Khalil Ibrahim: Death of a Darfurian Rebel
By: May Ali
Published Tuesday, December 27, 2011
After dodging death for many years, Darfur rebel leader Khalil Ibrahim was apparently forsaken by regional and local forces. The timing and manner of his assassination raise doubts over the fortunes of his Justice and Equality Movement and the future of conflict in the horn of Africa.
Khartoum - After a two hour meeting in London Sunday, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) confirmed that its leader Khalil Ibrahim was killed in Darfur, contradicting earlier Sudanese government reports that Ibrahim had been killed in North Kordofan.
Ibrahim’s assassination will have major ramifications for the region given the central role he played as the leader of the dominant rebel movement in Darfur.
Ibrahim’s eldest brother Jibril confirmed the news of his brother’s passing, but he denied government claims that Ibrahim was killed alongside thirty members of the movement during the course of fierce battles in the Umm Qawzayn region of North Kordofan along the border of the North Darfur province.
Jibril described this story as a “fabrication,” because Ibrahim’s death was the result of “a night time airstrike last Friday targeting the movement’s base” in Darfur.
The fact that the airstrike which targeted Ibrahim was so precise has led JEM leaders to believe that foreign or regional elements may have played a role, given the notorious imprecision of the Sudanese air force. Jibril explained that his brother was not in the command center but moving in a convoy of vehicles, further illustrating that the airstrike was a precision attack.
Whichever narrative is true, the fact remains that the JEM has lost an outstanding leader who held the movement together despite fragmentation and numerous defections. Observers say that Ibrahim’s charisma was the heart of the movement. He combined political savvy with military prowess gained through battlefield experienced since the days of his adolescence.
Ibrahim’ rise and birth of the JEM
Ibrahim began his political career with Omar al-Bashir’s government at the beginning of the 1990s after returning from Saudi Arabia. A physician by training, he was appointed as Minister of Health in the government of the province of Greater Darfur, before its division into three provinces, and then became Minister of Education.
After that, he went to the Blue Nile province in southeast Sudan as an adviser in the provincial government. Ibrahim soon rebelled against the ruling government in Khartoum because, in his own words, “the Islamic movement had abandoned its responsibilities towards ordinary people after reaching power and, therefore, had lost its legitimacy.”
When the Islamists split between supporters of al-Bashir and the Popular Congress Party (PCP) headed by Hasan al-Turabi, Ibrahim was one of eight from the movement who sided with al-Turabi. Because of the close relationship between Ibrahim and the PCP leader, the JEM — which was founded in 2001 and began military operations in February of 2003 — was considered by the regime to be the military arm of the PCP.
The JEM accused the Sudanese government of favoring Arab tribes in Darfur and neglecting the development of the region. In addition, the movement claimed that Khartoum supported and armed the Janjaweed militias that have carried out armed raids and killings.
Ibrahim did not consider the JEM to be a separatist movement, but merely one “demanding equitable distribution of power and wealth.” But the Sudanese government failed to accede to these requests in negotiations with the Darfur movements. The JEM also continued to oppose the agreements signed with the rebel movements, including the 2006 Abuja agreement and the more recent Doha agreement.
Several developments over the past few years have hampered the JEM and its leader. Since 2009, the relationship between the Sudanese government and Chad, which had long protected Ibrahim, have developed significantly, leading to a renormalization of relations between the two countries last year.
This left Ibrahim without a safe haven or military support, and he was forced to accept the invitation of the late-Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to come to Libya. However, Libyan revolutionaries sent him back to Darfur under the protection of the Zaghawa tribe.
Ibrahim’s family descends from the Zaghawas of Kubi, who dominate the upper echelons of the JEM. This has led to a sense of injustice among non-Zaghawa members of the movement, and as a result, many influential leaders have left the group over the years.
It is hard to predict who Ibrahim’s successor will be, despite signs that it may be his brother Jibril, who currently holds the position of secretary general of foreign relations in the movement. Jibril says that for the time being, the military leadership will remain in the hands of General Bakhit Abdel Karim Abdullah (also known as Dabjo). As for the political leadership of the movement, he says that consultations are currently taking place in order to name a new head of the movement, and that they “will not take long.”
Khartoum thinks the assassination may force the JEM back to the negotiating table, but those who have been following the movement suggest that it will not negotiate from a weak position.
Ibrahim’s brother Jibril confirmed this, indicating that there will be no negotiations following the assassination of his brother, leaving the option of military escalation especially likely in light of recent shifts in military alliances in Sudan.
The newly-formed Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF) is an alliance comprised of a number of rebel movements, most notably the JEM, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Northern Sudan, and the Sudanese Liberation Movement (SLM) led by Minni Minawi. The SRF’s stated goal according to the Kauda agreement is to topple al-Bashir’s regime, and Jibril has confirmed his movement’s commitment to this goal so long as the movement’s partner in the pact also uphold their end.
Ibrahim’s unexpected death will allow new candidates to enter the race for leadership within the SRF. SLM leader Zou al-Noun Sulaiman told Al-Akhbar that after Ibrahim’s assassination, the battle for leadership among the Kauda signatories will intensify. Sulaiman said most of the competition will come from Minawi, who is likely to become the major player in Darfur since most of the JEM leaders were formerly his followers.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.