Yasir Arman and the war in Sudan's new south: 'We cannot sit idly and wait for Khartoum to kill us'
Many rebels were left behind when South Sudan seceded and they have carried on the fight against the regime in Khartoum. Their leader is Yasir Arman, who spoke to SIMON ALLISON in an exclusive interview about uniting a fractious opposition, the trouble with binaries and how political Islam will destroy Africa.
Yasir Arman doesn’t look like a rebel leader. There’s no Che Guevara beret, no combat boots. Instead he’s in a dark suit and a red and grey-striped tie, his slight paunch betraying the fact that he doesn’t spend as much time on the frontlines as he used to.
The clue is in the eyes, which gaze at me with a disconcerting intensity, and the voice; a deep, gravelly baritone that sounds like the product of 10,000 cigarettes and even more barked orders. This is a voice that commands, and it is a voice that men follow.
Arman is the secretary-general of what is both Sudan’s newest and oldest rebel movement, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-North). Newest because it was founded just last year; and oldest because it is an offshoot of the SPLM proper, which until it became South Sudan’s ruling party was Khartoum’s longest-standing foe.
Now, the SPLM runs a country and most of Arman’s old comrades have become ministers or businessmen. Their fight is fought, for the most part, although there are still plenty of destabilizing details to be worked out.
But Arman is not from the south. The SPLM, as originally conceived, was not about winning southern independence but about liberating the entire country from the regime in Khartoum. As such, it attracted support from all over the country. Particularly strong support (and a number of the organisation’s fighters and administrators) came from provinces such as Blue Nile and South Kordofan that remain inside north Sudan. For them, the fight continues.
“On one hand I’m happy that South Sudan achieved what they want. But it is not the end of the story, it is not the end of the journey,” Arman told the Daily Maverick in an exclusive interview. In the wake of the South’s secession, he and the SPLM remnants in the north formed a new party, the SPLM-North, with a military wing to match. For the last 18 months they have been waging their own civil war against the government of President Omar al-Bashir.
Fighting in South Kordofan and Blue Nile is estimated to have left half a million people displaced, and created a humanitarian emergency in South Sudan as the new and barely functional state struggles to cope with the influx of refugees. Humanitarian organisations have been denied access to the conflict areas by Khartoum. The government has also been widely condemned for employing the same tactics against the SPLM-North which they used with such devastating effect in Darfur: indiscriminate aerial bombings, attacks on civilians and a scorched earth policy that will retard development in the area by decades.
Meanwhile, the rebels have not been quiet, launching several successful assaults on government positions. More ominously for the government, the SPLM-North has called upon its decades of experience to try and unite the notoriously divided opposition movements which have prevented the emergence of any genuine challenge to Bashir’s rule. The product of this diplomacy – “it took a lot of effort and a lot of frank discussions” – is the Sudan Revolutionary Front, an alliance of Sudanese opposition groups that incorporates the SPLM-North as well as rebels from Darfur and factions of political groups in Khartoum itself.
“The SRF is a huge step toward the future,” said Arman. “For me it is not a tactical alliance; it is not a military alliance. It is a political alliance. We need to develop it as a strategic alliance, like what the ANC did in South Africa. We don’t want to copy what the ANC did, but Sudan needs a strategic democratic alliance that will transform Sudan. The South African example and the Freedom Charter of 1955 is a good example. We should get lessons from them. We should build an alliance that will be electable, and that will democratize Sudan into a united democratic, secular Sudan; into what we call a new Sudan.”
Already, the military wing of the SRF is having an impact. “We cannot sit idly to wait for Khartoum to kill us,” Arman observed. Coordinated attacks by the SPLM-N in the “new south” and in Darfur have put the Sudanese armed forces on the back foot. “The government forces they are in bad shape; they are over-stretched.” And the very fact of a rebel alliance is a deeply disturbing development for Khartoum, which has historically relied on very effective divide-and-rule tactics to keep opposition under control.
Sudan is naturally a divided country, as are so many in Africa. With 570 ethnic groups and nearly 130 languages, the potential for conflict was always great and, so far, fully realised. For Arman, the country is in desperate need of some national project that will bring the country together. This national project has historically been founded on Arabism or Islamism, both of which inevitably exclude large numbers of people. “What unites all Sudanese is not that they are Muslim or Christian or having an African religion but that they are Sudanese,” he said. He is also critical of any narrative that casts Sudan’s long-running conflicts in simple binary terms: Muslim against Christian, North against South, Arab against African. As a Muslim himself, and a northerner, he would be fighting on the wrong side of these divides.
The relationship between Islam and the state is one which visibly frustrates Arman. He is insistent that in his vision of a future Sudan – one shared by the SPLM-North and the SRF – the country would be secular and that a strict separation between the state and religion would be maintained. This is in stark contrast to Bashir’s government, which is strongly Islamist in orientation.
Arman warns that the problem of political Islam is far bigger than just Sudan. “I want to give a message to Africans,” he said. “In Khartoum there is an Islamic African university that is indoctrinating and building African movements that are based on political Islam; fundamentalist movements.” And through this university’s doors, according to Arman, have passed some of the most dangerous men in Africa: leaders of militant Islamist groups all over the continent, including Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab, as well as secessionist movements in Kenya and Tanzania. Khartoum, in other words, is fanning the flames of religious violence across the continent.
It’s a grand and disturbing thesis, with a grain of truth: many fundamentalist leaders have found a safe haven in Khartoum, including, most famously, Osama bin Laden and current al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. It is also, however, a clever attempt to position the SPLM-North and the SRF at the forefront of the fight against political Islam and a partner in the War on Terror, a position which would bring with it the international attention and support that the movement craves and needs if it is going to turn impressive rhetoric into real gains against Bashir’s regime.
Arman’s dreams are bigger than just that, however. His tone turns wistful as he speaks of a re-united Sudan, where his former comrades in the south are once again part of the same political dispensation, this time of their own making. “I believe in the unity of Sudan and I believe we can create a Sudanese union. In Europe you go from Spain to Switzerland, there are many countries with different flags and prime ministers and presidents but it is still the European Union. We should create the Sudanese Union between north and south; a union that is based on two independent states.”
Despite the new rebel alliance, and despite their fragile military gains, that union is still a long way off. For now, the 50-year-old Yasir Arman is continuing the fight that has defined his adult life, one that he maintains he still has the stomach for even after all these years. “We are all guests in this world. Life without a cause is a curse, and I believe in the cause I am doing. I get my energy from what I believe in, and I am convinced I have to do something that will add value in my life. If not today, then tomorrow.” DM
Photo: Yasir Arman, Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) senior member, speaks during joint news conference in Khartoum December 22, 2010. SPLM, South Sudan's main party, said it would form a separate opposition group in the north if the country split in two after a referendum next month, and would seek support from marginalised people, even Darfur rebels.Reuters/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah