The death of Khalil Ibrahim, leader of Darfur’s biggest rebel group, has prompted legitimate curiosity about the region’s future, albeit by asking the wrong questions. Too many have framed the impact of his death in terms of what it means for the peace process in Darfur, when in fact, it never meant anything for the peace process due to the fundamental opposition of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) to what it perceives as an already dysfunctional framework. If anything can be gathered from the death of Ibrahim, it is perhaps the diminishing role of this armed movement in future, as a result of its loss of key alliances and visionary leadership.
Khalil Ibrahim was at one point an ‘insider,’ having served as state minister in the White Nile state and North Darfur. His transformation from bureaucrat to armed rebel was premised on the grounds that there could be no development and progress in Darfur (or anywhere in Sudan) unless massive constitutional and institutional changes were made in Khartoum. Though the JEM doesn’t exclusively rule out a negotiated settlement, its uncompromising philosophy and leadership has always made it a difficult party to negotiate with.
The armed groups that signed the Abuja Agreement in 2006 agreed with the central government on three main 'pillars': wealth sharing, power sharing and provisions regarding disarmament. The Abuja Agreement's provisions resemble and are recycled by the JEM’s draft ‘proposal for achieving peace.’ However, the JEM’s attitude, as pointed out, isn’t concerned with the substance of peace talks, but with who is on the opposite side of the negotiating table. For Khalil Ibrahim, the government simply could not be trusted. The failure of the government to disarm the Janjaweed, thereby violating a key provision of the Abuja agreement, was a case in point and probably interpreted as a fulfilled prophecy in the eyes of the JEM.
The peace process was never attractive to the JEM because in the Darfur peace process, the word ‘peace’ itself had become warped. The government is stubborn when it comes to both negotiation and implementation, mediators are routinely under pressure to pay more attention to deadlines than the substance and depth of agreements, and the rebel leaders that are willing to negotiate often times opt for the comfort of a corner office and high ranking political appointments in Khartoum. The average Darfurians were left out of the equation long ago, though the JEM and Abdulwahid Nur's Sudan Liberation Movement have been one of the few powerful factions left standing that have not compromised their aims.
The likely future of the JEM without Khalil Ibrahim is fragmentation and eventual disintegration, and this has been brewing in the background for quite some time now. Two top figures in the JEM, Bahar Aldin Abu Garda and Jibril Bari, accused Ibrahim of being undemocratic and despotic and left to form their own movements . Bahar Aldin Abu Garda is now federal minister of Health. In addition, during the Doha talks that paved the way for the Doha Peace Agreement, Mohammed Hamdein, head of JEM-Kordofan sector, was dismissed after being accused of showing too much interest in the Doha peace talks.
Secondly, the loss of strategic advantage by the JEM meant the movement had lapsed into terminal illness even before Khalil’s death. Now the centre of gravity of the movement will have to shift to Uganda (whose relations with Sudan are tense following alleged Sudanese backing of the Lord’s Resistance Army) and South Sudan. Finding an ally might prove difficult as the movement has lost both prestige and to some extent legitimacy after the signing of the Doha Peace Agreement, and now its charismatic and well-connected leader who may have been able to pull the necessary strings. Any alliance between the JEM and South Sudan would be very vulnerable given that Sudan and South Sudan may soon realise that neither of them can afford to keep poor relations with each other permanently.
This was the only rebel group in Sudan’s history to bring the insurgency into Khartoum, sending a clear message that ‘peace,’ as it is known in the Darfur context, was the last priority on its agenda. Improving relations between Chad and Sudan has meant the loss of what once was its key strategic ally – a state with whom it had not only fraternal ties (Ibrahim and Chadian president, Idriss Déby are both from the Zaghawa ethnic group), but had also received refuge and support since its formation in 2003. Additionally, regime change in Libya has also starved it of the tens of millions of dollars that it used to buy the heavy weaponry and hundreds of vehicles that made the ambitious campaign possible.
The sweeping changes the JEM proposes and its means of achieving them were always at variance with Khartoum’s modus operandi of selectively applying agreements so that its own power was left intact. The ‘peace’ process as we know it will continue unaffected because the ‘peace’ defined by the process was never what the JEM was after to begin with.