas in the 1960s the aim of the Beja Congress was to draw the attention of the central government to the problems of Eastern Sudan and its lack of development, the emphasis in the 1980s was on regional changes. Faced with radical demographic changes the Beja worried about the preservation of their identity, and their place in their own land. The central government, in which the DUP was a partner, conceded a compromise in which the Governor of Eastern region was to be from the Beja, while his deputy was to be appointed from the `Northern' groups in the region. Throughout most of the democratic era the Governor of Eastern region was retired Major-General M.O. Karrar, a Beja from the Amar'ar. However, the region remained almost as marginal as the rest of Sudan's periphery.

The NIF coup in June 1989 brought no positive changes for the Beja. On the contrary, once in power the National Islamic Front was no longer interested in courting the Beja Congress as it had done, for electoral gains, during the democratic period. On the contrary, the NIF is alarmed by the Beja's pride in their ancient culture and tradition, which is considered incompatible with the regime's emphasis on an Arab-Islamic identity. This tense situation became potentially explosive when the present regime summarily executed former Governor Karrar on charges of involvement in the "White Coup" plot in April 1990. Afterwards the relationship between the Beja and the regime was characterised by mutual mistrust. Following Karrar's execution some members of his clan attacked NIF elements in Port Sudan, and certain "masked young men" carried out sporadic attacks on security personnel in the town.

Economic pressure on the Beja has accelerated, exemplified by the NIF's privatisation of the Gash delta agricultural scheme, which was sold to Saudi millionaire entrepreneur Usama bin Laden. As a result, organized Beja resistance to the regime is growing. In October 1994 Sudan accused Eritrea of training some 3000 Sudanese `rebels' in camps in Eritrea. Some (mostly pro-government) media reports associate these camps with the DUP, while informed sources from the Beja suggest a Beja Congress connection. Whether the camps are sponsored by the DUP or the Beja Congress or both, there are certainly sufficient economic and political grievances to breed armed insurgence in Eastern Sudan.

In December 1994 Eritrea broke off diplomatic relations with Sudan, after issuing a statement accusing the government of training 400 `terrorists'. At the start of 1994 Eritrea's President Afeworki had complained to the UN that Sudan had assisted an attack by Islamic insurgents. In both cases the fighters are from the Beja. After the decline of the mostly Muslim Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and the victory in Eritrea by the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), a large number of Muslim Eritreans, mostly Beni Amer, remained as refugees in Sudan. The government of Sudan has allegedly worked to exploit their dissatisfaction with events in Eritrea by promoting an extremist Islamic element amongst them.

Abdel Salam Sidahmed - MRG 1995