1 August 2017

Sudan: Al-Hilu's Test

Over the short period since Abdel Aziz Al-Hilu took over as leader of the SPLM-N last month he issued two major decisions: declaring a six months unilateral ceasefire and the other putting his own house in order.

Both moves are inter-related and should be taken within the power game. The unilateral ceasefire works well for the new leader who wants to avoid fighting at the time he is engaged in the most important mission of consolidating his grip on his domestic front. The timing also works well as it covers the dry season that favors any potential government military offensive.

The other decision was intended mainly to tightening his grip on the APLM-N in Nuba Mountains by kicking upstairs the former chief of staff Jagoud Mukwar and appointing him as one of his two deputies after promoting him to lieutenant general while promoting others as well. All in all his faction now has four lieutenant generals and twenty major generals. Apparently gone are days when guerilla fighters were content with fighting without bothering with fancy military titles. Moreover, these new appointments coupled with reinstating seven senior officers dismissed by previous leadership will ensure more allegiance to Al-Hilu and diminish whatever loyalty former leadership of Malik Agar and Yasser Arman used to have within the movement.

The first outcome of these decisions is that it has sealed for good any chances for repairing the rift between the former brothers in arms. More important, these decisions send a deadly blow to whatever left of the New Sudan vision by concentrating its efforts from now on the Nuba Mountains only and leaving, in effect, the Blue Nile, which has been the twin area, for its own fate.

Though the next move to watch is the reaction from the regional and international players towards Al-Hilu's leadership, but the first step should come from Al-Hilu himself, namely his plan to work with USAID to ensure delivering humanitarian aid to affected areas under his control.

For close to a year the issue of humanitarian aid to affected areas has been at the center of the debate and the former SPLM-N chief negotiator Yasser Arman was adamant on securing partial delivery directly from a foreign-based starting point. Donald Booth, former US Special Envoy did not mince his words and accused the opposition leaders of putting their own personal interest first at the expense of the people they claim to represent and have resorted to arms for their sake. Add to the urgency of this issue is the continuous deterioration of food conditions in these areas.

However, the most challenging issue that will face Al-Hilu and his team is how to sell his call for self-determination domestically, regionally and internationally.

The self-determination raised by Al-Hilu was intended first to undermine his opponents Agar and Arman accusing them of selling out the cause and as a rallying call. For that end it worked well given the outcome of his showdown with Agar and Arman. Now it is time for the hard part of selling the idea to a diverse and more fragmented Nuba in various areas.

The call for self-determination seems to be picked up from the old SPLM mother, though the Nuba situation is more complicated than the simplified case of Southern Sudan in terms of geography and intermingling with the rest of the country.

In addition to the difficulty of how and where to exercise that self-determination, Al-Hilu needs to address the worries of his potential friends and allies that self-determination is a democratic right that does not lead automatically to separation. Arguments laden with Marxist-Leninist jargon can easily been cited especially those of Lenin and his relentless campaign to honor the right of self-determination to various groups under the Soviet rule, but it was Stalin who suppressed that trend.

In the case of Southern Kordofan there is no need to go far in academic and ideological debate. People have the living experience of South Sudan experiencing self-determination and its outcome that easily lead others to think many times before supporting such call. The African Union seems to be going back to the old doctrine of respecting existing borders inherited from the colonial era.

That means an uphill battle awaits Al-Hilu if he wants to convince the AUHIP headed by Thabo Mbeki that he ought to open up to include self-determination to the list of issues he was mandated to handle.

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