In his 3 September declaration of war the Secretary General of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in North Sudan (SPLM-N), Yasir Arman, declared that the only path left open to the remnant Movement was the “establishment of a ‘national democratic front’ committed to the comprehensive restructuring of the centre of power in Khartoum”. To that end, Arman stated, the SPLM-N will work to promote its recently sealed alliance with the forces of the Darfur rebellion and thus consolidate a “political-military nucleus” that forwards “serious opposition efforts” against the Khartoum regime. Arman went on to call upon the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to enforce a no-fly zone over Darfur, South Kordofan, and the Blue Nile, the new South in (North) Sudan in the political jargon of the SPLM-N. Arman’s notion of restructuring the centre of power through an alliance of the ‘marginalized’, as it were, copies the ‘New Sudan’ thesis of the late John Garang. In an interview with Africa Report in 1989 Garang detailed his notion of the ‘New Sudan’ in the following terms:
“We are talking here of a socio-political mutation - a new entity coming out of what we have now. As a socio-political mutation, you cannot really delineate it by saying one, two three. But we are talking about a new reality in which the localisms and the parochialisms - Sudan is composed of more than 150 different nationalities speaking different languages with various religions - are transcended by a commonality to which we all pay our allegiance and our patriotism. That commonality has never been achieved in our situation”.
The SPLM-N, like the mother SPLM before it, proposes to takeover Khartoum through an armed insurrection of the hinterlands. War between Garang’s SPLM and the central government lasted for 22 years. Khartoum, however, remained what it has been since its establishment under the Turkiya (Turco-Egyptian colonial rule, 1821-1885), the centre of an autocratic, overtly ambitious, chronically weak, and thus demonstratively aggressive state. Instead of restructuring power at the centre the SPLM eventually opted for deliverance by break-off, a choice that the overwhelming majority of the South Sudanese favoured over Garang’s ‘New Sudan’ agenda.
In Sudan’s modern history only al-Mahdi (the Messiah), Mohamed Ahmed bin Abdalla, and his Ansar had succeeded in crafting together the necessary revolutionary thrust to overrun Khartoum from without. The Ansar besieged Khartoum for an approximate ten months before they victoriously claimed the colonial citadel on 26 January 1885. The lessons learnt from the Mahdist episode constitute by and large the guiding principles of the Sudanese state in its relations with its peripheries as it developed under British colonialism (1898-1956) and further under successive national governments.
The Mahdi, who started his military campaign against the Turco-Egyptian Khartoum from the insulation of the Nuba Mountains, propagated an egalitarian ethic that transcended the parochialisms to which Garang referred to under the banner of Islamic revival. In that manner he was able, albeit temporarily, to overcome the schism between the riverain heartland and the wider periphery of Kordofan and Darfur to the advantage of the latter. The alliance between the bahar (river) and the gharb (West) broke down with the Mahdi’s early death. His Khalifa (successor) Abdullahi al-Taaishi, a Baggara from Darfur, completed the transformation of the Mahdist revolution into a state structure, an exercise that demanded the centralisation of power in his own hands. In that context, the Khalifa faced considerable resistance from the riverain elite of the time, the Ashraf, a term denoting the superiority of the Mahdi’s kin over the rabble majority of the Ansar. The confrontation between the Khalifa and the Ashraf resulted in the latter’s defeat and eventual purge from the upper echelons of Mahdist state power. When the riverain elite re-emerged victorious it did so in alliance with the invading army of Herbert Kitchener as the fifth column of the Anglo-Egyptian re-conquest.
To subdue Khartoum the SPLM-N needs to consider the place of the riverain Sudan in the equation. By defining its constituency in terms of a marginalized African majority versus a dominant Arab minority the SPLM-N mirrors the divisive ideology of the centre it seeks to reconstruct. In so doing the SPLM-N delivers the heartland of the country it wishes to transform to the siege mentality long nourished by Khartoum’s rulers. On both sides of the frontline, it is Sudan’s dispossessed who are sacrificed at the altar of Khartoum.