Stranded in Enemy Territory, a Rebel Splinter Faction Got Stuck
Know your Sudanese rebel groups — the SPLM/A-N
This is part two of a three-part series. Read part one.
At first glance, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army-North presents a positive alternative to Sudan’s ruling regime. The rebel group champions an ideology known as “New Sudan,” which envisions a united country built on democracy and equality, in contrast to Khartoum’s sectarian government.
But when rebel leaders, like politicians, say something that sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Although obscure, the SPLM/A-N is a case study in a rebel movement in decline — and one at odds with its own professed ideals.
The SPLM/A-N is one of dozens of Sudanese rebel groups, and its origins are complicated. It is an offshoot of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army, which became the official armed forces of South Sudan when that country gained independence in 2011.
But as the SPLM/A transitioned into defending a new state, thousands of fighters operating north of the border found themselves stranded in enemy territory. These rebels without a country renamed themselves as the SPLM/A-N. Today, the group occupies the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains in Sudan, and continues to maintain a strong relationship with South Sudan.
Ideologically, the northern rebels are a lot like how their southern siblings used to be. Still fighting Khartoum, the SPLM/A-N resurrected New Sudan, which had more or less disappeared as an ideology after its main proponent, John Garang de Mabior, died in 2005. The SPLM/A-N’s two leaders, Malik Agar Eyre Gandof and Yasir Said Arman, had befriended Garang on the battlefield.
“The SPLM/A-N is an extension of the SPLM/A,” student activist Muhammad Al Faki said, pointing out the continuity between the two rebel groups. “We are the same movement with the same ideals. We embrace New Sudan wholeheartedly.”
Al Faki contrasted the SPLM/A-N’s professed ideology — secular, multicultural and nationalist — with the sectarian regime of Omar Al Bashir, which Al Faki claimed is biased against non-Muslims and black Africans. “The Sudanese government wants to enforce Islam on us all, but this cannot be allowed in a country with non-Muslims,” he said. “There are Christians in the Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains, and they are also Sudanese.”
“The Arabs look down on us. They enslave us. They rape our women. They steal our cattle. The Sudanese government finds a common link with all the Arabs of the country, so it sends them to fight us. Khartoum even welcomes Arab migrants from Niger and Syria, giving them citizenship so that they join the fight against us. The regime wants to reinforce its Arab character.”
The conspiracy theory about an international mobilization of Arab militias against the blacks of Sudan drew from some historical facts. Atrocities committed by Arab militias — including rape, torture and murder of civilians — are well-documented. But while racism and sectarianism are prevalent among the militias, the fighters mostly come from Sudanese Arab tribes, not foreign countries.
As Khartoum mobilized its allies, the SPLM/A-N looked to old friends. Proximity to the South Sudanese border allowed the rebels strategic depth and well-defended supply chains. While the Sudanese army committed war crimes against South Sudan’s kin in Sudanese territory, Khartoum’s forces would be reluctant to openly cross the frontier.
The two states engaged in a proxy war. South Sudan supported the SPLM/A-N and Darfuri rebels, and Sudan sponsored the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-IO), a paramilitary organization led by defectors from the South Sudanese government. Even more bewildering, Sudan accused South Sudan of sponsoring Sudan’s rebels to fight its own rebels.
“Sudan’s problems cannot be solved with partition,” James John Ateng Garang, a South Sudanese politician who advised the SPLM/A-N, told War Is Boring. “Even if Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile became their own countries, this would not solve the issue. Sudan is ours, so why would we divide our own country? The Arabs are colonizers who worked with the British. We are merely working to reunite our country.”
As far as the adviser was concerned, South Sudan was only a temporary construct — to reunite with Sudan once the Al Bashir regime is gone. And in any case, the SPLM/A and the SPLM/A-N were linked in a struggle against Arab nationalism.
“The Sudanese Civil Wars resulted from Arabs compelling us to be Arabs,” the adviser said. “We are not Arabs. We are blacks with our own history. We were here first, and our people — the people of Darfur, South Sudan, the Nuba Mountains, and the Blue Nile — have struggled against foreign oppression for hundreds of years. We are fighting to restore the country of our ancestors, when blacks ruled country.”
“Remember, this land belonged to the blacks from Egypt to South Africa and Senegal to Djibouti. Khartoum will be ours.”
Pan-Africanism, in this context, implied its own racial prejudice, dismissing Arabs as colonizers and oppressors. The SPLM/A-N seems to ignore this irony, or at least fails to recognize it to avoid contradicting the professed ideals of New Sudan. The SPLM/A-N’s ambition to rule a united Sudan also has numerous internal and external problems. South Sudan’s independence, instead of inspiring northerners to the cause of overthrowing Al Bashir, had the opposite effect.
“A critical split occurred in the SPLM/A after the independence of South Sudan,” former SPLM/A-N member Hadi Issa said. “Some of the northern members, now the SPLM/A-N, wondered what remained for them after most of the movement had left to form a new country.”
“We had fought for the unity of Sudan as Dr. John Garang had wanted. We supported pan-Africanism, but how could we have the unity of Africa if we failed to achieve the unity of Sudan? Many members of the SPLM/A–N, including me, left for this reason. New Sudan cannot exist alongside South Sudan.”
Other problems appeared in the form of Agar and Arman’s leadership, which has cracked down on dissent within the movement, including forcing officers who question the leadership to retire.
“These members dissented because they wanted a democratic movement,” Issa said. “They are not like the defectors from JEM and the SLM/A who negotiate with the Sudanese government for personal gain. They want to reform the SPLM/A-N to strengthen it against the enemy.”
“Even some of the fighters in the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile support the dissidents, but they refrain from doing so actively so that we have a united front against the enemy.”
The SPLM/A-N has avoided the factionalism that plagues the Darfuri rebel groups with which it has allied itself, such as the Sudanese Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) and the Sudanese Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), yet the rebel group has inherited the problems of its predecessor, including a dictatorial leadership refusing to change.
And even if the SPLM/A-N believes in New Sudan, the rest of the country might not accept it.
“The SPLM/A-N cannot expand beyond the Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains,” Darfuri activist Muhammad Ismael said. “In Darfur, it is not welcome. Elsewhere, it is unpopular or unknown. The SPLM/A-N has failed to spread its political message to other regions, and, militarily, it lacks the resources to conduct operations beyond its current territory. The SLM/A faces the same problem. Its political message is narrow, focused only on Darfur.”
Only JEM, the SPLM/A-N’s ally and competitor, can sustain the organizational capability to conduct operations across diverse, multi-ethnic territories. Until the latter can advance beyond the Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains, the ideology of New Sudan will remain just a dream.