Sunday, 25 December 2011

Khalil Ibrahim: the chief of the marginalised

In the first hours of Sunday 25 December the spokesman of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), al-Sawarmi Khaled Saad, told the media that a company of the army had killed Khalil Ibrahim (b. 1958), the Chairman of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), and his entourage, in Wad Banda at the north-western edge of North Kordofan. On 22 December the JEM claimed to have reached al-Nuhud, a major town in the region, en route to Khartoum. The SAF dismissed the rebels’ statement but affirmed that JEM fighters had launched a series of attacks on Um Qozain, Qoz Abyad and Armal between North Kordofan and North Darfur.
The SAF spokesman referred to Khalil as the ‘rebel’, but he was an in-house rebel so to speak, a son of the Islamic Movement and the regime it established in 1989. He joined the Movement as a secondary school pupil and matured in its ranks as a medical student in al-Gezira University, where he graduated in 1984.
It is an irony of fate that it was Khalil Ibrahim himself, in the company of Darfur’s governor at the time, al-Tayeb Ibrahim Mohamed Khair (Sikha), who hunted down Dawood Yahia Bolad in 1992. Like Khalil, Bolad was a Darfurian who found a political home in the Islamic Movement. From the chairmanship of the Khartoum University Students’ Union (KUSU), the training post of the Movement’s career politicians, Bolad was named the National Islamic Front (NIF) political supervisor over Darfur and its candidate for the Nyala national constituency in the 1986 elections. The NIF did not perform as well as it assumed it would in Darfur. The Islamists won all the four Darfur graduates’ constituencies but claimed only two out of thirty nine geographical constituencies in the region. Bolad did not make it to the parliament in Khartoum.
Bolad’s break with the NIF came a year later in the context of ethnic polarisation in Darfur between the Fur and the Arabs prodded by the escalation of the Chadian-Libyan conflict. With the approval of Sadiq al-Mahdi’s government Libya and its Chadian allies used Darfur as a conduit to Chadian territories in their campaign against the regime of Hissen Habré. The Libyans suffered a series of embarrassing defeats during the so called Toyota war of 1987, culminating in the successful Chadian raid on the Libyan Maaten al-Sarra airbase in September of the same year. Ghaddafi did the expected and sponsored a proxy force from the Beni Halba and Rizeigat Abbala of Darfur to counter his Chadian enemies.  The Chadian regime, on the other hand, sought the service of the Zaghawa Bedayat to harass Libya’s protégés. Considering US-French support for Habré and presumed Soviet support for Ghaddafi, Darfur, wrecked by waves of drought and desertification, became the scene of a late Cold War encounter. Both the Umma Party and the NIF were deeply indebted to Ghaddafi and in no position to resist his demands. Eventually Darfur’s politics spilled over to Khartoum in the form of two rival organisations, the Libyan-sponsored ‘Arab Gathering’ established in 1987 with the approval if not open support of the Umma Party and the NIF, and the ‘National Council for the Salvation of Darfur’ founded in 1988 by Fur intellectuals in the capital with the support of the Democratic Unionist Party. Two of the NIF’s Darfur MPs, Farouq Mohamed Adam and Abd al-Jabbar Abd al-Karim, defected to the DUP in protest against the NIF’s acquiescence to Libya’s devices in the region; Bolad was their third. He appeared in Khartoum immediately after the NIF takeover in 1989 carrying a book draft which could have well been the intellectual precursor of JEM’s famed Black Book. According to Turabi’s top aide al-Mahbub Abd al-Salam, Bolad was aggressively rebuffed by the NIF leaders prompting him to leave the country and seek contacts with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M). Bolad returned to Darfur a rebel leader on behalf of the SPLA/M. Al-Tayeb Sikha, the governor of Greater Darfur, and Khalil Ibrahim, his minister, caught up with Bolad in Jebel Marra, executed the man and annihilated his cell of operatives.
To his disappointment Khalil never made it to a national post. He held state ministerial posts in Darfur, the Blue Nile, and an advisor position in the Juba government of Bahr al-Jabal after a distinguished record of combat in the paramilitary Popular Defence Forces (PDF) against the rebel SPLA/M. Khalil resigned the Bahr al-Jabal job in August 1998 and after a short attempt at NGO activity flew off to Maastricht in pursuit of a MSc in Public Health. When the Islamic Movement fractured into two Khalil Ibrahim sided with Hassan al-Turabi against President Bashir and Ali Osman Mohamed Taha. He announced the formation of the JEM in 2001 from his Maastricht base.
The trajectory of the chief of the marginalised, Dr Khalil, and his Movement mirrors closely the ups and downs of Khartoum’s stormy relationship with Deby’s Chad and Ghaddafi’s Libya. The Sudanese intelligence sponsored an attack of the Chadian rebel United Front for Democratic Change on Ndjamena in 2006, and Chad and Libya cooperated to support JEM’s attempt on Khartoum in May 2008. The dice turned against Khalil when President’s Bashir and Deby reached a deal of co-existence in 2010. Deby refused to allow Khalil into Chad, and turned him to Libya’s Gaddafi who kept him under effective house arrest and denied him access to the media. Ghaddafi’s regime collapsed under the blows of the NATO- supported National Transitional Council. Libya’s to be rulers accused the JEM and its leader Khalil Ibrahim of acting as Ghaddafi’s mercenaries, and announced their readiness to hand him over to the Khartoum regime once they capture him. Khalil escaped back into Darfur from his Libyan exile in September this year. He stated at the time that the JEM was keen to mend its relationship with Chad’s Deby. He never managed to I presume. Commenting on the news the political secretary of the National Congress Party (NCP) Qutbi al-Mahdi described Khalil’s return to Darfur as “suicidal”.
Last November the JEM teamed up with the SPLM in North Sudan to form the Sudan Revolutionary Front with the declared aim of bringing down the Khartoum regime by force of arms. The JEM attack on North Kordofan in the past few days was essentially the first operation of significance under the new umbrella. Short of arms and men Khalil Ibrahim defied Chairman Mao’s famous dictum by venturing into an area where support for his cause was by all means marginal in an attempt to generate the proverbial fish and water of an insurgency at one stroke.
Now that the recalcitrant Khalil is dead the Khartoum government might well agree to open the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur for renegotiation with the headless JEM. For those interested in the formalities of peace arrangments the situation seems opportune for a ‘comprehensive’ Darfur agreement. The JEM might not survive Khalil's death as a unified organisation, but its estimated 35,000 armed combatants will surely not dissolve into the sands of Darfur. 

Monday, 12 December 2011

Bashir’s new cabinet: the blame of promiscuity

President Bashir’s new ministers took the oath of office on Saturday, thirty one cabinet and thirty five state ministers in number. The sixty six ladies and gentleman paraded in front of the cameras in their best outfits to be told by the President that they should better avoid petty squabbles and focus on getting work done. To describe the cabinet as new is evidently an exaggeration. All of President Bashir’s old guard preserved their portfolios, Bakri Hassan Salih for presidential affairs, Abd al-Rahim Mohamed Hussein for defence, Ibrahim Mahmoud Hamid for the interior, Ali Karti for foreign affairs, and Osama Abdalla for electricity and dams. Awad al-Jaz, who vacated the ministry of oil during the interim period of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was reinstated in his den so to speak, and Kamal Abd al-Latif took over the mining portfolio. The newcomers of Mohamed Osman al-Mirghani’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) were granted the ministries of cabinet affairs, commerce, and youth and sports, while the breakaway faction of the party led by the newly appointed presidential assistant Jalal Yusif al-Digeir, a long term ally of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), was rewarded with the ministry of international cooperation, al-Digeir’s former abode, as well as the environment and forests, and human resources portfolios.
President Bashir made a few interesting choices though; he picked Mohamed Abd al-Karim al-Had, a leading figure of the obsessively zealous Wahhabi sect Ansar al-Sunna as minister of telecommunications and information technology sparking fears that the internet service in the country might be soon shrouded with a tight hijab. Sanaa Hamad kept her position as state minister for information but lost her title as the youngest in the team. Bashir named the thirty one year old Azza Omer Awad al-Karim as state minister of telecommunications. How the Wahhabi minister will deal with the young attractive woman to his side and retain his religious credibility is a matter of speculation. The President did not miss to dispense four state minister posts to a complacent faction of the SPLM in North Sudan that declared its opposition to the armed insurrection led by Abd al-Aziz al-Hilu in South Kordofan and Malik Agar in the Blue Nile.
Khartoum’s established opposition proved no more inventive in its disapproval than President Bashir’s recycled cabinet. Kamal Omer, from the Popular Congress Party (PCP), said Bashir was not willing to give up real power, and the Communist Party’s Sideeg Yusif reiterated the proposal of an all parties’ conference. Much more original criticism of the new government however came from the ranks of the NCP itself, or rather its Islamist core. Al-Intibaha’s columnist Saad Ahmed Saad mourned the Islamic Movement’s project as it were, which he claimed, has been long diluted by the NCP’s promiscuity. Notably Saad identified 1997 as the date of the Movement’s “tragic” deviation. In that year, the regime, with the Movement still intact, tabled the controversial Political Alliance (Tawali) Act allowing for political association within an Islamic frame of reference. The Tawali law, like the 1998 constitution, was attributed to Hassan al-Turabi, the veteran leader of the Movement, and at the time the speaker of the national assembly.  
According to Saad, the Islamists’ share in the new cabinet does not exceed twenty per cent, and Islam’s share in the government is a meagre five per cent. The regime, he declared, failed in developing an Islamic model for the state, and eventually turned to its historical rivals, the sectarian parties, for political back-up. Following Saad, one could speak of the really existing Islamic state in contradistinction to a phantasm of a state ever deferred. If the new cabinet is too narrow to satisfy the established opposition it is too wide to ensure the Islamists of the actuality of their unquenchable desire. The reality of power in Khartoum, however, is a function of the ability and readiness of President Bashir and his captains to mete out the prizes of the state to an array of quarrelsome constituencies and peripheral power-brokers, who by and large do not share the fantasy of Saad and others. The Islamic Movement proper, although dominant, has been long reduced to merely one of these constituencies, and its cadres to faithful administrators rather than decision-makers. If the regime has failed to realize the Islamic project then that is the reality of the Islamic project, a discourse of power. 

Friday, 2 December 2011

Bashir: the third sayyid

Jaafar (L) and his father Mohamed Osman al-Mirghani (R)

President Bashir issued a decree late Tuesday appointing his new team of assistants and advisors, the prelude to the announcement of the long awaited post-secession government. Jaafar al-Sadiq (b. 1973), the younger son of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) chief and Khatmiya patron Mohamed Osman al-Mirghani, and Abd al-Rahman (b. 1966), the eldest son of the National Umma Party (NUP) boss and Ansar imam Sadiq al-Mahdi, were named presidential assistants along with Nafie Ali Nafie, Musa Ahmed Mohamed and Jalal Yusif al-Digeir. As advisors the President picked Ibrahim Ahmed Omer, Ghazi Salah al-Din, Mustafa Osman Ismail, Ahmed Bilal Osman, Farida Ibrahim Hussein, Raja Hassan Khalifa, and Mohamed al-Hassan Mohamed Masaad.
The ladies and gentlemen of the Presidency took the oath on Wednesday in Khartoum. Speaking to the press after the proceedings Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi stated that he had accepted the President’s appointment in his capacity as an officer of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), and not a representative of the NUP or the person of the Imam. First Lieutenant Abd al-Rahman was sacked from the service in 1989 when President Bashir deposed his father, the prime minister. He was reappointed a colonel in the military sports branch of the army late in 2010. Jaafar, did not need such a twist; to his side stood his father’s right hand man, Mohamed al-Hassan Masaad, who was named presidential advisor. Jaafar left the Sudan in 1991 to study in London. He returned to the country in 2008 together with his father.
An Intibaha journalist described President Bashir’s choice of assistants in the following terms, “youth in the Palace but not from the NCP” reference being to the President’s pledge to empower the younger generation of the ruling party. Phrased differently, the ambitious and loyal middle ranks of the NCP are unlikely to be particularly thrilled with the President’s pick. The success of the Islamic Movement, and its current embodiment the NCP, is at a certain level a consequence of the slow but sure deterioration of the political and economic domination of the DUP and the NUP, Sudan’s two prominent faith-business networks. As an emergent power, the Islamic Movement invested considerable ideological effort in the discredit of the allegiances that bind a decisive mass of the Sudanese to the Mirghanis and the Mahdis. The ‘rebel’ educated sons and daughters of the Khatmiya and the Ansar flocked to the Movement attracted by its ‘modernist’ dispositions, fresh re-interpretation of Islamic scriptures, and transformative potential.
Today, the NCP is a mature hegemon, but nonetheless an exhausted one perked on the plateau of its power, and hence the ambivalent implications of President Bashir’s recourse to Mohamed Osman al-Mirghani and Sadiq al-Mahdi to buttress his legitimacy. Exactly because the Islamic Movement has managed to challenge the Mirghanis and the Mahdis on their own terms, faith and patronage, the two sayyids are no more in a position to recharge Bashir’s critically low batteries. The gesture of promoting the junior sayyids, Jaafar and Abd al-Rahman, to high office is dually abortive, a caricature enacted. The Mirghanis and Mahdis risk expending even more of their political capital, and Bashir is unlikely to gain much from bringing into his entourage two clueless novices dispatched for training on the job.  
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This work by Magdi El Gizouli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.