JEM’s Black Book and the Language of Resistance: Transcribing Tyranny

Many seeking to understand the causes of Darfur’s rebellion look to the Black Book: Imbalance of Power and Wealth in Sudan, which was clandestinely published in 2000 by individuals who would later form Darfur’s Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), as representing the seeds of the rebellion. It was the ideological articulation of Darfurian opposition to the regime that preceded armed rebellion. With its meticulous tables, anecdotal evidence, and theorizing on Islamic rule, it claimed to expose the deep-seated ethnic imbalance from all of Sudan’s post-independence governments, but its critical gaze was especially focused on the hypocrisy and inequality under the “Salvation” (ingaz) Islamist regime, which took control in a military coup in 1989 led by current President Omar al-Bashir.

While existing scholarship on the Black Book emphasizes its importance in modern Sudanese history, it does not analyze its critiques or highlight their implications for actual political change in Sudan. Closely examining the Black Book and its critique of the Sudanese government reveals important and neglected aspects of the agenda of the Darfur rebellion, and especially that of the Justice and Equality Movement.

For my Master’s thesis on the topic I first undertook a close translation from the original Arabic, prominently posted on JEM’s website. The commonly available translation serves well for understanding the general meaning but not for undertaking a close textual analysis, as the translator at times added and deleted paragraphs and paraphrased or rewrote difficult sections.

Drawing on my own translation of the Black Book, I show that while the Black Book dutifully documents the failures of the current regime to live up to its slogans of full equality under Islam and thus offers a challenge to the regime, it fails to move beyond the paradigm and structure of the ruling regime in its critique and thus precludes any wider structural change that might bring about the desired justice and equality. By utilizing language that simultaneously blames and apologizes for the political elite and concluding by asking their “brothers to give up a little,” it does not address the foundational structural inequality in Sudan, and hints a desire for a place at the political table.

The challenge of the Black Book to the Sudanese government was a significant one: it exposed the hypocrisy of the regime and cataloged its failures to live up to its slogans touting brotherly equality under the banner of Islam. Its force as a text came from the fact that it provided statistics and evidence documenting a reality that all had known but had not had the proof with which to effectively challenge the regime. And yet its challenge had limits.

It is clear from the perspective of the authors of the Black Book that the problems of Sudan are persistent and deep-rooted in the nation’s structure, as the injustice was “practiced by the successive political regimes upon the country from independence until today, regardless of the regimes’ affiliations or forms: secular or Islamic, allegedly democratic or dictatorial.” Injustice has been made into law (“taqniin al-dhulm“). “Corruption” had “become the state.” The National State Support Fund is called a “state organ to reinforce that disparity.” All governments have followed the same “signposts on the path” that were laid by “sectarianism” and exploitation. Indeed, a perspective emphasizing the structural causes of Sudan’s conflicts, including patterns of exploitative governance between the center and periphery, inequalities of development that persisted after colonialism, and a narrowly based nationalist movement among the northern elite and based on Arab Islamic identity, is widely accepted in scholarship about the conflict in Darfur and political disintegration in Sudan in general.

Despite the authors’ clarity in the Black Book regarding the structural causes of the plethora of problems and instances of injustice enumerated throughout the text, a clarity likewise held by political thinkers and historians, the Black Book does not call for structural change. In contrast to other revolutionary Sudanese thinkers such as John Garang, who called for a “new political Sudanese dispensation” and a “paradigm shift from the old Sudan of exclusivity to the new Sudan of inclusivity,” the authors of the Black Book do not take such a radical stance when they leave the realm of criticism and enter that of recommendation.

The authors of the Black Book conclude by asking their “brothers to give up a little.” After fifty pages of exposing the regime’s hypocrisy, the “deep stupidity, aimless ignorance, paralyzing sickness and poverty” caused by its unjust actions, and the reality of state structures as simply being tools to enforce one region’s hegemony, the authors of the Black Book are content with things as they are””as long as those on top cede a little of their power and wealth. “Stay away from exploitation,” they say, and “be true to the slogans that were raised.” After they suggest that the “hidden desire of these people is to gain mastery over slaves” and that “barefaced injustice” exists within their “inmost selves,” their recourse is to ask them simply to stay away from exploitation. Is this not, to use the phrasing of the Black Book, asking for the straightness of the shadow when they’ve determined the branch to be crooked? Similarly, after the Islamic slogans of the Salvation regime were exposed to be simply tools to get into power, they curiously ask their leaders to be true to what they’ve just determined to be a lie.

As a part of the same discursive community that brought the Salvation regime into power, the authors of the Black Book express that they are deeply invested in the present model of the Sudanese state as an Islamic state: “The Islamic world today has its eyes on Sudan, and it has bound its hopes to the success of the Sudanese experience. The destruction of this model is a grave felony to Islam and Muslims.” As such, while they are clear about the structural decay and the need for change at that level for any of Sudan’s many conflicts and injustices to be ameliorated, the authors of the Black Book are invested in the state as it is””the model and the state structure. In asking their “brothers” to give up a little, they are not reimagining a state that has undergone a revolutionary transformation in its political and economic apparatuses. They are seeking to be included at the table.

The incoherence of the Black Book in its documentation of injustice as compared to its suggestions for change evidences the limits of its critique, mainly that the authors fail to think outside the paradigm and structure of the current regime and thereby abide by its idiom, boundaries, and definitions of state and reality. And yet a further testimony that the authors of the Black Book have not gone beyond the paradigm and structure of the government that they critique is that they themselves mirror that government in terms of rhetoric and action. The lengthy sections of the Black Book that claim to articulate the “original” view of Islamic rule mirror the slogans and rhetorical stance of the Salvation regime in terms of their claim to represent “Islam,” call for the leadership of Islam itself, and their collapsing of multiplicity and subjectivity with regards to religion. Soon after, as the authors of the Black Book began the rebel Justice and Equality Movement upon the stance of exposing rule by elite, the group itself became dominated by a local elite, the clan of its leader. “[B]efore the ink in which these words were written dried up,” write the signatories of a 2006 internal JEM “reformatory memo“ that challenges JEM in a similar way that the Black Book challenged the Salvation regime, “those leaders have reneged from the principles of the revolution and resorted to the narrow regionalistic, exclusionary and tribal approach

With an issue such as institutionalized injustice, change does not mean placing a different figure at the top or putting another chair at the political table. If JEM’s goal is to push for power for themselves, they may likely succeed by pursuing the course that they’ve chosen. And while sitting at the table they may be in the position to make some changes. But if their goal is to create lasting change that challenges the structural injustice that has plagued Sudan since it has been an independent state, they will need to pursue an alternate course that starts with internal coherence. They must define and model the change they wish to create.

As the Black Book was quietly passed out in the streets of Khartoum that Friday in 2000 despite the censorship regime of the Salvation government, there seemed a possibility of great change. The regime had been publicly challenged. Its hypocrisy had been meticulously documented and aired to the wind. And yet what followed is that the rebel group based on that document, in fighting the government, has evinced the injustice and inequality, the slogans and political maneuvering, and the desire for power for which they so eloquently criticized the Salvation regime. Ultimately, they have followed the same signposts on that same path on which has walked every leading regime or group in Sudan since its independence in 1956. If they were to pursue revolutionary change rather than simply a reformist critique from within, they would start by diverging from that path.

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6 thoughts on “JEM’s Black Book and the Language of Resistance: Transcribing Tyranny

  1. from early time we came to believe that there was something wrong going on the political ground , in order to deal with such complicated issues there must be vital machinery so as to jump over the barracades which might hinder one from proceeding with his view, I think this was the main reason that let the debateful black book to come out , the goal of that book was to enlighten those marginalized who had been living in darkness for decades without knowing any thing about their rights in the successive Sudanese regimes , the margin was eliminated from sharing in wealth and power all through the previous decades that preceded the independence the matter that resulted in so called the imbalance of wealth and power or what we may call the political persecution.

    Since the independence we never saw any person from the margins taking office in the successive sudanese regimes , many may ask why does this happen ? why should n’t those from margins take office in the sudanese successive ruling systems? were they incompetent or they did not deserve office? all these questions are frequently wandering around the minds of those marginalized. due to the state of imbalance of power and wealth the black book came out to address these sensitive issues inducing the intellectuals to deal with this truth by facts and figures , and lately the darfurian revolution burst out as a response to these urgent demands of the marginalized zones

    Making peace should be the first strategy of this abusive government which has placed the Sudanese people into a very critical position, as we believe that peace could never be achieved unless there has been serious intention from the sudanese government to put down gun and enter into the process of comprehensive reconciliation .

  2. Dear Caity,

    could you explain the significance of the “little black book”? Thanks,


  3. Thank you for your comments Anwar. As much as the Black Book, as you’ve mentioned, enlightened those who had been marginalized to their own political disempowerment, it also formed the ideological foundation of the group that later founded JEM. Hence the importance of looking closely at its language: it tells as much about that group and their perspective on social change as it tells about the distribution of power and wealth in Sudan. Looking back to the Black Book we not only see the seeds of the rebellion in Darfur, but we also see the seeds of the behavior of the rebels that doesn’t seem to accord with their expressed aims (such as hypocrisy, injustice, inequality, human rights concerns, etc) — behavior that certainly doesn’t accord with a more glorified image of the rebel side coming from a dichotomous villain/victim perspective on the conflict. Such a study touches on the more profound questions of: how does social change occur, and how do the oppressed participate in social change without taking on the characteristics of their oppressors, leaving unjust structures in place while replacing tyrants with tyrants?

    Regarding the photograph: perhaps a more appropriate photograph to include would have been the one used on the JEM site to represent the Black Book (located here: This one of the “little black book” was an image that I found on the internet that seems very likely to be the one that JEM used to represent the Black Book on their website — of course, after editing the “little” out of the title. If this is indeed the case, the very different moral connotations of each makes any connection between them amusing!

  4. It is interesting that the Black Book has surfaced again as an important source for understanding Darfur, or for that matter the “marginalized communities in Sudan”. However, there is a mystery surrounding the real author of the book. I heard at different times that major parts of the book are from the late Dr. Abdul-Rahaman Abbakar’s thesis. I have not come to read the book yet but Dr. Abdul-Rahman was a close friend and a great loss to Sudan as a whole. For the sake of history, this needs clarification.

  5. the early stages of Darfur crisis had brought international attention for the austerities, but it was the conflicted positions of the Darfur rebels that made me look into it, while the main concern is I think to be revolved around the humanitarian crisis, the reputed government which is the the main reason of the problem appear to be as the mercy trying to set talks for peace negotiations and can’t find willingness from the rebels. The Black Book was the trigger by the Islamic wise men who used Darfur as the bridge for power. while el Sheikh Hassan el Turabi remains held captive in the notorious Kober prison; JEM wont make any step toward peace or a solution. making it a revenge and no longer a case of wealth or lack of development as it is showed by the rebels.

  6. The Black Book, as I have argued more than once in both Arabic and English, has acquired the status of a “bible” for some Sudan experts. It is badly researched with elementary mistakes like claiming : “All those who have ruled Sudan since independence have without exception been from the Northern Province.” This is incorrect. Ismael Alazhari is from Kordofan (The town of El Obeid, where Hai Al Qubba, the most famous part of the town, is named after the Qubba (tomb) of AlAzhari’s grandfather. General Ibrahim Abboud is from the East (Suwakin). His mother is from the the East. His father settled there and belonged there.

    At the time in which the most creative and moderate Islamists were ready to move towards a Sudanese National Project (as opposed to Turtabi’s International Islamic Project), the Black Book was published as a backward looking document hanging on to the original Project. When the Islamists ousted Turabi , there was no surprise in JEM’s allegiance.

    It used the word “Black” pejoratively whereas Sudanese singers sing for Black and Brown girls and our “reverse racism” considers white the colour of cowardice and miserliness. Our women wear white when they mourn.

    The Book saw Sudan through the view-finder of Darfur where detribalisation did not occur in an extensive manner. By comparison the Northern and Central Sudan (thanks to Turko-Egyptian and Anglo-Egyptian intervention from 1820 until 1956) has gone through detribalisation. The three tribes referred to in the Black Book are no longer existent in the way tribes exist in Darfur. They have mixed and intermarried with the Nubians and Darfuris . Tribal clashes in the Darfuri sense are not conceivable. This explains why political parties, trade Unions, football teams and artistic movements were all founded at the “melting pot” of the capital and the major towns on a national (not tribal) basis. In this sense the Darfur conflict is also between tribally based and oriented forces and national detribalised forces. One is looking back in history and one is looking ahead.

    JEM’s tribal roots were exposed when it fought in Chad in support of President Debby and later crossed the border to Sudan to attack Omdurman. The Zaghawa tribe (which is a minority in both Darfur and Sudan but is powerful and numerous in Chad ) is more relevant in their loyalty and political strategies than the National concept. JEM was not interested in the April elections because (in tribally conscious Darfur) it cant win much at the ballot box .The gun is JEM’s only hope.

    Withdrawal from Doha negotiations shows adherence to force only; despite the changing political landscape after Sudanese -Chadian peaceful reconciliation.

    Nobody denies that Darfur suffered from neglect and lacked development; but to imply that a “conspiracy” is the reason is an oversimplification. The Condominium administration left Sudan with 56 % of all investment concentrated in Khartoum, Kassala and the Northern Province, as against 17% in both Darfur and Kordofan (According to Gerard Prunier’s book on Darfur). Money was tight and the Condominium’s rule concentrated on the easily accessible areas in central Sudan near the Red Sea and Egypt. This is no excuse for Sudanese governments that followed the same pattern; but no conspiracy was planned and implemented as the Book suggests.

    The Black Book had a detrimental impact on Sudanese studies ; because it misled even the most experienced and trustworthy Darfur experts like Alex de Waal and Julie Flint who swallowed the allegation that Sudan was controlled by members of three tribes “which represented only 5.4%of Sudan’s population.” This startling error resurfaced in the preface to the African Union’s report that was written by the most highly respected Thabo Mbeki who stated that “a minority of the population ,concentrated in and around Khartoum maintained a stranglehold over political power and and economic resources”!!

    The most recent census proves without doubt that this is not supported by evidence .

    Development and modernisation are led and driven by the cities not by nomads or pastoralists in remote areas. Merit and positive discrimination are the answer to the Black Book. Both are under way. When I left Sudan in 07 the largest single group of students I had in Khartoum was from Darfur. There are now three Universities in Darfur itself and hundreds of schools to feed them with intake. This is bound to change the overall situation. Not overnight ; but definitely.

    I am glad that someone has written a Masters degree based on a scrutiny of the Black Book, because the damage done by neglecting it has manifested itself through infiltration of its errors into serious documents and assessments.

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