photo by jon nicholson

feature story - A Question of Leadership: Addressing a Dangerous Crisis in Sudan’s SPLM-N

july 20th, 2017

Note: This report is published by the Enough Project.

A worsening recent political divide within the leadership of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N, or “movement”), traditionally based in South Kordofan and Blue Nile (the “Two Areas”), is increasingly likely to lead to a change of leadership of the movement. Of grave concern, the political divide has already led to violent clashes with strong ethnic undertones between units of the movement’s armed wing (the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North, the SPLA-N) in parts of Sudan’s Blue Nile state that are controlled by the movement and in camps hosting refugees from Blue Nile just across the border in South Sudan’s Upper Nile state. Preexisting ethnic tensions in this area have been exacerbated by the political divisions among top SPLM-N leaders. The leadership paralysis that is cited as both a cause and an effect of the current division, and the risks of further civil strife, are directly impeding the internal crisis and humanitarian response mechanisms, creating a dangerous transient leadership vacuum at the regional and local level. This vacuum is causing community leaders in areas controlled by the movement in Blue Nile state and in the refugee camps to pursue their own initiatives in an effort to calm their constituencies and reassure other nearby communities.

On March 7, 2017, Abdel-Aziz El-Hilu, Deputy Chairman of the SPLM-N, resigned. In his resignation letter, submitted to the regional Nuba Mountains/South Kordofan Liberation Council (NMLC), he cited the SPLM-N’s inability to revise and adopt an updated manifesto, constitution, negotiation strategy, and the necessary organizational structures. He also pointed to his growing distrust of SPLM-N Chairman Malik Agar and Secretary-General Yasir Arman and to his own responsibility for past failings. The NMLC rejected El-Hilu’s resignation, endorsed the reforms El-Hilu recommended, and removed Secretary-General Arman from his position and from leading the SPLM-N team engaged in negotiations with the Sudanese government. Based on the rejection of his resignation, El-Hilu continued to exercise his leadership role quietly behind the scenes.

In the weeks that followed, the SPLM-N went into a gradual downward spiral. The two sides lost confidence in one other, with each challenging the other’s legitimacy in making statements or acting on behalf of the SPLM-N. When the NMLC resolved on June 7 to dismiss Chairman Agar, in addition to its earlier firing of Secretary-General Arman, and to appoint El-Hilu as the new chairman, Agar questioned the legality of the process and the decision—which he dismissed as an ethnically motivated “coup d’état.”El-Hilu did not take up the offer by Agar for the three of them to step down together and task the most senior of the remaining leaders with running the affairs of the movement until the convening of the supreme decision-making body of the movement, the SPLM-N National Liberation Convention. Instead, El-Hilu stated that he would appoint a transitional leadership council that would prepare for the convening of the SPLM-N National Convention. The leadership split widened as each set of leaders ignored the other and continued to issue statements and decisions.

As the strife between the two sides worsened, signs of the growing divisions became more visible at the communal level. Some divisions grew violent in May and June, and constituent support for at least one of the leaders further fragmented.

In addition to triggering ethnic tensions within its army and among its constituents, this SPLM-N leadership crisis has multiple other negative impacts, including the risks of:

 To learn more, read the whole report here.



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