In today's edition of al Rai al Aam an official from the Popular Defence Forces (PDF) provided some statistics on the size of this force and its contribution to the war in Southern Sudan, for the first time as far as I know. The occasion being the "graduation" of 3500 PDF conscripts today in Dongola.
He claimed that no less than 3 million individuals have received some form of military training and taken part in PDF activities, military or otherwise. 500 000 have participated in military action in one or the other of the Sudanese-Sudanese frontlines, most prominently the war in Southern Sudan, in addition to the Nuba Mountains, Southern Blue Nile, Eastern Sudan and lately Darfur. Of this figure 15 000 died on the battlefield and 50 000 returned wounded.
Abdalla Osman, army general and current high commander of the PDF announced a plan to train 10 000 new recruits in the near future, to his side was the new paramilitary leader of the force, Abdalla al Jaili, the coordinator general of the PDF.
The mainsheet of Rai al Aam today reads: "15 000 PDF martyrs in the South". I was struck by the ambiguity of the statement. What is it? A celebration of death, a demonstration of loyalty through sacrifice, a declaration of cost. The obscenity is, the PDF is inclined to raise its sacrifice figures to prove its worthiness and the necessity of its mission. However, the greater the figures the less credibility it can claim as a fighting force of any efficiency. Exactly this point about inefficiency has been repeatedly made by professional army officers commenting on the PDF's contribution to war.
All that aside, what is it today that the PDF can do? It is a terribly helpless fighting force in case of war, that is clear, but it can provide a handy strike force against civilian dissent and a recruitment base and filtration sieve for the more rigidly controlled security apparatus. The PDF is a handy tool in rural politics, it provides an association based on a loosely defined political identity apart from the traditional brotherhoods and Sufi orders but in their communal masculine spirit, and a much more exciting one for that matter, since one actually learns how to use a rifle. If the PDF was an Islamist force in the 90's its ideology today is more racial than anything else, the same shift in NCP ideology from modernist Islamist doctrine to a vulgarised cultural notion of Northern Sudan centred around tribal affiliation and a set of patriarchal traditions and racial prejudices. An interesting point in this regard is the fact that former PDF fighters in peripheral Sudan constitute a large proportion of the rebel movements currently opposed to NCP rule, the high profile example of this dynamic is Khalil Ibrahim's JEM. Khalil himself was a PDF commander in Bahr al Ghazal before he became state minister of health in Darfur. This time round it seems the PDF will concentrate on NCP heartland, the river and the Gazira, I wonder if they will also experience a "third birth" and rebel.