A worsening recent political divide within the leadership of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N, or “movement”), traditionally based in South Kordofan and Blue Nile (the “Two Areas”), is increasingly likely to lead to a change of leadership of the movement. Of grave concern, the political divide has already led to violent clashes with strong ethnic undertones between units of the movement’s armed wing (the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North, the SPLA-N) in parts of Sudan’s Blue Nile state that are controlled by the movement and in camps hosting refugees from Blue Nile just across the border in South Sudan’s Upper Nile state. Preexisting ethnic tensions in this area have been exacerbated by the political divisions among top SPLM-N leaders. The leadership paralysis that is cited as both a cause and an effect of the current division, and the risks of further civil strife, are directly impeding the internal crisis and humanitarian response mechanisms, creating a dangerous transient leadership vacuum at the regional and local level. This vacuum is causing community leaders in areas controlled by the movement in Blue Nile state and in the refugee camps to pursue their own initiatives in an effort to calm their constituencies and reassure other nearby communities.
On March 7, 2017, Abdel-Aziz El-Hilu, Deputy Chairman of the SPLM-N, resigned. In his resignation letter, submitted to the regional Nuba Mountains/South Kordofan Liberation Council (NMLC), he cited the SPLM-N’s inability to revise and adopt an updated manifesto, constitution, negotiation strategy, and the necessary organizational structures. He also pointed to his growing distrust of SPLM-N Chairman Malik Agar and Secretary-General Yasir Arman and to his own responsibility for past failings. The NMLC rejected El-Hilu’s resignation, endorsed the reforms El-Hilu recommended, and removed Secretary-General Arman from his position and from leading the SPLM-N team engaged in negotiations with the Sudanese government. Based on the rejection of his resignation, El-Hilu continued to exercise his leadership role quietly behind the scenes.
In the weeks that followed, the SPLM-N went into a gradual downward spiral. The two sides lost confidence in one other, with each challenging the other’s legitimacy in making statements or acting on behalf of the SPLM-N. When the NMLC resolved on June 7 to dismiss Chairman Agar, in addition to its earlier firing of Secretary-General Arman, and to appoint El-Hilu as the new chairman, Agar questioned the legality of the process and the decision—which he dismissed as an ethnically motivated “coup d’état.” El-Hilu did not take up the offer by Agar for the three of them to step down together and task the most senior of the remaining leaders with running the affairs of the movement until the convening of the supreme decision-making body of the movement, the SPLM-N National Liberation Convention. Instead, El-Hilu stated that he would appoint a transitional leadership council that would prepare for the convening of the SPLM-N National Convention. The leadership split widened as each set of leaders ignored the other and continued to issue statements and decisions.
As the strife between the two sides worsened, signs of the growing divisions became more visible at the communal level. Some divisions grew violent in May and June, and constituent support for at least one of the leaders further fragmented.
In addition to triggering ethnic tensions within its army and among its constituents, this SPLM-N leadership crisis has multiple other negative impacts, including the risks of:
- Further undermining an already stalemated two-track peace process with the Sudanese government that is led by the African Union’s High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP), chaired by former South African President Thabo Mbeki.
- Diverting the movement’s attention away from the serious humanitarian crises in some areas under its control. A leadership hamstrung by its own disputes has proven unable to negotiate the delivery of acutely-needed medical and humanitarian supplies to people in need.
- Weakening the opposition’s unity in pursuing a lasting and just peace and genuine democratic transformation in Sudan. In effect, the SPLM-N’s predicament risks contributing to eroding public trust in the Sudan Call alliance of political and armed opposition groups and movements, in which the SPLM-N has a prominent role as the participants largely credited for bringing the alliance together. This brings into question the Sudan Call’s ability to stand up to the regime and advance its mission to steer the country toward a just and lasting peace and democratic transformation.
- Weakening the SPLM-N itself and its role in standing for the disenfranchised groups in periphery areas and throughout Sudan.
The ethnic tensions that began to erupt in Blue Nile state and in the refugee camps in South Sudan are at risk of escalating beyond the control of the SPLM-N as a whole if these tensions are not responsibly contained. For all of these risks, it is incumbent on the two sides of the political dispute, their allies in the Sudanese political opposition, and the international community to dedicate more urgent attention and resources than have been dedicated thus far to mitigate this crisis.
International and regional actors with influence in the region should press the two parties to do their utmost to address the risks created by their disputes. Unfortunately, several mediation efforts by the SPLM-N’s Sudan Call allies, prominent personalities, civil society groups, and its own members have failed to bridge the differences between the two sides in the dispute. The two sides failed to agree on joint mechanisms to prepare for the convening of an extraordinary session of the National Convention of the SPLM-N that both sides separately recognize is needed to resolve the constitutional, organizational, and strategic matters highlighted by El-Hilu in his resignation letter. Instead, each side went about preparing for the convention independently of one another as shown above.
For its part, the Sudanese government has found in the paralysis of the SPLM-N an excuse to continue the humanitarian blockade that it has maintained on SPLM-N-controlled areas since the resumption of the armed conflict in 2011. The Sudanese government has ordered warplanes and armored vehicles from its usual weapons suppliers and presided over the graduation of thousands of new fighters for its paramilitary forces, namely the infamous Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The RSF is now integrated into the Sudanese national army, possibly in preparation for a resumption of hostilities with the SPLM-N after the conclusion of the current unilateral cessation of hostilities, which the two sides have largely respected, each for their own reasons.
An open-ended leadership crisis within the SPLM-N will prolong the suffering of the populations in Blue Nile and South Kordofan states that have put their faith in the movement to lead their decades-long struggle for an end to the economic, social, and cultural marginalization suffered at the hands of the Sudanese government. Such a leadership crisis would constitute a major obstacle to the just peace and prosperity that the people in these areas have long sought but have yet to achieve.
Most ominously, the discord in the SPLM-N leadership has spilled over into deadly confrontations between supporters and opponents of Chairman Agar in parts of SPLM-N-held areas in Blue Nile and in camps across the border in South Sudan for refugees from Sudan’s Blue Nile state. Dozens of people have lost their lives in these clashes. Also concerning are reports of incidents of intimidation in the Nuba Mountains, the support base of El-Hilu, by those who support El-Hilu against those who support Arman and Agar. Some party members have subsequently left the area. A protracted standstill in the SPLM-N leadership could cause the situation to spiral beyond the control of the leaders, adding to the suffering of the populations that the movement should be supporting and protecting.
While regional mediators and their international backers are ill-placed to mediate internal rifts within one party to the negotiations, they should communicate their concerns about the risks associated with such rifts to the leaders involved and impress upon them the need to avert the worst. Regional and international actors should engage constructively, not remain on the sidelines of this dispute or appear to be siding with one party or the other. Regional and international actors should actively encourage both sides of the SPLM-N divide to agree to address the worsening humanitarian situation in South Kordofan and Blue Nile and mitigate the real risks of escalating ethnic strife resulting from their differences through constructive and collaborative arrangements.
Ultimately, no lasting solutions to the conflict in the Two Areas is achievable without the Sudanese government agreeing to end the historic economic and political marginalization of Sudan’s periphery regions and treating all of its citizens as equals. An opposition that is consumed by its own divisions has even less of a chance to press for such significant concessions from the autocratic regime of President Omar al-Bashir.