Date of Publication: March 2000




On 12 January, 2000, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) (1) issued an ultimatum to the 39 humanitarian aid agencies active within SPLA-controlled areas of southern Sudan. The SPLA demanded that all these NGOs sign an SPLA-drafted 'Memorandum of Understanding' strictly controlling their activities and dictating their relationship with the SPLA's 'humanitarian' wing, the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association (SRRA), or leave southern Sudan by 1 March.

The SPLA Memorandum included, amongst other contentious items, demands that SPLA permission had to be sought before any NGO interaction with local communities; for SPLA control over the distribution of
humanitarian assistance; a requirement to work "in accordance with SRRA objectives" rather than solely humanitarian principles; SPLA control of whom NGOs could employ as local Sudanese staff; the payment of "security fees" and a swath of additional taxes and charges, including charges for the landing of aircraft carrying humanitarian aid and for NGO movement within SPLA-held areas; that the SPLA would be entitled to use NGO transport on certain occasions; and that aid agencies submit their budgets to the SPLA for approval. The SPLA also stipulated that any NGO "assets and supplies" would have to be left to them should there be any "interruption" in the NGO's work, which the SPLA reserves the right to order.(2) In previous attempts to negotiate aspects of this memorandum with the NGOs, the SPLA had specifically refused a provision that would have discouraged the diversion of aid for military purposes.(3)

The SPLA stated that those NGOs that failed to sign the document by 1 March would cease to be the security responsibility of the SPLA. Those NGOS were also told that their organisations and staff would be
considered a "military security problem" and would be "dealt with accordingly".(4) The European Commission publicly condemned this "explicit threat made by the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) to the safety of humanitarian agencies".(5)

Eleven international humanitarian aid agencies felt themselves unable to remain active in southern Sudan under the conditions demanded of them by the SPLA. On 1 March, 2000, the United Nations Office for the
Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) confirmed that 149 staff members of non-governmental organisations working under the umbrella of Operation Lifeline Sudan had been evacuated from areas of southern Sudan controlled by the Sudan People's Liberation Army.(6) The eleven non-governmental organisations in question, groups such as CARE, Oxfam, Medecins sans Frontieres, Medecins du Monde, Save the Children, World Vision International, Healthnet, Veterinaires sans Frontieres (Belgium and Germany), and the Carter Center, handled about 75 percent of the humanitarian aid entering southern Sudan.(7) The withdrawal of these NGOS directly affects US$ 40 million worth of aid programs. (8) The expelled aid agencies stated that one million southern Sudanese were at risk as a result of the SPLA's decision to expel the NGOs.(9)

All the NGOs in the OLS consortium, including those who did sign the Memorandum, declared in a joint statement to the SRRA on 23 February, 2000, that "the decision to sign or not sign is made under duress, with grave implications for continuing humanitarian support to the people of south Sudan'.(10)

The United Nations stated that the SPLA's expulsion of the NGOS:

"[R]epresents the temporary loss of a significant proportion of the humanitarian resources provided by OLS NGOs. This has created a void in the OLS consortium's ability to provide adequate humanitarian assistance
to the people of southern Sudan, already made vulnerable by decades of war and deprivation. Emergency response, health, nutrition, household food security, and water and sanitation programmes will be hardest hit."(11)

The SPLA and the diversion of humanitarian aid

The organisation presented by the SPLA as its 'humanitarian' wing, the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association, is openly known to be both totally controlled by the SPLA and to have been closely identified with the systematic theft and diversion of emergency food aid intended for famine victims and refugees. The SPLA has repeatedly used food aid, and its denial, as a weapon in their war against the Sudanese government. In so doing it has been at least partly responsible for the famines that have resulted in the deaths of so many Sudanese civilians.

In July 1998, for example, the Roman Catholic Bishop of the starvation-affected diocese of Rumbek, Monsignor Caesar Mazzolari, stated that the SPLA were stealing 65 percent of the food aid going into rebel-held areas of southern Sudan. Agence France Presse also reported that:

"Much of the relief food going to more than a million famine victims in rebel-held areas of southern Sudan is ending up in the hands of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), relief workers said." (12)

An insight into the SPLA's attitude towards humanitarian assistance prior to its proposed Memorandum is described by a SPLA national executive council member, Dr Peter Nyaba:

"(S)ince humanitarian assistance is only provided for the needy civil population, the task of distribution of this assistance fell on specially selected SPLA officers and men who saw to it that the bulk of the supplies went to the army. Even in cases where the expatriate relief monitors were strict and only distributed relief supplies to the
civilians by day, the SPLA would retrieve that food by night. The result of this practice led to the absolute marginalisation and brutalisation of the civilian population." (13)

The proposed SPLA memorandum makes it even easier for the SPLA to engage in massive food aid diversion. The human rights group, African Rights, has reported that:

"On the whole, SPLA commanders and officials of the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association (SRRA, its humanitarian wing), have seen relief flows as simple flows of material resources. The leadership has also used aid for diplomatic and propaganda purposes." (14)

Douglas Johnson, a prominent academic writer on Sudanese affairs, has said of the SRRA that:

"Most of its field representatives had been selected not only from the military wing of the movement but from the security wing as well. Throughout OLS the SRRA often gave the impression that it was the procurement department for the SPLA, as least as far as food and medicines are concerned...Its representation of itself as the humanitarian wing of the SPLM was undermined by its subordination to the SPLA." (15)

African Rights made it clear that the SRRA:

"naturally became part of the mechanism for controlling and manipulating information...And it had to conceal this. The basic techniques of deception were already well-practised; they were similar to those that
had been used in the refugee camps in Ethiopia: exaggerate the numbers of accessible people in need; make up ambiguous and false distribution reports; strictly limit the movements of the foreigners; do not let them
talk to anyone without security clearance; use interpreters to censor the information from innocent interviewees; punish SPLA officials who are indiscreet." (16)

American development aid expert John Prendergast has documented the SPLA's earlier capacity for systematic deception in his 1997 book Crisis Response: Humanitarian Band-Aids in Sudan and Somalia:

"A late 1993 SRRA directive in Maridi and Mundri stated that visitors were forbidden to talk to local people, but rather must speak to the SRRA. The recent SRRA law reads more like a police directive. 'It is an inept framework for humanitarian activities', according to one aid official. 'Its practicalities are abhorrent.'...There are SRRA minders following wherever NGO representatives go. It is consequently very difficult to monitor and follow up on aid diversions." (17)

The SPLA's Memorandum unashamedly seeks to replicate the situation described by Prendergast throughout rebel-controlled areas of southern Sudan.

The Memorandum's implications are very serious. The credibility of all those aid agencies that sign the Memorandum, accepting its dictated constraints, and knowing that they are designed in part to facilitate
large-scale humanitarian aid diversion, can only but be undermined. One way or the other these agencies will merely serve as adjuncts to the SPLA, wittingly or unwittingly providing the SPLA with the means with
which to continue the civil war. Along with an equally cowed civilian population, these non-governmental organisations are in danger of becoming the SPLA's quartermasters. There are clear dangers in the
SPLA's demand to control NGO assets and even use NGO transport.

Human Rights Watch, for example, has warned that the assets of relief agencies could become legitimate military targets if the SPLA were to take control of them: "The bright line between civilian and military
activities has go to be maintained".(18)

It must be said that a number of the NGOs that have willingly signed the Memorandum are already partisan supporters of the SPLA. Norwegian People's Aid is one such organisation. NPA has been a conduit for
American assistance to the SPLA. An open recipient of millions of dollars from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), a branch of the American government, it was revealed in 1999 to have flown
in tons of weapons and landmines to SPLA combatants inside Sudan. An independent consultancy commissioned by the Norwegian government to investigate Norwegian People's Aid, and which had also received
Norwegian aid funds, concluded that this aid was being used to support the SPLA's war effort.(19) Such partisanship can only but endanger the activities of other non-governmental organisations in southern Sudan,
particularly in the wake of the Memorandum.

The SPLA obviously wish to accelerate an already vicious circle.

Humanitarian assistance supposedly provided by the international community to alleviate the suffering of victims of the Sudanese civil war and war-related disasters will be diverted and used to sustain, fuel and perpetuate the war itself on a bigger scale than had been possible for the SPLA to effect prior to the Memorandum. Those who will suffer in any event will be the already grievously disadvantaged southern Sudanese civilians living in rebel-controlled areas of Sudan.


1. The SPLA is sometimes also referred to as the SPLM/A, a reference to the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, ostensibly the political component of the organisation. The Economist states that "the rebels
have always, in theory, been a political movement as well as an army. In practice, the army was the movement" (March 1998). This publication refers to the movement as the SPLA.

2. "Care, Other NGOs. Withdraw from South Sudan", News Article by Agence France Presse on 24 February, 2000.

3. "Seven Aid Agencies Urge Renewed Negotiations for Relief to Southern Sudan", Associated Press, 1 March, 2000.

4. "Sudan Focus on NGO Pullout from SPLA", Integrated Regional Information Network, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Geneva, 29 February, 2000.

5. "A Statement by the European Commission on Southern Sudan", 29 February, 2000, available at ReliefWeb .

6. "OLS Evacuates NGO Staff from Southern Sudan", United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Geneva, 1 March, 2000.

7. "Rights Group Urges More Talks on Sudan Relief", News Article by Associated Press on 1 March, 2000.

8. "Seven Aid Agencies Urge Renewed Negotiations for Relief to Southern Sudan", Associated Press, 1 March, 2000.

9. "Expelled Aid Agencies Say Million at Risk in Sudan", Reuters, 1 March, 2000.

10. "Humanitarian Agencies Call on SRRA to Reopen Negotiations", Statement by OXFAM, 1 March, 2000.

11. "OLS Evacuates NGO Staff from Southern Sudan", United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Geneva, 1 March, 2000.

12. "Aid for Sudan Ending Up With SPLA: Relief Workers", News Article by Agence France Presse on July 21, 1998.

13. Peter Nyaba, The Politics of Liberation in South Sudan: An Insider's View, Fountain Publishers, Kampala, 1997, p. 53.

14. Alex de Waal, ed., Food and Power in Sudan, African Rights, London, 1997, pp. 5, 7.

15. Douglas Johnson, "Destruction and Reconstruction in the Economy of Southern Sudan", unpublished memo, 1992, p. 7, cited in John Prendergast, Crisis Response: Humanitarian Band-Aids in Sudan and Somalia, Pluto Press, London, 1997, p. 62.

Espac Published by The European - Sudanese Public Affairs Council Copyright © David Hoile 2005
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