Al-Ahram Weekly
11 - 17 May 2000
Issue No. 481

The battle for Sudan's identity

By Dan Connel*

Retired 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 Sudan.

Sahle is 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.

The 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.

"We 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.

Rebel 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."

Sudan's 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.

Sudan 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.

Until 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.

When 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 month.

Also in 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.

Thus, 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.

Both 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.

The 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.

Under 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 New Sudan