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.