by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College and a reporter for War Is Boring. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan.The Third Sudanese Civil War continues to eat the margins and peripheries of Africa’s once-largest state. A stalemate between rebels and soldiers along the South Sudanese border remains, yet the Sudanese government started this year by launching another offensive well to the west, into the heartland of Darfur’s uprising. Meanwhile, Hassan al-Turabi, a Sudanese politician accused of masterminding Sudan’s civil disorder, died March 5, 2016.
The two strongest paramilitaries in Darfur, the Sudanese Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SLM/A), started in the early 2000s to defend the region’s black tribes from Khartoum’s perceived racism. Both movements have since declined into infighting, however. JEM has overextended itself by trying to deploy fighters outside Darfur while the SLM/A’s best commanders continue to defect and its chairman refuses to leave Paris. The Sudanese government won a decisive victory against JEM last year, and the SLM/A is struggling to resist yet another violent offensive from Khartoum. The prospects for these movements look grim.
Darfur’s rebels have found allies in the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army–North (SPLM/A–N), the Sudanese affiliate of South Sudan’s ruling party. Together, they formed the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF), which has joined the country’s political opposition in trying to overthrow or reform the Sudanese government. The relationship between Sudan’s Arab politicians and black rebels has long been ambiguous, corrupted by distrust and history.
JEM’s critics claim it to be the military affiliate of the Popular Congress Party (PCP), al-Turabi’s political front organization. In the opinions of these detractors, al-Turabi mobilized his followers in the west of the country to overthrow the Sudanese government after it ousted him from power in 1999. Khartoum interprets JEM’s history in this way, citing the circumstantial evidence provided by al-Turabi’s opponents and ignoring the rebels’ grievances unique to Darfur.
After 2003, when JEM and the SLM/A announced themselves to the world by attacking a Sudanese military airbase and started one of the twenty-first century’s bloodiest civil wars, both movements have adapted, contracted, and expanded. In 2008, JEM assaulted the Sudanese capital — the country’s only revolutionary movement to succeed in such an attack since the 1880s. The Sudanese government arrested al-Turabi and other PCP members and blamed them for the assault.
The PCP’s more or less imagined relationship with JEM soon became apparent through the movement’s ideological pragmatism. JEM worked for and with whichever country backed and supported it, not al-Turabi and the PCP. In part because of the attack on Khartoum, Chad in 2010 deported JEM’s leadership to Libya, where observers alleged it to received money and weaponry from Tripoli. The Libyan Civil War caused JEM founder Khalil Ibrahim to return to the Darfuri countryside. An airstrike in 2011 killed him in not Darfur but Kordofan, a central region bordering Khartoum and well outside JEM’s established territory. Khalil’s brother and successor Gibril Ibrahim has focused on quashing defectors and recruiting non-Zaghawa, including Arabs. JEM leader and spokesman Gibril Adam Bilal comes from an Arab tribe, and the movement has even enticed former members of the Janjaweed.
The Sudanese rebels have managed to stalemate the Sudanese government. After over a decade of brutality, it has failed to end the insurgency in Darfur, yet JEM, the strongest of the Darfuri revolutionary movements, has suffered from defeats and defections since its spectacular assault on Khartoum. Even the SPLM/A–N, which controls large areas of territory, has struggled to advance north. The SRF lacks the ability to destroy the Sudanese government, so they must negotiate.
Al-Turabi might have provided an opportunity in negotiations with the Sudanese government. The movements of the SRF portrayed him as one of the most important men in Sudanese politics when they mourned his death. “The deceased was one of the most prominent thinkers in the Muslim world, and played a prominent role in Sudanese politics for more than half a century,” said SLM/A spokesman Muhammad Abdurrahman al-Nair. “God bless Dr. Hassan al-Turabi’s mercy, patience, and fortitude,” SPLM/A–N spokesman offered in an official epitaph. He later told Offiziere: “It’s Sudanese tradition to honor the dead even if we disagree with them. Political differences between us, him, and his regime still exist.” Al-Nair agreed. A former member of the SPLM/A–N, Hadi Eissa, presented a more-practical perspective: “My personal opinion is that Sheikh Hassan was the closest to the government among the opposition. He engaged in a national dialog from the inside and believed in reform from within. He might have convinced the government to remove Sudan’s structural and cultural violence.” Viewing al-Turabi as a potential mediator would likely be the most accurate interpretation of his relationship with JEM and the other revolutionary movements.
JEM’s responses to al-Turabi’s death ranged from vague to violent. “Turabi’s death is the death of a Sudanese who made positive and negative personal contributions,” claimed JEM leader Muhammad al-Bashir Abu Darak. “He was reliable in persuading the regime to engage in the process of national dialog and reconciliation.” Dr. Abdullahi Osman el-Tom, another JEM leader and a lecturer at Maynooth University, seemed happy with al-Turabi’s death: “He died but his destructive ideas are still with [sic]. What is certain is that Sudan is better without him.” Whatever JEM’s past relationship with al-Turabi, working with him before his death seemed to interest the movement only in passing. With his passing, JEM has forever escaped the notoriety of Sudan’s best-known Islamist.