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Political Fights Sow Seeds of Growing Sudan Famine

April 07, 1991|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Left with little to do until food deliveries arrive and cowed by Sudanese authorities, agencies and embassies have spent almost as much time waging turf battles and sniping at each other as they have arranging food shipments. The discord is increased by the certain knowledge that the catastrophe shaping up is so great that there will be abundant blame to be spread around.

Adding to the tension in Khartoum has been a geopolitical distraction: the Gulf crisis, in which Sudan, although dependent on aid from the West and from Saudi Arabia, sided with Iraq. The threat of war not only diverted Western attention from Sudan's problems, but also made Western governments increasingly fretful about the safety of their diplomats and aid workers in Khartoum, which had become a refuge for Arab terrorist groups.

Just as these concerns peaked in early January, the Bashir regime demonstrated its unerring skill in aggravating a bad situation. It released from prison five Palestinian terrorists guilty of a May, 1988, grenade attack on the downtown Acropol Hotel. Seven people had died in the bombing, including two British missionaries and their two infant children; the bombers had originally been sentenced to death.

European embassies began shipping staff members home.

U.S. Ambassador James R. Cheek, who had been waging a rear-guard action against State Department pressure for the evacuation of the embassy staff, told a Sudanese official upon learning of the terrorists' release: "You have probably just closed my embassy."

So it was. The State Department ordered Machmer of USAID, Cheek and 70 other diplomats to leave the country. Machmer retreated to Nairobi, Kenya, where he found it almost impossible to work on Sudanese matters at long range. Before mid-January, most American staff members of relief agencies and of the United Nations were also evacuated, leaving a huge vacuum of professional relief skill in Khartoum at exactly the moment it was most needed. (Machmer and Cheek, but not their support staffs, were permitted to return to Khartoum after the war.)

These events led many relief officials in Khartoum to believe that Western donors purposely delayed food aid to Sudan out of sheer distaste for and mistrust of the Bashir regime.

For the Sudanese disaster did not come as a surprise. As long ago as August, the World Bank predicted that this year's harvest of grain would fall short of the country's need by at least 330,000 tons, and possibly more than 1.3 million tons.

Western donors--principally the United States, Britain, Denmark and the European Community--then began pressing the Sudanese government to declare an emergency and appeal for help. Their position was not arbitrary: Some European governments are prohibited from donating aid without such a declaration; others consider it helpful to focus their domestic bureaucracy on the crisis and to ensure that donated food does not get misused or misappropriated. Sudan's record on both counts caused uneasiness.

But the Bashir regime resisted the pressure. In the first half of 1990, it had even exported about 300,000 tons of grain.

As it happens, donors do often provide emergency relief to needy countries without a formal appeal, especially if there is a cooperative regime. In this case, the donors did not back down. Moreover, they insisted that the government agree to several terms for the relief effort, including liberalized currency exchange, duty-free import of relief equipment and an assured role for independent relief agencies and the United Nations. The Sudanese did not agree to these points, first raised in October, until Feb. 12.

Some relief officials, though faulting the government, still consider the donors' intransigence a fatal error. "I think they like to play hardball and be the tough guys," said Lackey of Save the Children Fund / U.K., "and I'm not convinced that's the way to do business in Sudan."

The result of the impasse was that donors failed to have food in the relief pipeline early enough to avert mass hunger.

"The September-October period was absolutely critical," Lackey said. Word that food was on its way would have restrained hoarding, which drove up grain prices and added millions to the number of Sudanese who might starve because they simply cannot afford food. Fewer victims would migrate in search of food, a process that invariably increases the death toll.

Was the donors' concern about misappropriation of food exaggerated? "Even if 20% to 30% was diverted, you would still get 70% to 80% through," Lackey said. "It was worth the risk."

Another relief professional argues that even if the food had arrived before an agreement was in place, the shipments could easily have been diverted to other needy African nations, such as Ethiopia or Mozambique: "The food would not have been wasted."

But the very worst course, he and others argue, was to risk being empty-handed, if and when an entente had been reached with the regime. That was exactly what happened.

Donors defend the delays as having been necessary to force the government to end its most obstructionist behavior.

"We needed to send a message," said USAID's Machmer. "We spent six weeks informing the government repeatedly that they were jeopardizing the effort. If we didn't show we were serious, we never would have convinced them."

For all that, many relief workers believe the government is still unconvinced. Harassment and threats of ejection continue, and all the relief agencies can do is submit as long as they can before the famine eases sometime in the fall--assuming the 1991 harvest does not also fail.

"We recognize that we're in a position where the government doesn't want us here," said one European relief official, "but we're here to ensure the survival of as many people as we can. It makes us play their game."

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