Johannesburg — Although reports from Sudan's conflict zones are always murky and often contradictory, enough information exists to suggest that an alliance of Sudanese rebels has finally moved from issuing threatening statements to making good on those threats. This is the last thing that the already-weakened regime in Khartoum needs.
Information coming out of Sudan is notoriously unreliable. Every side claims its own version of events, and onlookers are usually helpless to confirm or deny anything that's going on in that country's remote, battle-scarred provinces. It is in these rural areas that battles are fought and atrocities committed, far away from the not-so-harsh glare of the world's media, which has usually preferred to cover the various conflicts from the relative comfort and safety of Khartoum, Juba or Addis Ababa (often not out of choice; journalists are generally forbidden from entering the danger zones).
Even the great news agencies can't vouch for the accuracy of their reports. Both Reuters and AFP were forced to insert disclaimers into their articles on last Thursday's surge of violence in two of Sudan's most troubled provinces. "Events in Darfur and South Kordofan are hard to verify due to a lack of access for journalists to the remote areas," wrote Reuters, while AFP informed its audience that "casualty claims are difficult to verify with access to both Darfur and South Kordofan restricted".
Thursday was a significant day in the Sudanese government's fight against rebel groups, whose stated aim is to bring down the regime of President Omar al-Bashir. Here's what we do know, helpfully confirmed by all parties: at least 77 people (possibly more) were killed in at least two separate incidents of fighting in South Kordofan and Darfur between the Sudanese army and the various rebel groups operating in those provinces. In the "new south" province of South Kordofan, on the border with South Sudan, that's the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N); in the western province of Darfur, on the border with Chad, that's the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and one branch of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLM) - we're not too sure which group exactly was involved.
It's also unclear who started the fighting and on which side the casualties occurred. All sides say something different. The Sudanese Army claimed it successfully repulsed an attack on its positions in Hajr al-Dum in South Kordofan and al-Adradib in Darfur. The SPLM-N does not deny attacking Hajr al-Dum, but claimed to have pushed the army out. JEM said it was actually the rebel group successfully repulsing an army attack on al-Adradib. The SLM, meanwhile, said the army attacked its forces somewhere else completely.
But let's not get lost in the details - we could spend many hours debating the various claims and still be no nearer the truth. Instead, let's look at what we do know, and what this means in the bigger picture.
We know that violence flared up in two very different parts of Sudan at exactly the same time. The incidents were hundreds of kilometres away from each other. This suggests a level of coordination.
There are two groupings that are capable of such coordination. One, of course, is the Sudanese army, with its tight chain of command and strong presence in the affected areas. A double attack on different rebel organisations in different parts of the country would send a strong message to the rebels that the government remains in control and is not afraid to use force to maintain the status quo.
The other potential grouping is the rebels themselves. Last year, in the wake of the secession of South Sudan, three of the most influential rebel groups in Darfur - JEM and two different branches of the SLM - formed a rebel coalition with the SPLM-N, known as the Sudan Revolutionary Front. The idea was to work together to bring down the government in Khartoum, and share their expertise.
Since their alliance, the SRF has issued a few grandiose statements, but there have been few concrete examples of them working together, with the exception of a few reports suggesting the occasional presence of JEM fighters in South Kordofan. If Thursday's violence really was a product of the rebel coalition, this would mark a new chapter in Sudan's politics - and a particularly dangerous one as far as Khartoum is concerned.
Divide-and-rule is Khartoum's favourite tactic. Never afraid to pit tribe against tribe or religion against religion, the tactic has been used effectively to keep opposition fragmented and therefore powerless.
Tellingly, it was only when South Sudan's rebel movements were able to bury their internal differences that they became powerful enough to force the north into a peace settlement, which ultimately resulted in secession.
If the rebels now operating around Sudan's periphery can achieve a similar level of unity and coordination, they will pose a far greater, and possibly fatal, threat to the regime than any single rebel group operating by itself. And, according to Sabir Ibrahim Abu Saadia, the SPLM-N's representative to Southern Africa and the Indian Ocean islands, that is exactly what is happening. "Absolutely, absolutely," he told the Daily Maverick, when asked if the recent attacks were coordinated by the SLF. "They (the rebel groups involved) all answer to one command."
This perhaps explains why Khartoum's attention has been distracted from the Thabo Mbeki-mediated peace talks currently being held with South Sudan in Addis Ababa, designed to resolve all the outstanding issues that were not solved prior to the south's secession. It's not going very well. "The first week of renewed negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan ended without any new agreement," reported Voice of America. "The first week of negotiations focused mainly on the border and related oil and security issues. But there hasn't been a breakthrough yet."
Another main cause of contention between the two parties is Khartoum's suspicion that the South Sudan is supporting the SPLM-N, and by extension the rebel coalition whose sole purpose is to destroy the Sudanese government. This is an unconfirmed but not unreasonable suspicion - the SPLM-N once fought with the South Sudanese rebels, and is in fact an offshoot of South Sudan's ruling party. And South Sudan would have plenty to gain if the SRF made good on its regime change threats and installed a more friendly government.
For Khartoum, it is a dangerous time all round. Given the regime's economic woes, and the unrest among its core support in central Sudan, it is the weakest it has been since a much-younger Bashir seized power in 1989. The SRF, if it is indeed might just have picked the right moment to launch its attacks.