The rebel alliance fighting against President Omar al Bashir is looking less united by the day.
For better or worse, the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), the alliance of insurgents against the government of President Bashir, is now reduced to its individual constituents: the four main armed movements, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement-North (SPLA/M-N), the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the two Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M) factions led by Minni Minawi and Abd al-Wahid al-Nur, besides the three token formations in their alliance, al-Tom Hajo and friends from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Nasr al-Din al-Hadi and friends from the National Umma Party (NUP) and Zeinab Kabbashi’s United People’s Front for Liberation and Justice (although it is not clear whether she still actually leads the group).
After a drawn out meeting in Paris from 13 to 17 October, the head of the SRF’s media sector, al-Tom Hajo, declared in a public statement that the JEM leader Jibreel Ibrahim had replaced the SPLA/M-N chief, Malik Agar, as chairman of the alliance. Agar responded immediately with a statement affirming his continued leadership and declaring that the SRF is now effectively two blocs: on one side the Darfur movements and their new ally al-Tom Hajo (once a minister in Agar’s cabinet during his tenure as governor of the Blue Nile) who support Jibreel Ibrahim’s claim for leadership; and on the other, the SPLA/M-N and its minor beneficiaries al-Hadi and Kabbashi.
At the inception of the SRF back in 2011, the four main movements agreed on the principle of a rotating chairmanship, but the SPLA/M-N, given its political and military weight, has retained the position nevertheless. Minni, Abd al-Wahid and Jibreel could not agree on who among them would “˜rotate’ first as leader and hence the dispute with the SPLA/M-N was delayed until last September when the three nominated Jibreel for the takeover. Malik Agar, lacking any other justification for his intransigence, appealed for unity and offered the “˜juncture’ argument í la Bashir, i.e. the SRF, the struggle and the masses are at a critical historical juncture that demands resolute cohesion and does not allow for change at the steering wheel.
Ignoring the arguments put forward by the contenders, there are possibly two main immediate reasons for the leadership dispute in the SRF: the waning influence of the SPLA/M-N and the impending negotiations with the Khartoum government.
The SPLA/M-N had enjoyed pre-eminence over its Darfur allies primarily due to its clientelistic links with the South Sudanese military-political elite. The bloody turmoil in South Sudan and the terms of the tenuous peace deal between the Juba government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement in Opposition (SPLA/M-IO) under Riek Machar robbed the SPLA/M-N of this advantage. Both the JEM and Minni Minawi’s SLA/M were able to cultivate separate ties with the Juba government as participants in its war effort against Riek Machar’s forces.
As expected, Khartoum made the expulsion of Sudanese insurgents from South Sudan a top priority of its relations with Juba, initially in the September 2012 cooperation agreement between the two sides, and decisively in its intervention in the South Sudanese conflict. As “˜foreign’ war partners of the Juba government, the SRF allies were marked for disarmament, demobilisation and repatriation.
Riek Machar articulated the relevant provision of the IGAD-mediated peace deal as a demand directed at the Juba government during his recent visit to Khartoum aboard a Sudanese presidential jet from his headquarters in Pagak. Arguably, the SPLA/M-N still has the rhetorical skills of its secretary general, Yasir Arman, to justify its monopoly of the SRF leadership, but the Darfur majors are obviously not convinced. Rather, it is the ambitious SPLA/M-N that is in “dire need of unity,” to paraphrase Agar’s “˜juncture’ appeal, of the goodwill of its Darfur allies to buttress its claim of pioneering a comprehensive settlement.
For the time being, these ambitions have been scaled down to a “˜mini pre-dialogue preparatory meeting’ to be held after a new round of negotiations between the SPLA/M-N and the Khartoum government. The SPLA/M-N, itself suffering a sequence of internal disputes, has squandered in one month the understanding it had with the NUP chief Sadiq al-Mahdi and the trust of the three Darfur majors.
Ironically, the SPLA/M-N leadership now stands accused by dissident members as well as the angered Darfur movements of manoeuvring towards a partial deal with the Khartoum government within a “˜national dialogue’ scenario. The SPLA/M-N dissidents, retired by decree of the chairman, can be glad that their leadership is more Garangist in word than in deed and lacks the outreach to effectively ex-communicate in revolutionary fashion.
Sadiq al-Mahdi, obviously turned off, commended President Bashir for recent reconciliatory remarks and announced plans to return to Khartoum in mid-November. The government recognised the overture and declared the veteran politician fit to join the mini pre-dialogue meeting under African Union (AU) auspices in Addis Ababa. The government had refused the participation of political parties in the meeting on the grounds that political freedoms inside the country speak against the necessity of a meeting abroad.
Assuming the tones of the new chairman, Jibreel Ibrahim issued a statement to the “˜Sudanese people’ on the anniversary of the 1964 October revolution urging the masses to repeat the feats of old and topple the government. He declared that all is well between the SRF allies and promised a quick settlement of the dispute between comrades.
Malik Agar on his part said the SPLA/M-N was ready to consider the transfer of the SRF chairmanship once an agreement was reached on reform of the alliance’s constitution, i.e. voting rights in the leadership council. As things stand every member of the alliance has one vote creating an inevitable deadlock, the three Darfur majors plus Hajo against the SPLA/M-N, Nasr al-Din al-Hadi and Zeinab Kabbashi. Minawi described the situation in the SRF as “stable and very healthy”!
All the while, the pro-SRF Khartoum “˜liberals’, once again confused and disenchanted, had to invent discursive tools to deal with the troubles of the SRF, each at his or her particular phase of grief. Sudan’s veteran journalist Mahjoub Mohamed Salih, never amiss with historical precedents, placed the SRF’s leadership squabbles in their right context, another failed attempt at building a coalition between opposition actors following on from the example of the National Front against Nimayri and the National Democratic Alliance and its successor the National Consensus Forces against Bashir.
The 1964 Syndicates Front and the 1985 National Alliance for National Salvation achieved their immediate objectives, overthrowing the head of state of the time, but as exceptions that prove the rule failed the day after. Why is a question that the SRF and its Sudan Appeal co-signatories did not even bother considering.
Magdi el Gizouli is an academic and a fellow of the Rift Valley Institute. He writes on Sudanese affairs at stillsudan.blogspot.com.