Rebel Infighting Devastates Sudan for 10 Years, Sudanese Rebels Have Fought the Government. Now They Are Also Busy Fighting among Themselves

By Robert M. Press, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 14, 1993 | Go to article overview

Rebel Infighting Devastates Sudan for 10 Years, Sudanese Rebels Have Fought the Government. Now They Are Also Busy Fighting among Themselves


Robert M. Press, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


FIGHTING among rival rebel groups, and not drought, is the main cause of the alarming levels of death and malnutrition in parts of southern Sudan, according to officials of the United Nations World Food Programme providing famine relief here.

The infighting is strongly condemned - by the UN, the United States government, and the human rights group Amnesty International - for adding to the misery of civilians in the region. But the leaders of both sides, interviewed in this rebel stronghold in the far south and in Nairobi, Kenya, say they are prepared to keep on fighting each other for supremacy.

"It will only be a short time when we shall move," says Faustino Atem Gualdit, a leader of a breakaway rebel group, warning of an imminent attack on the main faction of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), a largely non-Muslim movement based in the south of the country, which has fought the Islamic regime in the capital Khartoum since 1983.

Southerners fought Sudan's central government from 1955 until 1972, when the government granted the south more autonomy. The SPLA was formed to resume the battle in 1983, after autonomy was weakened and Islamic law or sharia was imposed throughout the country.

But since 1991, the rebels have fractured into several rival groups, which have clashed occasionally. The frequency of such battles has increased in recent weeks as three breakaway groups have begun to work together, announcing their formal unity April 5 under the name SPLA United.

Interviews with rebel leaders and with independent, non-Sudanese church and academic analysts provide new glimpses into the inner workings of the SPLA. It is a world where dissident rebels allegedly suffer long imprisonment in darkened, tightly packed cells in the bush, and where SPLA leader Col. John Garang has lost considerable support amid criticism that he is a dictator and a poor military strategist.

And in an important political development, the rebel dissidents have spoken out in favor of an independent southern Sudan. "We are for independence, through negotiations - or fighting," an SPLA United leader says.

Colonel Garang, who was educated in the US, has long favored a stronger role for the south in a united Sudan free of religious laws.

Recently, however, he has begun to speak of two confederated states, one in the north and one in the south "sovereign in their constitution."

The few people who have analyzed the SPLA say that, for the most part, Garang's army has shown little concern for the people it claims to represent: the civilians of the south.

"I have found very few SPLA people who really care about their people," says a church minister in Nairobi who spoke on condition of anonymity. Two exceptions, the minister says, may be prominent SPLA United leaders Lam Akol Ajawin and Kerubino Kwanyin Bol. Garang, the minister adds, is definitely in this "for his own power." Personal rivalries

The splits "probably begin with ... rivalries in the movement" based not on political differences but on "very personal motives" says Francis Deng, a Sudanese who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Their motives are cloaked in ideological justifications such as furthering democracy and human rights, he adds.

Garang and SPLA United leaders have "lost all credibility in the West" for pursing their rivalries while people are starving, says history professor Robert Collins of the University of California at Santa Barbara.

James Michel, acting administrator of the US Agency for International Development, recently blasted the fighting among the rebels as "a callous disregard for human life among those who claim to be fighting for the people of the region. …

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