Keeping it in the Family: A Profile of Jibril Ibrahim, Leader of Darfur’s Justice and Equality Movement

Andrew McGregor

May 30, 2014

Recent reports of military operations carried out in South Sudan’s northern borderlands by Darfur’s Ḥarakat al-Adl wa’l-Musawah (Justice and Equality Movement – JEM) have reinforced the movement’s reputation for mobility and political skills. Despite the loss of movement founder Khalil Ibrahim to an air attack in December 2011 and the subsequent loss of many of the group’s fighters following the controversial appointment of Khalil’s brother, Jibril Ibrahim, JEM remains a potent threat to the Khartoum regime.

JEM Leader Jibril Ibrahim

JEM was founded in 2003 by a core group of Islamists from the Zaghawa Kobe community (which straddles the border between Chad and northern Darfur) who were once close to Hassan al-Turabi, the architect of Sudan’s Islamist regime before falling out with President Omar al-Bashir. Khartoum takes JEM seriously: six years ago the movement launched a daring cross-desert raid on the capital (Operation Long Arm) that succeeded in entering the sister city of Omdurman. The lack of enthusiasm shown by the local garrison in repelling the raiders shook the regime badly. It was only the work of police and state security services that managed to drive out the JEM force, which was already badly weakened after having been split from the main force along the way by a clash with the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) in Kordofan province. On the May 10 anniversary of the 2008 raid, Jibril referred to the inevitable arrests and retaliation that focused on non-Arab Darfuris in the capital region following the attack: “The Long Arm operation broke the Sudanese people’s barrier of fear from the Khartoum regime, and unveiled its ugly racist face as after the invasion it targeted the citizens on the basis of their color, accent, and geographical background more than ever before.” The JEM leader then promised the movement would return to conduct its struggle in the streets of Khartoum: “We’re not interested anymore in fighting in the deserts and valleys” (Radio Dabanga May 10; May 12).

The Succession

At the time of his death, the SAF claimed that Khalil was leading his forces through Kordofan into the newly independent South Sudan, where it alleged a training camp and medical facilities had been prepared in Bahr al-Ghazal by South Sudanese authorities (Sudan Vision, January 3, 2012; January 6, 2012).

After Khalil’s death, Jibril pointed to “foreign hands” involved in the assassination, which involved “precise nighttime strike and the close tracking of the target, which require very modern technologies not available to the Sudanese air force,” while promising the “military option will remain in effect so long as the regime of the racist gang in Khartoum uses only security and military solutions to address the country’s issues” (al-Akhbar [Cairo], January 10, 2012). [1]

A congress of over 100 JEM leaders held in Bor, South Sudan, elected Jibril to succeed his brother as JEM leader in January 2012 over experienced field commander Ahmad Adam Bakhit, but the decision was far from unanimous. JEM fighters in the Jabal Marra region of Sudan under the command of al-Toum Ababakr left the movement in protest against the “lack of justice and transparency” in the process used to select the new JEM commander (Sudan Media Center, February 4). Another group led by Zakaria Musa Abbas “Dush” left to form the Justice and Equality Movement – Corrective Leadership (JEM – CL), citing the leadership transfer from one member of Khalil Ibrahim’s family to another in what it described as “a family company… [that] has dominated big decisions to consolidate narrow tribalism and racism” (Sudan Vision, January 14, 2012; Sudan Now, February 12, 2012). Before taking control of JEM, Jibril was pursuing a teaching career in London while serving as JEM’s foreign affairs chief. His lack of military experience was a major source of objections within the movement to his leadership (AFP, January 26, 2012).

Even before Khalil’s death, JEM was already a movement in transition following its expulsion from Chad on the heels of a Chadian-Sudanese rapprochement in 2010. Combined with the loss of its supply channel for arms and fuel from Mu’ammar Qaddafi’s Libya in 2011, JEM began to see its future in operations carried out in South Darfur and South Kordofan, far from its traditional base in northern Darfur’s Wadi Howar, but much closer to new sponsors in South Sudan. Juba, like Khartoum, is interested in sponsoring proxy militias. An alliance with JEM allows Juba to put pressure on its northern neighbor, though such sponsorships violate its agreement with Khartoum. Now operating far from regions where Zaghawa are found in any numbers, the movement began recruiting locally, at least in its lower ranks, before launching successful raids into North Kordofan from rebel-held territories in South Kordofan. Aside from its clandestine military cooperation with South Sudan, Jibril’s JEM also maintains a political presence in Kampala, which has generally poor relations with Khartoum, fuelled in part by the latter’s alleged sponsorship of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The September 2012 split over Jibril’s leadership that led to the formation of the Wadi Howar-based JEM-Bashar resulted in JEM losing much of its military presence in northern Darfur. After the death of the JEM-Bashar leader, Muhammad Bashar, command of the dissident unit passed to former JEM military chief Bakheit Abdallah Dabajo. [2]

Internal Opposition

Among those JEM leaders who rejected Jibril’s appointment as chief was Muhammad Bahr Hamdin, who served as JEM’s deputy leader and commander in Kordofan until he was dismissed in September 2011 after being accused of planning the overthrow of the JEM leadership, largely drawn from Zaghawa Kobe relatives of Khalil Ibrahim. Hamdin then formed a rival movement, the Forces for Democratic Change, while Jibril blamed the rupture on Qatari mediators who had encouraged Hamdin, JEM’s official negotiator in Doha, to accept a separate settlement with Khartoum (al-Sharq al-Awsat, September 30, 2011).

Despite Jibril’s lack of field experience, he has at times displayed a certain ruthlessness in dealing with JEM dissenters. Jibril’s fighters clashed with members of Muhammad Bashar’s JEM breakaway faction (JEM-Bashar) in April 2013, killing the group’s deputy commander, Saleh Muhammad Jarbo (Sudan Tribune, April 21, 2013). JEM-Bashar had angered Jibril by signing on to the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (DDPD) and agreeing to the integration of their fighters into the SAF. A few weeks later a JEM convoy caught up to Bashar near the Chad border, killing the dissident leader and his chief aide, Sulayman Arko (al-Jazeera, May 13, 2013; Sudan Vision, May 13, 2013). Some 28 members of JEM-Bashar were taken prisoner. According to one of the detainees who escaped, the prisoners were taken to the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan where they were tortured and sentenced to death before being transferred to Bentiu in South Sudan’s Unity State. The former prisoner maintained that ten of the prisoners obtained their freedom by joining Jibril’s JEM and fighting alongside South Sudanese government forces against the Nuer rebels of former vice-president Riek Machar, prompting Nuer retaliation against Darfuri civilians living in Bentiu  (Sudan Tribune, May 21; for JEM in Bentiu, see Terrorism Monitor Briefs, May 2). Both JEM and the South Sudan minister of defense have denied claims in a May 8 report issued by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) that JEM was conducting pro-government military operations in South Sudan (Sudan Tribune, May 19).

Rejecting the Regime

Shortly after taking control of what remained of JEM, Jibril led the group into an alliance with several other rejectionist rebel movements. The result was the creation of the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), a broad-based armed opposition movement that includes the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army – North (SPLM/A – N), the Beja Congress of east Sudan and three Darfur rebel movements, JEM, the largely Fur Sudan Liberation Movement/Army – Abd al-Wahid (SLM/A – AW), and the largely Zaghawa Sudan Liberation Movement/Army – Minni Minnawi (SLM/A – MM) (for the creation of the SRF, see Terrorism Monitor, November 24, 2011).

In describing JEM’s aims and its reasons for rejecting the Doha peace agreement that was signed by numerous smaller Darfur-based rebel groups, Jibril said:

The regime wants security and military solutions, so it is futile to waste time with it and allow it to use negotiating forums for public relations and buying favors. The Doha Document is not suitable as a basis for negotiations in any coming phase because it is confined to Darfur at a time in which the SRF is striving for a comprehensive solution for the whole country (al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 16, 2012).

A New Dawn

In January 2013, JEM and the other members of the SRF issued the federalist New Dawn Charter. Signatories to the Charter called for a complete overhaul of Sudan’s political institutions and governance mechanisms but were not obliged to abandon their original political programs, with the content of the Charter remaining “open for debate, evolution and improvement.” In the security realm, the Charter calls for the dissolution of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) and the integration of SRF forces into a re-organized SAF that would “reflect the diversity of the Sudanese people”  (Sudan Tribune, February 2, 2013).

Jibril responded to allegations by the regime that the Charter called for the complete secularization of the Sudan’s Islamist-dominated government by saying:

The New Dawn Charter has not called for secularism and has no passage in the text that says so, except when words are twisted and over-burdened with superfluous meanings. The Charter calls for separation between state institutions and religious institutions and has phrased that in broad terms that allow further debate on the issue. However, the Charter forcefully calls for putting an end to political abuse of religion, a defining feature of the current regime and the result of that is obvious: genocides, war crimes, corruption, lack of fundamental freedoms, racism, blatant disregard to human rights, moral decadence, etc. The Khartoum junta should be the last to talk about Islam, let away defending it (Sudan Tribune, February 2, 2013).

Initiatives for Peace

In May, Jibril’s group called on those Darfur rebel factions who had signed onto the Qatari-sponsored DDPD to return to the armed struggle in Darfur and condemned Sadiq al-Mahdi’s National Umma Party, one of Sudan’s main opposition parties, with a substantial base in the Arab tribes of Darfur, for engaging in dialogue with the regime (Sudan Tribune, May 12).

Chadian president Idriss Déby met with Jibril in Paris in April, the first time the two Zaghawa leaders had met in over four years (Radio Dabanga, April 8). Relations between the two have been strained since 2010, when Déby expelled the movement from its bases in eastern Chad and its office in N’Djamena. Déby is reported to be under pressure from powerful Zaghawa leaders in Chad to encourage a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Darfur that would promote greater regional stability and allow for greater cross-border trade and development (Sudan Tribune, May 19). To this end, Déby has proposed inviting Jibril, Abd al-Wahid an-Nur (the Fur leader of the SLM/A – AW) and Minni Minnawi (the Zaghawa leader of the SLM/A – MM) to N’Djamena to discuss the participation of these leaders in the DDPD.

Jibril recently rejected the “Darfur-Darfur Dialogue” sponsored by the UN-AU Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) and the Sudanese government’s Darfur Regional Authority, saying that the current circumstances in Darfur “are not convenient for a dialogue, in particular when it is controlled by the attackers” (Radio Dabanga, May 8). In April, Jibril and his Darfur partners in the SRF urged the UN Security Council to investigate UNAMID operations in Darfur, particularly what they described as deliberate misrepresentation of the ongoing level of violence in in the region. According to Jibril, “The UN needs to clear its good name of the serious charges… and punish those who have ruined the reputation of the organization, wasted its resources and delayed appropriate action, which led to the death and suffering of innumerable innocent civilians in Darfur” (Radio Dabanga, April 23).

Conclusion

Even as political change generated by the “Arab Spring” continues to sweep North Africa and the Middle East, Jibril insists JEM’s military approach to regime change in Sudan is fundamentally correct:

The Arab Spring cannot be cloned in its entirety. Transferring and applying it require substantial adaptation to fit with the unique circumstances of the people concerned and the country in which the change of regime is sought… Civil action produces no fruit unless it is hybridized with military effort because the regime straddling the chest of the people for more than two decades is deaf and hears only the sound of cannons… JEM tried dialogue before resorting to arms and found out from its long experience in negotiating with the regime that it believes only in military solutions and that dialogue with it would be futile (al-Hayat, March 27, 2012).

Just as the late Colonel John Garang’s vision of a “New Sudan” came into conflict with the much stronger appeal of Southern separatism within the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), Jibril Ibrahim’s focus on nation-wide political reform will continue to conflict with the focus on Darfur favored by many of his followers within JEM. Shifting JEM’s operational area from Darfur to South Kordofan has the potential of simultaneously weakening the organization through the loss of its Darfuri core while reinforcing its perception as the pan-Sudanese rebel movement it has always claimed to be. For Jibril Ibrahim, the ex-teacher turned rebel warlord, maintaining JEM’s political relevance and military capabilities will be an enormous challenge in the coming months.

Notes

1. For Khalil’s death and the JEM succession issue, see Andrew McGregor, “The Strange Death of Dr. Khalil Ibrahim and the Future of the Darfur Insurgency,” Terrorism Monitor, February 10, 2012. For a profile of the late JEM leader, see: Andrew McGregor, “A Close-up Look at Darfur’s Paramount Rebel Leader: Dr. Khalil Ibrahim,” Militant Leadership Monitor, January 30, 2010.

2. “Justice and Equality Movement (JEM),” Small Arms Survey, August 2013, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/facts-figures/sudan/darfur/armed-groups/opposition/HSBA-Armed-Groups-JEM.pdf

This article was published in the May 30, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.