South Sudan: the second time as tragic farce

The largest South Sudanese rebel movement is now in a leadership dispute proving more pernicious than Khartoum’s counter-insurgency strategies.

Brigadier General Michael Majur Aleer who signed on behalf of the SPLA prior to the signing of the ceasefire agreement. Image via UN Photo Flickr.

For six years rebel forces in Sudan’s South Kordofan and Blue Nile states (the Two Areas) have been battling the Sudanese government. Round after round of negotiations mediated by the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa have failed to bring an end to what is a continuation of the second Sudanese civil war (1983-2005) fought by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement against the Sudanese government army. The 2005 peace agreement between the two sides culminated in an independent South Sudan, now consumed by its own civil war, but left behind the northern sector of the SPLA/M drawn predominantly from peoples of the Two Areas. Militarily in no position to pose a serious threat to Khartoum and politically susceptible to the chaining winds of regional politics the largest Sudanese rebel movement is now in the throes of a leadership dispute that is proving more pernicious than Khartoum’s counter-insurgency strategies.

Abd al-Aziz Adam al-Hilu, the undisputed leader of the Nuba insurgency in Sudan’s South Kordofan State, arrived on June  29 2017 in the mountainous terrain under the control of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement in North Sudan (SPLA/M-N). Abd al-Aziz is a sturdy man inclined to silence but with an admirable will and perseverance. It is likely these qualities in addition to his quasi-Sufi rejection of worldly joys that has earned him the respect of the battle-hardened Nuba fighters still committed to the cause of liberation by the gun. Abd al-Aziz was received by senior commanders of the SPLA/M-N, including the rebel army’s current chief of staff, Jagod Mukwar and his deputy Izat Koko. Until 2015 it was Abd al-Aziz who occupied the position of chief of staff and he remained effectively top commander of the SPLA/M-N in absentia during his long withdrawal to Nairobi. With the decision of the two men to side with their patron the dispute over leadership in the SPLA/M-N was for all practical purposes settled. Al-Hilu’s supporters, organised in the Nuba Mountains Liberation Council (NMLC), and dismissed Malik Agar and Yasir Arman from their posts as chairman and secretary general of the SPLA/M-N respectively. The now army-less generals were left to vegetate on whatever international relations they still enjoyed. A loyal spokesman accompanied the two men to South Africa where they held meetings with acquaintances in the South African labor federation, COSATU, in mid-July and made news from an event of no consequence at all. The meeting with COSATU discussed the sacrifices of the Sudanese youth in the September 2013 riots and the civil disobedience campaigns  of last year, the spokesman said.

The leadership dispute within the SPLA/M-N erupted in the open last March when Abd al-Aziz made public a long-in-the-making letter of resignation. With this step, Abd al-Aziz was far from resigning, he was asking Nuba SPLA/M-N soldiers and cadres to make a choice between his leadership and the status quo, the triangular leadership structure that joined him and Malik Agar and Yasir Arman. This was a shrewd political move, particularly in a situation of absentee leadership. Agar and Arman were more at ease in East African and European capitals than in the rebel capital, Kauda, or the caves that shielded civilians in rebel-controlled areas from the Sudanese army’s aerial bombardment.

Since the resurgence of conflict between SPLA/M-N and the Sudanese government army in South Kordofan in June 2011, al-Hilu has been the hands-on leader of the rebellion. Although in Nairobi for a while for health related reasons as is alleged, al-Hilu cultivated a reputation as a tough commander who preferred the battlefield over the comfort of Addis Ababa hotels, where round after round of failed negotiations between the government and the SPLA/M-N have taken place. The politics of rebellion were the preferred terrain of Arman and Agar. They doubled as leaders of the short-lived alliance between the SPLA/M-N and the Darfur armed movements – the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) – and were the main interlocutors of international envoys and African Union officials involved in the abortive efforts to achieve a peaceful settlement to the conflict. What the two men obviously did not account for are the growing ambitions of the pensive commander in the Mountains.

In contrast with al-Hilu who relies on an army, Arman and Agar rely on a divided constituency  and long-wasted base of support respectively. Agar can claim followers in the conflict areas of the Blue Nile State. He clinched the governorship of the state in Sudan’s April 2010 elections prior to the referendum that led to the independence of South Sudan,  hence his reluctance to take up arms again when the fighting resumed in South Kordofan. His ambiguous position towards armed struggle, as the way forward for the northern sector when the comrades in South Sudan opted for secession, hangs over him feeding the narrative that he is the more inclined to strike a deal with Khartoum. Arman, once John Garang’s spokesman, managed the SPLM’s affairs in northern Sudan during the interim period of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the war between the Garang’s SPLA/M and the government of Sudan in 2005. He was the speaker of the SPLM caucus in the national parliament and its presidential candidate in the April 2010 elections.

John Garang died in a helicopter crash on 30 July 2005, months after his inauguration as Sudan’s First Vice President. The deal he made he did not live to implement and with his death the main in-house obstacle to the primary ambition of the overwhelming majority of fighters under his command as well as his most senior commanders, namely an independent state of their own in southern Sudan, was removed. His second in command, Salva Kiir Mayardit, took over the reigns of the SPLA/M and assumed the position carved for the big man in the Sudanese presidency, steering southern Sudan clearly towards independence in 2011 and its fate beyond. The northern sector of the SPLA/M-N was the orphan on the table as it were. The ruling National Congress Party (NCP) of President Omar al-Bashir and Salva Kiir’s SPLA/M agreed on a trade-off whereby the NCP would allow southern Sudan to gain independence and the SPLA/M would refrain from competing with the NCP in northern Sudan. Arman allowed himself to be the exchange currency. After launching a high profile bid for the presidency under SPLM banners he withdrew his candidacy last minute and with it the grand idea of a ‘New Sudan’ for all the Sudanese, north and south. Committed supporters sobbed in anguish and even the most talented propagandists failed to deliver an argument that would redeem Arman in his moment of sacrifice. Arman explained his position by remaining silent on the issue and never really recovered his political credibility. Today, the situation is such that Arman and Agar are banned by order of the NMLC from entering areas under SPLA/M-N control in the Nuba Mountains. 

In his letter of resignation and in a subsequent explanation, Abd al-Aziz hinted at these shortcomings but did not name them. Instead he capitalised on the very failure of the rebellion he effectively led from the mountains, laying the blame squarely on Arman and Agar. Abd al-Aziz ridiculed Arman’s efforts to craft an alliance with northern Sudanese political forces to further the SPLA/M-N’s objective of reworking Garang’s bombastic ‘New Sudan’ ideology in the service of the rump northern Sudan. He even dropped the joint struggle with the insurgents of the Blue Nile under Agar to declare self-determination for the Nuba Mountains as the only worthwhile goal of the Nuba insurgency. These ideas did not hatch in Al-Hilu’s head overnight, it must be said. Why he chose this particular moment to declare them ripe to act upon is an open question. In their chaotic response to his torrent of accusations and leap to the leadership, Agar and Arman suggested a foreign hand in the game, in their words “parties that want to employ the SPLA/M-N as a subnational and not a national force in their predetermined projects.” 

An honest response Al-Hilu’s challenge would have required a critical confrontation with the legacy of the mother SPLA/M under Garang, probably too much to ask from men who matured into Garang’s politics and whose own careers are a function of his oversized persona. Paradoxically, while Arman and Agar claim fidelity to the lofty slogans of the ‘New Sudan’ it is Al-Hilu after all who is closest to its practice. Not unlike Garang, Al-Hilu seeks to win through the capture and intensive militarisation of the people ‘to be liberated.’ The valorisation of the gun he preaches extends to mythologisation of firearms as essential elements of Nuba being.

“The people of Nuba are the only people in the world who use rifles as dowry in marriage to appreciate their role and value in their continued existence,” he tells the readers of his resignation letter. Tied with the valorisation of the gun is the notion of the supremacy of military power and hence the carrier of that power, the army. Abd al-Aziz gave this belief expression in his demand to maintain the autonomy of his rebel army for at least 20 years in any future deal with Khartoum, in his mind until the implementation of any prospective agreement is achieved and ‘democratic transition’ is completed or kingdom come. The Nuba army that Al-Hilu commands is today very much a popular army with few of the predatory features that characterise the SPLA in southern and later South Sudan, possibly thanks to the intensive politicisation of the Nuba by generations of agitators and activists among them Abd al-Aziz himself. Contrary to this tradition, Abd al-Aziz is now inviting the Nuba army to embody a nativist notion of Nuba nationalism and very much like the SPLA in southern Sudan deliver the Nuba to a state under its authority. This could be an effective battle cry, and indeed copies the martial ideology of the mother SPLA’s soldiers, but its outcome is the evolution of the Nuba commanders of today into anything between paternalistic administrators of a coercive bend following colonial example to outright predators.

Malik Agar and Yasir Arman are today in a position to think through these dilemmas of armed rebellion in Sudan’s fractured hinterlands. They might not be able to strike political capital out of self-effacing reckoning with their own histories and the histories of their comrades, but they are well placed to draw conclusions from these histories about race and class in an African periphery and the about the requirements and limitations of armed struggle as a means to address the deep inequalities of the Sudans. As habits dictate or I suppose livelihoods, the two men will more likely spend their time calling on friends in COSATU and dictating irrelevant statements to complying spokesmen.

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