by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is an analyst and journalist specializing in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has a comedic email list about the Middle East that you can join here.Amid the headlines documenting the course of the Iraqi, Libyan, Syrian, and Yemeni Civil Wars, the War in Darfur and the Third Sudanese Civil War have received less coverage now than in the early 2000s. Few are paying attention to a low-intensity conflict in a desolate, obscure region of Africa, yet the circumstances surrounding Sudan’s insurgencies will become more important as the country’s relationship with the United States improves. Unlike the war against the Islamic State, though, the War in Darfur and conflicts in other regions of Sudan appear no closer to concluding now than they did a decade ago.
For its part, the Sudanese government is acting as though it already won. Officials in Darfur have focused on their efforts to disarm the remnants of a decade-old rebellion while the higher-ups in Khartoum seem to care more about foreign policy than civil war. Economic stagnation and famine, meanwhile, have distracted many Sudanese from the rebels’ grievances, and the Sudanese government’s foreign allies are turning a blind eye to its contempt for human rights.
To gain insights into how the rebels have responded to these developments, offiziere.ch contacted a member of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), an Islamist Sudanese resistance movement that began in Darfur but has since spread to the east and south of the country.
While JEM, like the Sudanese Liberation Movement/Army, its populist, secularist counterpart in Darfur, has declined since the Darfuri rebels’ heyday in the early 2000s, the resistance movement continues to launch attacks against the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Janjaweed, an Arab militia backed by the Sudanese government.
For now, the war looks as bloody as ever. Three died in clashes in Darfur on March 2, and JEM feels confident enough to warn the African Union (AU) against siding with the Sudanese government. Editorials in The Sudan Tribune, an online newspaper sympathetic to the opposition in Sudan, have likewise criticized the AU. Even now, as JEM faces the most military pressure in its history, it knows how to play politics.
Despite the atrocities that have dominated the War in Darfur, Adam Eissa Abakar, a JEM leader based in Juba, the South Sudanese capital, sounds optimistic about his rebellion’s future. “The revolution never dies, and the doors of the struggle remain open,” he told offiziere.ch. “When we started fighting, we knew full well that change is the way of life and the universe”. His idealistic, vague musings belie JEM’s string of defeats on the battlefield. The Sudanese government defeated it in Khartoum in 2008, killed its leader in 2011, and crippled its fighters in 2015. Still, JEM fights on.
Abakar claimed that JEM’s independence from foreign interests had saved it. “The movement deliberately does not rely on anyone in its struggle — only depending on its cadre,” he said. The list of JEM’s state sponsors, however, would appear to contradict him. Analysts contend that the resistance movement has received financial and military support from Chad, Libya, and South Sudan, a motley coalition of countries opposed to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has ruled the country since 1989 and turned seventy-four this January. According to analysts, JEM fights for whoever arms it. Contrary to Abakar’s claims, JEM has fought Chadian, Libyan, and South Sudanese rebels on behalf of its sponsors, which ensured its cash flow.This strategy has resulted in some blowback for JEM, resulting in foreign setbacks that paralleled its domestic defeats. It had to turn to Libya in 2010 after Chad signed a memorandum of understanding with the Sudanese government, which had been arming and harboring Chadian rebels, and the resistance movement found itself relocating to South Sudan when Libyan rebels overthrew Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi in 2011. So far, South Sudan has failed to match what Chad and Libya once offered.
Despite of these difficulties, as Abakar noted, JEM still exists. He credited the resilience of its military organization and political system. “JEM has three wings — combat, domestic, and foreign — and each of them plays an important role,” he told offiziere.ch. “They represent the marriage of peaceful struggle and war as well as the pursuit of unity of the revolutionary class”. The resistance movement has demonstrated an ability to engage with the international community, deploying representatives throughout the Western world and working with United Nations–African Union Mission in Darfur on human rights.
JEM will have to meet a new set of international challenges as the Sudanese government and the US have attempted to reconcile their differences over the past year, the US even considering delisting Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism. While the Sudanese government has escaped its 1990s associations with enemies of the US, nothing suggests that its attitude toward human rights has improved, yet the US seems willing to look the other way for the sake of better relations.
Abakar asserted that JEM could deal with these developments in American foreign policy, adding that the resistance movement’s readiness: “When and how the political situation changes does not depend on the struggle and the revolution alone. Yes, there are changes in the national and international arenas, but this does not mean stopping the march of struggle and revolution”.
Despite his tendency to repeat platitudes, Abakar had a point. While the Sudanese government has won some decisive victories against JEM in recent years, Abakar sought to deliver his opponents in Khartoum a warning that they remain far from victory. “The current period of calm is the result of a JEM ceasefire. Large parts of our forces are deployed throughout the borderlands of Sudan. You will soon hear of the start of a new revolution with new foundations”, he told offiziere.ch. While the news media and the Sudanese government think the battle over, JEM says that the war is only getting started.