The battle for Sudan's
Sudanese Army Col Mohamed Sahle was a prisoner of war when I
interviewed him three years ago in Yei, near Sudan's southern
border with Uganda. He was captured when the Sudan People's
Liberation Movement (SPLM) took the town in March 1997. Today,
he commands 8,000 rebel soldiers, most of them southerners
from the SPLM, in a remote desert corner of north-eastern
fighting the government he used to serve under the banner of
the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), a loose coalition of
seven opposition armies from all across Sudan, including the
SPLM. Their goal is to overthrow the National Islamic Front (NIF),
which seized power in Khartoum in a 1989 coup.
64-year-old veteran represents the Democratic
Unionist Party, the political expression of this country's
second largest Islamic sect, the Khatmiya, in the newly
unified NDA command, which is now carrying
Sudan's 17-year civil war into the strategic northern half of
the country. To do so, Sahle says he is unlearning much of
what he practised throughout his formal military career in
favour of the highly mobile tactics of the guerrilla.
are playing cat-and-mouse with them, like Tom and Jerry,"
he told me as we surveyed the valley around Makit where a pair
of T-54 tanks had chewed up the ground in a government assault
here four days earlier. A brigade of 1,500 heavily armed
regular army soldiers had penetrated the guerrilla-held
village for several hours, but the NDA partisans drove them
out by nightfall in a pattern typical of the fighting here. At
the same time, another NDA unit captured the town of
Hameshkoreb -- the site of one of Sudan's largest Qur'anic
schools -- in a stunning show of strength 100 kilometres to
the northwest that caught Khartoum completely off-guard.
leaders say they have told their troops that any of them who
harass the local residents will be tried in public and shot.
"We have to show respect for the people here and their
traditions," said Yasser Ja'afar Ibrahim, himself a
northern Muslim who runs the NDA political school here for
cadres from all seven armies. "Everything we do now will
be judged by the people, so our forces have to have absolute
discipline in our relations with civilians."
barren north-eastern corner, bounded on one side by Eritrea
and on the other by the Red Sea, is the newest battlefront in
the country's steadily expanding civil war which was for
decades waged mainly in the south. Because of this region's
importance -- threatening the country's vital road and rail
links to the coast, as well as its new oil pipeline and other
key economic installations -- it may also become the place
where the protracted war's outcome is decided.
has been torn by intermittent fighting almost from the moment
the country -- Africa's largest -- gained its independence
from Britain and Egypt in 1956. Much of the southern third of
the country is now under the control of the SPLM, which also
holds pockets of territory in central and eastern Sudan in the
Nuba Mountains and the Inghessina Hills. The SPLM's allies
here in the NDA run the political gamut, from traditional
northern movements shouldered aside by the ruling NIF, like
Mohamed Sahle's DUP, to the formerly underground Communist
Party and a new group led by disaffected military officers,
the Sudan Alliance Forces. Their objective is to take religion
and ethnicity out of politics in a country comprised of more
than 500 tribal groups that practise Islam, Christianity and a
wide range of traditional religions.
recently, these disparate armies, at times joining together,
at others operating alone, managed little more than sporadic
ambushes and small surprise attacks on government posts, often
fleeing east into Eritrea when pursued. Today, they are
fighting for the first time under a single command at
division-level strength, and their increased effectiveness is
readily apparent. Two developments that many first thought
were setbacks helped to bring this about.
relations between Asmara and Khartoum thawed last year, a
windfall for the NIF government that resulted from Eritrea's
concentration on the border war under way with its powerful
neighbor to the south, Ethiopia, NDA forces were ordered to
close their bases and move inside Sudan. At this point, rebel
leaders agreed among themselves to combine their forces for
the first time in one division under a unified command
structure. The SPLM augmented these forces by redeploying
another division of almost 8,000 soldiers from positions in
the south to what they call the "eastern front."
These two units saw their first sustained combat here last
March, the largest northern group in the NDA coalition, the
Umma Party of ousted former Prime Minister Sadiq Al-Mahdi,
bolted the opposition, dismissing the armed revolt as
unviable. Umma leaders called on members to return to Khartoum
to challenge the Islamist government of Gen Omar Al-Bashir
from within. Many here view the defection as a blessing in
disguise that accelerated the consolidation of the opposition
around its "modernist" wing after years of internal
wrangling that paralysed the NDA. The upshot is a spurt of
armed activity that has doubled the size of its
"liberated" territory in the past six weeks alone.
what started as a conflict between the Arabised, Islamic north
and the non-Muslim African south is fast becoming a fight
between a fundamentalist Islamic movement at the country's
centre and a diverse alliance of peoples and political groups
committed to religious and ethnic diversity and challenging
the government from the periphery. Estimates of the number who
have died from war, and famine-related causes since fighting
resumed in 1983 after a decade-long truce, run as high as two
million. What is at stake is the country's identity -- whether
it is to be strictly Arab-Islamic or loosely multi-ethnic and
secular. And whether it can exist as one or the other within a
single national boundary.
sides are gearing up for heavy fighting during the coming
months while they manoeuvre for political leverage in
competing peace initiatives. The government's goal is to push
the rebels across the border into Eritrea and then seal the
frontier against further raids. For their part, NDA forces
seek to carve out an enclave from which to launch wide-ranging
attacks in the north.
rebels are building a network of well-camouflaged supply
depots, training facilities, military camps and other
installations, including a new field hospital, in a warren of
volcanic hills where the government's superior armour and
aircraft have little impact. They also have highly mobile
units of their own, using captured military vehicles and
converted pick-up trucks on which they are mounting heavy
machine guns and anti-tank weapons. This is changing what has
long been a regional contest between north and south into a
national revolt that could topple the NIF regime.
these circumstances, it is likely that fighting will intensify
here soon. That this is also one of the worst drought-affected
areas of Sudan has done little to check these prospects.
Instead, they have spurred many civilians to abandon their
homes in favour of refugee camps inside Eritrea that are
opening to take the place of the opposition military bases
dismantled only a few months ago.
* The writer is a US-based expert on
African affairs and author of Against All Odds: A Chronicle of
the Eritrean Revolution. He is currently writing The Road to