The intra-SLA Strife

The difficulties facing the Doha peace talks—highlighted in my report for the Small Arms Survey: Rhetoric and Reality. The Failure to Resolve the Darfur Conflict—have been starkly illustrated as meetings resume in Doha between mediators and representatives of some of the Darfur armed movements. (Planned talks between the movements and civil society have been postponed, apparently indefinitely, at the insistence of JEM.)

Since 5 January, rival factions of SLA-Abdul Wahid have been fighting each other in Jebel Marra. The fighting, which has been largely unreported, has caused civilians to flee from a number of villages in the south of the mountains, towards Nyertiti and Kass. There are fears that the violence, which has many fault lines, too complicated to explain in this short posting, could have repercussions among civilians in IDP camps where SLA-Abdul Wahid has a hold.

It will be impossible to reach a sustainable settlement to the simmering but still-unresolved conflict in Darfur, regardless of anything the government does or does not do, while the ‘revolution’ of 2003 is eating itself.

The intra-SLA fighting has claimed the lives of a number of commanders critical of the SLA Chairman, his decision to reside in France rather than Darfur, and his refusal both to participate in the Doha process and to seek reconciliation in the SLA faction he leads. Some of the commanders have died in armed clashes; others have perished in ambushes—most recently, a commander from Kass, Mohamed Adam ‘Shamba’, whose car was reportedly attacked with rocket-propelled grenades in Jebel Marra on 26 January.

The long-standing tensions within SLA-AW over Abdul Wahid’s management surfaced dramatically (albeit behind closed doors) in the middle of 2009 when senior SLA commanders—including several of those considered most loyal to Abdul Wahid—‘challenged him for 10 days’, in the words of one of those present, at a capacity-building workshop in Switzerland. The chief of staff of the SLA, Yousif Ahmad Yousif ‘Karjakola’, went as far as to call the SLA chairman incompetent. Others complained about a lack of support, including salaries and military supplies, and the refusal to participate in the internationally-mediated peace process led by Djibril Bassole.

The spark to January’s mini-war appears to have been the capture of Karjakola by JEM in November 2009 as he returned to Darfur from Chad. Abdul Wahid’s critics allege that JEM acted at the instigation of the SLA Chairman, and are super-critical of the US special envoy, Gen. Scott Gration, for not seeking the release of a senior commander who defied Abdul Wahid’s rejectionism and favoured participating in the peace process. After Karjakola’s arrest, I received calls from SLA commanders in Darfur claiming that they have evidence of a ‘hit list’ (reportedly backed by serious money) of pro-peace reformers. I am aware that Abdul Wahid loyalists have made similar claims to others, but have no details of their claims. The list is said to include several SLA leaders in the Ain Siro area—including Ali Haroun, a law graduate of Khartoum University and responsible for justice in the SLA, and Suleiman Sakerey, the highest military commander in Ain Siro. Both met the AU High-Level Panel on Darfur in June last year.

Ain Siro has been untouched by the factional fighting and serious human rights abuses that have cast such a cloud over some rebel-controlled areas. But it has a history of problems with the SLA leadership in Jebel Marra. A number of commanders from Ain Siro were ‘arrested’ and taken to Jebel Marra, Abdul Wahid’s headquarters, late in 2007 as they gave voice to growing popular demand from the field for reform of the movement that Abdul Wahid leads from the diaspora. A confidential UN report said the Ain Siro group were accused of ‘attempting to divide the movement’. During the group’s detention in Jebel Marra, a university companion of Ali Haroun, Abdalla Mohamed, was kidnapped with his bodyguard, Hamadi, by masked men from the centre of Deribat, the SLA stronghold where the Ain Siro group was being held. (Abdalla’s body was later found three months later, hanged, in a village in Jebel Marra. Hamadi’s body was found in the same village, shot in the back.) I personally went to Paris to ask Abdul Wahid for guarantees for the safety of the Ain Siro group. He assured me they would come to no harm, and they were indeed released—albeit many months later. Abdul Wahid claimed that Abdalla Mohamed had been seized, from the market in Deribat, by ‘janjaweed’. I do not know Deribat. I leave it to those who do to judge whether ‘janjaweed’ could have got into the centre of the town, and out again, without a fight.

On 5 January this year, a senior SLA commander critical of Abdul Wahid and supportive of the peace process, Abdalla Abaker, was shot dead by Abdul Wahid loyalists at a checkpoint in Jebel Marra. Abdalla’s supporters subsequently attacked and looted the homes of a number of commanders considered to be Abdul Wahid loyalists, setting in motion a chain of attack and counter-attack that will continue until the root causes of the problem are resolved—most importantly the lack of structures, and accountability, in Jebel Marra.

The people of Darfur—those stuck in wretched camps and those still clinging to the countryside so utterly devastated by Khartoum’s criminal counter-insurgency—deserve better leadership than this. I have many reports of, and testimony to, the latest clashes and killings. It is a pity that none of this reaches the ‘ordinary’ people of Darfur, to enable them to judge for themselves who they want to represent them and speak on their behalf. A little naming and shaming, with dispassionate, detailed reporting of what exactly is going on—and why—might help Darfurians to find a voice of their own that is informed by fact rather than internet rumour and propaganda.

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7 thoughts on “The intra-SLA Strife

  1. It seems the rebel groups including the JEM have fallen into the same trap as their counterparts in the GoS. They have forgotten that in order to accurately the people they claim to represent, they must consult and sometimes defer to those peoples wishes and best interests.

    I have brushed off but kept as close a watch as possible on the peace negotiations and press releases put out by the Darfur rebels – specifically the JEM – and have come to the conclusion that the JEM and SLA wish to negotiate not for the people of Darfur but only for their own gain. Many of the supposed impasses in the peace negotiations can be reasonably progressed forward upon. While I absolutely understand both the intensity and delicateness of the process, the GoS does not seem to be the only party that wishes to disrupt the peace process while cloaked in an aura of benevolence – one of doing good for the people of Darfur.

    Inter and intra rebel fighting seem only to strengthen this possibility – all attempts to gain, regain, or maintain control over sections of Darfur.

    While this possibility is disheartening in the short term, only time will tell the rebels true nature. We must remember that as the JEM and the SLA solidify power in the region – especially the JEM – they fall into the same role as the GoS – a governing organization attempting to retain control over a region where regardless of the peoples desires they continue to act in opposition to popular will.

    The JEM’s press release to pull troops and, therefore, fighting out of cities recently demonstrates a change in strategy from insurgent strategy to counter insurgent strategy. This either demonstrates a desired presentation of increase in power or an actual increase in power. Assuming the latter, the JEM MUST reconnect with the civil society or risk falling into the role of a regional version of the GoS.

    Although, I am sure the JEM still believe – and I can only hope and pray – they are laboring for the Darfuri people. They should step back and remember that “Power always believes it has a noble vision beyond the comprehension of the weak.” If they wish to remain credible the Darfur rebels must take real steps towards peace instead of saying one thing and acting only in opposition.

  2. Dear Julie
    Thanks for shedding the light on what is going among SLA/AW and its repercussions among civilians in IDP camps where SLA-Abdul Wahid has a hold like Kalma IDP Camp. This camp used to send a very strong message and support to SLA/AW for all delegations who use to visit for his wise decisions for not participating in peace talks. Today visiting and meeting with the same Sheiks leaders you will realise the split among the Sheikhs same as among SLA/AW to the degree that Sheikh Ali who is the leader of Kalma expressed that his life is in danger.

  3. It is quite discouraging to see the further breakdown of the SLA-AW, when as a group they could yet wield negotiating strength. However, this is breakdown nothing new at all. The GoS has often purchased the support of former opposition groups’ commanders; and plenty from the Abdul Wahid side. Whether it happens prior to a negotiation (like the DPA in 2006) or any other time, such ‘purchasing’ of support usually results in more dramatic war-making than before. The GoS uses it’s new set of proxies to push harder on the AW loyalists…in this case it would be the Jebal Marra defectors aligning with the militia from the Mullam area to take Deribat…which has been attempted (and achieved) before with brutal consequences for civilians.

    It seems the way that the infighting is framed in this article is a bit too value laden. The message seems clear to me. I.e, you have commanders on one side (AW) who want the IDPs to stay in camps, so that they can keep benefiting from the war (i suppose this is the hypothesis?) and on the other side you have commanders who ‘really’ want to cut a deal with the GoS and get on with life, b/c then things will be better.

    I think it is important to point out that the factions ‘wanting to negotiate’ are quite normally being purchased at high, high prices. In the past we have seen this and the result is those same commanders leading other defectors/militia in brutal war-making against their own people (literally, their own home towns). It doesn’t seem that these tactics are utilized by the GoS because they are an honest broker/want to negotiate. They want to WIN the war and control Darfur. (What state doesn’t want a monopoly of force in its territory?) They have been doing so bit by bit over the past two years. This (creation of) infighting is simply a GoS tactic to totally neutralize a mountain that they quite literally can’t climb (Jebal Marra). Civilians will be terrorized in the process- but it is important to keep in mind, the blame for that inevitability will rest primarily with the Government of Sudan, not with a former youth movement that has had to grow up without parents.

  4. To blame all opposition to Abdul Wahid’s leadership on government divide and rule is simply incorrect. Is this why Jar el Nebi split in 2006? Or Suliman Marajan? Or Ain Siro? You slur them by suggesting they are all bought by Khartoum. There is and for a long time has been a genuine demand in the SLA for structure and accountability. The “infighting” is not “simply” a GoS tactic. Not all those who took up arms have a price. As for hypotheses, early days, I think. Facts first.

  5. Fair enough. No slur intended. Not all have a price, and there is age-old mismanagement in the AW crowd. Perhaps i spread the brush too broadly (infighting is not ‘simply’ created by the GoS), but I think you did/generally do, too. You don’t seem to put any stock in the significance of ‘divide/rule’. (Maybe that isn’t an interesting analysis/angle anymore, despite it’s enduring legitimacy?) In any case, let it be clear: the lure of money/control has played a heavy factor in enough ‘flips’ of commanders, which has led to plenty of civilian death. Much of what you write implicates AW and cronies in the prolonging of IDP misery; and not the real victimizers. This is a very interesting trend with Darfur ‘experts’.

    By the way, regarding ‘facts': The ‘facts’ include that late 09 closed door meetings between AW would-be-defectors and GoS helped facilitate the divide (which undermines a group that needs cohesion!); and led to surprise assassinations against AW loyalists. (You prefer, rather, to highlight a ‘hit-list’, etc.)

    Naming and shaming might help create solid political divisions within the IDP camps amongst the Fur…presumably to some ‘good’ end (?), which i would love to hear more about from your perspective. (Maybe they will take a vote on a ‘leader’?) But it wouldn’t really be honest if it didnt point out GoS tactics.

    Cohesion and better leadership is needed to bring an end to this sad story. But the story of civilian death does continue in Jebal (this week in fact) and in general, the dissent is being manipulated, assisted, an generally primed up by the GoS. While it’s true, it isn’t the ONLY factor, it is the most important. It is this ‘factor’ that really leads to civilian deaths. (Ie; There are connections here to the attacks on the Jebal as recent as this week, and perhaps to the stirrings in Kass.) And it is the factor that would ultimately lead to the total downfall of the original AW movement, and the Jebal.

  6. I think there is some interesting timing between the heavy attacks on the AW strongholds in Jebal Marra and the commander defections. So many more displaced, dead. Rebel cohesion is a problem and disgruntled commanders are ripe for the picking, but it is clear again who the real culprits are. I’m starting to wonder if some of the Save Darfur simple meta-narrative isn’t a bit credible in some parts of Darfur. Most of the finger pointing is still accurately aimed at the GoS, not poor democratic processes within the AW group, no matter how intrepid such a story seems.

  7. I have to agree with Todd in this matter. I have been watching from up close the past few weeks and see the “divide and conquer” strategy successfully implemented again.

    Some of the “defecting” commanders may even believe they are doing this for the people, but the people in Jebel are not “with” them at all. One of the commanders was “reportedly” promised control of one of the main towns in Jebel if he switched sides. The area is now completely vacant. If the people ever do come back that commander will never be allowed back in the area again.

    The victims again are the people. I don’t know Abdul Wahid and I’m frustrated that he “seems” stubborn and unwilling to deal, but there is no question that he has more support than any other person or group. Plus he does not seem to be in this to gain a high government position in the future. The other groups, even JEM, represent people in theory, but in reality only represent their philosophy or even self interest on the ground.

    The result of all of this? One of the very few areas in Darfur where relatively safety prevailed has now been destroyed, up to 150,000 people are displaced and the international community sits silent because the events on the ground are not coinciding nicely with their Doha / election plans.

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