A Rebel Army Tried to Build a New Sudan, Then Fell Apart
Know your Sudanese rebel groups — the SLM/A
This is part one of a three-part series.
Sudan, fractured by ethnic and religious conflict since its independence, seems to welcome civil war. For decades, a government controlled by Arab Muslims from the north has oppressed and persecuted minorities at the margins and peripheries of the country.
But war has fractured the opposition into dozens of armed groups. Rebel factions form, break apart, then combine with other groups … and then do it all over again. There are multiple rebel armies with the same name.
This week we look at the Sudanese Liberation Movement/Army — or SLM/A — which became emblematic of the divisions that befell the country’s insurgent movements.
It started with a dream.
Thirty-three years ago, a coalition of black African politicians and soldiers based in South Sudan created the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army — or SPLM/A — with the goal of recruiting from all ethnic groups suffering under Khartoum’s oppression. Its manifesto, known as “New Sudan,” provided ideological heft and envisioned a united, multicultural, secular Sudanese state.
In 2001, Darfuri lawyer Abdulwahid Muhammad Al Nur organized the SLM/A, which, like the SPLM/A, also believed in the ideology of New Sudan. His strategy? The SLM/A would start a revolution in Darfur and then spread it to the rest of Sudan. Al Nur recruited from Darfur’s three black African tribes — the Fur, the Masalit and the Zaghawa.
Though the rebellion began in the early 2000s and derived its impetus from violence between Arabs and black Africans in the 1980s and 1990s, the SLM/A and its smaller ally — the Sudanese Justice and Equality Movement, or JEM — earned the Sudanese government’s attention by ambushing a military base in Al Fasher with a fleet of Toyota trucks in April 2003.
Thirteen years of war with the Sudanese army, the Janjaweed — Arab militias that Khartoum mobilized to support its offensives — and even its allies have only weakened a movement notorious for factionalism.
Today, Al Nur is the most controversial but least influential of Sudan’s rebel leaders. Despite enjoying popularity among thousands of refugees in camps throughout Chad and Darfur, he refuses to return to the battlefield after moving to Paris. Many of his subcommanders have defected, accusing him of a dictatorial leadership style.
“The SLA has suffered from a distinct, unique problem,” Osama Makhtoum, an SLM/A member loyal to Al Nur, told War Is Boring. “The politicians among us often resolve their differences by creating new movements or concluding separate peace deals with the Sudanese government because they seek power for themselves.”
“However, these problems are not wholly political, nor have they created true hatred among us. All our factions continue to cooperate. Even so, I consider these defections to have a racial basis. Many politicians in the SLA follow their tribes, not the revolution.”
While JEM drew many of its fighters and most of its leaders from the Zaghawa, the SLM/A prided itself on diverse recruitment. Yet this diversity disappeared with the movement’s greatest defection. Al Nur, a member of the Fur tribe, refused to sign the Darfur Peace Agreement in 2006. Suliman Arcua Minnawi — a.k.a “Minni Minnawi,” a popular Zaghawa SLM/A commander — accepted the peace treaty, joining the Sudanese government and taking his Zaghawa supporters with him.
Minnawi rejoined the rebellion 2010, leading his own faction, the SLM/A-Minnawi. Al Nur now controls little more than a Fur-dominated paramilitary, one of many to title itself “SLM/A.” Other splinter factions include the the SLM/A–Historical Leadership, the SLM/A–Juba, the SLA-Carabino, the SLM/A–Unity and the SLM/A–Mainstream.
So much for the dream of New Sudan and a united, secular country.
But that may have been part of the problem. The idea of imposing a single ideology on so many different actors — with different priorities — fell apart when combined with different rebel leaders, some of whom wanted to reform the country, others seeking to resolve regional or even local problems.
“New Sudan is a dead ideology,” Makhtoum said. “It ended when South Sudan became independent.”
This is where the situation becomes even more complicated. In 2005, the SPLM/A signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with Khartoum, which paved the way for South Sudan to become a sovereign state in 2011. The SPLM/A would become South Sudan’s governing party, but its members who lived in what remained Sudanese territory were still at war.
They formed a new faction, the SPLM/A–North — and its its leaders, like the SLM/A, supported New Sudan. Al Nur and Minnawi joined these fighters in a coalition. JEM, seeming to desire an Islamic republic and disagreeing with the nationalist agenda of New Sudan, delayed joining.
“Like the SPLM/A before us and the SPLM/A–N now, we entirely support New Sudan,” said Saleh Tibin, another commander who left Al Nur’s faction to found his own. Tibin’s group also backed the coalition.
“Our commitment is to a secular society where the Sudanese government represents all individuals equally regardless of color, culture, or religion and balances the relationships with all the regions. As of now, the Arabs of the north have all the power, discriminating against blacks and the Arabs of the countryside. The Arabs of the north use the marginalized Arabs of the fringes against us.”
Makhtoum, though rejecting New Sudan, concurred. “The SLA remains committed to democracy, equality, federalism, liberalism, and secularism,” he said.
But the coalition’s members have still failed to expand beyond their ethnic groups or territories in Darfur, and they can’t fully settle on whether to support New Sudan. Whatever New Sudan’s ideological appeal, it will do little to serve the SLM/A when its factions can’t even agree on it.
“Factionalism is the greatest weakness of the Sudanese revolutionary movements,” Tibin said. “Everyone knows that, without unity, we cannot overthrow the regime, but this has not brought us together, and there are no signs that the movements will unite in the immediate future.”
“The revolution has failed to make progress for this reason.”