Asmara has become the second capital of the Sudan. The vast number of personalities opposed to president Omar al Bechir’s regime who have settled here are now too numerous to count. A real counter-power has been established in the Eritrean city.
Saddiq al Mahdi, the last legitimate prime minister of the Sudan, overthrown by the coup of June 30, 1989; Mohammed Othman al Mirghani, chief of the powerful Khatmya brotherhood, and leader of the D.U.P (Unionist Party); General Fathi Ahmed Ali, former commander in chief of the Sudanese army (who died suddenly on april 28 1997); General Abdel Aziz, former commander of the air defence force in Khartoum; General Issam al Mirghani, former second in command of the Sudanese army, in charge of operations and intelligence; General Mohammed al Mamoun el Turabi; and the leaders of all the Sudanese political parties, from John Garang’s SPLM to the Communist Party and the Beja Congress: everybody, except, of course, Hassan Turabi’s National Islamic Front, is in Asmara.
An impressive coalition
This coalition of the “National Democratic Alliance” is so impressive that one wonders why the junta in Khartoum has still not fallen from power. Obviously, the opposition’s strategy is to multiply attacks on different remote fronts. After important successes on the Eastern front, on the border between Ethiopia and the Sudan, in mid-january, the opposition attacked in the South, where SPLA took the city of Yei, on 12 march, and controls virtually all Equatoria. Its forces are now positioned some 30 or 40 kilometres from Juba.
But, despite several small operations in the Red Sea province in april, the opposition did not move forward, as expected, towards the Kassala-Port Sudan road, and the Damazin dam which would have allowed it to cut off Khartoum’s power supply. Was it because the opposition planners in Asmara were expecting a popular uprising in Khartoum, which did not materialise? Or because they were betting on a putsch triggered from Khartoum by some of their former military colleagues? Or did they deliberately avoid marching on Damazin because, as some diplomats in Asmara believe, they were afraid Hassan Turabi’s partisans would sabotage the dam installations, and claim it was done by the opposition.
A lack of resources
What happened in fact is probably more prosaic, if one is to believe General Issam al Mirghani, second in command of the SAF (Sudan’s Alliance Forces). According to him, the opposition’s lack of progress can be explained by its lack of resources. “To wage a war, one needs a lot of logistics back up and most opposition groups are fighting without any help from anybody”.
French military officials who follow the events from Djibouti are convinced the mid-january offensive was supported by tanks, multi-rockets launchers and artillery belonging to Eritrean and Ethiopian units. But while readily admitting that Eritreans train Sudanese opposition forces in camps located along the border, and supply them with equipment, American and other diplomats based in Asmara claim that the Eritrean forces did not cross over the border. The best proof, say these diplomats, is that in spite of all their accusations the Sudanese were unable to bring forward the smallest proof of Eritrean intervention.
A recent statement by President Isayas Afeworki (reported by the Agence France Presse on 24 April), admitting that Eritrean troops were involved in the fighting, was strongly denied. In fact, while being determined to topple the Islamist regime in Khartoum, the Eritrean leadership makes no secret of its second thoughts on the Sudanese opposition. “SPLA fighters are well equipped with weapons and ammunitions, but they fight like a classical army”, said an Eritrean high official. “And they have many problems of organisation. They are split between themselves, and their relations with the peoples are not good; they do nothing for the health or the education of the population”.
“As far as the Northeners are concerned, they don’t have a mentality of rebels”, adds this Eritrean official. “For a long time they were against armed struggle, saying that the regime would be overthrown by a popular uprising. Now they have changed, but they don’t know how to take up weapons”. Questioning the strength of the alliance between the Southerners and the Northerners, the Eritreans believe that only time will forge a real alliance between all these groups of the Sudanese opposition, and that it is better that the regime does not fall immediately.
The “National Democratic Alliance” does contain groups with very different beliefs: the Oumma party of Saddiq al Mahdi and the “Legitimate Command” of (recently deceased) General Fathi Ahmed Ali consider themselves as the representatives of the “legitimacy” that was in power before the Islamist coup of 30 June 1989, while general Abdel Aziz, commander of the SAF, openly states that it is out of the question to go back to the previous situation: “We do not fight to restore the old legitimate government. We want to bring a new Sudan, we want a redistribution of the political forces”, says this former “free officier”, now on the other side.
SPLA leaders do not forget that Saddiq al Mahdi and the generals have led for several years the fight against SPLA, nor that they were the ones who armed and launched the tribes against the civilian population in the South. All the parties also have different ideas on the ways and means of toppling the regime.
In spite of these divergences and these shortcomings, the Sudanese opposition does represent a consideable force. It was able to agree in 1995 on the “Asmara charter”, the formation of a provisional government for a period of four years, and the principle of self-determination, the charter now represents all the political trends of the Sudan.
All Sudanese politicians appear convinced that there is no possibility of dialogue with Omar al Bechir and Hassan Turabi, and that they must be overthrown by force. And Saddiq al Mahdi can easily convince the Arab heads of state that this is no “Zionist” or “foreign” plot but the will of the Sudanese people.
(The Middle East magazine, June 1997; L’Autre Afrique, 21 mars 1997)
Droits de Reproduction strictement réservés © Chris Kutschera 2012
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