This is the second of a two-part posting that charts the rise and fall of the Sudan Alliance Forces (SAF). This posting deals with the fall of the once-promising movement, showing how a paid insurgency was doomed to failure.
By early 1998, SAF reached its limit as an effective movement due to the limited capacity and narrow agenda of its leadership. Serious internal conflicts between the military and the civilian components of the movement started to surface. SAF propaganda was quite appealing, as a serious New Sudan Force with clear agenda, but it was also a very deceptive way to portray itself to the U.S. and to the simple Sudanese recruits as a revolutionary group with mass organizations of women, workers, and students and that it trained its fighters in politics and history, as well as in military strategy and tactics. This deception resulted in great numbers of Sudanese starting to join the forces of SAF between 1996 and 1997. However, with a totalitarian mentality, favouritism, and the narrow personal interests, the leadership of SAF was in no way prepared or capable of meeting the aspirations of the members of the movement and surprisingly they turned against their own movement membership.
Summary executions, torture, and imprisonment in underground pits were widely practiced against any voice that attempted to question the leadership on legitimate matters. Attempts to discuss financial issues and lack of transparency were violently silenced. Allegations surfaced of the leaders of SAF sending their relatives to the United States and to other countries and purchasing fancy flats in Cairo and elsewhere while increasing number of the so called lower-class recruits were unable to meet their basic needs while sacrificing their lives at the frontlines for the sake of the slogans of the movement. Great suspicions were also raised over the assassination of SAF Coptic Commander Sulaiman, and over the death of Colonel Abel Aziz El-Nour, both of them have gained great popularity among the file and ranks of SAF as reportedly opposed the discriminating and the brutal style of leadership exercised by Abdel Aziz Khalid.
The May 1998 border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia came as a major blow to both SAF and the U.S. concerted plan in the region. Eritrea immediately turned hopelessly hostile and Susan Rice who was sent for mediation was openly criticized and turned back by the Eritreans. Eritrea went further to accuse the U.S. of siding with the Ethiopians and giving them the green light to launch this war against Asmara. The Eritrean relation with the U.S. was still active regarding the regional agenda, however, but mistrust and frustration started to grow on the side of the Eritreans. SAF’s internal conflicts were also growing at a larger scale due to differences between the military and the Sudan National Alliance, between those who were inside Sudan and those who are outside, as well as between the military and their humanitarian wing that was providing civil services in the areas under the control of SAF as appeared in some Sudanonline forum discussions in August 2000.
Eritrea initially put its full support into building the SAF as a Sudanese replica of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), believing its members could spark a mutiny within the Sudanese armed forces as well as a popular uprising in Khartoum and successfully contest for state power in Khartoum. As the SAF began to splinter from within and lose both membership and capacity, the Eritreans—as they had done in the past with the Ethiopians—then began to shift their focus to ethnic and regional forces, particularly in Darfur and the northeast (the Beja Congress and the Rashaida Free Lions). It is worth mentioning here that the politics of the Eastern Front ever since that moment started to move for the sake of the Eritrean national security interests and away from the direct influence of the U.S. Similar to SAF, both the Rashaida and the Beja organizations became proxy tools for the Eritrean policy with Sudan.
Out of fears to have to deal with new military front with Sudan while it was involved in the 1998-2000 conflict with Ethiopia, the Eritrean authorities immediately gave a clear signal to the NDA forces to slow down their operations. The roles drastically changed, from attacks and advance on the Sudan territories, to a new role of merely providing protection to the Eritrean borders against incursions from the Eritrean Islamic Jihad that was supported by the NIF as well as from any threats that could directly be posed by the Sudan government forces.
One clear outcome of the U.S, support to the use of military intervention to destabilize and topple the government in Khartoum was that it blocked various peace initiatives between the government and the SPLA/M as both the SPLA/M and SAF seemed confident that with the increased U.S and regional support, it was inevitable that their joint forces would arrive to Khartoum in a matter of months, and as such the SPLA was not in position to consider any peace initiative with adequate seriousness.
The U.S. policy started to receive some heat with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter being very candid about the Clinton Administration’s attempts to intervene in the Sudanese conflict:
“The people in Sudan want to resolve the conflict. The biggest obstacle is US government policy. The US is committed to overthrowing the government in Khartoum. Any sort of peace effort is aborted, basically by policies of the United States…Instead of working for peace in Sudan, the US government has basically promoted a continuation of the war.” (‘Carter, Others Say US Has Faltered in Africa’, The Boston Globe, 8 December 1999.)
Congresswoman McKinney was was also amongst the many critics. The American periodical, The New Republic, has also observed:
“The Clinton administration’s Africa policy will probably go down as the strangest of the postcolonial age; it may also go down as the most grotesque…Indeed, confronted with several stark moral challenges, the Clinton administration has abandoned Africa every time: it fled from Somalia, it watched American stepchild Liberia descend into chaos, it blocked intervention in Rwanda…Clinton’s soaring rhetoric has posed a problem that his predecessors did not face – the problem of rank hypocrisy…the Clintonites have developed a policy of coercive dishonesty.” (“Sierra Leone, the last Clinton betrayal: Where Angels Fear to Tread”, The New Republic, 24 July 2000.)
The September 11, and the shift in the CIA emphasis and increased dependence on Sudan in the ‘War on Terror’ added to the Eritrean hostile stance and the strategic importance that the U.S. put on Ethiopia. It also justified the U.S. position on the border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia and their lenient, if not openly supportive position to Ethiopia, while it refused to abide by the border demarcation ruling that awarded Badme to Eritrea. For the U.S. what matters is a stable state that can support the long term strategic interests of the U.S in the area, and within the Eritrea-Ethiopia context, it was quite clear for the Americans where the sympathy should go.
The collaboration between the CIA and the Sudanese Intelligence apparatus, that started in 2001, was culminated by a CIA decision, later on, to fly the chief of the Sudan Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Sallah Abdallah Gosh, for a secret meeting in Washington aimed at cementing cooperation against terrorism as was brought in the Los Angeles Post, on June 17, 2005. Khartoum had become “an indispensable part of CIA’s counterterrorism strategy.” That turn of events after the 9/11 of course resulted in devastating implications on the NDA in general and on SAF in particular.
With his increasing frustration about being left out by the U.S., and the implications of the border conflict that slowed down his advance on the eastern front and the Blue Nile, and also due to increased internal concerns and conflicts within the movement mainly due to his egalitarian management tendencies and his tainted human rights record that was revealed by the watchdog Human Rights Watch in their 2001 report as well as by the US Department of State’ report of 2002, Abdel Aziz was at a great loss. Between early 1998 to the end of that year, it was believed that the movement lost more than 50% of its cadres who either preferred to go back to Sudan or to join other factions of the NDA so as to protect themselves from the aggression of their leadership. By the end of year 2001, the total number of SAF forces that were estimated to be several thousands, dropped down to less than 100 supporters, according to some interviews that I personally conducted with members of SAF in Asmara in April 2001.
On March 4, 2002, the US Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “Sudan Country Report on Human Rights Practices” mentioned that: “In 2000 Human Rights Watch reported that the Sudan Alliance Forces (SAF), an NDA member, committed abuses against its soldiers accused of spying or defecting to another rebel groups, including summary executions, torture, and detention of prisoners in a pit in the ground.” Bringing that HRW concern in a US Department of State report was a clear signal that the honeymoon of U.S. support to SAF was over.
It was easy within this context for Abdel Aziz Khalid to fall back in the hands of his old friends and colleagues in the Sudan Government military and intelligence apparatuses through his contacts with El-Fatih Erwa whom he claimed was meeting because of blood relations and that they are cousins. Erwa was appointed a State Minister in the Presidency of the Republic of Sudan as National Security Advisor to Omer El-Bashir during the period of 1989 to 1995, then a State Minister of Defence 1995-1996, after that he was appointed an Ambassador as Permanent Representative of Sudan to the United Nations in New York, from 1996 till 2005. It was strongly believed in Asmara that Abdel Aziz used to meet quite regularly with Erwa during that period and surprisingly on the various occasions that Dr. Taisier had arranged for him to meet with the U.S Administration officials on his visits to the States.
It was also quite easy for the Sudan Government to convince Abdel Aziz of the strategic importance of Ethiopia, and that Eritrea is a losing horse in this race. It was not long also before information started to leak in Asmara, early in 2004 about the suspicions that Abdel Aziz was involved in “discouraging some important investors from coming to Eritrea, and advising them instead to go to Addis Ababa where the atmosphere is more conducive and the government is more supportive to investment.” Other rumours also indicated possible espionage and sensitive information leakage to Ethiopia in the one hand to protect the remnants of his forces in the Blue Nile areas bordering Sudan, and on the other hand as a favour to the Sudan government that was clear about its position on the Eritrea-Ethiopia border war and which was determined to topple the government of Isseyas Afewerki at that point to the extent of allowing the passage of the Ethiopian troops through the Sudanese territories to attack the border towns of Guluj and Tesseni towards the end of the 1998-2000 conflict.
Between 2002-03, SAF attempted but with great failure to save itself by forging a merger with the SPLA, that Dr. Taisier described as “This historic event was first made possible because both organizations were committed to achieving the same ultimate objective—a united, democratic, secular Sudan”. (See the Press Release/Commentary by SAF – PD posted on March 21, 2002, titled “The Historic Unification of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the Sudan Alliance Force (SAF).) SAF was aspiring to see itself an equal to the SPLA/M and a partner in a North-South Agenda for peace and conflict, but was simply been swallowed by the SPLA/M as they were apparently become a dispensable paid insurgency that was not needed any more.
Against the backdrop of growing differences with their controversial guest, the authorities in Eritrea arrested Abdul Aziz Khalid who had been in self-imposed exile in Asmara since 1994. A news article mentioned “Eritrean authorities had been investigating allegations that Khalid and two other Sudanese dissidents, Kamal Badr and Ali Yassin were leaking military and intelligence information to Ethiopia. (PANA, April 6, 2004). Abdel Aziz Khalid was eventually deported from Eritrea afterwards. At that time, I couldn’t stop thinking, “was that an attempt to bribe the U.S. administration again to continue supporting SAF?” It was quite apparent that the U.S. had lost interest in both SAF and the Eritrean regime and was heavily in support of Ethiopia.
On Friday, September 23, 2004, Abdul Aziz Khalid, was arrested at Abu Dhabi International Airport, reportedly upon an Interpol warrant, the official WAM news agency reported, on the basis of an extradition request from the government of Sudan. The government of Sudan has stated on a number of occasions that it does not intend to prosecute Abdel Aziz Khalid, and is only seeking “reconciliation”. Deported back to Sudan, it was no surprise that Abdel Aziz was able to strike a deal with the NIF regime and eventually left the Sudan to join his family in the United States.
As a paid insurgency that was also divided between the individual ambitions and interests its leadership and the foreign agenda of its creators and supporters, and when it betrayed its membership aspiration and its own national agenda, it was not surprising that the movement that was once seemed a as the light at the end of the tunnel, and as the saviour of the New Sudan, abruptly exited, once the foreign agenda of its existence become no longer valid.
By the way, it is also interesting that, Dr. Taisier Ali, published a book Civil Wars in Africa: Roots and Resolution. The book contains a complete section written by John Prendergast.
With reference to the recent Juba conference, the Sudan Tribune issue of September 9, 2009, mentions that: “The dominant ruling National Congress Party (NCP) refused to take part in the conference voicing suspicions over the motives behind the convention saying it is an opposition coalition in the making against the ruling party. The Ba’ath party representatives with pro-Arab nationalistic ideology objected to the number of invitations allocated to their party. The Sudanese Alliance Forces (SAF) headed by Abdel-Aziz Khalid also raised similar objections. ‘These parties are infiltrated by the NCP and therefore it is understandable that will bring up irrelevant issues to call off the [Juba] conference on their behalf,’” an official who asked not to be named said. I guess SAF is back to its mainstream at last – this last comment is mine!