Sudan: War in North and South - Update
|Publication Date||1 March 1997|
|Cite as||WRITENET, Sudan: War in North and South - Update, 1 March 1997, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a6c04.html [accessed 5 September 2015]|
1. THE NEW WAR
Between 28 December 1996 and 2 January 1997 armed elements of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) clashed with the Government of Sudan (GOS) Army. NDA forces numbered about 1,200 men and were equipped with light and medium size weapons (anti-tank rocket launchers, machine guns, mortars, anti-aircraft missiles). The GOS Army counter-attacked at battalion level with tanks, artillery and combat helicopters. Losses were light to medium on the GOS side (about sixty men) and light (about twelve men) on the NDA side. NDA forces were made up of about 60 per cent Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) guerrillas who had previously been ferried to Eritrea from Southern Sudan; 10 per cent were men of the Sudan Alliance Forces (SAF) led by General Abd-el-Azziz Khalid, formerly of the GOS Army; and about 30 per cent were local Beja warriors who have been repeatedly victimized by GOS administrators and militiamen and who turned against the Government.
The fighting took place at Hamish Koreib, near Kassala, close to the border with Eritrea where the NDA has their rear bases. The ground for NDA operations had been politically prepared by Sheikh Mohamed Osman al-Mirghani who is both the traditional head of the khatmiyya Sufi brotherhood, an influential religious organization in the area, and president of the NDA. Preparation was indeed required because the SPLA fighters are Christians and their presence in the attacking force could easily be used by the GOS to denounce it as "an attack on Islam". Although relatively limited, this military operation was extremely significant, because it was the first time since the war had started in May 1983 that any serious fighting had taken place in the North. All observers took notice and the already intense diplomatic activity, which had started shortly before the attack, became even more frantic in the following weeks. This was further accentuated when the rebels, after a short pause, opened a second front in mid-January 1997. They attacked some distance further south in the Blue Nile province and occupied the two border towns of Kurmuk and Queissan. On this second front the NDA troops were exclusively SPLA and the fighting was more sustained. Heavy artillery was used on both sides, as well as armour. The total death toll was estimated by the GOS at 600 but there was no independent confirmation.
The area around Hamish Koreib is rather desolate and very scarcely populated, thus limiting the impact of the fighting on the civilian population. This is not the case in the Blue Nile province where at least 5,000 people were affected. Most fled towards the "enemy" (SPLA) lines and took refuge in the SPLA-held area.
The NDA forces which numbered over 5,000 men on the Blue Nile front, advanced fairly quickly at first, closing in on the town of ed-Damazin and on the strategic hydroelectric dam nearby at er-Ruseyres, which produces 80 per cent of the electricity used in Khartoum. To several observers this seemed to indicate the likelihood of a quick end to the National Islamic Front (NIF) regime in Khartoum. But by late January military operations came to a standstill, and not because Khartoum had not tried its best at reacting to the attack. The Government tried to mobilize the population, even going as far as closing down the universities to draft the students into the army and moving troops from all over the country to hastily built up defences in the East. Even tribal groups as far as Dar Fur in the West were required to contribute, raising tribal levies among young boys of 15-20 who were trained for three weeks and sent to the front. But the GOS Army response was distinctly sluggish and the NIF regime, while managing more or less to build a coherent front line in the areas of fighting, never succeeded in mounting a serious counter-attack. As for the NDA, its reasons not to push its military advantage any further are more complex and will be analysed below in Section 3. CONTRADICTIONS AND STALEMATE.
2. THE DIPLOMATIC SCENE
War clouds had begun gathering as far as the Sudanese North was concerned, when U.S. policies shifted in late 1996. Never very enthusiastic about the NIF regime in Khartoum, the U.S. Government had been shaken by the attempt on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's life in June 1995. When Sudanese implication in the murder attempt became clear, sanctions were asked for in the United Nations. Although the sanctions vote remained largely symbolic, tension grew between the U.S. and Sudan, leading to a near break-up of diplomatic relations, when the U.S. ambassador to Khartoum left the country and took up his duties again in Nairobi, site of the main international bureau of the SPLA. By late 1996 military aid to the opposition was rumoured. In November a major sensation was created by the announcement by Washington that US$ 20 million worth of "non-lethal" military aid was going to be given specifically to Uganda, Ethiopia and Eritrea, the three states actively supporting the Sudanese opposition.
The flight of former Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi to Eritrea acted as a catalyst for future events. The U.S. Ambassador immediately went to Asmara to meet with the NDA and Egypt decided to get involved. After military operations began, Khartoum searched frantically for outside help, sending Vice-President Zubeyr Mohamed Saleh on a tour of Arab capitals. He first went to Egypt, apparently a paradoxical choice since the Khartoum Government had been a party to the assassination plot against President Mubarak, but in fact a reasonable move in spite of appearances. Cairo's main worry in the Sudan conflict is the fear of either a radical nationalist regime taking power with Ethiopian and Eritrean support or the country breaking up and the South seceding. NDA support for a referendum on self-determination for the South, after the NIF regime is overthrown, only added to this worry. This is because both scenarios represent a potential threat to the control of the Nile waters, of increasing concern to Egypt in the face of its growing population and regularly increasing needs for irrigation. Vice-President Zubeyr Mohamed Saleh was not successful, but Cairo showed its concern by calling repeatedly on the NDA not to allow Sudan to be divided.
From Cairo the Sudanese Vice-President went to Saudi Arabia, where the reception was very cold. Sudan's position in support of Iraq during the Gulf War was still remembered and Zubeyr Mohamed Saleh did not get any help in Ryad. He fared better in Abu Dhabi where Sheikh Zayed offered his mediation and even better in Qatar where help was promised. But the mood was definitely not very sanguine and the only real military help (later denied) came from Teheran. Although partly sympathetic to Khartoum, not as a radical Islamist regime but as a fellow "Arab state" attacked by "enemies of Islam", the oil monarchies were reluctant to get involved because they knew that their powerful U.S. protector was supporting the opposite side.
Khartoum tried to get some sympathy from its Arab neighbours by saying that the fighting was the result of an "invasion" from Eritrea and Ethiopia, but Eritrea declared that it considered the clashes to be "an internal matter of the Sudan" and Egypt later aligned itself with the same position. Yet, strangely enough, just as Khartoum showed itself to be incapable both of mounting a counter-offensive and of getting any significant help from its neighbours, the NDA offensive ground to a halt. The problem for the rebels was not military, it was political.
3. CONTRADICTIONS AND STALEMATE
The NDA is a complex political structure which, since it took its final form in October 1996, has been riven by rivalries and conflicts. What are the components of the NDA and how do they relate to the Sudanese political tradition?
Central to the NDA construct we find the two political parties which ran the government during the democratic period of 1986-1989, the Umma and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). These two parties have a long history in the Sudan, going back all the way to the period of the turkiyya and the Mahdist wars of the nineteenth century. They are religious parties based respectively on the ansar and the khatmiyya Islamic brotherhoods. These brotherhoods were the main political partners of the British during the Condominium period and later dominated the country's politics from the time of independence until the Muslim Brothers' coup of 1989. These are massive parties with regional and social clienteles. They are firmly embedded in the Sudanese social structure. But they are also old and spiritually decrepit. They have been around for more than a hundred years, in one form or another. They terribly mismanaged the country each time they were in power and their corruption is notorious. Although often caught in their ranks by the complex web of traditional and family loyalties, most young people feel no empathy whatsoever towards them. They have debased the word "democracy", which they are fond of using and which earns them an exaggerated sympathy from the Americans and the Europeans, to the extent even of corrupt patronage. These two historical monsters of Sudanese politics would simply like to overthrow the NIF regime and come back to what they see as the "good old days". The problem is that these old days are not perceived as "good" by the vast majority of the population. So if a majority of the Sudanese are opposed to the NIF regime, they are at the same time distinctly lacking in enthusiasm towards the two historical parties which have traditionally represented democracy in the Sudan and which now constitute the core of the NDA.
The other components of the NDA are more creative but they are also relatively unknown, untried and, to many Sudanese, somewhat frightening. First of course is the SPLA, the African guerrilla which is the mainstay of the armed opposition. Perceived as Christians and janubiyyin (southerners) by the "Arab" North, the SPLA is the object of a complex web of fears, worries and hopes. Firstly it is seen by some as a revolt of the abid (slaves), the name still commonly used today when referring to the Southern Blacks. As such it inspires fear. And it is also seen as a kuffar (Christian unbelievers) attack, something loathsome. And finally it is seen as a force having the potential to dismember the country and cause a secession. This is a shocking prospect to a majority of the northerners, raised in the cult of nationalism and independence without realizing that treating the Sudan as "an integral part of the Arab nation" has made the non-Arab Southerners feel like non-citizens. But balancing these negative feelings, there is also a gnawing suspicion that the janubiyyin might have more of a point than anybody has been willing to concede so far, and that the Sudan might well be less "Arab" and more African than the official nationalist ideology has proclaimed up to now. This combines with a realization that without the military effort of the South there would be no hope of getting rid of the NIF regime since the Muslim opposition is militarily weak.
To these complex feelings are added the questions raised by the last component of the NDA, the so-called "modern forces". They have been around as the nucleus of a potential modern secular party for more than thirty years and have never managed to transform their often brilliant analysis and daring conspirations into anything stable and durable. They took part in the October 1964 movement, and they were at the heart of the April 1985 intifada (uprising), but they never managed to give birth to a serious political organization. They are active in similar ways again now within the NDA in the form of the reforming wing of the old Communist Party and of the Sudan Alliance Forces (SAF), made up of a variety of left-leaning officers who deserted from the GOS Army, former trade unionists, intellectuals and assorted professionals. Strong in the towns they are weakly represented in the countryside. They are courageous and clever but often idealistic and unpractical. The Sudanese in general regard them as dangerously innovative young men, who might be worth trying (after all, the old parties are only too well known) but who are frightening because they might improvise new and strange things.
And finally there are the Beja nomads, simple hardy tribesmen of the eastern region, the "fuzzy wuzzies" of Rudyard Kipling's poem, who are fighting out of a sense of outrage at a government which despises and robs them. But they have no leadership capable of seriously taking part in the business of governing.
It is this complex and even contradictory assortment of political forces which is trying to overthrow the NIF regime. It has one trump card: the weakness and lack of popularity of its enemy. It has a major problem: its own lack of cohesiveness. Some elements of the NDA (the Umma and the DUP) just want the NIF out and a return to what they consider "business as usual". Some other elements (the SPLA and the Northern "modern forces") want a revolution, which means a transformation of the very framework of Sudanese politics as they have existed since the 1880s, and the creation of a basically new power relationship based on different sociological elements. The conservatives in the opposition have the experience, the organization, the money and the international contacts. But they are worn threadbare due to their poor past record and they have no guns or fighters. The reformists are unknown and untried, they lack both money and international visibility, but they have the ideas, the men and the guns. The present paralysis of the opposition and the stalemate of the military offensive are due to these contradictions, not to the resistance of the Khartoum regime or to any support that it might have enjoyed among the population. Those forces (SPLA, SAF) which have the military means are unwilling to use them to the full at least in the North for fear of paving the way for those elements of the NDA they consider, not without some justification, as "reactionary". It is because of this contradiction that, as we will see (below, Section 4. RENEWED WAR IN THE SOUTH), Colonel Garang decided to resume military operations in the South rather than push on in the North.
But before turning to this subject, we must introduce a note of warning. The situation created by the NDA attack in the East is extremely serious. The NIF regime in Khartoum is absolutely exhausted at every level: politically, ideologically, militarily and financially. The new war in the East is stretching its meagre resources to breaking point. Since for the reasons we have just seen the NDA is too embroiled in its own contradictions to deal Khartoum a quick death blow and re-establish some kind of order, the danger is great that progressive anarchy will develop in the gap between an exhausted government and a powerless opposition. Already, tribal clashes between the "Arab" Rizzayqat and the "African" Zaghawa have grown progressively worse in Dar Fur over the last six months. There is a lot of confused fighting in southern Kordofan involving the GOS Army, two different Nuba groups, murahaleen militias, the SPLA, Islamist militias and Missiriya tribesmen. In the South since the so-called "April 1996 Charter" a variety of SPLA dissident groups and tribal mini-organizations are "negotiating" with the GOS. This means in fact that they are contributing to the spreading anarchy in the region. Often, as in the clashes between various sections of the Nuer and the Dinka, the GOS and the SPLA are not even involved any more. The local groups simply use the weapons that have been widely distributed by one side or the other (or even by both, each hoping to attract a given group to its side), to fight each other. The prize of the fighting is mostly cattle, a diminishing resource in view of the present drought. Thus if the war does not end reasonably quickly (i.e. within six to eight months) the danger of progressive deterioration into virtual anarchy of the Somali model is considerable.
4. RENEWED WAR IN THE SOUTH
It is clear that Colonel John Garang is fully aware of the cicumstances outlined above. For a period (late December to late February) he had prioritized military action in the North and let the Southern front lie dormant. There were two advantages to such a policy: fighting in the North tended to be more threatening to the NIF regime than operations in the distant and almost colonial South; not acting in the South was a way to avoid reinforcing the cliché of "an attack on Islam" and thus causing the Arab world to support Khartoum. Recently, however, he switched his priorities and again went on the offensive between Juba and the Zairian border. His new offensive there took place in a very complex diplomatic and military situation.
Since September 1996 a major conflict had developed in the Northern and Southern Kivu Provinces of Zaire and by early 1997 it had spread northwards all the way to the Sudanese border. Eventually, the corner where the three borders of the Sudan, Uganda and Zaire meet, near Kaya, was reached by the forces of the Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo-Zaire (ADFL), led by Laurent-Désiré Kabila, operating in conjunction with elements of the Ugandan Army, which had crossed into Zaire in hot pursuit of guerrillas who had attacked Ugandan territory on 14 November 1996. Kaya had been occupied by the SPLA between 1989 and 1993 and then retaken by the GOS Army. It was used as a supply point for the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and the West Nile Bank Liberation Front (WNLBF), two Ugandan guerrilla groups fighting the Kampala Government and closely sponsored by the GOS. ADFL control of the Zairian side of the border meant that arms and supplies, which had previously come from GOS-held territory in Bahr-el-Ghazal through Chad, the Central African Republic and Zaire, could no longer pass through. The GOS had been forced to use this complicated and diplomatically sensitive route for two reasons: firstly, it had repeatedly failed to reconquer Western Equatoria, occupied by SPLA forces since 1989, and thus could not use the Wau-Tambura-Yambio-Maridi road; secondly, the much shorter itinerary from Juba through Yei was under constant attack from SPLA forces and a heavy convoy of supplies would have been certain to be a target. Thus crossing by way of foreign countries and re-entering Sudanese territory in Kaya was the only practicable supply route for the GOS-sponsored Ugandan guerrillas and at times even for the beleaguered GOS Army garrison in Yei.
Uganda had been saying for quite a while that diplomacy was no longer sufficient to secure the country's northern border and that the only solution was to fight, and the Sudanese Government had been expecting a combined attack from UPDF and SPLA forces against its positions in Equatoria and against the Ugandan guerrilla camps on its territory. This was the reason behind the secret talks between President Mobutu and Sudanese Vice-President Zubeyr Mohamed Saleh in Morocco.
The offensive, duly denied by Ugandan Government sources, started in early March. The UPDF went in pursuit of LRA and WNBLF guerrillas while the SPLA forces retook the garrisons of Morobo, Kaya and Yei from the GOS. Fighting was fierce, with Kaya changing hands three times, and heavy artillery, combat airplanes and armour being used. After the fall of Yei and of Kajo-Kaji a few weeks later, tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees started moving out of Uganda back into now secure Western Equatoria territory. As for the WNBLF guerrillas they were, in the words of a recent UN regional news briefing, "caught between SPLA and ADFL troops which had overrun their bases in both Sudan and Zaire". The LRA was harder to deal with and UPDF forces chased it back inside the Sudan.
This switch of military emphasis from the North to the South by Colonel Garang was a way of putting some not-so-discreet pressure on his Arab allies in Asmara who were at the time holding a general meeting of the NDA in the Eritrean capital. The meeting was a failure, which reminded observers of the worst periods of confusion and internal bickering of the opposition in the early 1990s in Cairo. The contradictions were due to several factors. First there was the presence of former Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi who, after returning from a diplomatic tour officially on behalf of the opposition but in reality in promotion of his own cause, wanted to be recognized as "legitimate head of government" under the pretext that this had been his position up to 30 June 1989. Elements of the NDA who had lived in often difficult exile since 1989-1990, while the former Prime Minister stayed in rather comfortable circumstances in Khartoum, were bitter. And then there was the contradiction we have already described (above, in Section 3. CONTRADICTIONS AND STALEMATE) between the fighting groups and the traditional political parties. Although at odds with each other over the question of who should control the NDA, the Umma and the DUP were both quite wary of the SPLA and even of the weak but determined SAF.
Fighting in the South was thus a way for Colonel Garang to achieve several differenct objectives: firstly, he kept putting military pressure on the GOS, forcing it to spread its already overstretched forces further or else to lose more ground; secondly, he showed his Arab allies that he could operate without them while they could not operate without him; thirdly, he once again conjured up the ghost of possible secession by getting closer to Juba. If he were to take Juba, what would prevent him from setting up a provisional government there? Then the NDA would either have to participate in it, which would put the Arab politicians even more at the mercy of the SPLA, or else a de facto partition of the country would take place.
As March 1997 draws to a close this is the situation. The GOS is in extremely difficult circumstances and its demise can reasonably be expected within the next few months, not through direct military conquest, Zaire-style, but through a war of attrition regularly increasing the military pressure on the Government on several fronts, far distant from each other. But the NDA is at present paralysed by its internal contradictions and will have to find a quick way out of them in the next few months if it wants to be able to cash in on the political dividends of its military initiatives. Failure to achieve that (a not impossible proposition since the NDA has often demonstrated its factiousness), might be the only thing which could keep the GOS in power for a little longer.
The views expressed in the papers are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of UNHCR.
 For the history of the Sudanese civil war see Gérard Prunier, Identity Crisis and the Weak State: The Making of the Sudanese Civil War (WRITENET for UNHCR/CDR, January 1996; UNHCR/CDR REFWORLD Databases)
 For an analysis of the NDA, see Prunier, January 1996, pp 36-39
 The description of these clashes is based on telephone interviews with NDA spokesman Yasser Arman in Asmara and with talks with two eyewitnesses who wish to remain anonymous
 See Andrew Boyd, "The Persecution of the Beja", The New African (November 1996)
 Le Monde, Jean Hélène, "Double offensive des rebelles soudanais contre le régime", 18 January 1997; La Lettre de l'Océan Indien, "Soudan: la guerre s'intensifie", 18 January 1997
 Interview with a local Ingessana tribal leader. London, February 1997
 See Africa Confidential, "The Countdown Begins", Vol. 38, No. 3, 31 January 1997; Gill Lusk, "Regime al capolinea", Nigrizia, February 1997
 The Guardian, "Sudan Students Sent to War", 15 January 1997
 Interview with Fur leader Ahmed Ibrahim Diraige. London, February 1997
 Agence France Presse [Cairo], "Khartoum reconnait n'avoir pas pu lancer sa contre-offensive militaire", 12 February 1997
 For a discussion of this episode see Prunier, January 1996, pp. 32-33
 La Lettre de l'Océan Indien, "Soudan: les politiques américaines", 12 October 1996
 Reuter [Khartoum], "Sudan Slams Military Aid to African Countries", 13 November 1996; Africa Confidential, "Arms Against a Sea of Troubles", Vol. 37, No. 23 (15 November 1996)
 United Press International [London], "Sudan's Former Leader Flees to Eritrea", 11 December 1996
 Agence France Presse [Asmara], "L'ambassadeur américain au Soudan a rencontré l'opposition", 16 December 1996
 La Lettre de l'Océan Indien, "Le Caire va aider la NDA", 4 January 1997
 For a concise discussion of this Egyptian conundrum, see Dan Connell, Sudan Up
 For background material on the Nile waters problem see John Waterbury, Hydropolitics of the Nile Valley (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1979). For a discussion of the recent conference held in Ethiopia on that subject see Mark Huband, "En 2050 un milliard d'habitants autour du Bassin du Nil", Courrier International, No. 333 (20-26 March 1997)
 Le Monde, "L'Egypte refuse de venir en aide au Soudan", 21 January 1997
 Xinhua News Agency [Cairo], "Egypt Rejects Partitioning of Sudan", 4 February 1997
 Reuter [Ryad], "Sudan's Vice-President in Saudi for Talks on Fighting", 19 January 1997
 Agence France Presse [Abu Dhabi], "Les Emirats Arabes Unis disposés à aider Khartoum à mettre fin à l'effusion de sang", 21 January 1997
 Agence France Presse [Doha], "L'Emir de Qatar apporte son soutien", 21 January 1997
 TTU Monde Arabe, "Assistance militaire iranienne à Khartoum", 31 January 1997
 Agence France Presse [Asmara], "Les combats du Soudan sont internes affirme le président erythréen", 21 January 1997
 The following analysis is essentially the author's own and draws on twenty-five years of familiarity with Sudanese politics.
 The two best analytical works, providing an understanding of the extremely complex and conservative nature of Sudanese politics, are Peter Bechtold, Politics in the Sudan: Parliamentary and Military Rule in an Emerging African Nation (Praeger: New York, 1976) and Tim Niblock, Class and Power in the Sudan: The Dynamics of Sudanese Politics (1898-1985) (New York: State University of New York Press, 1987)
 The NIF received about 10 per cent of the popular vote in the April 1986 elections and had it not been for their military coup would never have reached power by legal means. The abysmal NIF record in every area (human rights, the economy, war in the South) since the 1989 takeover would probably today not even earn them the level of their 1986 vote
 "Young men" because the modernists are now in their second generation. The reformers of the 1960s have often retired by now, with the exception of a few historical figures (Amin Makki Medani, Faruq Abu Eissa), who at sixty plus represent a physical link between the two generations
 See Gill Lusk, "Sudan: Lull Before the Storm", Middle East International, 7 February 1997; Reuter [Washington], "IMF Gives Sudan a Last Chance to Deal with Arrears", 13 February 1997
 Agence France Presse [Khartoum], "Trois tués dans des affrontements tribaux au Darfour", 13 January 1997. The number of killings given in this dispatch is most likely a considerable underestimate, in view of the fact that the death toll in Dar Fur since the clashes started in earnest in October 1996 stands at at least 1,000
 The so-called murahaleen (nomads) are Baggara groups, who were organized from 1987 by General (R) Fadlallah Burma Nassir to fight the pro-SPLA Dinka sections of northern Bahr-el-Ghazal, but who quickly became uncontrollable
 For a complete list see Sudan Focus, Vol. 4, No 3 (15 March 1997)
 Interview with Riak Gok Majok after his return from two months near Abyei and in Eastern Equatoria. Paris, March 1997
 For a global assessment of this conflict see Gérard Prunier, "The Geopolitical Situation of the Great Lakes Area in the Light of the Kivu Crisis" (fc. in Refugee Survey Quarterly, Spring 1997)
 The Uganda People's Defence Force (UPDF), the new name of the former National Resistance Army
 Interview with Jean-Pierre Klem. Paris, November 1996. Mr Klem is a French national who, for a number of personal reasons, lived for eight months in SPLA-held territory in Western and Eastern Equatoria during 1996.
 Libération, "Ouganda/Soudan: la solution du champ de bataille", 31 January 1997
 Agence France Presse [Khartoum], "Khartoum s'attend à une invasion ougandaise", 2 February 1997
 La Lettre de l'Océan Indien, "Soudan: rencontre secrète avec Mobutu", 8 March 1997
 Reuter [Kampala], "Uganda Denies Attacking Sudan Border Towns", 10 March 1997
 This was a strategically particularly significant development because at no time since the beginning of the war, even at the height of its 1989 offensive, had the SPLA been able to occupy this strongly defended garrison.
 See United Nations. Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN). Update, No. 135 (25 March 1997)
 World Food Programme, "UN Team is Sent to Assess Food Needs for Thousands of Displaced and Returning Southern Sudanese" (Nairobi, 24 March 1997)
 United Nations. Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN), Update, No. 137 (27 March 1997)
 Telephone interviews with several NDA members in Asmara, March 1997