Colonel John Garang’s Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) played no direct role in the April 6 coup in Khartoum. But as the only organized, fighting resistance to the regime of Ja‘far Numairi, it laid the groundwork by chipping away at the state in a guerrilla campaign that cost the government one million Sudanese pounds ($400,000) a day. The new military rulers have given top priority to ending the rebellion, which has paralyzed vital economic projects and drained army morale and resources for more than two years.

Tension between the African, non-Muslim people of southern Sudan and their Arab rulers in the north has been the undoing of many regimes in Khartoum. Southern grievances over the region’s lack of control over political decisions and economic resources have fueled this latest insurgency.

The SPLA is a force to be reckoned with—a small but well-trained guerrilla army of some 10,000 men. Although as few as half of them may actually be armed, they have killed hundreds of government troops in hit-and-run attacks on army convoys and garrisons throughout the southern third of the country. Even more devastating has been the SPLA’s successful campaign to halt work on two giant development projects deemed essential to the country’s economic recovery—the 200-mile Jonglei Canal, designed to increase the flow of the Nile, and an oil pipeline from newly discovered fields in the south to an export terminal at Port Sudan.

Both projects were stopped in early 1984, after SPLA attacks on work camps of the main contracting companies—France’s Compagnie de Construction Internationale (CCI) for the Jonglei projects, and Chevron, the US company, for the oil fields and pipeline. The pipeline was to have begun operating in 1986 at a rate of 50,000 barrels a day, earning the country some $250 million a year in urgently needed hard currency.

The new ruling military council, led by Major General ‘Abd al-Rahman Siwar al-Dhahab, has adopted a two-pronged peace strategy. It has sought talks with Garang and made conciliatory gestures and statements. At the same time, it has moved to dry up the SPLA’s foreign support from neighboring Libya and Ethiopia. Most observers regard Libya as the SPLA’s financial backer, with Ethiopia supplying logistics and bases.

Within days of the coup, Siwar al-Dhahab told a news conference, “We would like to correct certain relations with countries which under the last regime did not receive friendly treatment.” On April 21, two members of the military council visited Libya and signed a pact normalizing relations under which both countries agreed to stop supporting each others’ rebels. The same delegation visited Ethiopia a week later but with inconclusive results; the deal with Ethiopia will be tougher to cut because of longstanding Sudanese entanglement with opposition movements in the northern Ethiopian province of Tigray and the contested Red Sea territory of Eritrea.

The new government, which includes three Southern ministers (Numairi’s government had only one) has pledged to improve public services in the south. The new defense minister, Brigadier Othman ‘Abd Allah Muhammad, himself has led military campaigns in the south. “I admit with all sincerity that we have been wrong about the rights of our southern brothers and we have destroyed many bridges of trust between us,” he said in late April. “We recognize that we have oppressed our brothers in the south.”

So far, Garang—no doubt with Ethiopian backing—has rebuffed these overtures. An SPLA radio broadcast on April 19 called the new military leadership “another form of the regime of the dictator Numairi” and said the SPLA would fight until “the monopoly of power in our country is taken away from the greedy minority.”

Origins of the SPLA

The SPLA grew out of disturbances in the spring of 1983. The army began to transfer some southern garrisons (in which southerners predominated) to the north and northern garrisons to the south. Ill-paid and resentful, the southern garrisons mutinied, and after bloody clashes many defected to the bush. The SPLA filled its ranks mainly from the Dinka tribe, whose two million people form roughly one-third of the six million southern Sudanese. John Garang belongs to one branch of the Dinka, the Dinka Bor, which is particularly well represented in the SPLA leadership.

Two proclamations by Numairi in the summer of 1983 added fuel to the fire and swayed much if not most southern public opinion behind the rebels. First, in August, Numairi unilaterally divided the south into three regions: Bahar al-Ghazal in the west, with its capital at Wau; Upper Nile in the east centered on Malakal, and Equatoria in the south. Juba, the capital of Equatoria, had previously been the seat of a united regional government in the south, with its own assembly cabinet and executive council. Even in the north, the move was criticized as being unconstitutional and*in violation of the Addis Ababa accords, which Numairi had negotiated in 1972 to end 17 years of bloody civil war between the north and south.

One of Siwar al-Dhahab’s first moves was to rescind Numairi’s “redivision” (the three provinces had been separate at independence). Numairi had promoted it as a nationwide trend toward decentralization, and cited backing for it in Equatoria. There, resentment against Dinka domination of the southern government had produced calls for an independent region, which were taken up in Khartoum by former vice-president Joseph Lagu, himself from Equatoria. For most southerners, however, and particularly the Dinka, redivision was a ploy to weaken them. The Dinka, who dominate the united south, were now split among three regions, and minorities in two of them—Upper Nile and Equatoria. Expelled from government posts in Juba, the undisputed capital of the south since colonial days, the Dinka elite became ready SPLA sympathizers.

Numairi’s next move, imposition of Islamic shari‘a law, brought even hard-core Equatorian redivisionists to their feet. An order from Khartoum to set up an emergency shari‘a court in Juba in the spring of 1984 quickly became a dead letter, so in fact it was never applied in the Christian and animist south. But in Khartoum, southerners were among those subjected to shari‘a punishments of flogging and amputations—over the protests of some Islamic jurists.

Tension Rises

Shari‘a was the best thing that could have happened to the SPLA,” remarked a Western diplomat in Khartoum. No southerner, not even Joseph Lagu and others in Numairi’s power structure, could easily swallow the announcement that shari‘a would become law for all 22 million Sudanese.

In Juba, tension rose between locals and the small but relatively affluent Arab trading community, there since slaving days. The new regional assemblies fired off letters of protest to Khartoum, without results. Thousands of Roman Catholics held a five-hour “prayer march” through the streets of Juba in November 1984.

The squalor of the garrisons, redivision and shari‘a were the immediate causes of the rebellion, and gave it momentum, but the underlying force is deeper and longstanding. Virtually bereft of industries, roads and elementary communications, development in the south has lagged far behind that in the north, and the political advances of the Addis Ababa accords have not been accompanied by economic ones.

Only a fifth of budgeted development funds from 1977-83 were earmarked for the south. Education is rudimentary, reinforcing the disadvantaged position southerners occupy when they move north in search of studies and work. The south’s economy is based on subsistence farming of sorghum and root crops (yams and kasava), livestock (cattle and sheep) and in some cases cash crops (tea and tobacco in Equatoria).

No issue better crystalizes the southerner’s economic grievances than oil. Chevron Oil Company discovered oil near Bentiu, 200 kilometers west of Malakal, in the late 1970s. The company estimates reserves at some 250 million barrels at the two main fields of Unity and Heglig. Initial plans called for a pipeline to a refinery at Kosti in the north; current plans are for a pipeline to Port Sudan for export via the Red Sea. Neither scheme offers the southerners direct benefit from what they regard as their oil.

The only other major development project in the south—the Jonglei canal—is no less geared to requirements further north. Some northern Sudanese even believe the project will mainly benefit Egypt, which is helping to finance it. The canal, also in Upper Nile province, is designed to divert the White Nile around the vast marshlands of the Sudd, where much of its water now evaporates. The government says the project will increase the Nile’s flow by four billion cubic meters a year. Local Dinka tribesmen say it will upset the region’s ecology and block traditional grazing movements of their cattle.

Both projects became symbols of Khartoum’s exploitation of the south. Camps of foreign technicians became the first targets of the SPLA and local guerrilla units loosely associated with it. On November 15, 1983, guerrillas ambushed a Chevron camp near Bentiu and took two British workers hostage for two days. The same month, nine CCI hostages were held for three days and digging on Jonglei, already two-thirds complete, was suspended. In December, an American Chevron employee was shot and killed.

During the first night of February, some 20 guerrillas launched an armed assault on Chrevron’s main camp at Rubkona, near Bentiu, killing a Briton, a Kenyan and a Filipino, and critically wounding seven other people. Chevron shut down all operations in the south but maintained smaller-scale drilling and seismic activity in the Kordofan region further north. A $1.4 billion contract with the Italian firm Snamprogetti for turnkey design and construction of the pipeline was suspended.

Also in February, the SPLA attacked CCI headquarters at Sobat Marsh, killing an Australian pilot and capturing six hostages. Four of them were held for nearly a year before the SPLA released them on what it termed humanitarian grounds. The SPLA claimed that CCI had allowed its planes and vehicles to be used by the army in its anti-guerrilla campaign.

According to the Sudanese military, the SPLA operates out of two main bases just over the Ethiopian border with Upper Nile province at Balfal and Sergac. There they receive training and weapons—including SAM 3 and SAM 7 missiles for sorties into Sudan that last several weeks.

Turning the Screws

The main targets have been army garrisons and convoys, and transportation links. The destruction of the Lol River bridge in Bahar al-Ghazal cut the south’s only railway, which connects Kosti with Wau. Steamer attacks reached a peak with the sinking of a White Nile steamer in December of 1984 carrying 350 soldiers back north on leave. River traffic was completely halted by early 1985.

In December 1984-January 1985, in a major escalation of the conflict, the SPLA launched its first offensive into Equatoria and tightened the screws on Juba by seizing Mongola, 50 miles to the north, and Lafon, 80 miles to the east. Low pay and morale in the army helped the advance. There were reports of southern soldiers selling their ammunition to the rebels, or defecting outright.

In one attack on an army column near Owinykibul, 125 miles east of Juba, guerrillas enjoyed air support from two unidentified planes which bombed government positions. The military said later the planes were Ethiopian.

The offensive petered out by the end of January, after concerted army counterattacks and reported tensions with local tribes, especially in Mongola. Still, Juba in early 1985 was tense, expectant, and suffering from the cutoff of all links with the north except by air. Residents here said the prices of staples were three times more than the year before, and fuel&mash;previously brought by steamer—had to be trucked in from Kenya at great expense. Electricity was erratic, and spare parts scarce. The university (the only one in the south) had been shut down in November, following violent demonstrations over the role and makeup of the student union.

The other provincial capitals of Wau and Malakal were even more isolated; Sudan Airways had suspended regular flights. Chronic supply problems were aggravated by the bush war, feeding a climate of total economic disintegration. Many people—especially unemployed youth—began looking to the SPLA.

Rumors buzzing among the youth and villagers of Equatoria earlier this year typify their desperation and dreams. According to one, a caravan of SPLA buses and cars was parked in the bush on the east bank of the While Nile, waiting to whisk those who joined them to flourishing villages further east. According to others, the SPLA was handing out scholarships for Libyan and East German universities to youth who joined. (Some, it seems, were given out.)

The SPLA presents itself as a national, revolutionary movement, in contrast to the separatist Anyanya movement of the civil war. The SPLA commands overwhelming support among the Dinka in Upper Nile and Bahar al-Ghazal. The Nuer, the predominant tribe in Upper Nile, also back the movement despite occasional tensions between them and the Dinka. The Sudan Press Agency reported in February battles between the SPLA and Nuer inhabitants of Malwal and Ajiko on the Ethiopian border. Some of the attacks against oil camps near Bentiu were reportedly carried out by small Nuer guerrilla groups only loosely attached to the SPLA.

Tribal tensions also stalked the SPLA’s advance into Equatoria, where sympathy is tempered with suspicion about its primarily Dinka leadership. Still, many Juba youths perceive the SPLA as the only hope of real change. They attack the impotence of their near-bankrupt regional governments, which fail even to meet local payrolls, let alone influence the course of politics and resource allocations in Khartoum.

Comrades in Arms?

The SPLA’s main weakness so far has been its inability to convince northerners that it is more than a southern struggle. SPLA broadcasts have stressed that all Sudanese regions, not just the south, suffer economic exploitation by “the ruling clique in Khartoum.” But this message, even if popular, does not appear to have galvanized actual fighting support in the north, with the possible exception of the Nuba, a mainly Christian tribe inhabiting the mountains bordering Upper Nile. Muslim opposition forces under Numairi may have viewed Garang as a “comrade in arms,” the leader of a separate and valid struggle, but not a truly national revolutionary figure.

The SPLA has never spelled out the political and economic regime it wants to establish. A key demand was always the overthrow of Numairi, with whom it consistently refused to negotiate. This made Numairi’s numerous peace overtures in his last six months basically hollow, and must have increased doubts among his Western allies that he was still a capable leader. US pressure on Numairi to end the rebellion intensified during 1984, and the south was a major topic in talks this past March between him and visiting Vice President George Bush. The US had several concerns: Chevron’s $90 million investment, the SPLA’s close ties to Libya and Ethiopia, and the hemorrhaging of the economy induced by the guerrilla war.

Numairi’s half-baked peace overtures before his downfall only convinced the SPLA they were winning. In September, he offered to repeal the redivision act—if, he said, the southerners wanted that. He did not explain how they were to pronounce themselves. In November, he called on the SPLA and other, smaller southern rebel groups to negotiate, but only one accepted—the small Anyanya II movement headed by William and Abdullah Choi of the Nuer tribe. Choi began talking only when his few hundred supporters were surrounded and basically neutralized by the SPLA at Wa‘at in Upper Nile province.

SPLA radio reported in January that Numairi was offering to make Garang vice-president and appoint six southern ministers, an offer delivered through the intermediary of British businessman Tiny Rowland, who has extensive interests in Sudan through his Lonrho company.

<pfinally, in=”” march,=”” on=”” the=”” eve=”” of=”” bush’s=”” visit,=”” numairi=”” announced=”” a=”” unilateral=”” ceasefire,=”” promising=”” to=”” fight=”” only=”” defense.=”” fact,=”” army=”” almost=”” never=”” launched=”” offensive=”” strikes,=”” and=”” numairi’s=”” “concession”=”” was=”” merely=”” promise=”” refrain=”” from=”” what=”” he=”” not=”” doing=”” anyway.<=”” p=””>The real test of the new Sudanese leaders is whether they will continue to offer merely political solutions or address the fundamental development issues at the root of the conflict. So far, the main advance toward peace has been the removal of Numairi. And yet the SPLA is understandably reticent about dealing with a military government, and has named its replacement with a civilian regime, plus the repeal of shari‘a, as conditions for talks.

In renewed fighting this May, the SPLA claimed to have retaken the town of Mongola, north of Juba. Deputy Prime Minister Samuel Aru Bol, the leading southerner in the new government, who is also irrigation minister, recently pledged during a trip to Cairo that Sudan would pursue the Jonglei project. The only concession his government has offered is the construction of cattle bridges across the canal, if financing can be obtained from the European Community. Obviously, more than this will be needed to placate rural opposition.

A key issue in talks with the rebels, if and when they take place, will be control over the south’s oil resources. Many Sudanese believe the SPLA may be willing to cut a deal—allowing the project to proceed if a share of its revenues is reserved for development projects of the south’s choosing. Such a deal would be extremely difficult for the cash-starved central government, but is probably the minimum necessary to stop the war.

In the meantime, Garang is keeping his options open, and no doubt maneuvering behind the scenes to strengthen his place in the highly fluid post-Numairi political scene.

How to cite this article:

A Special Correspondent "Khartoum’s Greatest Challenge," Middle East Report 135 (September/ October 1985).
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