Tuesday, 29 April 2008
Kajbar is a tiny village on the river Nile, selected by Sudan as the site for a $200m (£100m) dam which will flood dozens of surrounding villages.
In theory, hydroelectric power will be the first stage of a drive towards a more industrialised state, and, according to the President, Omar al-Bashir, an important step towards eliminating poverty.
It looks like a worthy aim for a country where the average income is under £1 per day, but it may be coming at a high cost. On 13 June last year, Sudanese security forces opened fire on a demonstration against the plans. The facts about the incident are hard to obtain because journalists have been prevented from reporting it. But according to eyewitnesses, several thousand largely Nubian protesters set out to march towards the dam company's administrative HQ, and found themselves blocked by soldiers at a narrow ravine.
Video footage shot by a local cameraman shows tear gas being fired and the crowd running through groves of date palm trees towards the Nile. Without warning, local people say the soldiers fired live rounds straight into the crowd. There was panic. By the end of the day, four people had been killed, and more than 20 seriously wounded. And the local Nubian opposition to Khartoum's hydroelectric scheme had hardened into active political resistance. "In the name of God, we will not keep quiet, even for a moment," said Osman Ibrahim, a local leader of the campaign, who witnessed the events. "We will resist and resist until the last drop of blood in our veins."
Kajbar is about 300 miles north of Khartoum in the heart of Nubia, the ancient black African kingdom which at times rivalled the pharoahs for wealth and influence. The Kajbar dam is just one of up to four planned on the stretch of the Nile north of Khartoum, which will become the hub of Sudan's power supply.
The Nubian politician and reformer, Suad Ibrahim Ahmed, feels that the building of dams has turned into a struggle for Nubian identity. "We are Sudanese, and we are proud of our Sudanese identity but we are also proud of our Nubian identity, and our language and our history," he said.
There is a strong feeling among all those peoples affected by the dams that they have been poorly consulted, sometimes even targeted by a government with its own agenda.
The most ambitious project to date is now nearing completion. The $2bn Merowe dam, which began construction in 2003, will almost double Sudan's available supply of electricity. The largest dam construction project in Africa, it will generate 1,250MW of energy when it hits full capacity next year. But it is not just about electricity. "The dam represents a new start for engineering expertise in Sudan, the beginning of an economic revival and major investment in Sudan," said Dr Ahmed El Tayeb, the chief resident engineer at Merowe.
But, as at Kajbar, the Merowe dam has seen violent suppression of protest. On 22 April 2006, a public meeting at the school in the village of Amri near the dam was surrounded by security forces with automatic weapons. According to campaigners, the militia began firing live bullets into the yard of the school, and three people were killed and about 40 wounded.
One of the leaders of the 50,000 people likely to be displaced by the Merowe dam, Ali Askouri, said: "The state announced that there will be an investigation of this event. Up until now, nothing has happened."
One of the critical issues raised by all the protesters is the plan for resettlement of those displaced. The specially constructed new towns are in the desert, many miles from the Nile. Many of the villagers have complained about the poor desert soil.
The environmentalist Nicholas Hildyard, who has written a report on the resettlement options for Merowe, said the villagers were presented with a raw deal. "We were shocked," he said. "The land was of such poor quality, that they were reduced to growing not much more than fodder for selling to the local nomads."
Sudan is looking towards a more developed future, but its economic ambitions come at the expense of some citizens' human rights. The government is unrepentant.
"The Sudanese government does not apologise at all that it seeks to progress, and does not apologise at all that it seeks to become a developed country," said Khalid Mubarak, a Sudanese government spokesman. "We have paid the price of our backwardness, and we have the resources to become a strong country. So why don't we do that?"
Sudan's government is facing a crisis, with opposition to the dams projects intensifying. Dirar, who is a teacher at the school in Kajbar, believes the resistance will become violent. "I swear that if this dam is built, and they force people out, I will be the first one to declare war against Sudan," he said. "I am one million per cent sure I would not be alone in this. There would thousands of people around me."