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The Present Plight of Nubians in Wadi Halfa
By Dr. Hasan A. Aziz. 5 February, 1996.
Wadi Halfa, for many centuries the hub of Nubian commercial and social life, Sudan's gateway to Egypt, a thriving river port with a promising future, has during the last one and half year degenerated into a ghost town. With its decline, a large part of Nubia, particularly Sukkot, has stagnated economically and socially. The reason for this unprecedented event in the history of the town is solely political, the result of a deliberate vindictive policy adopted by the present government for no purpose other than to strangle the town economically and starve its inhabitants in a futile attempt to bring these brave and outspoken people in line with their phoney programmes.
To understand why the NIF (National Islamic Front) regime is doing this, we need to go back to the 1986 general election. During those elections, two candidates were contending for the parlimentary seat of the area. The people overwhelmingly voted for a popular independent candidate: the late Mohammed S. Ibrahim - a civil servant known for his integrity, decency and services for the area. His opponent, the NIF inexperienced candidate, had a crushing defeat despite his lucrative promises to develop the area. The NIF and its candidate never forgot this humiliation, and when the present NIF regime came to power in 1989, they took the opportunity to take their revenge.
A provocative and frustrating series of measures were taken: measures ranging from random levying of taxes on everything to the closure of navigation in 1994 between Wadi Halfa and Egypt - the economic lifeline of the town. No concrete, specific or convincing reason was offered for this act; the deterioration of the regime's relations with Egypt was an opportune time to implement their policy towards the area - the policy of "either with us or perish." The termination of navigation has had a devastating effect on the area.
As a border town and port, Wadi Halfa has always depended heavily on transit trade between Egypt and the Sudan. After the original town was inundated under the waters of Lake Nubia in 1964, a new site was chosen to rebuild the town. After a period of stagnation, it began to slowly thrive again and assume its former role and regain importance as a thriving port, particularly during the 1970s when economic integration between the two countries was implemented. Transit trade flourished and attracted people from other parts of the Sudan. To cope with this influx of people and growing trade and traffic, attending services like hotels, hospices and restaurants sprang up. The fishing industry thrived, and supplies of fish, chilled and dried, found their way to Khartoum and other towns. Feasibility studies for other industries and agricultural schemes were under way.
With the loss of its agricultural lands after inundation, Halfa came to depend on import of vegetables from Sukkot and the Abu Hamed area. Permanent cultivation cannot be practised along the bank as formerly because of the fluctuations of the lake level. Even the choice of a permanent site for the town and wharves and other port installations and facilities have been postpond because of this fluctuation. In the face of these difficulties, the people of Halfa has come to a sort of adjustment: to concentrate on developing transit trade and provision of attending services and importing their needs of vegetables from elsewhere. All went well until the NIF regime came to power and with it came a desiccating period that culminated in the termination of navigation. Other measures to strangle the area included:
Levying taxes and tolls on everything taxable: animals, date palms, shops, hotels etc. in a way reminiscent of the Turkish period in 19th c.
Transit trade with Egypt has come to a complete standstill, and many traders and merchants have left the town like Talab. Now transactions have dwindled to peddling and petty trading in items like salt and chilies. Many shops have closed down.
Daily commuting between the town and its hinterland in Sukkot and Mahas has dropped to only once a week. Indeed Mahas area has turned its back on Halfa and now trades with Omdurman only. Passenger and freight trains come only once a week instead of three as before. Lorries coming from Sukkot now number only three to four per week.
With dwindling trade and passenger traffic, services like hotelling and restaurants have shrunk in number; from four hotels and eight hospices, none is now open. Only three restaurants are operating, sometimes serving only one meal a day; some open only when trains arrive, i.e., once a week.
Measures directed against the welbeing of the inhabitants and deliberately tailored to starve them include:
a- Forbidding smoking shisha (hubble bubble) publicly in restaurants, and taking this as a pretext to close down any restaurant that does not comply to this. Shisha - smoking free rest. were licensed to NIF supporters.
b- The "Gambia" team, a joint project between Egypt, Sudan and WHO, to fight the malaria-carrying mosquito, was forbidden from operating in the area, resulting in deterioration of health environment in the area and the spread of malaria with its debilitating effect on an already starving people.
c- Government services are operating at its minimum level; public vehicles have been sold, after complete rehauling, to NIF people at nominal prices and in private, not in auction as is customary in such cases usually to the highest bidder.
Thus this prosperous town, which used to remit more than 90 million pounds annually now looks to Abri in Sukkot to pay the salaries of its employees. Now Wadi Halfa is a ghost town, a town deserted by merchants, without services, and a gloomy future.
But Halfa people know very well why they are the target of this vindictive policy: the NIF regime, under the supervision of its former candidate, is doing all this to settle an old score with them. All their protests against this injustice went in vain, and their demand for plausible reasons for the termination of navigation was turned down by a blunt note: "this is high policy". . .that is. . .from the forty-member decision-making council of the NIF that runs the country.
In the face of this uncomprising attitude Halfa people resorted to a sit-it-out tactic, to defiantly face these diffculties and steadfastly resist all attempts to make them succumb.
It merits mentioning here that the inhabitants of the town are those who in 1964 chose to stay in their homeland instead of migrating to the resettlement area in Khashm el Girba (New Halfa). In the face of formidable diffculties and harsh circumstances, they struggled very hard to rebuild the town and make it as it is now. It is a saga that they cherish, a saga that generated a strong will and determination to overcome and survive under all circumstances. That is why these people are determined to make the town as a symbol of their struggle and endurance in the face of suppression and intimidation. They have done it before, and they can do it now.
Meanwhile, they are coping with their present plight in their own special way: by sarcastic comments and jokes that are circulated nationwide. . .very teasing and irritating to authorities, telling them: we are here to stay and no body can force us to move. . .