Home | Comment & Analysis    Monday 14 November 2011

Kurmuk: the limits of liberation


By Magdi El-Gizouli

November 13, 2011 — A triumphant President Bashir landed in al-Kurmuk on the first day of Eid al-Adha, 6 November, flanked by his defence minister and his security director, and, of course, the crucial minister of presidential affairs, Bakri Hassan Salih. The four gentlemen were then joined by a second cohort of military personnel including the caretaker governor of the Blue Nile and the force commander of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) in the state. The president and his entourage entertained the SAF contingent that had subdued al-Kurmuk, the major stronghold of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in North Sudan (SPLM-N), and declared the town ‘liberated.’

While under the control of the SPLM the town was also referred to as ‘liberated.’ The area and its inhabitants suffered the two variants of ‘liberation’ several times during the course of the 1983-2005 civil war. The first cycle was in November 1987 when the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), under the leadership of the late John Garang, managed to gain control over the town and its less famed neighbour, Gaisan.

In the same year, the SPLA mounted its first sustained campaign in South Kordofan after it had signalled its military presence in the region with the 1985 surprise raid on al-Gardud. At the time, Sadiq al-Mahdi was the master in Khartoum presiding over a coalition government that joined the National Umma Party (NUP) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

In parliament, the opposition National Islamic Front (NIF) headed by Hassan al-Turabi grilled the NUP over the military defeat in Kurmuk. Exasperated, Sadiq al-Mahdi’s captain, the late Omer Nur al-Daim, told the house, so what if al-Kurmuk fell, Berlin fell, not a particularly felicitous parallel I suppose. Similar to today’s al-Intibaha the NIF press back then, al-Raya, al-Sudani and Alwan, ridiculed the hesitant peace efforts of the NUP and the DUP as mere ‘capitulation’ to the SPLA and whipped up public support for the war effort.

The SAF, armed with Libyan weapons, managed to reclaim al-Kurmuk in December 1988. The town continued to be the object of competition between the SPLA and the SAF until the former managed to ‘liberate’ it again in 1997. This time around, there was no opposition in the parliament to grill the government of President Bashir and Hassan al-Turabi over the defeat. The event was largely ignored.

When the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in 2005 al-Kurmuk was still under the control of the SPLA. The April 2010 elections delivered the governorship of the Blue Nile state to the SPLM’s Malik Agar. Later in the year, he declared the transfer of the state capital from al-Damazin to al-Kurmuk. The decision was never implemented, possibly due to stiff resistance from Khartoum and the lobbying of the Damazin merchants and big landowners. The pro-SPLM Khartoum newspaper Ajras al-Hurriya professed that al-Kurmuk, the state capital to be, would soon become “Africa’s Dubai”, a regional hub of commerce and tourism. Well, it didn’t.

True to custom, President Bashir promised the few civilians who were there to attend his Eid al-Adha address in al-Kurmuk beside the troops that rehabilitation and development under government aegis would soon soothe the war wounds of the town, now that it has returned to the bosom of the nation. In the heat of the moment, President Bashir told his troops to bring in Malik Agar alive and threatened South Sudan with war in case it continues to support the rebels of the Blue Nile and South Kordofan. Instead of haraka (Arabic for movement) the President kept saying hashara (Arabic for insect), to the delight of the audience. The SAF, he declared, has crushed the hashara for good, probably not I presume.

The president, well informed by his experience as the SAF commander in Mayom, Upper Nile, in the 1980s, probably has a better grasp of the virtual invincibility of guerrillas in the Sudanese war zones. He controlled Mayom once, but only Mayom. The SAF today has Kurmuk in its grasp; so what, Omer Nur al-Daim could have asked.

The author is a fellow of the Rift Valley Institute. He publishes regular opinion articles and analyses at his blog Still Sudan. He can be reached at m.elgizouli@gmail.com

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