The hum of approaching aircraft sends residents of this dusty rebel outpost scurrying for cover. The over-flights may be the United Nations planes from Operation Lifeline Sudan carrying famine relief — or Sudanese Air Force Antonov-27s searching for signs of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), whose army, the SPLA, controls most of the southern third of this strife-torn country. Battle-weary civilians take no chances. Random — and mostly ineffective — air raids have increased throughout the contested south since a “humanitarian cease-fire” broke down last summer. The government has sought to pressure the SPLM to accept a wider truce rather than extending the previous one only in the famine-wracked Bahr el Ghazal region.

SPLM leaders rejected the overture because it was not linked to a clear peace plan and would serve to free up government forces to fight on other fronts. The Islamist regime now faces revolts in the east and northeast, as well as in the Nuba Mountains of central Sudan, none of which would be covered by the proposed truce. The armed threat emanates not only from the SPLM but from a coalition of armed movements affiliated wit the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The Khartoum government has also initiated talks with leaders of two conservative northern parties in the NDA — the Umma party of former Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi and Osman Mohammed Mirgani’s Democratic Unionist Party — in an attempt to split them from the coalition. Libya has joined Egypt in backing this initiative in an effort to raise its profile as a regional peacemaker; while also seeking to rebuild relations with the US and Europe. Western interests appear to favor a negotiated power-sharing arrangement rather than a protracted war that could have unpredictable political consequences.

Meanwhile, both the National Islamic Front (NIF) government and the SPLM rebels are consolidating their political positions in advance of any talks. The former is promulgating a new constitution and national elections held under its control, the latter is empowering the newly constituted civil authorities in the “liberated areas” of the south, which the rebels call “New Sudan.” The SPLM is also intensifying its involvement in the NDA, whose stated aim is to replace the Islamist regime outright. An SPLA commander has been placed in charge of NDA units with fighters from seven different opposition parties operating in territory in northeastern Sudan, which was captured two years ago. This force threatens government positions along the Red Sea coast and could extend fighting to the country’s strategic heartland.

The outbreak of war last year between Ethiopia and Eritrea — which, with Uganda, backed the Sudanese opposition — has helped the regime to temporarily curb the NDA momentum. Khartoum seized this opportunity — which one official called “a gift from heaven” — to secure commitments from both Addis Ababa and Asmara to halt assistance to the rebels, though the efficacy of these agreements remains unclear. Meanwhile, government forces launched counterinsurgency operations in eastern Sudan, the Nuba Mountains and the Red Sea Hills where allied opposition forces threaten Sudan’s main source of electric power, its lucrative new oil fields and vital road and rail links to the capital. The NIF government also supports freelance ethnic militias in southern Sudan and routinely bombs guerilla-held towns there. This has done little to alter the military balance, especially in Bahr el Ghazal. Relief officials estimate that as many as two million may have died from war and famine throughout the south since the renewal of fighting 16 years ago.

Revolution in the Revolution

The SPLA emerged out of military mutinies in south Sudan in 1983 as disgruntled officers led their troops into the bush to join a revolt already underway. Southerners were outraged by government moved to rescind the limited autonomy they won in 1972 after a first round of civil war. The imposition of Islamic shari’a law on the Christian and animist southerners was another factor, but the roots of the confrontation lay in decades of grossly unequal development of the Arabized north and the black African south, first by British colonial forces and then by Arab-dominated northern Sudanese governments, of which the NIF is only the latest incarnation.

Support throughout the 1980s from Ethiopia’s Soviet-backed military regime enabled the SPLA to evolve from a ragtag guerilla force into a modern army capable of mountain mechanized assaults on government garrisons. By the end of the decade, the rebels controlled most of the south — an area roughly the size of Texas — and were positioned to take the remaining towns. At this point, the northern government — a coalition led by Umma Party leader Sadiq el-Mahdi, the head of the country’s largest Islamic sect — entered negotiations to end the war. Days before a conference to ratify a peace pact, military officers close to the NIF pulled off a coup and shelved the initiative. This marked the first of three sweeping changes that radically altered the political parameters of the conflict.

The change in Khartoum in June 1989 confronted the SPLA with a new enemy, the NIF, whose mission was to “modernize” the country through forced conversion to its version of Islam. The Islamist regime attracted support from Iran, Iraq and wealthy individuals, including Afghan war veteran Osama bin Laden, who provided Khartoum with bridging funds to escalate the war in the south. Not long after the NIF consolidated its grip on power, the Soviet Union collapsed, marking the second seismic shift — suddenly cutting off arms and supplies to the SPLA and triggering an internal crisis over the movement’s political identity. Then, in May 1991, Ethiopian rebels ousted the Mengistu regime in Addis Ababa and immediately shut down the SPLA bases there. Weakened and profoundly disoriented, the Sudanese rebels split into warring factions. In short order, they lost all the towns they had captured. By 1993, they teetered on the brink of extinction.

The turnaround came when the SPLM/A initiated a process of organizing and political renewal and reestablished sources of external support. The latter came from Eritrea, Uganda, and Ethiopia, each of which faced attacks by Sudan-based opposition groups. Meanwhile, the US, alarmed at Sudan’s support for Islamist guerrillas and angry at its alliance with Iraq and Iran, also began channeling modest support to the SPLM/A while pressuring the regime with sanctions. The critical moment inside the SPLM/A came at a remarkably open political convention in 1994, the first this highly centralized movement ever held. The SPLA and the SPLM were redefined as separate entities, with a view to subordinating the army to a distinct political “movement.” Conference delegates also mandated the development of an autonomous civil authority and independent civil society organizations in the liberated zones.

The SPLM’s Second Wave

Topping the hierarchy that emerged from the convention are the SPLM departmental secretaries, many of whom spend most of their time in Nairobi, cut off from their constituents in the field. This fosters an inside/outside dynamic similar to that of the PLO and Palestinians in the Occupied Territories during the pre-Oslo period. In rebel-controlled areas of south Sudan, regional governors, county commissioners and district and village heads constitute the hands-on administration, although their track record has been erratic. Most of the original appointees either retired or have been sacked on charges ranging from corruption to incompetence. (This is a movement whose army has lost battles when its leaders stopped fighting to loot enemy positions.) Those who survived the cut, together with new leaders rising through the ranks, constitute the core of what might be called the SPLM’s second wave. They are not presiding over elections for “liberation councils” to institutionalize popular participation in the process prior to the movement’s second national convention.

Rumbek is among the counties witnessing an explosion of voluntary activity that is transforming rebel-held communities. Since the town’s capture two years ago, civic organizations have multiplied. A women’s associating monitors the civil authority on gender issues, offers training to its members and manages self-help projects. Volunteers from the new Rumbek Youth Union (RUMYU) are reviving the regional secondary school, teaching regular students by day and local officials at night. RUMYU also campaigns to clean up the town, improve sanitation and promote trade. Leaders of both associations are reaching out to local counterparts across New Sudan to establish national organizations.

Perhaps the most revolutionary initiative in Rumbek is an agricultural experiment on the outskirts of town directed by the Association of Napata Volunteers (ANV), an NGO established by demobilized guerrilla fighters. ANV staff are trying to persuade migratory cattle-herders to use their animals to plow the arid land rather than relying on wooden hoes, but until now the Dinka viewed their cattle as symbols of wealth and critical food sources, and they are unwilling to work them. The ANV has set up demonstration programs to introduce a handmade wooden Ethiopian-style ox-plow that multiplies output tenfold. Its metal blade can be fashioned from the springs of discarded and damaged trucks for the equivalent of three US dollars. If ox plowing takes hold, as it appears to be doing, it could obviate the need for emergency relief within two years.

Whatever happens on the military front during the coming months — and most observers predict a spread to new theaters in the north and west — the construction of an alternative political system, the growth of civil society and the restructuring of the economy give New Sudan the appearance of another country. For Sudan to hold together as one country, either under the NIF or the NDA, this will have to be taken into account, giving the south a far higher degree of autonomy than the last time around — creating, in effect, a confederal agreement between equals — and offering the deeply alienated southerners a compelling demonstration that unity is in their interest. Though still within grasp, this possibility is fast receding.

How to cite this article:

Dan Connell "What’s New in the New Sudan?," Middle East Report 212 (Fall 1999).

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