There is a classic scene in Monty Python’s film The Life of Brian where the hero sets off in search of a secret band of insurgents. “Are you the Judean People’s Front,” he asks a group of malcontents. “The Judean People’s Front!” they reply in disgust. “We’re the People’s Front of Judea … The only people we hate more than the Romans are the f***ing Judean People’s Front … And the Judean Popular People’s Front. Splitters!”
Darfur’s more Islamic rebels will not appreciate the Judean comparison. But there has been an undeniable Pythonesque quality to recent efforts to negotiate with the splintered insurgent factions in Sudan’s strife-torn west.
Last month, Khartoum signed a ceasefire with Darfur’s rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). Days later, JEM threatened to pull out of further peace talks saying it was furious about Khartoum’s decision to sign a similar deal with the new rebel umbrella group the Liberation and Justice Movement (LJM).
JEM lashed out at LJM, saying most of its constituent groups were bogus with no military strength, many of them government stooges. (The LJM’s member parties, who deny JEM’s accusations, include the United Resistance Front – URF, the Sudan Liberation Movement Mainstream – SLM-M and the Democratic Justice and Equality Movement – D-JEM, together with even more obscure bodies.)
LJM leaders lashed out at JEM, saying JEM had no right to monopolise the negotiations taking place in Qatar’s luxury hotels and conference centres.
Meanwhile the whole process was dismissed as a farce by the faction of the insurgent Sudan Liberation Army/Movement still loyal to commander Abdel Wahed Mohamed al-Nur (SLA/M – Abdel Wahed), as well as by Abdel Shafie of the rival SLA/M – Abdel Shafie.
There is a serious point to make behind the Monty Python references and the ever thickening stew of rebel acronyms.
Seven years into Darfur’s festering conflict, the fragmentation of the region’s rebel groups remains one of the largest obstacles to a meaningful peace deal.
Many of the break-ups have been self inflicted, with ambitious commanders vying for power and exploiting ethnic divisions. But there has also been growing unease about the role played by external actors.
Foreign powers, chief among them the United States, have grown increasingly frustrated at the intransigence of Darfur’s two original rebel groups — JEM and Abdel Wahed’s SLA/M. So they have cast around for other people to deal with.
Serious questions marks remain over the groups they have managed to find.
First there is the continued rejection of the new groups by the established insurgents.
Second there is question of whether the new groups are large enough to be counted as real rebel players. The Small Arms Survey estimates one collection of rebels, brought together in Ethiopia last year by U.S. Sudan Envoy Scott Gration, operated out of as few as 20 Toyota Land Cruisers.
Third there are fears the search for new rebel groups has ended up creating new conflicts. A recent surge of violence in Darfur’s central Jabel Marra region reportedly started when Abdel Wahed’s forces attacked former comrades who had decided to leave and go to Doha under a new rebel banner.
All that aside, pity the poor journalists who have to cover the increasingly tangled web of Darfur peace negotiations. The dilemma for reporters is to find out which of the new groups actually represent anyone on the ground, which are worth talking to.
A few weeks ago, Sudan’s Ministry of Information phoned round news agencies to say a JEM delegation was about to arrive at Khartoum airport.
The first questions on every reporter’s lips were “Do you mean the real JEM? The JEM led by Khalil Ibrahim? The JEM that attacked Khartoum in May 2008?”
The answer from the ministry official seemed pretty clear. “It is JEM. We can’t tell you who exactly is coming. We want it to be a big surprise.”
We rushed to the airport to be greeted by an anonymous man in a suit who announced he was the leader of a group called JEM South Kordofan. He dodged questions about his exact allegiance and headed for the exit.
The next morning, JEM’s spokesman phoned from Doha to deny having any involvement with the visiting mission. “These people are nobodies,” he said. “Nothing to do with JEM.” In another time and another context, he may well have added: “Splitters!”