By John Young, PhD
Wednesday 4 April 2018
The crisis in the SPLM-North has led to the establishment of two warring factions, neither of which has any prospect of gaining power. While the focus of media attention has been on a conflict between Abdel-Aziz al-Hilu, now chairman of the rump party, and the former chairman, Malik Agar, and the former secretary-general, Yasir Arman, the crisis in the SPLM-North should not be reduced to differences between personalities. Instead, the crisis in the SPLM-North emerged in the context of the Naivasha peace process and the secession of South Sudan which gave it birth. In the first instance the SPLM-North has failed to dissociate its interests from those of the mother party in South Sudan, and second, it has been unable to resolve a range of outstanding ideological issues. Against that background, there is a pressing need to consider the controversies that led to the decline of the SPLM and what follows is a contribution to that process.
New Sudan and the Betrayal of the Nuba
During Sudan’s first civil war the South Sudan Liberation Army struggled for southern Sudan secession, but under the Addis Ababa Agreement of 1972, it accepted regional autonomy. Despite the collapse of that agreement in 1983, the SPLM under Dr John Garang committed to a reformed united New Sudan as made clear in the ‘SPLM Manifesto’ which held that the objective of the party was ‘to establish a United Socialist Sudan, not a separate Southern Sudan’ (SPLM, 1983). While unable to generate an armed struggle in Darfur or crucially in Sudan’s riverine heartland, the SPLA worked closely with Ethiopia and Eritrea to capture territory along their shared border with Sudan, and particularly in the Blue Nile. But the movement’s biggest success in the north was in the Nuba Mountains and soon Nuba soldiers made up a major component of the SPLA. However, these developments led to divergent sentiments within the SPLA and among its supporters: in southern Sudan, there was growing support for national self-determination and this was to be expressed in the 1991 revolt of Drs. Riek Machar and Lam Akol, while Garang’s commitment to a united reformed New Sudan gained increasing traction in northern Sudan.
These conflicting sentiments came to the fore in the Naivasha peace process and made clear that despite claims of the national character of the SPLM, it remained a southern-dominated party that gave priority to southern interests. Thus the 2002 Machakos Protocol of the CPA granted the people of southern Sudan the right of self-determination, but the Southern Kordofan/Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile States Protocol made clear that the people of these two areas would not have the same right to self-determination. Moreover, it increasingly became evident that southern Sudanese would opt for secession, thus leaving the Nuba and other SPLM supporters a minority in a rump Sudan under the hated NCP. Given the enormous contribution, the Nuba had made to the armed struggle many felt betrayed by the SPLM and Abdel-Aziz said that he shared those sentiments (Abdel-Aziz, 2017).
2010 National Elections
The SPLM’s decision to run Yasir and not its national chairman, Salva Kiir, as the presidential candidate for the 2010 Sudan national elections was reached only a few months before the elections by the SPLM Political Bureau and not by the 2008 National Convention because Salva opposed the New Sudan he had supposedly long been committed to as a leader of the SPLM and instead he wanted to become president in an independent state of South Sudan. Since Malik and Abdel-Aziz were running for governors in their respective states, that left Yasir as the optimal candidate to carry the SPLM banner.
Yasir performed surprisingly well on the campaign trail and with almost universal support in the south and election provisions that required a run-off if no candidate received 50% of the vote, it began to look like he could prevail on a second ballot when other opposition candidates would be forced to drop out. This led to a hastily arranged meeting between Vice President Ali Osman Taha and the SPLM leadership in Juba and the withdrawal of Yasir to ensure Bashir would win the election and the referendum on the secession of South Sudan would occur.
Northern Sudanese saw Yasir’s withdrawal from the election as the SPLM not only turning its back on the long-held commitment to a united New Sudan but abetting the breakup of the country and placing the interests of southern Sudan before those of Sudan. The soon to be established SPLM-North bore that legacy which has proved to be a political disaster. Losing support in Sudan’s heartland the SPLM-N retreated to its core areas in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile which were to become a beachhead for a popular uprising that would hopefully take the party to power.
Blue Nile Popular Consultations
Unable to formally bring the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile into the Naivasha peace process, these areas were granted popular consultations which were ‘a democratic right and mechanism to determine the views of the people … on the CPA’ (United States Institute of Peace, 2004:2). However, after five or six days of hearings the Carter Center (TCC), the only non-government observer of the popular consultations in Blue Nile, found that this potentially democratic exercise was subverted by the SPLM-N which coached its supporters to ignore their practical concerns and call for ‘autonomy’ or ‘self-rule’, after which the NCP had its supporters call for ‘federalism’ (TCC, 2011). Authoritarianism and a lack of faith in the people were clearly evident in the SPLM-North subversion of the Blue Nile popular consultations.
2011 Southern Kordofan Election
SPLM-North high-handedness and placing the interests of South Sudan above those of Sudan were again unmistakeable in the 2011 South Kordofan state election. After a bitter campaign the National Electoral Commission, the Carter Center (the only independent international observer of the election), the independent and domestic Sudanese Group for Democracy and Elections, and Alex de Waal who observed the tabulations all concluded the election to be fair (which is to say that both leading parties cheated in equal measure) and that the NCP and its candidate for governor, Ahmed Haroun, had won.
That decision was rejected by Abdel-Aziz and on 13 May he withdrew from the tabulations claiming the election was rigged. Even setting aside the conclusion of the independent observers, there is a good reason to think that the SPLM-North lost the election. At the outset of the election campaign there was hope that the SPLM would lead an alliance of opposition parties to the NCP, but in the event, it alienated all the other parties and only the Sudan Communist Party sided with it. The party’s high-handedness was also evident when it failed to reconcile with dissident SPLA general, Talafun Kuku, who ran for the governorship (while jailed by President Salva Kiir for mobilizing fellow Nuba SPLA fighters angry at their marginalization) and if his votes had gone to Abdel-Aziz the latter would have won the governorship (Carter Center, 2011b). But crucially the SPLM lost the support of the powerful Misseriya tribe when it endorsed the transfer of Abyei and its grazing lands upon which the tribe depended upon for its survival to southern Sudan, thus again placing the interests of southern Sudanese above those of its supposed constituents in Sudan (Young, 2015).
In response to the gathering storm an agreement was reached between Malik and the NCP’s Nafi Al-Nafi on 28 July, but Sudan’s generals objected to provisions which permitted a standing SPLA during the period of the agreement and Bashir sided with his generals in over-ruling it (Young, 2012: p. 284-85). Although the SPLM-N accepted the agreement, Abdel-Aziz was upset at the prospect of his forces being integrated into the Sudanese army, the failure to acknowledge the right of the Nuba Mountains to self-determination, and at his isolation by Malik and Yasir (Abdel-Aziz, 2017). The government’s rejection of the peace agreement was followed by the SPLM-N being declared an illegal organization and the confiscation of its assets, something it was ill prepared for despite repeated warnings by the Communist Party, and as a result, found itself further isolated.
Abdel-Aziz officially resigned his position of Deputy Chairman of the SPLM-N on 7 March 2017 during a meeting of the Nuba Mountains/South Kordofan Liberation Council (NMLC). As well as objecting to the party’s negotiating positions on self-determination and security arrangements, he was upset at the failure of the SPLM-N to agree on a manifesto, accept a constitution, negotiating strategy, and other organizational matters (Abdel-Aziz, 2017). On 25 March the NMLC rejected Abdel-Aziz’s resignation, but endorsed his proposed reforms and went on to dismiss Yasir as the SPLM General-Secretary and chief negotiator with the government. On 7 June the NMLC upped the ante by dismissing Chairman Malik and appointing Abdel-Aziz as the transitional chairman, thus effectively creating two organizations.
Malik and Yasir rejected the resolutions of the NMLC, claimed it was an appointed and regional body and in the absence of a National Convention, the National Liberation Council (NLC) was the ruling organ of the SPLM-N. While constitutionally correct, like most of the party’s organs, the NLC was largely moribund, having only met once in the past five years and the National Convention had not met since that of the united party in 2008 (Suliman Baldo, July 2017:6).
In the trial of strength that ensued it became clear that Abdel-Aziz and his followers had the most support among the civil population in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, the refugee camps, and crucially the army. While Malik accused his SPLM-N opponents of inciting ethnic divisions, many of the refugees killed in the ensuing battles were a result of the efforts of his loyalist and cousin, General Ahmed Oumda, to mobilize support in the camps among Malik’s own tribe, the Ingassana, against the others (Suliman Baldo, 2017:13). On 15-16 June 2017 the army’s chief of staff issued a statement which endorsed the resolutions of the NMLC and acknowledged Abdel-Aziz as chairman of the SPLM-N and general commander of the army (Suliman Baldo, 2017:14). In response, Malik and Yasir contended there were two options: either building a national movement encompassing all Sudanese based on the new Sudan project, or reducing the party to a regional movement led by ‘a force of narrow minded nationalists’ (Elwathig Kameir, 2017). Clearly Malik and Yasir viewed Abdel-Aziz and his followers as narrow nationalists, but it had long been the party’s policy to look to the people of the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile to carry the SPLM-North to national power.
Malik placed the leadership division within an historical context that began with the rebellion of Drs. Riek Machar and Lam Akol against the Garang led SPLM in 1991 and contended that the lesson was that the rebels, including Abdel-Aziz, invariably end up aligning with the government (Malik, 2017). While Malik accused Abdel-Aziz of being on a course to reaching reconciliation with the government, without an army the former SPLM-N chairman and his former general-secretary renounced armed struggle and have said they will participate in the 2010 national elections (Malik, 2017,) thus emboldening the NCP.
By the time of his March 2017 resignation letter Abdel-Aziz was disillusioned with the leadership of Malik and Yasir, but his primary objection was their failure to recognize and struggle for the right of the people of the Nuba Mountains to self-determination, an issue over which the SPLM has suffered from its inception in 1983. The SPLM shifted from supporting a united reformed Sudan to opting for the secession of southern Sudan without any change in the party’s political program or serious debate and to its discredit the northern wing went along with this. Juba’s post-secessionist support for the SPLM-N had little to do with a commitment to realizing Garang’s vision of New Sudan and instead was due to a conviction that South Sudan would never be secure as long as the NCP ruled Sudan, and the need to keep the support of Uganda, which also viewed the Khartoum Islamists as an existential threat.
Abdel-Aziz rooted his appeal in the internationally acknowledged right of all people for self-determination and held that, ‘The SPLM-N calls for voluntary unity or unity by choice as a principle. In this context, the demand for self-determination is a conditional sentence, either for the [realization of a] new secular democratic, unified Sudan or self-determination. But those who are biased have stripped the sentence of its conditionality, and thus are attacking it out of context…’ (Nuba Reports, 2017).
Abdel-Aziz’s demand was rejected by Malik and Yasir who held that Khartoum would never accept self-determination for the Nuba Mountains or his auxiliary demand for a transitional period of 20 years during which the rebel armed forces would remain standing. They also feared that Sudanese would consider the demand for self-determination to be the prelude to another division of the country like South Sudan. According to Malik, the priority given by Abdel-Aziz to self-determination would prolong the war and isolate the Two Areas from the broader national struggle for democratic change and held that self-rule was a more realistic goal for the SPLM-N.
The SPLM-N leadership never failed to emphasize its commitment to New Sudan, but in practice this did not always include ‘Arab’ tribes, while a distinction was made between ‘indigenous’ and ‘settler’ tribes. Some Arabs have suffered as much as Africans under Sudan’s riverine elites and historically Africans in the Nuba Mountains have frequently aligned with Arabs against common, and sometimes African, enemies. As a result, it has never been clear whether the SPLM commitment to the marginalized people of Sudan meant all the disadvantaged people in the country irrespective of their tribal and religious affiliations or was a veiled formula to unite Africans against Arabs. The Misseriya of Southern Kordofan are a case in point. Although they lived in abject poverty the SPLM viewed the tribe as part of the ruling Arab enemy and against its objections supported the transfer of Abyei to South Sudan.
Also creating confusion was Malik’s distinction between so-called ‘settler’ and indigenous tribes in the Blue Nile, even when the former have sometimes lived in the territory for hundreds of years and any alliance they may have with Khartoum was as much due to their rejection by the SPLM-N than with any privileged position they held in the state (Young, 2012:240). Again, not the best means to unite people of Sudan in struggle.
Another Failed Round of Negotiation
In the first week of February 2018 the African Union’s High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) held another round of negotiations between the Government of Sudan and the Abdel-Aziz wing of the SPLM-N in Addis Ababa. The Malik wing was invited but delayed accepting because – it was speculated – it anticipated that demonstrations then underway in Khartoum against the economic policies of the government and high cost of living would bring about its collapse. Like the previous round, the primary focus of the negotiations and over which they ultimately floundered was humanitarian access to territories held by the SPLM-N. And as in previous rounds the SPLM insisted that all relief to the Nuba Mountains come from outside Sudan which the government rejected with the support of the US, thus bringing about the collapse of the negotiations.
AUHIP put a positive gloss on the negotiations by claiming that the parties would reconvene at a later date and highlighted their commitment to extend the ceasefire and cessation of hostilities in the Two Areas, reaching a durable peace, and continuing to explore ways of addressing outstanding issues (AUHIP Press Release, 5 February 2018). However, privately the message was decidedly negative. And with Abdel-Aziz not in attendance, the mediators were not able to gain a clear understanding of the party’s position on self-determination. The failure of the negotiations left the AU mediators pessimistic about ending the conflict.
Abdel-Aziz leads an SPLM-North which has little prospect of militarily breaking out of its enclaves in the Nuba Mountains and parts of Blue Nile and has no organized political support elsewhere in the country. Meanwhile, Malik and Yasir are largely isolated and there is little reason to think that they can gain a popular following in the 2020 national elections. The sorry state of the SPLM-North is a result of its failure to irrevocably break from the SPLM-South and to resolve a host of ideological issues. Yasir’s withdrawal from the 2010 presidential campaign to ensure the election of Omar Bashir made clear where the loyalty of the northern SPLM leaders lay. In the 2011 Southern Kordofan state election the SPLM-North again prioritized the interests of the SPLM-South. That the SPLM-North has still not ended its loyalty to the mother party in South Sudan is evident by the military assistance it receives from or through Juba while it in turn has been enlisted to fight Juba’s enemies in the civil war which broke out in December 2013 (Young, 2015b:20).
Further weakening the SPLM-North has been its inability to resolve key controversies, especially those over self-determination, marginalized people, internal democracy, and the establishment of viable institutions. The fall-back position of the party is one of authoritarianism as was evident in its attempt to manipulate its own followers in the Blue Nile popular consultations. Like the southern branch of the SPLM whose internal conflicts could not be resolved peacefully and eventually led to the December 2013 civil war, ideological conflicts in the SPLM-North have also led to internal war. Rather than talk about reconciliation, the SPLM-North needs to be subject to a critical root and branch evaluation.
The author worked as Consultant/researcher on Sudan and South Sudan for various regional and international institutions and organizations including IGAD, Carter Center, Vista Aecom/USAID/ Small Arms Survey among others. he can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Abdel-Aziz Al-Hilu. 2017. Letter of Resignation. 7 March. As reproduced in Oodua Pathfinder. 14 April.
AUHIP Press Release. 2018. ‘Joint Statement on Unilateral Ceasefire, Cessation of Hostilities and Completion of Negotiations’ as printed in Sudan Tribune. 5 February.
Elwathig Kameir. 2017. ‘Diagnosing the discord in the SPLM-North: “So, has there been Decreed that Matter Whereof ye Twain do Enquire!” Sudan Tribune. 28 September.
Malik Agar. 2017. Letter to the opposition leaders in SRF, Sudan Call, National Consensus, BNF, Civil Society, Women, Students, Sudanese Diaspora, refugees and displacement camps. 13 November 2017 as reproduced in Sudan Tribune. ‘
Nuba Reports. 2017. ‘Q & A: SPLM/N Deputy Chairman, Commander Abdel-Aziz Hilu.’ April 10. Available at https://nubareports.org/q-a-splm-n-deputy-chairman-commander-abdel-aziz-hilu.
SPLM. 1983. ‘The Manifesto of the SPLM.’ 31 July.
Suliman Baldo. 2017. ‘A Question of Leadership Addressing a Dangerous Crisis in Sudan’s SPLM-N.’ The Enough Project. enoughproject.org. July.
The Carter Center. 2011. ‘Vote in Southern Kordofan is Peaceful and Credible, Despite Climate of Insecurity and Some Irregularities.’ Atlanta. May 18.
The Carter Center. 2011b. ‘Vote in Southern Kordofan is Peaceful and Credible, Despite Climate of Insecurity and Some Irregularities.’ Atlanta. May 18.
United States Institute of Peace. 2004. ‘The Resolution of Conflict in Southern Kordofan/Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile States Protocol’ Naivasha, Kenya. May 26.
Young, John. 2012. The Fate of Sudan: Origins and Consequences of a Flawed Peace Process. Zed Books.
Young, John. 2015. ‘Southern Kordofan State Elections, May 2011’ in Grzyb, A. and Totten, S. (editors). Conflict in the Nuba Mountains. Routledge Press.
Young, John. 2015b. ‘A Fractious Rebellion: Inside the SPLM-IO’. Small Arms Survey. Graduate Institute of International Studies. Geneva.