by Savo Heleta, Pambazuka News
In his review of recent events in the Sudanese Darfur crisis, Savo Heleta assesses the role of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebel group. With its explicit goal of overthrowing the current Omar Bashir regime, Heleta argues, the JEM represents a potentially revolutionary movement, one whose egalitarian, pro-justice manifesto will only come to fruition with the support of a broad range of regional players and influences.
In 2003, a conflict broke out in Sudan’s western province of Darfur between the mainly “African” rebels and the government forces and their proxy “Arab” militias. It is estimated that about 200,000 people have died in the conflict from fighting, disease, and starvation.
The UN and aid agencies estimate that over two million Darfurians, of a population of around six million, are living in refugee camps in Darfur and neighboring countries. Even though the majority of all deaths in Darfur occurred in 2003 and 2004, the conflict is nowhere near the end.
When the rebellion broke out, the two rebel movements, the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), declared that their primary goals were to end the economic, social, and political marginalization of Darfur, the Sudanese province that has been completely neglected and marginalized since 1917, when it was annexed by the British colonial forces and added to Sudan.
After a few years of fighting and human suffering, the Sudanese government and one faction of the SLM signed the Darfur Peace Agreement in 2006, while another SLM faction and the JEM refused to sign. The signing of the DPA, instead of bringing peace, only intensified fighting and caused the humanitarian situation in Darfur to deteriorate.
When the Darfur Peace Agreement failed to bring peace and the government refused to deliver any of the provisions it pledged to implement, such as disarmament of the Janjaweed militias, protection of civilians, ceasefire, and deployment of UN/AU troops, the main aim of the Justice and Equality Movement became regime change.
The JEM’s manifesto calls for “justice and equality in place of social injustice and political tyranny; radical and comprehensive constitutional reform that would guarantee the regions their rights in ruling the country; basic services for every Sudanese, and balanced economic and human development in all regions of the country.”
In late 2006, the JEM leader Khalil Ibrahim said “we cannot bring peace to Darfur unless we change this government.” The JEM leadership believes that the current Sudanese regime is “the main obstacle to finding peace to the whole Sudan problem, not only Darfur.” One of the JEM commanders said in a recent interview that the JEM’s goal is to change the regime and make dramatic changes in Sudan, adding that “power and wealth must be shared equally in all the marginalized areas.”
In Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide, Gerard Prunier argues that the change of the central government is perhaps the only way of solving the Darfur conflict and decades of marginalization of Sudan’s peripheries.
In the beginning of May 2008, the JEM forces mounted an attack on the Sudanese capital, the first attack by a Darfur rebel group outside Darfur. The attack failed, but showed the JEM’s determination to change the regime. Many analysts emphasize “the psychological importance of the attack,” adding that this is the first time in many decades that the fighting has reached the capital. Even though the JEM’s attack did not succeed, it exposed the “weakness of security in Khartoum and the vulnerability of the regime.”
Alex de Waal, the leading international expert on Sudan, described the JEM’s attack on the capital as a “bid for power.” He added that he believes that other rebel movements in Darfur “don’t share that ambition…they want peace for their places rather than wanting power in Khartoum for themselves.”
In the aftermath of the attack, the JEM’s leader Khalil Ibrahim said that this was “just a rehearsal for the attacks to come, and we will continue to attack till we change this regime.” Alex de Waal believes that the aim of the attack “was nothing less than taking power” and adds that Khalil Ibrahim “seems truly to believe that he can instigate a popular uprising of Sudan’s black majority” against the ruling elite in Khartoum.
Analysts say that the JEM’s leader possesses grand ambitions and growing military strength. Sharing the same ethnic background as the leadership of neighboring Chad, the JEM has been the main beneficiary of Chadian support for the Darfur rebels. This support has been the main reason the JEM “has become, militarily, the most powerful faction on the ground in Darfur.”
Rebellion is an armed struggle against an oppressive regime. Revolutions involve a defeat of a current regime through violent means, replacement by a new regime, and implementation of major political and/or socio-economic changes to the system. Revolutionary movements aim to overthrow a ruling regime, take power, and fundamentally change the structure of a society.
While many movements in Darfur are typical rebel movements, the Justice and Equality Movement has evolved into a revolutionary movement with a goal of overthrowing the current regime and fundamentally changing Sudan.
Considering the fact that every post-independence government of Sudan has been ruled by the members of northern “Arab” tribes—which represent only about 5% of the entire population and have spent the majority of development funds on the northern part of the country—the change proposed in the JEM’s manifesto would indeed be a profound, fundamental, and revolutionary change.
Only time will tell if the Justice and Equality Movement will be able to bring about revolutionary change in Sudan. This will depend on many factors, such as the ability to attract support in other parts of the country, cooperation with other rebel movements, finance, military power, international support, and, in the event of their victory, the implementation of substantial political and/or socioeconomic changes in the country.
Darfur and its people never mattered to the rulers of Sudan, from the British-Egyptian Condominium to the northern Sudanese elites that have ruled the country since independence. Perhaps something radical and revolutionary has to happen at last to change this protracted marginalization.
Savo Heleta is a postgraduate student in conflict transformation and management at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. He is the author of Not my Turn to Die: Memoirs of a Broken Childhood in Bosnia (AMACOM, 2008).
This story first appeared Oct. 22 in Pambazuka News.
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