New fears for Sudan as coup fails

Simon Tisdall

Stinging criticism of Sudan’s leadership by a prominent former ally has added to Khartoum’s woes only days after Darfur rebels launched an apparent all-out coup attempt on the capital and heavy fighting reignited in the oil-rich south of the country. Hassan Turabi, Sudan’s senior Islamist ideologue until he broke with President Omar al-Bashir in 1999, condemned his former colleague’s handling of the Darfur crisis in the west of the country, where hundreds

of thousands have died since 2003.

Turabi said the surprise attack on Omdurman and Khartoum by rebels of Darfur’s Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) had exposed the government’s weakness, and predicted other dissident groups in the north and east of Sudan might try to exploit it.

Led by JEM’s messianic chief, Khalil Ibrahim, and involving up to 3,000 fighters, the May 10 attack took Sudan’s government and military, the UN’s Darfur envoys and almost everyone else by surprise. The immediate reaction among analysts was to dismiss it as a crude, symbolic bid by Ibrahim to increase his political leverage ahead of possible power-sharing talks with Khartoum.

Bashir saw Sudan expert and author, Alex de Waal, says the JEM assault was a carefully prepared, all-out coup attempt against Bashir’s government.

The supposed Chad connection was mistaken, de Waal wrote in his Social Science Research Council blog. Following a “peace summit” between Bashir and Chad’s president, Idriss Deby, in Dakar earlier this year, Chad had scaled back its support for JEM and, when he learned of the plan to attack Khartoum, Deby tried to stop it. Other Darfur rebel groups also refused to join forces with JEM, he said. But instead of backing off, Ibrahim fast-forwarded the plot, sending columns of light vehicles carrying heavily armed fighters speeding by night across the desert towards the confluence of the Blue and White Niles at Omdurman.

The ultimately futile street fighting with Sudanese government troops and tanks marked a new low in the internecine strife among Sudan’s Islamists that forms a backdrop to the Darfur

crisis and the country’s several other internal conflicts. In the hours after Ibrahim was bloodily

beaten back, a round-up of opposition members began in Khartoum.

Coinciding with escalating fighting in the Abyei oil region of southern Sudan between former rebels and government forces and continuing violence in Darfur, the instability and divisions in Khartoum are feeding fears of a widening conflagration.

Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, expressed “grave concern” that the JEM attack could indirectly undermine the already creaking comprehensive peace agreement that ended decades of north-south conflict. Other UN officials are warning of “another major cycle of violence and large-scale human displacement”.

For the United States and other western governments primarily concerned to end the age-old Darfur crisis, these rapid developments may force a reappraisal of their hostile policy towards Sudan’s government. Bashir’s regime may be objectionable in many ways, but the alternative

of national collapse and fragmentation of Africa’s largest country is more alarming by far.