A daring rebel raid 200 kilometers into the Sudanese province of Kordofan suggests that the Darfur conflict may actually be spreading, despite the initiation of Darfur peace negotiations in Tanzania last month. At 4 PM on August 29, four columns of fighters from Darfur’s Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) converged on a Sudanese military base at Wad Banda, Kordofan province. The rebels occupied Wad Banda for several hours, leaving before sundown with captured weapons and all the police vehicles. At first, the military denied there was a base at Wad Banda, but later acknowledged that a small group of “renegades” had been driven off by police. Two days later, the government reported 41 deaths as a result of the raid (SUNA, August 31). Both JEM leader Khalil Ibrahim and the Khartoum government reported the participation of a faction from the largest rebel movement in Darfur, the Sudanese Liberation Army-Unity (SLA-Unity), but the claim was immediately refuted by SLA military commander Sulayman Marjan (Sudan Tribune, August 31).
The raid followed a similar operation in early August in which JEM and a coalition of rebels targeted the garrison responsible for guarding Darfur’s sole rail link to Khartoum. During a brief occupation of the town of Adila, JEM seized numerous vehicles and heavy weapons, many of which were probably used in the Wad Banda raid. Both attacks were led by Abd al-Aziz Ushar al-Nur Ashr, a Darfur field commander who has returned from east Sudan, where JEM carried out military operations against Khartoum in alliance with the Beja Congress. It was not the first such attack on Kordofan; last year, JEM combined with other rebels to raid Hamrat al-Shaykh in northern Kordofan (al-Sahafa, July 4, 2006).
The Sudanese government responded by treating the attack on Wad Banda as part of an external threat to Sudan’s stability. The minister of the interior, Professor al-Zubayr Bashir Taha, told the remaining police at Wad Banda that “plots by the colonial powers” would be defeated. The governor of North Kordofan added that unity was needed to thwart “international conspiracies” against Sudan (Sudansafary.net, September 2). The next day, a U.S. diplomat in Khartoum denied any U.S. links to the rebels, deploring the loss of “innocent life” (Sudansafary.net, September 3). According to the rebels, Wad Banda served as a supply depot for government and militia attacks on civilians in south Darfur. JEM complains that Sudanese MiG-29s and antiquated Antonov bombers continue bombing civilian targets in Darfur in violation of a UN Security Council resolution (particularly following the raid on Adila).
JEM is usually regarded as a Zaghawa-dominated movement, based on the semi-nomadic African tribe that straddles the Chad/northern Darfur border. JEM leaders are probably the most experienced and sophisticated of all the many rebel movements in Darfur, giving the movement a weight unjustified by its numbers. Many Zaghawa became skilled and innovative desert fighters during the Chadian civil war and the campaign against Libyan garrisons in northern Chad. The conflict in Darfur is, in part, a reflection of the growing assertiveness of the Zaghawa, who already dominate the government in Chad. In Sudan, the Zaghawa now present a commercial challenge to Arab dominance of the economy. Zaghawa factionalism, however, has prevented the development of a unified Zaghawa movement. In recent months, JEM has made efforts to broaden its ethnic base, including sacking the group’s military commander, who was accused of favoring the Zaghawa.
Even after signing peace agreements with rebel movements in the south and the east, Khartoum is faced with a deteriorating situation in the west. In an unsettling development, some Darfur Arabs (including janjaweed defectors) have begun to take up arms against the government, forming new rebel fronts or joining existing groups of African Muslim rebels. Combined with JEM’s new military offensive, Khartoum risks losing its grip on Darfur before the arrival of the UN peacekeeping mission in January.