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May 29, 2011

Anger simmers in Sudan's farming heartland over government neglect

by Deepa Babington

Farmer Abdelbagi Abdallah says his tiny plot of land in Sudan's agricultural heartland bore him a bumper sorghum crop year after year, until pests and patchy irrigation ravaged his harvest. Barely able to make ends meet on the three sacks of the staple cereal his plot produced this year -- compared to more than 40 sacks in good times -- Abdallah says he was forced to pull his two sons and a daughter out of university.

Bitter and frustrated, he accuses the government of neglecting Sudan's massive state-run Gezira irrigated farming scheme that includes his four feddans (4.1 acres) of land.

"The administration provided no help," said the 55-year-old. "I'm very angry. Now I'm living with the bare minimum. Even my sons now have to stay at home."

Abdallah is on the frontline of a growing wave of anger in Sudan's farming heartland, where the rising cost of living is bringing long-simmering tensions over Khartoum's neglect of the agricultural sector to the fore. Gezira farmers held a protest in April, prompting the government to promise immediate help.

There is little to suggest that anti-government protests that toppled leaders in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia will take off in Sudan but, if they ever do, activists say the spark will come from long-suffering rural areas like those near Wad Medani.

Farmers in Gezira made available by activists complain of everything from a lack of promised state funds, to a spotty irrigation system and fears that their land will be seized by the government -- accusations that the Gezira project's managers strongly deny and say are politically motivated.

"The government wants farmers to own their land," Gezira chief Osman Samsaa said, dismissing the allegations as false and spurred by "anti-government people." The government has spent money to rehabilitate the Gezira program and given farmers the freedom to grow crops of their choice, he said.

The Gezira project, which includes over 2 million feddans of land by the Blue and White Nile rivers and employs 130,000 farmers, traces its origins to British colonial times. It initially developed land for cotton through a system of canals.

Khartoum last year said it would offer parts of the scheme to private firms to boost efficiency as it tries to prioritize agriculture after its oil-producing south secedes this year.

The general-secretary of the Gezira project's board, Mohammed Abdelmajid Kuku, acknowledges the project has struggled since the 1990s due to financing problems, but denies the state wants to seize any land -- it is doing the opposite, he says. He pinned recent tensions on the amount of compensation for more than 800,000 feddans that will be returned to landowners.

Without doubt, Khartoum has its supporters in the area.

"The government is not neglecting the scheme but is looking at improving it," said Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim, a member of the local farmers' union who backs the government policies.

The head of a farmers' union in a separate farming project in central Sudan that has been privatized, Abdel Aziz Al-Bashir, also said he remained optimistic that farmers could strike a deal with the government over lingering land issues.

Still, in rural areas where mistrust of the government is high and the difference between fact and fiction is often far from clear, tensions have been bubbling up. Several hundred farmers this month blocked a main road to Khartoum in protest at what they said was a government plan to confiscate their land, before police teargassed the demonstrators, a witness said.

"We will not give up our land," said Mohammed Mustafa, who said he feared the government would seize the 40 feddans he has farmed for more than 30 years as part of its privatization drive. "We will fight. It is better to die than lose our land."

In January, a previously unknown group representing farmers in the central state of Sennar said it burned 5,000 feddans of sugarcane in protest at the government's "corrupt" policies. The state-owned Sudanese Sugar Company said only a small area was lost in the fire and the culprits were arrested.

Wad Medani, the capital of the Gezira state that is home to its namesake farming scheme, has also seen other protests this year by students seeking to emulate uprisings in the Arab world.

Overall, efforts to stage anti-government protests in Sudan have failed to gather mass support and fizzled quickly in the face of beatings, arrests and teargassing by security forces.

A divided society that has lived through wars in Darfur and the south, which secedes in July, appears also appears more keen on stability than the prospect of conflict if President Omar Hassan al-Bashir's 22-year grip on power is loosened.

But Sudan is struggling with double-digit food inflation, high youth unemployment and widespread corruption, and activists are hoping the protest movement will gather momentum in areas like Wad Medani that are well outside the capital Khartoum.

"Any uprising in Sudan will have to start from areas like Medani ... before it reaches Khartoum," said Magdi Okasha, an activist leading the Youth for Change Movement that has organized short-lived anti-government protests via Facebook.

"The security (apparatus) in Khartoum is huge. There are too many of them, and sometimes you can't even differentiate between the protesters and security in plains clothes."

A heavy deployment of security forces and preemptive arrests meant Facebook-inspired protests on March 21 failed in Khartoum. In Wad Medani, however, about 250 protesters managed to rally in the main market before police broke up the demonstration.

Activists facing apathy from the urban elite in Khartoum say public opinion is more in their favor in areas like Wad Medani, which has long been a strong base of support for the opposition Democratic Unionist Party and Umma party and where agricultural woes have fueled the feeling of disillusion.

Mohammed Ali Mustafa, a 26-year-old university student in Medani says he was drawn to the protests after his father, who managed a storage facility within the Gezira Scheme, and his mother, a typist, were laid off in November 2009.

"I'm worried I won't get a job when I graduate," said Mustafa, who rallied support for the March 21 protest by dropping off anti-government leaflets from his motorbike at night. "The 350 Sudanese pounds ($117) a month unemployment handout my family gets is not enough to survive."


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