Khartoum Besieged? Sudan’s Rebel Movements Unite against the Center

Andrew McGregor

November 24, 2011

Sudan’s military offensive against rebels in its southern Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan provinces has begun to spill over the new border with South Sudan with potentially devastating results for the region. As Khartoum descends into a severe financial crisis caused, in part, by the loss of three-quarters of its oil-fields to the newly sovereign South Sudan, it is now being challenged by a new alliance of rebel movements from Darfur, South Kordofan, Blue Nile and eastern Sudan. The Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) is contesting the post-independence domination of Sudan’s non-Arab majority by an Arab minority hailing from the banks of the Nile in northern Sudan.

A statement issued at the SRF’s November 11 meeting asserted the alliance’s determination “to overthrow the [ruling] National Congress Party (NCP) regime using all available means, above all, the convergence of civil political action and armed struggle.” [1] As well as a “High-Level Political Committee,” the alliance has established a “Joint High-Level Military Committee” to coordinate the armed struggle: “Its first responsibility is to repel the NCP’s vengeful dry season offensive, which is targeting civilians in war zones, in all the theaters of conflict, including Khartoum…” The statement makes clear that the constituent groups of the SRF believe the time is ripe to topple the regime, claiming it is “presently at its weakest – economically, politically and militarily. The regime is imploding and will vanish, like other corrupt regimes around us that have come to rely on repression to retain power.” [1]

The statement was signed by representatives of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army – North (SPLM/A – N) and three Darfur rebel movements, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the largely Fur Sudan Liberation Movement/Army – Abdel Wahid (SLM/A – AW), and the largely Zaghawa Sudan Liberation Movement – Minni Minnawi (SLM/A – MM). The latter’s commander, Minni Minawi, had sided with the government for some time after signing the 2006 Abuja agreement with Khartoum, but has now returned to the rebellion.

The groundwork for the formation of the SRF was laid in August when the SPLM/A-N signed an agreement in the South Kordofan town of Kauda with two Darfur rebel movements pledging to overthrow the central government in Khartoum.The formation of the alliance was quickly condemned by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon as an escalation in tension possibly leading to a new civil war, but the secretary-general’s remarks were challenged by the SPLM-N’s own secretary general, Yasir Arman, who accused the UN leader of supporting “aggressors and war criminals” (Sudan Tribune, November 17).



Beja Congress Fighters

On November 15, the Beja Congress of northeastern Sudan announced its decision to join the SRF. Founded in 1958, the Beja Congress was originally a political party, but has gradually grown into an armed resistance movement fighting a low-intensity insurgency on behalf of the roughly two million indigenous non-Arab Beja people. The Congress has resisted efforts by Khartoum to “Arabize” the Beja tribes, noting in its announcement that “The misery and suffering of the [Beja] people is increasing due to poverty, starvation and other deadly diseases. The ruling regime in Sudan is subjecting its people to humiliation and tyranny. They are arrogant and killing the marginalized people” (Radio Dabanga, November 16).

The SRF also announced that the Koch Revolution Movement (KRM) had joined the alliance (Radio Dabanga, November 18). Though little is known of the KRF, it is likely based in the Koch County of South Sudan’s oil-rich Unity State, which recently suffered from a local rebellion by a pro-government Nuer militia led by the late Colonel Gatluak Gai (murdered by his deputy in late July; for Gatluak Gai, see Terrorism Monitor Brief, August 12).

Unresolved Issues

Prominent opposition leader Sadiq al-Mahdi, leader of the Umma Party and former Prime Minister of Sudan before being overthrown by al-Bashir in 1989, recently described the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between North and South Sudan as a “flawed agreement” that “left behind time bombs,” namely the unresolved status of oil-rich Abyei District, South Kordofan and the Blue Nile Province. The latter two regions lie north of the border between Sudan and South Sudan, but supplied thousands of fighters allied to Southern forces in the 1983-2005 civil war. Al-Mahdi blames the regime for the proliferation of rebel groups in Sudan: “There is no doubt that the ruling regime in Sudan has played an important role in weakening unarmed political parties. In fact during one period they said we do not negotiate with anyone except those who are armed. This tempted a great number of youths to carry arms” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, November 13).

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has loudly accused South Sudan of preparing a new war against the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), claiming to have documented proof of his charges. Saying that Khartoum had already exercised “too much patience and self-restraint,” al-Bashir issued a stern warning to the South: “We tell our brothers in the South that if they want peace, we want peace. If they want war, our army is there… Our message to our brothers in the South is this: you won the South not because you were victorious [in the war], but because of an agreement and a pledge we upheld [i.e. the CPA], so you had better stay in your place” (Sudan Tribune, November 7).

A pro-government news agency in Khartoum reminded the rebels that in a world preoccupied with a number of crises, their cause is unlikely to garner international support: “The engineers of the new alliance might think that they will get support from everywhere, but this is just an illusion because the world is now busy resolving its crises to the extent that there is no time to look on new alliances attempting to topple regimes while the whole world order is collapsing” (Sudan Vision, November 17).

The SPLM/A-N Rebellion

SPLA–N forces have been fighting in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan since June (see Terrorism Monitor, July 1). An SPLA-N insurrection followed in the Blue Nile province, which has now been placed under military control as the SAF drive the rebel fighters south towards the border with South Sudan.


SPLA-N Fighters in Blue Nile Province

The SPLA-N rebels in Blue Nile Province suffered a major setback on November 3 when the SAF’s 14th Infantry Division took the town of Kurmuk, a rebel stronghold near the border with Ethiopia, reportedly inflicting heavy losses on the rebels. A spokesman for the rebels insisted that the expulsion was actually a withdrawal undertaken for “strategic reasons” (Reuters, November 4).  SPLM/A-N Secretary General Yasir Arman claimed that the SAF forces attacking Kurmuk had been reinforced by Janjaweed militia from Darfur and fighters belonging to the anti-Juba Jonglei-based South Sudanese militia led by Dinka General George Athor (for Athor, see Terrorism Monitor, May 20, 2010).

On November 22, the SAF announced it had seized the town of Diem Mansour from the rebels (Sudan Tribune, November 22). Diem Mansour is only 25 km from the South Sudan border. Satellite imagery shows that the SAF is installing helipads and lengthening and upgrading runways in Kurmuk and ad-Damazin, moves that would allow the SAF to improve its ability to bomb targets further into the South Sudan (VOA, November 11).

Cross-Border Attacks

Reports from the border between North and South Sudan indicate that al-Bashir’s rhetoric is now being matched by SAF operations in the border region. On November 11, an SPLA spokesman announced that SAF forces and allied militias had been repelled in a seven-hour battle at Kuek, home to an SPLA military base guarding nearby oil fields. The attack was denied by Khartoum, but SPLA spokesmen insisted the battle was proof of Khartoum’s plans to “capture the oil fields” (AFP, November 11; Sudanese Media Center, November 11). There were reports of a similar attack on an SPLA base in Raja County in Western Bahr al-Ghazal Province (Saturday Nation [Nairobi], November 19).

Yida refugee camp in Unity State was bombed on November 10 by one of Sudan’s ancient Soviet-built Antonov cargo planes, used by the Sudan Air Force as makeshift bombers. The attack came a day after a similar bombing of a refugee camp at Guffa in Upper Nile State that killed seven people (Sudan Tribune, November 10; VOA, November 11). Despite estimates that up to 100,000 people may have fled south from the fighting in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile Province, Khartoum maintains that all such camps are actually bases for SPLA-N insurgents.  A spokesman for the Sudanese Foreign Ministry insisted that “There are no camps for Sudanese refugees in South Sudan… only assembly areas for rebel troops” (AFP, November 11).

Sudan has made two complaints to the UN Security Council this year over what it charges is South Sudanese military support for the SPLM/A-N rebels. At the same time, Khartoum continues to ignore a Security Council order to withdraw its forces from the disputed Abyei region. In the South, President Salva Kiir has also complained to the Security Council over threats of a southern invasion coming from Khartoum: “It is surprising that Sudan as a member of the United Nations has arrogated itself to threaten the sovereignty of the Republic of South Sudan through military invasion” (Sudan Tribune, November 10).

Renewed fighting along the border will make it extremely difficult to restart negotiations between North and South, which had already broken down without making any progress on resolving issues like the status of Abyei, border delimitation and a formula for oil distribution fees. Both Sudan’s find themselves in a tricky situation as most oil is produced in the South but all of it must pass through North Sudan in a pipeline to the Red Sea terminal at Port Sudan.  With peace talks having ground to a halt, the SPLM tried a new gambit to revive negotiations by offering “to assist the north, give them billions of dollars… We are willing to share with them, despite our poverty, in the interests of peace” (AFP, November 18; Reuters, November 18). At the same time, South Sudan president Salva Kiir has been issuing increasingly stronger statements maintaining that the South will preserve its newly-gained sovereignty from attack by Khartoum by force if necessary.

Following the alleged SAF attacks Salva Kiir visited Kampala for urgent security-related discussions. Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, a close U.S. ally well on his way to building one of Africa’s strongest militaries, told a joint news conference that Khartoum must end its “aggression” against the South and avoid making the mistake of “managing Sudan as an Arab country [when] it is Afro-Arab” (Saturday Nation [Nairobi], November 19).

China, meanwhile, appears to have decided to continue its support for the Khartoum regime despite its continuing involvement in oil operations in both South and North Sudan. The Defense Ministers of China and the Sudan agreed on November 17 to strengthen military relations and deepen cooperation between their respective militaries (China Daily, November 17).


After decades of conflict, Khartoum seems unable or unwilling to turn to anything other than a military solution in its dealings with internal dissent or in resolving differences with its neighbors. The military buildup along the border with South Sudan suggests Khartoum might like to move on the Southern oilfields, but any such operation would have to quick and decisive; otherwise oil flows would stop and both North and South Sudan would immediately face an economic crisis. The South, having spent roughly 50% of its annual budget on arms and military equipment since 2005, has prepared well for any irredentist attack by Khartoum and the few Khartoum-supported militias operating in the South are unlikely to be enough to distract the South Sudanese Army, now one of Africa’s largest, from repelling a Northern offensive.  In fact, with the creation of the Sudanese Revolutionary Front, it is now Khartoum that must worry about rebel militias operating in its rear areas. In the event of a third round of war with the South, these Northern rebel movements would soon begin receiving arms and training from the SPLA.

The Shaiqiya, the Ja’alin and the Danagla, the powerful riverine Arab tribes that dominate the Sudanese state, have too much at stake to allow al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on war-crimes charges, to bring down a state which, at least in Khartoum and parts of the northern Nile region, had begun to show signs of prosperity thanks to petro-dollars and investment from the Gulf States.

The creation of the SRF does not mean that rebel fighters will soon be seen in the streets of Khartoum, but it does remind Northerners that peace agreements with empty rebel fronts like the recent deal with Darfur’s Liberation and Justice Movement (LJM) are no substitute for negotiations with genuine security threats. The SRF can succeed against the regime through a war of attrition, keeping the Sudanese Army fighting an expensive multi-front counter-insurgency in the midst of a crippling economic crisis. Khartoum will no doubt attempt to apply its proven strategy of dealing with regional opposition by exploiting divisions within the opposition, then offering financial and political incentives for disenchanted factions to join the government forces. Nevertheless, it seems probable that at some point those with vested interests in the survival of the regime and the prevention of the state’s total economic collapse will begin to look for alternatives to al-Bashir in their desire to maintain something as close to the political and social status quo as possible.


  1. Communiqué of the Sudan Revolutionary Front, November 11, 2011; full text available at:


This article first appeared in the November 17, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.