Khalil’s passing

A few days ago, news came that Darfuri rebels from the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) were marching on Khartoum. Parallels started to be drawn with May 2007, when rebels from the same movement launched an attack on the northern outskirts of Khartoum, in Omdurman. The attack ultimately failed to topple the government, but was of huge symbolic importance – here, at last, this rag-tag bunch of doped-up teenagers had managed to reach the very epicentre of governmental power.

This latest news, that JEM was about to launch another devastating attack on Khartoum, was propaganda at its very best. The rebels decided to tell the world about their latest move on Khartoum when they were no more than 120 miles from the border with Darfur. It lacked all the element of surprise that had existed in their previous strike at the capital. It was an attempt to show that JEM – so often at odds with the government when all other rebel groups might be prepared to make peace – still matters.

Then today – on Christmas no less – it emerges that Khalil Ibrahim, JEM’s leader – has been killed. Whether he was killed at the hand of Sudanese soldiers, or in an airstrike, remains a matter of some dispute. But it does appear that he is dead – both the government and JEM confirm this.

I never met Ibrahim during my time in Sudan, although I would have liked to and felt that I knew a great deal about him. Between 2007 and 2008, out of all the dozens of rebel groups that exist within Darfur’s hinterland, it sometimes felt that only JEM mattered. The occasional Indian or Chinese worker was kidnapped – JEM was behind it. A UN convoy got hit – all down to JEM, The rebels are marching on Khartoum – JEM of course.

Mini Minawi, leader of a faction of the Sudanese Liberation Movement (SLM), had made peace with the government in 2006 (a peace that has recently become unravelled). Abdel Wahid al-Nur, in charge of another SLM faction, was living in Paris and, as a consequence, the influence he had in Darfur was starting to wane (he has since returned to the country to resume his fight against Khartoum). It sometimes felt that JEM was the only rebel group that mattered – and, as I argued consistently in this blog, it probably was.

A great deal of JEM’s strength came from its slick media operation. I’m not the only one to opine this – fellow journalist Rob Crilly, who did spend time with JEM and met Ibrahim, had first-hand experience of how JEM were capturing the world’s attention (essential for any successful rebel movement).

It’s because of this propaganda machine, coupled with JEM’s allegedly strong links with opposition figures in Khartoum, that led prospective rebel fighters to presume that JEM offered the best chance of salvation from the Islamist agenda of the ruling elite (leave alone for the moment that JEM offered an Islamic alternative that was everybit as hardline as the one in place at the moment). The ranks of JEM swelled and even started to attract non-Muslims, although the core always remained vehmently Islamist.

I felt that I knew JEM so well – in fact, many of my Darfuri friends in Khartoum had links with its leadership – that the news of Ibrahim’s death came as something of a shock. This shock was all the greater given the legend that had sprung up around Ibrahim. Like so many similar rebel leaders for which pesonal image has become so important, people had started to regard him as untouchable. Something of a spectral wraith that could slip through the country unnoticed.

It’s too early to say what affect his death is likely to have on JEM as a movement. JEM has always projected more weight on to the Darfur stage than it really has behind it and will probably continue to be the obstreperous one in a bunch of rag-tag rebel groups. I remain unconvinced that such obstreperousness is the best way that JEM can achieve its stated aims – namely an end to the marginalisation of ordinary Darfuri citizens – but at least in Ibrahim there was a leader that other rebels could rally around. (A single rebel group, of course, is what Darfur always needed – and what Khartoum always sought to stop).

So JEM may continue to exist but in Ibrahim’s passing a part of the movement has surely died as well.

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2 Responses to “Khalil’s passing”

  1. Jim Says:

    I’m hoping the Arab Spring will come to Sudan and a new democratic government will emerge…also I hope one day they will rename themselves Nubia….the ancient land of Nubia is as interesting as ancient Egypt and closely interwined.

  2. blakerig Says:

    For there to be an uprising on the same scale as Egypt or Tunisia, there would have to be a sizeable middle class prepared to oppose the government and there just isn’t. Revolution has worked elsewhere because of the middle class – and now we are seeing this in Russia. For Sudan, this is a long way off.

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