A Guide to Sudan’s Armed Rebels

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With peace negotiations set to resume on October 14th, the new Sudanese government is looking to end decades of civil war. Who are the movements and leaders they'll be negotiating with?
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If there is one constant throughout Sudan’s 63 year history, it’s war. Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has identified peace as essential to future economic development, saying it would let the government reduce the military’s budget—currently 80% of the national budget—to 20%, allowing the rest to be reallocated to development. With this in mind, the Sudanese government met with rebel leaders in Juba, South Sudan, to sign the Juba Declaration, which sets October 14th as the date for it and eight armed rebel groups to engage in peace talks.

However, despite consistent emphasis by Sudanese politicians on the necessity of peace, discussion on what the rebels want is infrequent, and many are ignorant of the groups’ goals. To remedy this, here is a guide to the groups scheduled to negotiate under the Juba Declaration.

The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement  – North (Agar) (agreed to negotiate)

History: The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – North (SPLM-N) began as the northern wing of the Southern Sudanese rebel group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). Active in Sudan’s South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, the SPLM-N became an independent group after South Sudan’s secession, returning to armed resistance in protest of the lack of democratic elections and the government’s failure to consult the peoples of South Kordofan and Blue Nile over whether or not they wished to secede. The movement soon split into SPLM-N (Agar) and SPLM-N (El-Hilu) due to tensions between chairman Malik Agar (leader of the Blue Nile division), and vice chair Abdelaziz El-Hilu (leader of the South Kordofan division).

Leadership: An armed rebel since 1983, Malik Agar was elected governor of Blue Nile state in 2010 after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, but was deposed under Omar al-Bashir’s orders in 2011. Agar then seized control of the southern portion of the state, where 36,000 people currently live under his control. The Secretary-General of the group is Yasir Arman, who mainly deals with the political aspects of the movement.

Goals: The SPLM-N views Sudan’s problem as being rooted in the governments’ failure to accept Sudanese diversity, and in the movement’s manifesto, it accuses the Sudanese government of maintaining the historical division of Sudanese society into “free Arab Muslim master[s]” and “black non-Arab slave[s].” Their proposed solution is the establishment of a “secular, democratic Sudan” where the “slave-master mentality” is completely destroyed. Arman has been particularly outspoken on the issue of secularism, having previously referred to Islamism in Africa as a threat to African diversity.

The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement  – North (El-Hilu) (agreed to negotiate)

History: The SPLM-N (El-Hilu) emerged after the leader of the SPLM-N’s South Kordofan division, Abdelaziz El-Hilu, submitted his resignation, accusing Agar and Arman of neglecting the needs of the people of South Kordofan, particularly their right to self-determination. Of all of Sudan’s rebel groups, the SPLM-N (el-Hilu) holds the most territory, controlling large swaths of territory in South Kordofan.

Leadership: El-Hilu was formerly deputy governor of South Kordofan, but stepped down and returned to rebellion in 2011. His willingness to negotiate has made him popular among Sudanese revolutionaries, although he has been critical of the TMC-FFC deal, having called it “an abortion of the revolution” with the potential to start another civil war.

Goals: Like his counterparts in Blue Nile, el-Hilu aims to establish a secular, democratic Sudan. The demand for secularism is particularly important for el-Hilu, as South Kordofan has a significant Christian minority, and he previously called for the abolition of Sharia law to be included in the Declaration of Freedom and Change. Where el-Hilu differs from his counterparts in Blue Nile is in his insistence on the right of self-determination, which he has said must be given to all peoples and states of Sudan.

The Justice and Equality Movement (agreed to negotiate)

History: The Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) is a Darfuri rebel group founded in 2000 after the publication of The Black Book: Imbalance of Power and Wealth in Sudan, a book alleging that the northern region of Sudan (which represents 5% of Sudan’s population) had monopolized the country’s wealth and power, neglecting the majority of Sudanese citizens. Many of the book’s authors—including JEM’s first leader, Khalil Ibrahim—became JEM’s founders. For a time, JEM represented one of Sudan’s most formidable armed rebel groups, having infamously conducted a failed raid on Omdurman in 2008, making it the first and only Sudanese rebel group in history to reach the capital.

Leadership: JEM was initially led by former physician Khalil Ibrahim, who was succeeded by his brother, economist Gibril Ibrahim, after Khalil’s death in 2011. The decision to nominate Gibril was somewhat controversial within the movement, with critics decrying his appointment as cronyism.

Goals: In contrast with the SPLM-N, JEM is not a secular movement, and its founders and leaders were strongly aligned with Sudanese Islamist thinker Hassan al-Turabi and his political party, the Popular Congress Party. In line with the party’s ideology, JEM advocates for an Islamist, democratic, highly federalized Sudan, having previously proposed the creation of a United Regions of Sudan, which would be led by a rotating presidency, giving each region a term in the presidential office. JEM has also expressed larger ambitions for unity, vehemently rejecting any proposal for the secession of Darfur, with Khalil Ibrahim advocating for a union between Sudan, Egypt, Libya, Chad, and the Horn of Africa.

The Sudan Liberation Movement – Minni Minawi (agreed to negotiate)

History: Founded in 2001, the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) was formed as an alliance between Darfur’s Fur and Zaghawa tribes. Starting as an obscure insurgency, the SLM quickly evolved into one of the most prominent actors in the war in Darfur after its assault on al-Fashir Airport in 2003. In 2005, the group split along tribal lines into the predominantly Fur SLM-AW  (led by chairman Abdelwahid Nur) and the predominantly Zaghawa SLM-MM (led by co-founder Minni Arko Minawi). The split emerged due to a difference in agendas, with Abdelwahid envisioning a complete overthrow of Sudan’s current political system, and Minnawi focused on fighting Arab militias (later known as the Janjaweed).

Leadership: Minni Minawi remains the group’s chairman, and is deeply unpopular among the other rebel movements in Darfur due to his military clashes with JEM and the SLM-AW, in which his forces gained a reputation for rape and executions leading civilians in the region to nickname them “Janjaweed Two.” Minawi’s unpopularity increased when he became the only Darfur rebel leader to sign the Darfur Peace Agreement in 2006, after which he was made special assistant to President Omar al-Bashir. He stepped down from the position and returned to rebellion in 2010.

Goals: Like the SPLM-N, the SLM-MM calls for the establishment of a secular, liberal and democratic Sudan.

The Sudan Liberation Movement – Abdelwahid (did not agree to negotiate)

History: Emerging from the division of the SLM in 2005, the SLM-AW is the only Sudanese rebel group that controls territory in Darfur, but its territory has recently shrunk considerably.

Leadership: The SLM-AW is led by Darfuri lawyer Abdelwahid Muhammad Ahmad an-Nur, nicknamed “Mr. No” due to his refusal to negotiate. Abdelwahid is somewhat unpopular within his own movement, and senior officers with a differing stance towards negotiations voted to replace him in 2019, although no replacement has surfaced.

Of all the rebel groups, Abdelwahid is the most critical of the TMC-FFC deal, saying it “sets the terms for the enslavement of the Sudanese people,” decrying it as a “kidnapping of the revolution,” which he insists sought a completely civilian government. As a result, the SLM-AW is the only rebel group mentioned in the Juba Declaration to reject negotiations.

Abdelwahid has said he will be willing to negotiate if Omar al-Bashir is surrendered to the International Criminal Court, Sudan’s militias are disbanded, and a referendum is held in which the Sudanese people are to make it clear whether they approve of the new constitution, the military’s presence in government institutions, and a “full and immediate return to civilian rule.”

At the time of writing, the Sudanese government has not acknowledged this demand.

Goals: Abdelwahid’s political vision is the same as the SPLM-N’s.

The Kush Liberation Movement (agreed to negotiate)

History: Founded in 1969, the Kush Liberation Movement (KLM) is a minor armed rebel group fighting for the interests of Sudan’s Nubian minority. They have conducted no large scale attacks.

Leadership: The movement was founded by Abdelwahhab al-Mahasi, who was voted out in 2017 and replaced by Muhammad Dawuud.

Goals: Like the SPLM-N and the SLM, the KLM calls for the establishment of a secular, democratic, multicultural state. The KLM distinguishes itself with its special emphasis on “liberating Sudanese lands from Egyptian occupation,” naming Halayib Triangle—a disputed territory under Egyptian control—as one of these occupied lands.

The Beja Congress (agreed to negotiate)

History: Founded in 1958, the Beja Congress began as a political party protesting the marginalization of the Beja, taking up armed resistance in 1994. Its insurgency ended in 2006 with the signing of the Eastern Sudan Peace Agreement (ESPA).

Leadership: The current chairman of the Beja Congress is Musa Muhammad Ahmad, who signed the ESPA wih Omar al-Bashir’s government in 2006, becoming a special assistant to al-Bashir afterwards.

Goals: The Beja Congress lacks a clear ideological commitment, as even though many of its leaders have a strong communist alignment, the movement’s base is conservative and holds Islamist sympathies. Perhaps as a result, the movement focuses more on addressing the material concerns of eastern Sudanese, signing the ESPA due to its promises that it would reallocate funds to develop eastern Sudan.

The United People’s Front for Liberation and Justice (agreed to negotiate)

History: A rebel movement with no military capabilities, the United People’s Front for Liberation and Justice (UPFLJ) represents a coalition of 17 eastern Sudanese rebel movements, mostly based outside of the country, and is a part of the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF), a loose coalition of rebel movements across Sudan, including the SPLM-N and the Beja Congress.

Leadership: The movement is led by Zainab Kabbashi, the chairwoman of the Corrective Beja Congress, who, along with the mainstream Beja Congress, was meeting and collaborating with Sudan’s pro-democracy forces as early as April. Kabbashi was highly critical of opposition forces, including those within the SRF, for negotiating with Omar al-Bashir.

Goals: Like the Beja Congress, the UPFLJ’s ideological alignment is unclear.