The Darfur peace process is presently facing a number of serious problems. Despite considerable international attention, not least of which in the shape of African Union (AU) peace negotiators and thousands of AU peacekeepers and unprecedented United Nations-supervised humanitarian assistance to the hundreds of thousands of civilians who have been displaced in the two year long conflict, several rounds of peace talks have not resulted in a negotiated end to the war in western Sudan. It is a matter of record that while the Government of Sudan is clearly eager to end the conflict – and thus reduce the continuing international pressure to do so – the two rebel movements, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) appear to be delaying any such peace talks. [1]

Rebel intransigence has led observers to ask themselves whether or not the rebel movements actually want to end the war they started? This question runs central to the issue of what motivated the conflict in the first place. It is clear that what they claim to have been fighting for, the sharing of political and economic power – an end to “marginalisation” – is on offer. As the International Crisis Group, a fierce critic of the Khartoum government, has rightly noted: “Darfur’s problems are negotiable – under the right circumstances – and could fit relatively smoothly into the governance structures being negotiated between the government and the SPLA at Naivasha. In particular, the state autonomy models for the northern states of the Nuba Mountains and Southern Blue Nile could offer the basis for a resolution in Darfur. They provide for a high degree of autonomy for sub-national states and greatly increased provincial control over decisions affecting local administrations, including on education and legal systems, and could offer a template with which to begin discussions on a political settlement for Darfur.” [2] Autonomy has already been put on the table by the Sudanese government. [3] The question is whether or not one or more of the rebel movements have been pursuing a different agenda other than that of “overcoming” marginalisation through some level of power and wealth sharing. Veteran Sudanese human rights activist Ghazi Suleiman has challenged rebel claims about what motivated the outbreak of war in 2003: “The conflict in Darfur has nothing to do with marginalisation or the inequitable distribution of wealth. Inherently it is a struggle between the two factions of the Sudanese Islamist movement, the (opposition) Popular Congress party and the ruling National Congress (party).” [4] This particularly applies to the Justice and Equality Movement. Is their war less one against marginalisation and more of an Islamist war by proxy in Darfur with the objective of re-instating the ousted Islamist leader Dr Hasan al-Turabi and his Popular Congress party in power? [5] If this is the case then they will presumably continue to seek ways of weakening or destabilising the Khartoum government by keeping the conflict going, hoping that there might be some sort of Western military intervention which the ultra-Islamist Popular Congress would then be able to exploit domestically.

That both rebel movements have procrastinated within, and delayed, the peace process is a matter of record. In addition to being obstructionist during the rounds of peace talks, they have also sought to destabilise the peace process itself by first objecting to the Chad government’s successful attempts at mediation, and then by refusing to continue with African Union mediation. Even assuming that the rebel movements want peace, and they genuinely seek a political solution to the Darfur crisis, defining their political demands is difficult. For one thing, as the ICG has noted, although the rebel movements are arguing for democracy “their own democratic credentials remain open to question”. [6]

Leaving JEM’s political agenda to one side, even that of the Sudan Liberation Army is far from coherent. Time Magazine has noted that “The SLA’s ultimate goals remain murky. Over the years, its leaders have advocated everything from secession to greater representation in local government to the capitulation of the central government.” The anti-Khartoum International Crisis Group has also observed: “They haven’t to this day clarified their political objectives or presented them in a coherent way.” [7] The implication of this incoherence has been spelled out in October 2004 by The New York Times: “The rebels’ political goals have never been clear, beyond vague demands for the sharing of wealth and power in Sudan. That could be a potential stumbling block in [peace] talks.” [8] Two months later, in the wake of the Tawila attack, The New York Times returned to the issue: “[J]ust what does [the SLA] want politically and how does it intend to reach its objective through its gunmen…Nearly two years after the insurgency began, its political demands remain vague – beyond claims for a greater share of Sudan’s economic and political spoils.” [9]

In the absence of any coherent political agenda on the part of the Sudan Liberation Army looms the spectre of Somalian-type warlordism. In November 2004, the UN Special Envoy to Sudan spoke of this possibility. [10] Mr Pronk said that rebel leaders must control their forces or “we may soon find Darfur is ruled by warlords”. [11] The SLA’s track record in this respect has been appalling leading to direct African Union criticism of the behaviour of its members: “[W]e don’t think it is right or normal for any movement that is trying to be a political movement to be involved in banditry”. [12] Almost one year later, international observers had escalated their claims that Darfur rebels were engaging in banditry. [13]

There is also considerable concern about the rebel movements’ control over its own forces. Perhaps the most benign reading of the November 2004 attacks on towns such as Tawila is that it revealed apparent rebel difficulties with regard to control of their fighters in Darfur. The UN described the rebel attack as an example of “a crisis of leadership” within the SLA. Knight Ridder’s Sudarsan Raghavan described the situation as “an obstacle to achieving peace in Darfur”. Raghavan confirmed that “rebel forces now appear to be launching many of the disputed attacks. Black African rebels have stolen camels from Arab tribes, kidnapped civilians and attacked police stations”. [14] The African Union also stated that “It appears…that there are some problems with the chain of command of some of the movements, especially the SLA.” [15] The New York Times also addressed concerns about rebel command-and-control: “

The problems are exacerbated by what appear to be contradictory bluster and promises from the rebel camp. It remains unclear whether the attack on Tawilah, for instance, was ordered from on high, or whether it was the result of a flimsy chain of command…Their message has not been consistent. Rebel leaders late this week scrambled to publicize their commitment to a cease-fire, even after at least one of their spokesmen earlier in the week declared the truce to be over…The latest spate of hostage-taking and attacks on government targets has brought unusually harsh criticism of the SLA…Whether rebel leaders are stepping up attacks for the sake of trying to gain leverage at coming peace talks in Abuja, or whether the attacks simply signal a breakdown in their command-and-control structure also remains unknown.” [16]

In the event, The New York Times reported the more benign view of incidents such as Tawila: “Whatever the case, it is clear, say aid workers, United Nations officials and senior Sudanese government officials, that the Sudan Liberation Army remains a poorly organized insurgency, one whose rank-and-file fighters may be unaware of the promises made by their political leaders.” [17] Similar attacks have continued to this day.

There is also a question mark with regard to the political cohesion and coordination even within the political leadership. Reuters has noted that “Internal differences, conflicting goals and a lack of coordination among Sudanese rebel groups are obstructing international efforts to reach a peace agreement with the government over Darfur, diplomats and aid workers say.” [18] Reuters quoted an African Union official as saying: “The factionalism of the rebel leadership almost derailed talks in N’Djamena and set back the talks in Addis Ababa.” Reuters also pointed to the problem of “a pattern of often contradictory rebel statements from spokesmen who change frequently.” This was described by the African Union official as “a dilemma” which would get worse: “This is particularly a concern with JEM…With JEM we have had splinter groups claiming to talk for the whole group…it’s difficult to know who talks for the group.” The Sudan Liberation Army was also said to lack cohesion. SLA chairman Abdel Wahed Mohamed Ahmed al-Nur has admitted that “There are mistakes sometimes from some officials who say things that are not our policy.” Reuters observed that “[al-Nur] said he was the overall leader of the group and took the final decision in political matters. But another SLM leader, Minni Arcua Minnawi, had previously told reporters he was the leader of the group.” An aid worker who deals with the SLA leadership on a regular basis noted: “It is often unclear who speaks for the group or what section of the group they speak for. It is also unclear who speaks for the group at all and who doesn’t.” [19]

There would in any instance also appear to be major political differences between the two main rebel groups in Darfur. As early as May 2004, the International Crisis Group quoted a leading SLA member as saying: “Continued coordination is unclear, because they [JEM] have some ambiguous political backing.” [20] In October 2004, Reuters reported that: “The rebel movements negotiating with Sudan’s Islamist government to try to end the 20-month-old conflict in Darfur have been unable to come up with a common political framework, presenting separate documents to mediators instead.” [21] The New York Times has noted of the SLA that “splits are inevitable with its cousin rebel factions”. [22] The issue of the separation of religion and state has been cited as a major area of divergence between the two groups. Reuters noted that “the leadership of the two rebel groups have very different backgrounds. JEM’s leaders are widely believed to have retained prior links with Sudan’s opposition leader and Islamic ideologist Hassan al-Turabi, an advocate of Sharia law.” [23]

There is another difficulty which has posed a problem in the search for peace in Darfur – those foreign governments and constituencies who, for their own political interest, would wish to see continuing conflict in Darfur and the continued destabilisation of Sudan in Darfur and elsewhere. Eritrea is an obvious candidate in this respect. The International Crisis Group has also commented upon the sometimes less than helpful role played by international observers at the peace talks themselves, citing one observer as saying “The process had too many players. It was too hard to keep the international actors united. They were a fractured, agenda-ridden group. It was a political catfight. The observers never settled their own differences.” [24] There were also accounts of how the Darfur rebels were being encouraged by United States officials to procrastinate during peace talks in late 2004. [25]

The simple fact which must be borne in mind by those who wish to see peace in Darfur is that the rebel movements may believe that it is not in their best interests to have peace. Continued war means a continuing humanitarian crisis which in turn means continuing pressure on Khartoum, with rebel hopes that this might translate out into some form of foreign military intervention which the SLA or JEM would then be able to exploit domestically. [26] This would at least in part explain the reluctance of both rebel movements either to engage in any meaningful negotiations or then to abide by any commitments they may have signed. The international community must act and act soon to force the rebel movements to abandon their attacks on civilians and humanitarian aid workers in Darfur and to negotiate an end to the Darfur conflict.


1 See, for example, “Sudanese Government Ready for Darfur Peace Talks”, Sudan Tribune, 11 September 2005, “African Union Says Uncooperative Darfur Rebels Threaten Talks”, News Article by Agence France Presse, 5 September 2005, “Darfur Rebels Want Peace Talks Put Off – Again”, News Article by Agence France Presse, 6 September 2005, “African Union Denounces Rebel Movement in Sudan’s Volatile Darfur Region”, News Article by Associated Press, 4 September 2005, “Darfur Rebel SLM Seeks Postponement of Abuja Talks”, Sudan Tribune, 8 September 2005.
2 Sudan Now or Never, International Crisis Group, Africa Report No 80, Brussels, 21 May 2004.
3 See, for example, “Sudan’s Foreign Minister Backs Darfur Autonomy”, News Article by Reuters, 27 September 2004 and “Sudan Supports Darfur Federal Rule, Local Laws”, News Article by Reuters, 3 October 2004.
4 Martin Bell, Through Gates of Fire: A Journey into World Disorder, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 2003, p.26.
5 Dr Turabi, an Islamist ideologue and formerly speaker of the Sudanese parliament, was sidelined by the present Sudanese government in 1999, as Khartoum moved towards engagement with the United States. Turabi formed the Popular Congress party as a conservative Islamist opposition to the Khartoum government.
6 Sudan Now or Never, International Crisis Group, Africa Report No 80, Brussels, 21 May 2004.
7 “Power Struggle: Darfur’s Janjaweed Militia Aren’t the Only Ones Sowing Chaos and Death. Meet the Two Rebel Factions Threatening Yet Another Civil War”, Time, 31 October 2004.
8 “New Guerilla Factions Snarl Sudan Peace Talks”, The New York Times, 26 October 2004.
9 “Leader of Darfur Rebels Resorts to Damage Control”, The New York Times, 5 December 2004.
10 “UN Warns That Darfur Could Descend into Anarchy with Warlords”, News Article by Associated Press, 4 November 2004.
11 “Tensions Rise in Sudan as Rebels and Government Begin to Lose Control, UN Says”, News Article by the UN News Centre”, 4 November 2004.
12 “U.S., U.N. Condemn Sudan Attacks”, News Article by CNN, 24 November 2005.
13 See, for example, “Darfur Rebel Attacks are Banditry, AU Official Says”, News Article by Reuters, 3 September 2005.
14 “Independence of Darfur Rebel Commanders Threatens Peace Efforts”, News Article by Knight Ridder Newspapers, 4 December 2004.
15 “U.S., U.N. Condemn Sudan Attacks”, News Article by CNN, 24 November 2005.
16 “Fresh Violence Engulfs Darfur”, The New York Times, 27 November 2004.
17 “Fresh Violence Engulfs Darfur”, The New York Times, 27 November 2004.
18 “Sudanese Government Not the Only Obstacle to Darfur Agreement”, News Article by Reuters, 16 August 2004.
19 “Sudanese Government Not the Only Obstacle to Darfur Agreement”, News Article by Reuters, 16 August 2004.
20 Sudan Now or Never, International Crisis Group, Africa Report No 80, Brussels, 21 May 2004.
21 “Darfur Rebels Split Over Secular State Demands”, News Article by Reuters, 31 October 2004.
22 “Leader of Darfur Rebels Resorts to Damage Control”, The New York Times, 5 December 2004.
23 “Darfur Rebels Split Over Secular State Demands”, News Article by Reuters, 31 October 2004.
24 Sudan Now or Never, International Crisis Group, Africa Report No 80, Brussels, 21 May 2004.
25 Personal conversation with journalists.
26 See, for example, “Darfur Rebel Leader Urges Immediate US-British Military Intervention”, News Article by Agence France Presse, 11 August 2004.

Espac Published by The European - Sudanese Public Affairs Council Copyright © David Hoile 2005
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