Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Sudan's Wake-Up Call

By Peter Eichstaedt

It was a gem of a plan.

Make that “JEM” – short for the Justice and Equality Movement, the leading rebel group in Darfur that launched this past weekend’s attack on Omdurman and the Sudan capital of Khartoum.



As a result, the dynamics in Darfur and Sudan have changed.



That the rebels could advance some 600 kilometres, from west to east across Sudan's open desert, without so much as word reported in or outside of Sudan, then attack the nation’s capital, speaks volumes.



The Sudan government responded by saying the rebels were beaten back, were on the run, and that the remnants were being hunted down.



Abdullahi Osman El-Tom, the head of strategic planning for JEM, had a different view, and told IWPR that the rebels had withdrawn.



El-Tom called the attack a success and said it put the Sudan government on notice.



“It has told the government that we have the capability of striking in the heart of the country, not just fighting in the deserts of Darfur,” he said. “Otherwise they will continue bombing in Darfur.”



Given Sudan’s substantial military, said to number some 100,000 soldiers, an air force of aging Russian-made bombers used extensively against civilian targets in Darfur, and a mercenary force of janjaweed fighters, what went wrong?



Reports of the fighting have been sketchy. Some say that at least 60 rebels were killed and the official Sudan news agency claimed 300 rebels had been arrested with 60-70 vehicles seized or destroyed.



State television in Sudan broadcast images of corpses, blood and burned vehicles in the streets, as well as captured rebels, two of whom appeared to have been badly beaten.



Sudan has accused Chad of backing the rebels and has severed diplomatic ties with its neighbour. Chad has denied involvement in the attack.



El-Tom denied that the rebels had support from Chad. “The Chadians can hardly protect themselves,” he said.



He explained that the equipment used in the rebel attack had all been captured by rebels from the Sudan army. “We’ve taken the equipment from Sudan,” he said. “There’s no shortage of arms, no shortage of vehicles. You take them from Sudan.”



El-Tom said the rebels have extensive support in the general population and the armed forces. During clashes with the Sudan army, the soldiers “drop their arms and [abandon] cars and run in the opposite direction.”



That the JEM were “defeated” by Sudan is not as significant as that a major weakness of the Sudan government, which has operated behind a façade of total control, has been exposed.



It was just this past February, by the way, when a massive rebel force drove across similar desert terrain in Chad to attack the capital of N’Djamena, and nearly dislodged President Idris Déby, who quickly accused Sudan of supporting his opponents.



Ironically, Deby’s own rebel army, which eventually took over Chad some two decades ago, was itself supported by Sudan. Such attacks and counter attacks, accusations and counter accusations are not new.



Sudan has some serious thinking to do.



For years now, Sudan effectively has played a vicious game with the United Nations and its fledgling force tasked with “keeping” a peace in Darfur that does not exist and may never.



Sudan’s resistance to international intervention in Darfur has been based on a position of power that now has some very visible cracks.



As has been the case in the past, the international community’s indecisive dealings with Sudan have only entrenched Khartoum’s position.



For example, the UN said it could not do anything in Darfur until it had secured an agreement with Sudan which could dictate when, where and how the UN force could function.



And of course Sudan threw up road blocks at every turn. But can it afford to continue to frustrate the world and the forces of the UN Mission in Darfur, UNAMID?



And what about the indictments issued by the International Criminal Court in The Hague against two Sudanese accused of being in the thick of what the United States has labeled a genocide in Darfur?



The JEM attack on Khartoum is an opportunity for Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir to rethink his relationship with the international community and his opposition to the world court.



Until now, al-Bashir has shunned world opinion over the ICC indictees. One year after the issuance of the warrants, Ahmad Harun, who is now the minister of state for humanitarian affairs, and janjaweed leader Ali Kushayb, are free in the Sudan.



At least two million people have been displaced by fighting in Darfur and an estimated 200,000 have been killed or died. Most of the displaced are living in refugee camps in Chad.



But al-Bashir could change all of that by taking action to arrest and hand over these suspects to the ICC for prosecution.



This week, ironically, ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo is visiting Egypt and Saudi Arabia, perhaps to convince these two powerful forces in the region, to exert influence on al-Bashir to cooperate with the court.



If al-Bashir would, this would not only be a politically astute move, but also a good tactical one. JEM and other rebel groups say that the fighting is far from over, despite Sudan’s claims that peace has been restored.



"We are in Omdurman, we are in Khartoum north. This is not something that is going to be finished in a few hours," a JEM official told a news agency. "There is an imbalance of power and wealth, we have to sort this out."



Should the fighting in Sudan spiral out of control, al-Bashir’s government might suddenly be in a position to need help from the nearly 9,000 UNAMID forces now in Sudan.



The decision, of course, rests with al-Bahsir, and what he decides could dictate the future of Sudan as well as his own.



Peter Eichstaedt is Africa Editor for IWPR in The Hague.



The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.