“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).”

Sudanese Human Rights Activist Ghazi Suleiman [1]

For all the claims of marginalisation, there is no doubt whatsoever that the conflict within the Sudanese Islamist movement following the government’s sidelining of the Islamist eminence grise Dr Hasan Turabi in 1999 is central to the Darfur conflict. Once the mentor of the present government, Dr Turabi had long been seen by reformists within Sudan as an obstacle both to the normalisation of relations with the United States and a peace agreement with southern rebels. The ruling National Congress party, al-Mutamar al-Wattani, split in 2000/2001 with hard-liners under Turabi, many of them from Darfur, forming the Popular Congress party, al-Mutamar al-Sha’bi, in opposition to any engagement with Washington and the West and peace in southern Sudan. (De Waal has observed: “It is almost unbearably ironic that just as southern Sudan is on the brink of peace, Darfur – and with it the entire north – is convulsed by another war. The linkage is not accidental” [2].

Sudarsan Raghavan, the Africa bureau chief for Knight-Ridder Newspapers, a veteran commentator on Darfur and critic of the government, has reported on the Islamist twist to the Darfur issue: “The violence in Sudan’s western province of Darfur…is widely portrayed as an ethnic-cleansing campaign by Arab militias against black African villagers. But it’s also part of a long-running fight for political supremacy between Sudanese president Omar al Bashir and an Islamist who called Osama bin Laden a hero. [Emphasis added] For 15 years, Hassan al Turabi was Sudan’s most powerful man, deftly manoeuvring its leaders from his perch as speaker of the parliament. He counted bin Laden among his close friends and once called the United States ‘the incarnation of the devil’.” Turabi has subsequently been very critical of Khartoum for “selling out” to Washington, including Sudan’s considerable assistance in the war on terrorism and concessions Khartoum has made in the peace process.

Raghavan asserts that “the government is deathly afraid of Turabi” and has noted: “many Sudanese believe…Turabi’s supporters are the core of the rebel groups”. [3] He also cites Ghazi Suleiman, whom he described as a “well-known Sudanese human rights lawyer”, as saying of the war in Darfur: “It is a struggle to seize power in Khartoum, and the battlefield is in Darfur.” [4] In a different interview, with Reuters, Ghazi Suleiman stated that “Turabi is the mastermind of the existing conflict in Darfur. If he is released and if the government tries to come to an agreement with him he will stop what is going on in Darfur in a week.” [5] This line of analysis has also been confirmed by other anti-government commentators. Dr Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, the general-secretary of the Pan African Movement and co-director of Justice Africa, a human rights organisation, has also said: “Darfur is a victim of the split within the National Islamic Front personified by…Dr Hassan al-Turabi and his former protégé, General Omar al-Bashir. Al-Turabi’s support is very strong in Darfur…” [6]

The Justice and Equality Movement, at the heart of the Darfur conflict, is led by Turabi protégé Dr Khalil Ibrahim. Formed in November 2002, it is increasingly recognised as being part and parcel of the Popular Congress. Time magazine has described JEM as “a fiercely Islamic organisation said to be led by Hassan al-Turabi” and that Turabi’s ultimate goal is “the presidential palace in Khartoum and a stridently Islamic Sudan”. [7] Khalil is a long-time associate of Turabi’s and served as a state minister in Darfur in the early 1990s before serving as a state cabinet-level advisor in southern Sudan. Ibrahim was a senior member of the Islamist movement’s secret military wing. The International Crisis Group has noted that “Khalil Ibrahim…is a veteran Islamist and former state minister who sided with the breakaway [Popular Congress] in 2002 and went into exile in the Netherlands.” [8] He was closely involved in raising several brigades of the Popular Defence Force (PDF) and mujahideen, many of them personally recruited from Darfur tribes, to fight rebels in southern Sudan. He was known as the emir of the mujahideen. Ibrahim recruited several hundred JEM fighters from the ranks of those Darfurian tribesmen he had led in the south, claiming that the Khartoum government had sold out to the southern rebels and Washington.

De Waal has mentioned that the student wing and regional Islamist cells followed Turabi into opposition following the split. Two other parts of the Islamist infrastructure that joined Turabi virtually en masse following the break were the financial cell and the military wing (which continued to exist separately of the Sudanese armed forces even after the 1989 coup which brought the present government to power, and which had previously administered the PDF and jihad fighters). Both had always been strictly controlled by Turabi. This military wing formed the core of JEM and the military structures which planned and initiated attacks in Darfur. In November 2003, the Popular Congress admitted that some party members were involved in the Darfur conflict. [9] In January 2004 Turabi admitted supporting the Darfur insurrection: “We support the cause, no doubt about it…we have relations with some of the leadership.” [10] In the same month, Turabi admitted that 30 members of his Popular Congress party had been arrested in connection with activities in Darfur. [11]

The influential Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram was also explicit in its linking of JEM to extremist Islamism: “JEM is a militant Islamist organisation reputedly linked to the Popular National Congress Party (PNC) of the Sudanese Islamist ideologue and former speaker of the Sudanese parliament Hassan Al-Turabi.” [12] Al-Ahram has also noted Turabi’s involvement in Darfur: “Al-Turabi wields powerful influence among certain segments of Darfur society. Darfur, a traditional Islamist stronghold…The Sudanese government is especially concerned about the involvement of elements sympathetic to Al-Turabi in the Darfur conflict.” [13]

The International Crisis Group has also noted the Darfur war’s Islamist origins: “Darfur’s crisis is also rooted in the disputes that have plagued Sudan’s Islamist movement since it took power in 1989. Following a disagreement with Hassan el-Turabi, the architect and spiritual guide of the Islamist movement, a second split in the ruling Islamist movement had an equally destabilising impact on Darfur. In 2000, Turabi, then speaker of parliament, formed the Popular National Congress (later renamed the Popular Congress, PC) following a fierce power struggle with the ruling National Congress Party. To broaden its base, PC activists reached out to Sudan’s majority but marginalised African population.” [14] These roots have also been commented upon by human rights activists: “The second rebel group is the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), based mostly on the Zaghawa tribe. It is linked with the radical Popular Patriotic Congress party led by the veteran Islamist Hassan al-Turabi who has now fallen out with his former NIF disciples…The relationship between JEM and SLM remains one of the obscure points of the Darfur conflict, even if the two organizations claim to be collaborating militarily. The JEM is by far the richer of the two and the one with the greater international media exposure, even if its radical Islamist connections make it an unlikely candidate for fighting a radical Islamist government…The main financial support for the uprising comes… in the case of the JEM, from foreign funds under the control of Hassan al-Turabi. It is the importance of this last financial source that explains the fairly impressive and modern equipment of the rebel forces.”

De Waal has also written about the split between the Islamists and the Khartoum government: “It was a protracted struggle, over ideology, foreign policy, the constitution and ultimately power itself. Bashir won: in 1999 he dismissed Turabi from his post as speaker of the National Assembly, and later had him arrested. The Islamist coalition was split down the middle…The students and the regional Islamist party cells went into opposition with Turabi, forming the breakaway Popular Congress. Among other things, the dismissal of Turabi gave Bashir the cover he needed to approach the United States, and to engage in a more serious peace process with the SPLA – a process that led to the signing of the peace agreement in Kenya.” [16]

The International Crisis Group has noted that “the alleged link between JEM (Justice and Equality Movement) and the [Popular Congress] is the most worrisome for [Khartoum], since it fears Turabi is using Darfur as a tool for returning to power in Khartoum at the expense of his former partners in the ruling National Congress Party (NCP).” [17] It has also further noted that “The belief that the Darfur rebellion has been hijacked by disaffected rival Islamists is a main reason behind the government’s refusal to talk to the rebels, particularly JEM. The personal rivalry between Vice-President Taha and his exmentor Turabi for control of the Islamist movement and the country is being played out in Darfur, with civilians as the main victims.” [18] Dr Richard Cornwell, the Sudan expert at the South African-based Institute of Security Studies, has said that many Sudanese believe that JEM was formed as result of the power struggle between President Bashir and Hasan Turabi: “The Turabi link is very important…there are some people who are of the opinion that Turabi’s supporters in Khartoum and Darfur deliberately manufactured this crisis with a view of taking power.” [19] Agence France Presse has concluded that “disgraced Turabi loyalists of Muslim African origin…constitute the core of the JEM’s current leadership…More than a liberation movement, the JEM is seen as an organisation used as a tool by members of the political opposition to destabilise Beshir’s regime.” [20]

The Government of Sudan was initially very reluctant to concede that Dr Turabi and the Popular Congress were intimately involved in the Darfur conflict. In May 2004, however, Sudanese Interior Minister Abdel Rahim Mohamed Hussein admitted as much: “The Popular Congress is involved in the incidences in Darfur and the JEM is just another face of the Popular Congress.” [21] In September 2004, the Governor of West Darfur, Suleiman Abdullah Adam, stated that the Justice and Equality Movement was the military wing of the Popular Congress: “The JEM are the military wing of the Popular Congress and, as the military wing of the Popular Congress in Darfur, they try to escalate the situation.” [22]

It is also becoming apparent that the Popular Congress has been using a dual – interconnected – strategy in its attempts to overthrow the Khartoum government. They have used orchestrated events in Darfur to weaken the government domestically and internationally – perhaps even to the extent of foreign military intervention. And they have also attempted, in combination, to mount a military uprising. In March 2004, military officers linked to the Popular Congress attempted a coup d’état in Khartoum. The BBC said: “Those detained are also being linked to the uprising in the Darfur region.” [23] They also planned attacks on oil refineries and power stations. [24] In September 2004 the government also foiled another Popular Congress coup attempt. [25] The Islamist plotters were accused of plotting to assassinate or kidnap government officials and take over strategic installations, including state radio and television. [26] The government captured a large arms cache “with which the conspirators planned to kidnap and kill 38 government officials and destroy strategic targets in Khartoum”. [27] The trials of those involved in the coup attempts, including five retired members of the armed forces and a former cabinet minister, began in late 2004. [28] They were charged with possessing weapons, terrorism, undermining the constitutional system and plotting war. Twenty-one serving members of the armed forces were charged separately. [29] The Sudanese government began to move against Islamist extremists. [30]

It is clear that Turabi and Popular Congress deliberately chose Darfur to be the cockpit of their war against Khartoum. They also cold-bloodedly sought to project a racial element on the issue. Popular Congress activists originated and distributed a publication known as “The Black Book” alleging Khartoum’s marginalisation and neglect of Darfur and claiming that Sudan’s political elite was dominated by a northern Arab clique – seemingly the same clique once led by Dr Turabi. The Financial Times confirmed that the “Black Book” had been written by Justice and Equality Movement activists. The newspaper also noted that “The appearance of the Black Book did coincide with a deep split in the regime, which has exacerbated tension in society.” [31] Alex de Waal has also commented on the importance of the “Black Book” in subsequent events in Darfur: “The Islamist split quickly took on regional and ethnic dimensions. The west Africans and Darfurians who had come into the Islamist movement under Turabi’s leadership left with him…In May 2000, Darfurian Islamists produced the “Black Book”…The Black Book was a key step in the polarization of the country along politically constructed ‘racial’ rather than religious lines, and it laid the basis for a coalition between Darfur's radicals, who formed the SLA, and its Islamists, who formed the other rebel organization, the Justice and Equality Movement.” [32]

The intimate involvement of Islamist extremists such as Dr Turabi and his Popular Congress party in the Darfur insurgency has worrying implications for those eager to end and resolve the war. It is very difficult, for example, to end a conflict said to be about marginalisation and underdevelopment when at least one of major participants would appear to have a hidden agenda of overthrowing the Government of Sudan and replacing it with a more hard-line Islamist regime. Building schools and roads and drilling more water wells in Darfur, while doubtlessly useful, is not going to satisfy hard-line Islamist rebels in Darfur any more than reconstruction projects in Iraq have satisfied Islamist insurgents in that country.


1 “Sudan Islamists use Darfur as Battleground”, News Article by Reuters, 22 September 2004.
2 Alex de Waal, “Tragedy in Darfur: On Understanding and Ending the Horror”, Boston Review, October-November 2004.
3 Sudarsan Raghavan, “Sudan Violence is Part of Power War”, News Article by Knight Ridder Newspapers, 20 August 2004.
4 Sudarsan Raghavan, “Sudan Violence is Part of Power War”, News Article by Knight Ridder Newspapers, 20 August 2004.
5 “Darfur Governor Links Khartoum Plot with Rebels”, News Article by Reuters, 26 September 2004.
6 “What Kind of Intervention Will Work in Darfur?”, News from Africa, Nairobi, August 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 Darfur Rising: Sudan’s New Crisis, International Crisis Group, Africa Report No 76, Brussels, 25 March 2004.
9 “Sudanese Government Warns Opposition Party to Stop ‘Sedition’ in West”, News Article by Associated Press, 23 November 2003.
10 “Peace Still Some Way Off in Sudan”, Middle East International (London), 8 January 2004.
11 “Al-Turabi Denounces US Role in Peace Process”, News Article by Al Hayat (London), 26 January 2004.
12 “Sudanese Peace Talks flounder over the Legal status of the Capital Khartoum”, al-Ahram (Cairo), Issue No 686, 15-21 April 2004. Turabi’s Popular National Congress soon changed its name to the Popular Congress.
13 “Plot Thickens Around Darfur”, Al-Ahram (Cairo), Issue No 684, 1-7 April 2004.
14 Darfur Rising: Sudan’s New Crisis, International Crisis Group, Africa Report No 76, Brussels, 25 March 2004.
15 See, for example, “The Darfur Conflict: Crimes Against Humanity in Sudan”, Crimes of War Project, <>
16 Alex de Waal, “Counter-Insurgency on the Cheap”, London Review of Books, Volume 26, Number 15, 5 August 2004.
17 Darfur Rising: Sudan’s New Crisis, International Crisis Group, Africa Report No 76, Brussels, 25 March 2004.
18 Darfur Rising: Sudan’s New Crisis, International Crisis Group, Africa Report No 76, Brussels, 25 March 2004.
19 “Darfur Crisis Has Complex Roots with No Immediate Solution”, News Item by Voice of America, 17 December 2004.
20 “Rebel Groups in Sudan’s Darfur”, News Article by Agence France Presse, 18 December 2004.
21 “Sudan Says Troubled Darfur Region is Now Stable”, News Article by Reuters, 17 May 2004.
22 “Darfur Governor Links Khartoum Plot with Rebels”, News Article by Reuters, 26 September 2004.
23 See, for example, “Sudan Links Rebels to Plot to Attack in Capital”, News Article by Reuters, 3 April 2004; “Sudanese Islamist Leader Arrested”, News Article by BBC Online, 31 March 2004.
24 “Sudanese Claim Terrorism Plot Exposed”, News Article by Reuters, 4 April 2004.
25 See, for example, “Sudan Accuses Opposition of Coup Attempt, News Article by The Guardian (London), 25 September 2004; “Sudan Finds Arms
Cache for Coup Plot”, News Article by Reuters, 25 September 2004; “Darfur Governor Links Khartoum Plot with Rebels”, News Article by Reuters, 26
September 2004; and “Sudan Arrests 14 Islamists for Sabotage Plot”, News Article by Reuters, 8 September 2004.
26 “Sudan Court Charges 21 Soldiers over Alleged 2004 Coup Attempt”, News Article by Agence France Presse, 5 January 2005.
27 “Darfur Governor Links Khartoum Plot with Rebels”, News Article by Reuters, 26 September 2004. See, also, “Sudan arrests 14 Islamists for sabotage plot”, News Article by Reuters, 8 September 2004.
28 “Sudan Starts Trial of 78 Suspected Coup Plotters”, News Article by Reuters, 16 December 2004.
29 “Sudan Court Charges 21 Soldiers over Alleged 2004 Coup Attempt”, News Article by Agence France Presse, 5 January 2005
30 “Sudan Steps Up Campaign against Islamists, Under Fire from Rights Groups”, News Article by Agence France Presse, 2 April 2004.
31 “The Black Book history or Darfur’s darkest chapter,” The Financial Times (London) 21 August 2004.
32 “Tragedy in Darfur: On Understanding and Ending the Horror”, Boston Review, October-November 2004

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