Who are Sudan’s Jem rebels?

Sudan rebels say they are fighting to save country from disintegration.

jem rebels
Jem claims to have as many as 35,000 armed fighters in the western Darfur region [GALLO/GETTY]

The Justice and Equality Movement (Jem) is the most powerful anti-government faction involved in the conflict in Sudan’s western Darfur region.

Jem leaders claim they have as many as 35,000 well-armed fighters in the region that borders Chad.

On May 10, 2008, Jem fighters launched the first rebel attack on the Sudanese capital Khartoum – an event that marked Jem out as the major anti-government faction in Darfur.

The rebels intended to topple the government and were only defeated once they had already reached the outskirts of Omdurman – one of three towns that comprise the capital city.

The group was founded in 2000 following the publication of The Black Book: Imbalance of Power and Wealth in the Sudan. The book was authored by a number of Jem fighters, including Khalil Ibrahim Muhammad, the group’s leader.

While espousing an Islamist ideology, Jem members believe that northern Sudanese Arabs are disproportionately represented within the Khartoum government and political elite, leaving southern Africans and western Arabs disenfranchised and impoverished.

“The northern Nile elites are monopolising 95 per cent of the power and wealth of Sudan, while the rest of us, who make up 38 million people in 24 states, are holding only five per cent of the power and wealth in Sudan. Obviously, this is an imbalance,” Abu Bakr Hamid Noor, one of the Black Book authors, has said.

‘Fight to save’

Jem fighters claim they are fighting to save Sudan, saying current inequalities will push the southern Sudanese to opt for independence and so lead to the eventual destruction of the country.

Instead, Jem leaders are calling for the creation of a new country they refer to as the United Regions of Sudan which would be led by a rotating presidency, giving all six Sudanese regions a term in office.

“Chad is not supporting the Jem… we want them to help us but so far we didn’t get any help from them.”

Khalil Ibrahim, Jem leader

However, while it is true Jem is the only multi-ethnic faction in Darfur – the other two groups are comprised of the Fur tribe in the case of Abdelwahid’s Sudan Liberation Army or the Zaghawa in the case of Minni Minnawi’s Sudan Liberation Army – critics say Jem is not the inclusive “rainbow of tribes” it claims to be.

Most Jem members, including its leader, are from the Zaghawa tribe whose people straddle the Chad-Sudan border.

The Khartoum government, led by President Omar al-Bashir, alleges the movement gets support from Idriss Deby, president of Chad, and the Zaghawa-dominated Chadian military – something Jem strongly denies.

“This is rubbish. Actually the Zaghawa are a minority in Jem… Chad is not supporting the Jem… we want them to help us but so far we didn’t get any help from them,” Khalil Ibrahim has insisted.

However, even without direct military aid, Jem fighters appear to move freely across the border and its ability to use Chad as a base for retreat and resupply has given it a decisive edge in the Darfur conflict.

Heightening distrust

Khartoum’s distrust of Jem has been heightened because the rebel group maintains close links to the former National Islamic Front leader Hassan al-Turabi, who originally backed al-Bashir’s 1989 coup that saw the overthrow of Sadeq al-Mahdi’s government.

Al-Turabi, once an ally, advocated sharing power with southern Africans and western Arabs, and appealed to the government to elect John Garang, former leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, and current SPLM leader Salva Kiir, as president to answer claims of marginalisation by southern Sudanese.

Qatar has brokered talks between Jem and
the Sudanese government [AFP]

After al-Turabi attempted to introduce legislation limiting presidential powers, al-Bashir dissolved parliament, declared a state of emergency and removed al-Turabi and his supporters from government.

Khartoum has also accused Jem of being involved with an alleged coup plot the government claims was masterminded by al-Turabi.

In the event southern Sudan votes for independence in polls scheduled for 2011, Jem says it will abandon the national project and break away too. In doing so, they have threatened to seize all the land west of the Nile including Omdurman, Darfur and Kordofan.

“This part is over 50 per cent of the land of Sudan, this is our region and we can establish a country on that land,” Khalil Ibrahim told Al Jazeera in early 2009.

Peace talks

After years of refusing to attend peace talks with Khartoum, Jem finally signed a goodwill agreement at talks brokered by Qatar at the beginning of 2009.

However, it soon fell apart after Omar al-Bashir expelled some western development and aid groups from Darfur when the International Criminal Court in the Hague issued a warrant for his arrest in connection with alleged war crimes committed in Darfur.

Jem withdrew its support for the accord until, it said, Khartoum reinstated the aid groups.

On May 7, 2009, the Sudanese government finally resumed talks with Jem, again under Qatari supervision, following a reconciliation summit between Chad and Sudan also hosted by Qatar prompted by a Chadian rebel group attack on the Njamena, the capital of Chad.

Chad, in turn, has accuses Khartoum of supporting the attack, and observers believe the possibility of a retaliatory offensive by Jem – launched from the Chadian border – against the Sudanese army cannot be ruled out.

Analysts warn if that happens, the Darfur conflict will become deadlier and even more difficult to solve.

However, hopes were raised in February 2010, when Jem reached a ceasefire deal with the Sudanese government in Doha, Qatar.

But talks between Khartoum and Jem have since run into trouble and a deadline set for completing the peace deal passed on March 15 without agreement.

On March 29 Jem threatened to resume its armed struggle if the talks hit a dead end.

Amin Hassan Omar, Sudan’s chief peace negotiator, at the same time accused Jem of being “not serious” about reaching a final settlement.

Omar accused the rebels of violating the ceasefire and failing to free prisoners despite a pledge to do so.

Source: Al Jazeera