South Sudanese labour: refill the ’kambo’

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Oct 11th, 2012
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By Magdi El Gizouli

October 8, 2012 — Sudan’s major grain producers, the landowners of Gedaref, complained bitterly to the press this week of an acute shortage of labour and warned of yet another failed agricultural season. The local farmers’ union in the state reportedly lobbied the central government to sanction the employment of Ethiopian guest workers in order to save the season without much success. In Gezira and North Darfur the state authorities seconded school children on vacation for service in the fields, a desperate measure that fell short of demand. This year government failure has resulted in a self-inflicted drought on the two Niles; up to 85% of the cultivated area in the Gezira and al-Managil extension suffers from a shortage of water declared a parliamentary committee this week after three visits to the scheme. Why and how are questions that the controversial and eloquent Minister of Agriculture, Abd al-Haleem al-Mutaafi, has eluded in sessions of parliament as well as during an inspection ride where he was accompanied by a television crew eager to record his ‘frank exchange’ with angered farmers.

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Gedaref State | Al-Qadarif State

The Gedaref landowners in particular are a formidable constituency. In 2010 they managed to force their favourite, Karamallah Abbas, on the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) as a candidate for the gubernatorial elections. Karmallah, the farmers’ union leader turned governor, soon became a reason for concern at party headquarters. He played his own game and challenged the dodgy arithmetic of financial allocations to the states, to be quelled out of office in May this year after a memorable clash with the Minister of Finance Ali Mahmoud Abd al-Rasool. The daily al-Tayar was banned from publication partially as a punishment for its enthusiastic coverage of Karamallah’s try at dissent. In a last interview he told Howeida Sir al-Khatim, the journalist who made his story news, that he might consider running on a National Umma Party (NUP) ticket considering his Ansar heritage. The election to fill the post, due after sixty days from it vacancy, is yet to take place. The National Elections Commission argued itself out of the constitutional inconvenience by blaming the bad weather as it were; once the rainy season ends and the crops are harvested, it pledged, the vote will be held. In his interview Karamalla said he feared becoming a second Malik Agar, a governor at large, a stunt that obviously did not play in his favour.

There are two immediate reasons for the shortage in labour this season. The first, said the Secretary General of the Gedaref Farmers’ Union Abd al-Majid Ali al-Tom, is the loss of South Sudanese labour as a consequence of secession. The South Sudanese in (north) Sudan, congruent with a long history of exploitation extending back to the time when slavery constituted the dominant relation of production in Sudanese agriculture, provided a large chunk of the ultra-cheap labour force on which the profitability of agricultural production in Sudan’s technology-poor and labour-intensive fields relied. The sugar plantations of Kenana, al-Jineid and Sennar, their recent ambitious follow-up in the White Nile State, the grain fields of Gedaref, and the chronically dysfunctional Gezira Scheme all depend on a nominally seasonal supply of labour drawn from migrant populations, predominantly from the Sudanese war zones. The qualification seasonal however refers only to the terms of employment; the people in question, the ‘jango’ in colloquial tongue, are established ‘squatters’ albeit denied the title and inhabit the notorious ‘kambos’ (sg. kambo) of Sudan’s agricultural belt, the makeshift settlements that twin the villages and towns of the riverain heartland as shadow doubles, excluded from service provision but resources for sustained police extortion, targets for the occasional punitive raid, and theatres of pleasure on the cheap. The talented novelist Abd al-Aziz Baraka Sakin injected the kambo into the imagination of the Khartoum intelligentsia with his masterpiece ‘al-Jango, nails of the land’ and a collection of short stories titled ‘A woman from ‘Kambo Kadees’. Both works have been banned by the responsible authorities despite the fact that the novel earned its author the 2010 ‘Tayeb Salih Prize’ offered by the independent Abd al-Karim Mirghani Cultural Centre but circulate in a digitalised samizdat format.

Apart from the romanticisation around revolutionary promise the kambo and its inhabitants attracted no further interrogation from the Khartoum crowd, exception being to my knowledge the 1982 PhD thesis of Tayseer Mohamed Ali ‘The Cultivation of Hunger: Towards the Political Economy of Agricultural Development in Sudan’. Tayseer formed a duo with the ‘Free Officer’ Abd al-Aziz Khaled in the early 1990s and established the Sudan National Alliance/Sudan Alliance Forces with an outlook to invest the ‘jango’ with a political-military mission. The Alliance registered minor military gains along Sudan’s eastern borders but eventually withered away after the two fell out in a dull repeat of a common scenario in Sudan’s elite politics i.e. the intellectual versus the military officer. Abd al-Aziz eventually returned to Khartoum after a presidential pardon while Tayseer established permanent base in Asmara. The jango were abandoned.

A second reason for the dearth in agricultural labour this season is Sudan’s artisan ‘gold rush’. The Ministry of Mining reported this past month that the quest for gold kept an estimated five hundred thousand people busy spread over eighty locations around the country, many of whom are likely to be escapees from the penury of agricultural labour. With this background in mind, I suggest, it is possible to explain in part the willingness of the ‘rational’ NCP high priests to invite the South Sudanese back into the rump Sudan with the ‘four freedoms’ ensured, rephrased the freedom to sell their muscle power, conveniently this time around as ‘brothers’ with no citizens’ claims to burden the exchange.

The author is a fellow of the Rift Valley Institute. He publishes regular opinion articles and analyses at his blog Still Sudan. He can be reached at m.elgizouli@gmail.com

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