The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) has been fighting a succession of Khartoum governments since 1983. Though its stated goal is to build a unified “new Sudan,” it is widely perceived as representing the interests of the south, where most of its fighting is done and which it now almost entirely controls.

After more than eight years of remarkable cohesiveness, the SPLA witnessed its first serious coup attempt on August 28, 1991. Since it posed no immediate threat to the rule of SPLA commander-in-chief John Garang, in conventional terms the coup was a failure. But it raised issues of crucial importance to the SPLA, to Sudan, and to all liberational and nationalist movements, issues which are rarely acknowledged and even more rarely tackled.

Riek Mashar Teny Dhurgon, Lam Akol Ajawin and Gordon Koang Chuol announced that they had overthrown Col. John Garang not on Radio SPLA (then off the air following the overthrow of the Mengistu regime in Addis Ababa), but over the airwaves of the BBC. (Garang himself learned of the coup from the BBC.) This ensured maximum coverage and a few days in which Garang would be unable to respond. Since the rebel trio was based at Nasir, a small and inaccessible town in Upper Nile, while Garang was hundreds of miles away at headquarters near Kapoeta, Eastern Equatoria, there was a distinct unreality about their claim.

The “Nasir Group” had been in touch with fellow SPLA commanders, several of whom had expressed discontent with the way things were going in the SPLA. The three apparently expected this discontent to surface at a commanders’ meeting scheduled for that same weekend. The eight commanders present instead signed a declaration of support for Garang, but in subsequent discussions at Torit the discontent did surface. The Nasir Group for the first time had publicly raised issues — peace, justice, democracy and human rights — which the mainstream SPLA could not ignore, denouncing the SPLA and Garang for authoritarianism and a lack of political direction. Most explosive of all, Lam Akol suggested that separation from the north might be necessary “for some time” while both sides sorted themselves out.

Notwithstanding claims by Garang stalwarts that the whole thing was simply a power struggle backed by the Khartoum government and foreign interests (notably the US and Western aid agencies), everyone knew that the heart of the matter lay in the structure, program and practices of the SPLA. The problem is reflected in the very name of the organization, officially the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLM/SPLA) but usually referred to simply as the SPLA. This is not merely verbal shorthand, but a tacit recognition that the military wing dominates and the political wing barely exists. The coup attempt reflected this dichotomy: While Garang and some of his closest aides were career military officers who left Sudan’s army to “go into the bush,” coup makers Riek Mashar and Lam were civilians, engineering lecturers at the University of Khartoum. Lam had been secretary of a Khartoum-based party, the Sudan African Congress, and had proven his diplomatic acumen as the SPLA’s chief negotiator in the 1988 accord with key northern parties. The civilian-military dichotomy has been increasingly felt in the south as SPLA control has spread to all but five garrison towns. The consolidation of SPLA territory — some 350,000 square miles — has brought relative peace to the South over the past two years. Since the National Islamic Front government seized power in Khartoum in June 1989, Sudan’s predominantly secularist armed forces have been systematically purged and weakened. With a government more interested in enforcing its control over northern (mainly Muslim) Sudan, the non-Muslim south has had a relatively easier time.

This relative peace has given people space to ask questions that previously would have seemed a luxury. Tens of thousands of displaced people have returned to their home areas from the north or from Ethiopia and are now asking what all their suffering has been for: Deaths are commonly put at over half a million people. Many still depend on relief aid. Disputes between military men and the civilians of the SPLA’s relief arm, the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association, have heightened public consciousness that the man with the AK-47 often has the last word.

As people gather around shared radios in the long evenings, they have ample chance to discuss the changes now sweeping across Africa — including places as near as Ethiopia and Zaire. The notion of human rights (which, along with democratization, was a main demand of the Nasir Group), is full of content for southerners. Everybody has lost relatives to government gunfire or to the depredations of government-armed tribal militias, and to, the SPLA itself, whether in attacks on villages, from internal strife or in political “disappearances.” The Nasir Group’s demand for the release of all detained dissidents was sure to stir feelings throughout the south.

The independence issue is more complicated. The SPLA struggle for a united Sudan has more to do with realpolitik than with heartfelt feelings. Despairing of ever being anything but a second-class citizen, virtually every southerner nurtures a dream of an independent south. African, Arab and international politics have long ensured this could be only a pipe dream. But the astonishingly rapid changes in Eastern Europe and the autonomy of Eritrea have suddenly turned everything upside down. Tribal turmoil, whether in Somalia or Yugoslavia, acts as both an encouragement and a warning to aspiring separatists. Sudan is no longer strategically significant for Cold Warriors. The wars are hot and essentially local. Though US and French officials regularly pop up to eye their respective still-unexploited oil concessions, the price they are willing to pay for that oil is not as high as it once was.

The situation is therefore extremely fluid. The myth of the all-powerful leadership has suddenly been punctured. SPLA insistence on full military rigor is less convincing to a population that has glimpsed alternatives. Questions have been asked that cannot be unasked. Belated Western insistence on “good governance” means that liberation groups can no longer so easily get away with claims that the end justifies the means, which groups as various as Namibia’s SWAPO, Angola’s UNITA and South Africa’s ANC did for so long.

By early November, both Groups were advocating reconciliation; heavy clashes reportedly displaced around a quarter of a million people. Church-sponsored peace talks began in Nairobi on November 23, and a ceasefire was agreed on November 27. Lam Akol demanded elections for the SPLA leadership and the unconditional release of political detainees. Col. Garang argued that change was happening but was constrained by war conditions. Both sides, not unreasonably, claimed majority support. The general feeling seemed to be that the Nasir Group had raised the right issues in the wrong way. Many Southern leaders took sides with whichever group they viewed as the natural victor. But a widespread feeling among less prominent people was that the quarrel must be reconciled and that failure to do so could mean the end of the SPLA.

Sources: The SPLM/SPLA position is in their Torit Resolution, September 12, 1991. The Nasir Group’s demands are in the Documents of “Interim Executive, SPLA,” passim. See also Sudan Democratic Gazette, October and November 1991; Africa Confidential 32/18; Sudan Update, passim., September 1991 onward; Middle East International, September 13 and October 11, 1991.

How to cite this article:

Gill Lusk "Democracy and Liberation Movements: The Case of the SPLA," Middle East Report 174 (January/February 1992).

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