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From the Edge of the State to the Gates of Khartoum: How a Regional Movement Became a National Revolution
Austin Michael Bodetti
The ideology of the Sudanese Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), one of the two strongest revolutionary movements in Darfur, has eluded many academics and journalists. Most have termed JEM ‘extremist’ or ‘Islamist’ despite the ambiguities and vagaries of these terms. The movement earned the international community’s attention over a decade ago by raiding an airbase of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) alongside its larger, secularist ally, the Sudanese Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A), April 25, 2003. Unlike the SLM/A, which has declined into factionalism, regionalism, and sectarianism over the last thirteen years, JEM has expanded from Darfur to other warzones in Sudan, promoting a countrywide revolution against an aging government in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. JEM has proved that its national credentials exceed perceived extremist or Islamist connections.
The would-be founders of JEM, including leader Khalil Ibrahim, outlined their grievances with the Sudanese government in The Black Book: Imbalance of Power and Wealth in Sudan in the early 2000s. Dividing the manuscript into two parts, the authors, who described themselves as ‘the seekers of truth and justice,’ claimed that Arabs from the north had controlled the country since its independence. These rulers had neglected the minorities at Sudan’s margins and peripheries, such as the blacks of Darfur. The Black Book struggled, however, to describe how the authors proposed to reform or replace the Sudanese government. ‘Remaining within Islamic slogans which this government claim [sic] to raise, we indicate that Justice [sic] and equality are essential to full realisation of Islamic rule,’ concluded the authors. They left The Black Book’s thousands of readers and later analysts of JEM to marvel at the manuscript’s audacity and wonder what it wanted—other than ‘justice,’ ‘equality,’ and the ‘full realisation of Islamic rule’: a mysterious, shadowy ideal that would strengthen the many conspiracy theories around JEM. ‘Despite the authors’ clarity in The Black Book regarding the structural causes of the plethora of problems and instances of injustice enumerated throughout the text, a clarity likewise held by political thinkers and historians, The Black Book does not call for structural change,’ noted an essayist in an article for African Arguments. This example of propaganda succeeded in inspiring a revolution but failed at directing it, only alluding to Islam and reform. JEM’s founders’ struggle to define a precise agenda would continue to plague the movement despite its military and political successes.
The Black Book’s outline of a national revolution, however superficial, foreshadowed JEM’s ambitious expeditions outside Darfur. Only three years after the notorious raid on the SAF airbase in Darfur, the movement had stationed fighters in the east of Sudan and along the Eritrean–Sudanese border on the other side of the country, allying itself with local rebels. By 2005, JEM had formed an alliance with Chad, which had engaged the Sudanese government in a proxy war. When rebels threatened the capital of JEM’s most important ally, its fighters deployed to support the Chadian Armed Forces. Chad responded with support for a raid on Khartoum. JEM assaulted the Sudanese capital May 10, 2008, and captured three bridges linking the city’s neighborhoods over the Nile. Though the Sudanese government repulsed the assault after several days, a military failure brought JEM political success.
No revolutionary movement in Sudanese history had attacked the capital since the Battle of Khartoum in the 1880s. The European Union and the United Nations condemned the raid, and the United States of America asked JEM and the Sudanese government to stop fighting. Even so, JEM’s daring attack returned attention to the movement in particular and Darfur in general. ‘We are not going to stop fighting with the regime,’ announced Khalil to The Sudan Tribune in response. ‘They did not abide by the signed ceasefire agreement and we are not keen to have it now. We will not sign a new ceasefire unless a political accord is signed.’ According to him, the international community had abandoned Sudan. ‘We were waiting on the international community for two long years to put pressure on Khartoum to end the killing and oppression of Darfuris,’ he stated. ‘Unfortunately the international community is not serious in pressurizing Khartoum. Some of the world major players have security interests in Sudan while others have oil interests. All of them actually prioritize their interests to the interest and the rights of the marginalized people in Darfur and elsewhere in the Sudan.’ JEM’s struggle was adapting from Darfur’s and to Sudan’s. Khalil had positioned his movement as national rather than regional, confronting the northern Arabs in Khartoum, where they had centered themselves. JEM’s notoriety climaxed with this dauntless threat to the Sudanese government’s heartland, preparing the movement for a subtler strategy of adaptation and expansion. JEM needed to grow and spread how and where it campaigned.
Since 2008, JEM has faced external setbacks masking its internal expansion and success. After a peace treaty with the Sudanese government, Chad expelled the movement’s leadership 2010 to Libya, which JEM fled 2011 because of the Libyan Civil War. That same year, the Sudanese government killed Khalil with an airstrike, removing a guerilla whom some had termed Khartoum’s greatest enemy. A faction of the leadership elected Khalil’s brother Gibril, a Japanese-speaking economist who, unlike Khalil, knew little of desert warfare. Some commanders protested the tribal dynasty that seemed to have overtaken JEM, which centered on Khalil and Gibril’s family, and defected. Even so, the movement’s new leader managed to assert control, and JEM’s campaign continued to progress across Sudan. Khalil had died in Kordofan, a region between Darfur and Khartoum and well outside JEM’s tradition territory; his brother sustained Khalil’s ambition and legacy by further discarding the movement’s Darfuri, regional identity. Without Chad and Libya, Gibril sought support from South Sudan, which had gained independence 2011. By 2013, JEM seemed to be fighting that new government’s enemies in exchange for that support. The leadership recruited locals from the Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains, regions long oppressed by the Sudanese government and strongholds of South Sudan’s ally, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army–North (SPLM/A–N). While the SLM/A and the SPLM/A–N tried to defend their own territory, JEM had stretched outside its own, presenting a national revolution whereas its secular allies could only represent local grievances. The three revolutionary movements November 13, 2011, formed a coalition aiming as a national entity to confront and, if necessary, overthrow the Sudanese government: the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF). Even if the days of five-hundred-mile raids had ended, JEM showed its staying power. Outgrowing Darfur, Gibril’s movement was national, spanning the south and west of a country that, throughout its history, had feared minorities uniting against it.
Whatever JEM’s national successes, it lacks the coherent ideology of the SRF’s other members. The SLM/A and the SPLM/A-N believe in New Sudan: a well-developed ideal of a democratic, secular state based on freedom and equality for all Sudanese regardless of gender, race, and religion. When questioned about the possibility of an Islamic state, namely an Islamic republic, for Sudan’s postrevolutionary government, JEM’s members avoid and evade explaining their political wants. Critics have argued that the movement, whose leaders maintained an ambiguous relationship with Sudanese politicians perceived as extremists in the 1990s, hopes to reinstate the government of Hassan al-Turabi, a cleric and lawyer who hosted terrorist organizations in Khartoum. The Sudanese government has backed this conspiracy, seeking to discredit JEM and al-Turabi. ‘We do not have any relationship with any Islamist trend,’ said Adam Issa Abakar, one of the movement’s leaders in South Sudan. ‘We only ask for a civil state with law on the basis of citizenship, rights, and duties.’ This statement, though excluding secularism, resembles the proposal of New Sudan. ‘The movement has no Islamic project,’ confirmed Suleiman Sendal, another JEM leader. ‘Only the future government or senior, well-known sheikhs of Islam can answer what the relationship between Islam and government should be.’ JEM may be hiding what it intends, but, unless it seizes power and shows how it will govern, observers must accept what its members say of their plans. ‘Any organization is free to choose the ideology that it wants, and we are not custodians of this choice,’ said Muhammad Abdurrahman al-Nair, spokesman for the SLM/A. ‘The Sudanese people can select whatever ideology they want through transparent, democratic elections.’ JEM has never asked for an Islamic state, so what others perceive as its Islamist connections amount to little more than conspiracy theories. Its self-perception as a national movement matters far more. Journalist Richard Cockett has observed that JEM, unlike the SLM/A, has mastered how to present itself as a political and social movement capable of restructuring Sudan. JEM’s extraordinary adaptability and expansionism betray few intentions of an extremist or Islamist takeover. Instead, the movement’s position conveys a national leader among Sudan’s several regional revolutions.
Viewed in the context of the Iraqi and Syrian civil wars, which have overshadowed the war in Darfur alongside many other conflicts in the last decade, JEM appears far from extremist or Islamist. Its leaders have never demanded or requested an Islamic state. Its members value democracy and equality over a confrontation with the separation of church and state and the questions that it would pose to Sudanese society. Its primary sponsor, South Sudan, has an animist–Christian majority with a cultural history of fighting Islamists. Scholars should focus on JEM as a national movement and its preparations to ensure the downfall of the Sudanese government in its center of power. With fighters in the east, south, and west of the country, JEM is the largest, strongest revolutionary movement in Sudan.