Sudan, the Sahel and the Sahara : the 99% Principle

Alex de Waal*


The “one percent doctrine” was the principle, espoused by former U.S. Secretary for Defense Donald Rumsfeld, that a one per cent chance of a terrorist element in any situation justified the United States dealing with that situation as a mortal threat. By the same token, we may develop a “ninety-nine per cent principle” for the Sahel-Saharan region, which is that any element labeled terrorist is 99% concerned with other issues, chiefly local politics and business.

Recent media reports of fighters from Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb having been seen in Sudan’s westernmost region of Darfur, and rumours that Chadian army units had crossed the border in hot pursuit, rekindled speculation that the Sudanese government had returned to its jihadist ways. These reports are invariably inflated and stripped of their political, economic and historic context. The Sudanese rulers’ paranoia about western conspiracies is matched by the readiness of their numerous western critics to see the hand of Sudanese security in any suspicious developments along and beyond Sudan’s frontiers. The reality is that the Sudanese government is entirely preoccupied with its own internal rifts and its collective survival, and that it sees threats, real and imagined, along both its southern and western borders. Darfur stands at the intersection of these threats, and armed conflict in Darfur today is at its most intense for eight years, though it is still far short of the horrors of the 2003-04 war.

Sudanese history is commonly interpreted as principally a conflict between north and south, but it has equally unfolded along an east-west axis. Sudan’s southern frontierlands—an area that stretches from the Nuba Mountains and Ingessana Hills within northern Sudan, through the entirety of what is now the Republic of South Sudan, and into Uganda, Congo and Central African Republic—have historically been a zone of intense conflict and resistance, in which the Sudanese trading and military classes sought dominance. By contrast, the western frontier of Sudan has been open to peaceful migration and trade, governed by co-equal rulers of the Sahelian and Savanna belt that stretches to the Atlantic Ocean.

Sudan’s western regions of Kordofan and Darfur have deep historical connections to west Africa, the Maghreb and to the Libyan provinces of Cyrenaica and Fezzan. Millions of west Africans—collectively known as “Fellata”—migrated to Sudan over the centuries, both as pilgrims en route to Mecca and as labourers drawn by employment on the vast irrigated farms of the Nile Valley. The Tijaniya Sufi order, which claims the largest number of western Sudanese as its adherents, originated in Morocco and is headquartered in Senegal and Nigeria. One of the animating traditions of Sudanese nationalism, the Mahdist movement which expelled the Egyptians and their British sponsors in the 1880s, owes much to earlier west African millenarian revolutions. Indeed it was a man of west African origin, Abdullahi Torsheen al-Taaishi who first recognized the legendary nationalist leader, Mohamed Ahmed al Mahdi as the awaited one.

Modern Sudanese politics has been moulded as much by its western frontier as its southern problem. The tri-cornered military and political conflict between Sudan, Libya and Chad, began in the mid-1960s in the wake of Chadian independence, when Sudan hosted the first opposition fronts headed by Chadian Muslims. This conflict intensified to a zenith in the late-1980s when Libya first occupied the disputed Aouzou strip in the north of Chad and then annexed the entire country. Supported by France and the United States, Chadian forces served as the Saharan contras against Colonel Gaddafi’s expansionist ambitions. President Jaafar Nimeiri of Sudan was a staunch foe of Gaddafi, who had hosted opposition forces that had struck Khartoum in 1976. He allied Chad’s warrior-president Hissene Habre, helping him seize power and take the offensive against the Libyans and their proxies. After Nimeiri fell in 1985, Sudan tried to play both sides in this war, to disastrous effect. By dint of enabling Libya to use Darfur as a rear base for the militias it sponsored in Chad, the Sudanese government sparked the first Darfurian civil war (1987-89) which included the appearance of the later-notorious Janjaweed militia. After the 1989 coup, President Omar al Bashir succeeded in briefly making peace with both Libya and Chad, an effort that brought a decade of respite. The key to this was that Idriss Deby, backed by Sudan, seized power in Ndjamena in 1990, and both he and Bashir followed a strategy of deftly managing Gaddafi.

During this period, all the three countries’ attention shifted southward to Central African Republic and even into the Democratic Republic of Congo (all three had troops in both during the second Congolese war of 1998-2002). But the tri-cornered war again erupted in 2003, marked by mass atrocities in Darfur. Although the Darfur war was largely over by 2005, the proxy war continued with reciprocal attempts by Sudan and Chad to overthrow one another’s governments by use of sponsored rebellions in 2008. Thereafter, Bashir and Deby both realized that they would bring one another down, and that a return to the 1990s security pact was in their mutual interest. The agreement was signed in early 2010 and has been remarkably robust. Gaddafi, however, refused to go along and actively sponsored Darfur rebels, notably the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). In retaliation for this, Sudan was proactive in efforts to overthrow the Gaddafi regime, mounting a large covert operation in tacit partnership with NATO in support of the Benghazi Group and the Transitional National Council.

In these circumstances it is unsurprising that the politics of survival are uppermost in the calculations of the security officers of all nations in the eastern Sahara and Sahelian region, from Khartoum and Bamako to Algiers and Tripoli. They are all expert in instrumentalizing both the threat of jihadist terror and of their response to it. The first question to ask when one hears a rumour of jihadist groups in this region is, who benefits from such a story? And in most cases, it is indeed a security operator who turns the alleged presence of such groups to his advantage, extracting recognition, resources and intelligence from a gullible western security agency. The second rule of thumb is that whoever raises a green flag is primarily using jihadism in support of a local agenda, or a commercial opportunity.

The regional politics of the eastern Saharan region are currently dominated by the internal conflicts in Libya, and the rise of Chad as a subregional power. Because of its extensive role in military support to the TNC, and its backing of the Egyptian Islamists who won the elections, in 2011-12 Sudan was well-placed to extend its reach. Sudan’s security and intelligence infrastructure on its northwestern borders is more extensive than before: the airforce has built a new airbase in the desert, and it deploys drones well beyond its borders as well as electronic surveillance along its desert frontiers. However, Sudan failed to capitalize fully on the opportunity offered by the demise of Gaddafi due to a preoccupation with internal political competition and dire economic conditions, and extremely difficult relations with newly-independent South Sudan. Libya after Gaddafi has also been preoccupied with internal issues, and the retraction of Gaddafi’s security and patronage networks in the central Sahara has created a vacuum, into which President Deby has stepped. Financed by oil revenues, backed by France, and without significant internal threats, Deby has positioned himself as the indispensable gendarme of the eastern Sahel. This has allowed Chadian forces to play the key role in deposing their erstwhile client, President Francois Bozize of Central African Republic, and installing a more pliant successor.

In Darfur there has been a sharp deterioration in security over the last year. These consist of battles between government forces and an array of rebels, chiefly the Sudan Liberation Army (Minni Minawi) and JEM. Attacks on civilians are a much smaller feature of the current war than that of ten years ago, with the notable exception of the attacks on and expulsion of Zaghawa communities in the eastern part of the region. Between his joining the government in 2006 and leaving in 2011, Minni Minawi’s forces were largely located in this area, and their presence empowered local Zaghawa communities that had settled in the area in the 1970s. When Minawi withdrew from government and took his forces to South Sudan to restart guerrilla operations, government forces and militia belonging to other groups in that area, turned on the remaining Zaghawa. Meanwhile, operating from bases in South Sudan, SLA-MM and JEM have mounted military operations in large swathes of Southern and Eastern Darfur, cutting the main supply routes to the commercial capital of the region, Nyala. Illustrative of its confidence, JEM mounted an ambush of dissident leaders who had signed a peace agreement with Khartoum, killing several. This attack took place right on the Chadian border, a clear challenge to the authority of Deby in that area.

The SLA-MM and JEM are prominent members of the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), a coalition led by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) which has been fighting in the “two areas” of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile since June 2011. The SPLM-N is a large, well-equipped and highly effective infantry force and has managed to control and administer large areas in Southern Kordofan, something the Darfur fronts were never able to do. The highly capable commander of the SPLM-N, Abdel Aziz al Hilu, is a native of Southern Kordofan but has Darfurian (Masalit) ancestry and has therefore had little difficulty in attracting the loyalties of Darfurian rebels, many of whom have now relocated to Southern Kordofan. The combination of SPLM-N infantry and the mobile Toyota-mounted offensives of the Darfurians are keeping the Sudanese army on the run. The Government of Sudan justifiably complains that the army of South Sudan—the SPLA—continues to provide material and logistical support to the SRF, and it is likely that the SPLA will continue to do so until territorial disputes between the two countries, and particular the status of the disputed area of Abyei, are resolved. But the SRF is a formidable military threat in its own right, irrespective of its links to South Sudan.

The effectiveness of the SRF is related to the Government’s inability to mobilize the Darfurian and Southern Kordofan Arabs as a military force. These groups are disillusioned by the broken promises of rewards for their earlier sacrifices during Sudan’s long wars, and are internally divided and thus neutralized.

The alliances are tactical but effective. The SPLM-N and JEM have divergent political ideologies—one secular, the other Islamist. The SPLA (South Sudan) has a military presence on the southern borders of Darfur and Kordofan, linked to South Sudanese territorial claims in those two regions, some of which go substantially beyond where anyone has drawn the boundary in the last hundred years. These claims will, in due course, create frictions, especially with the Arab groups that currently stand aloof from these conflicts.

A final component in the conflict in Darfur is the Jebel Amir gold rush. Following the loss of revenues from oil when South Sudan seceded, the Sudanese Government sought to help fill its foreign currency gap with artisanal gold. Until 2011, most of this gold was smuggled out of the country, but the Government introduced a new policy of paying above the international price, in Sudanese currency, to buy gold. It financed these purchases by printing money, but in the meantime won quick access to more than a billion dollars’ worth of gold. Sudanese rushed to the goldfields, including a sudden inflow of 70,000 miners to one of the largest areas of gold digging at Jebel Amir in northern Darfur. Unsurprisingly, control over the land and local purchasing networks has been fiercely contested, leading to new local conflicts.

For decades, Sudan has been turbulent—subject to unpredictable turmoil in its security landscape from month to month, but essentially unchanged over the years. But the deterioration of political institutions and the degradation of political legitimacy augur ill for stabilization, let alone improvement, in the near future.

*Alex de Waal is a Research Professor at Tufts University and Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation, published Darfur, a short history of a long war (African argument, 2008)

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