‘One Army, One People’? The Ethnic and Regional Politics of Sudan’s Military and Militias and Their Role in Coups and Wars Past and Present
In the wake of the devastation wrought by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in the Sudanese capital, many have renewed comparisons between its leader Himeidti and the Khalifa Abdullahi ibn Tai’sha, who ruled the Mahdist State in Sudan at the end of the 19th century (1885–98). Like Himeidti, the Khalifa was mocked for his rural background in Western Sudan and unfamiliar Arabic dialect (Holt 1958: 43–44). In the subsequent Anglo-Egyptian colonial period, the British colonisers restructured Sudan’s security order so that by the time independence came the officer class was dominated by officers from the northern region, and recruits from Western Sudan, like other regions, were left in more marginal roles. In line with the classic colonial ‘martial race’ logic, many Western Sudanese, such as the Nuba of southern Kordofan, were deemed capable of being excellent rank and file fighters (Keays 1939: 114), but not officer class material.
Given the subsequent role of the military in Sudan’s postcolonial governance, Westerners’ marginalisation from the officer class was mirrored by their marginalisation in Sudan as a whole. Throughout the military regime of Jafa’ar Nimeiri (1969–85) Western Sudanese NCOs and officers attempted to change the power dynamic through coups in Khartoum. One of the most significant efforts was led in 1975 by a group of officers backed by al-Jabha al-Qawmiyya,* a coalition of Western regionalist groups that sought to challenge the domination of the key government institutions by the northern region. Nuba regionalist groups had been developing cells within the military since the 1960s (Shurkian 2008), and many of the coup leaders were Nuba. However, the different organisations backing al-Jabha al-Qawmiyya included bodies representing communities that in the current international media reporting of the Darfur conflict would be described as ‘Arab’ or ‘African’ – such distinctions mattered far less in the 1970s.
In 1976, Khartoum was attacked by the opposition al-Jabha al-Wataniyya. The majority of the fighters were armed Western Sudanese civilians and followers of Umma Party and the Ansar, the religious order associated with the Mahdist State. In the midst of the raid, Nimeiri’s media organs condemned the al-Jabha al-Wataniyya fighters as ‘foreign mercenaries’, even using stock footage of the Biafra conflict in an effort to dupe the public into believing the majority of fighters were from West Africa (al-Badi 2009: 96). The fact that some of the al-Jabha al-Wataniyya fighters belonged to communities that straddled the border between Sudan and Chad was probably less significant than the attachment of Nimeiri’s security elites to a riverain-centred model of nationalism that saw many Western Sudanese as peripheral to the nation. The al-Jabha al-Wataniyya fighters’ exclusion from the army also represented their exclusion from the nation – the pro-regime protesters chanted ‘one army, one people’ (jayshun wahid, sha’abun wahid) (al-Badi 2009: 96). As was the case in 1975, extreme violence against the participants followed the defeat of the coup attempt.
The next raid across the Western Sudanese desert would come in 2008, launched by the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). JEM’s leader was Khalil Ibrahim, a former leader in Sudan’s Popular Defence Forces who had rebelled after the Islamic Movement split over Khartoum’s refusal to decentralise power to regional governments. After the rebels were defeated, al-Bashir announced that those who participated in the raid ‘are basically all Chadian forces’, again exploiting the fact that many of JEM’s fighters belonged to the Zaghawa communities that straddled the Sudan-Chad borderline. The security forces subsequently perpetrated further ethnically motivated violence in Khartoum against Darfuris, and particularly Zaghawa.
In 2000, JEM published the Black Book, which sought to expose the domination of the government by a small clique from the riverain region to the north of Khartoum. The same went for the senior military officer class that dominated politics. For instance, the Black Book notes that of the 30 seats on the 1985 Transitional Military Council (TMC) – the predecessor to Burhan’s 2019 TMC – only one position went to an individual from the Western region, in contrast to 21 from the Northern region. That individual, Fadlallah Burma Nasir, would go on to become Sadiq al-Mahdi’s right-hand man in the subsequent Umma Party-led parliamentary government (1986–89). Although he retained his close ties to the army, he also re-recruited the National Front fighters into militias that would offer the Umma Party a power base outside the Northern dominated regular military (De Waal 2003). Yet these fighters had been influenced by Gaddafi’s Arab supremacist outlook, and the militia strategy proved extremely divisive both in Kordofan and Darfur, with Arab identifying nomadic communities being the principal beneficiaries of the new policy (Harir 1994: 170; Flint and De Waal 2008). After the 1989 coup many of those fighters were incorporated into the Popular Defence Forces, and then following the outbreak of conflict in Darfur in 2003 the government continued the militia policy by arming Janjaweed militia leaders, including Himeidti.
As the Umma Party (now the National Umma Party) re-emerged as a major political player through the Forces of Freedom and Change and then Forces of Freedom and Change Central Council, it openly courted Himeidti and his forces, harking back to its policy of aligning itself with militias in the 1980s. Nasir praised the RSF’s role during the 2018–19 revolution, and Sadiq al-Mahdi even invited the RSF to join the National Umma Party. Nearly a year after Burhan’s coup against the civilians in the transition government, Nasir as interim party leader following al-Mahdi’s passing met privately with both Burhan and Himeidti, subsequently announcing that Himeidti’s stance was more likely to meet the popular demands for democracy than that of Burhan. The National Umma Party subsequently played a leading role in the December 2022 Framework Agreement, but disagreements between Burhan and Himeidti over the integration of the RSF into the military led to the explosion of a major conflict in April 2023. The party could not control the RSF like the militia fighters of the 1970s and 1980s, and following the escalation of violence in Khartoum it saw its own properties ransacked and one of its own leaders killed by RSF troops.
After the outbreak of the conflict, the prominent Sudanese journalist Lubna Hussein penned a piece decrying the hypocrisy of the pro-Burhan NCP-era journalists who had heaped praise on Himeidti when he was fighting al-Bashir’s wars in the regions, but were now decrying the RSF as a ‘Chadian militia’ amidst the destruction in Khartoum. The government has often been willing to employ fighters from the Western region in the regular military and the militias, but like the coup plotters of 1975 and 1976, or JEM’s fighters in 2008, they ceased to be ‘Sudanese’ when they stopped being on the side of the government. Himeidti, due to his access to Darfur’s gold mines and involvement in the transnational mercenary market, has access to far greater manpower and resources than those that attempted to reshape the Sudanese nation through coups in the past – but regrettably he has far less of a principled commitment to empowering the marginalised regions than those who preceded him.
This piece based on a draft journal article yet to be submitted.
*I have retained the Arabic to avoid confusion as both al-Jabha al-Qawmiyya and al-Jabha al-Wataniyya translate into English as ‘National Front’.
al-Badi, Siddiq, 2009, al-Jabha al-Wataniyya: Asrar wa Khafaya (Maktaba Dar al-Baida li’l-Nushr wa’l-Tawzia), 89–103.
De Waal, Alex, 2003, ‘Some comments on militias in the contemporary Sudan’, in M. W. Daly and Ahmad Alawad Sikainga, Civil War in Sudan (New York: British Academic Press).
Flint, Julie and Alex De Waal, 2008, Darfur: A New History of a Long War (London: Zed Books).
Harir, Sharif, 1994, ‘“Arab belt” versus “African belt”: ethno-political conflict in Darfur and the regional and cultural factors’, in Sharif Harir and Terje Tvedt, Short Cut to Decay: The Case of Sudan (Stockholm: Nordiska Afrikainsinstitutet).
Holt, P. M., 1958, The Mahdist State in the Sudan, 1881–1898 (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
Keays, 1939, G. A. V., ‘History of the camel Ccorps’, Sudan Notes and Records (22): 103–23.
Shurkian, Omer M., 2008, ‘The Nuba: a people’s struggle for political niche and equity in Sudan’, Sudan Tribune, 30 March, https://sudantribune.com/article26617/.
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