Thousands of Darfuri rebels and sympathizers converged Saturday on the outskirts of a tiny village in eastern Darfur. They came to determine the leadership of the immensely popular, but now splintering rebel Sudan Liberation Army. An estimated 10,000 Darfuris representing nearly every tribe sang, danced and socialized as the leadership conference began.
They came in heavily armored cars and trucks, on horseback and camelback, and even on stilts. Thousands of Darfuris descended onto a bush clearing to kick off a conference that will determine the future of the region's largest rebel movement.
A tussle for control of the Sudan Liberation Army between President Abdul Wahid and Secretary General Minni Minawi has led to splits within the movement. During this week's conference, 800 delegates from across Darfur will vote on who will lead the movement. Mr. Wahid and Mr. Minawi are the top contenders for president.
Mr. Wahid did not attend the opening of the conference, and it was rumored he would not show at all. Disappointed delegates said they do not think he will retain the presidency.
Ahmed, who would not give his real name for fear of retribution by the Sudanese government, said Mr. Wahid was making a mistake.
"There is many problems. Some people say Abdel Wahid is the leader, and the others say that this is Minni, and others say that this confusion is going to destroy the movement and the army," he said. "Abdel Wahid now is absent from the conference, and I think this is a very big mistake. Because this is the army, the soldiers and the people. They are all, last night they are saying Abdel Wahid, Abdel Wahid, Abdel Wahid, but unfortunately he did not come and attend the conference. This will be a problem in the election. If he is absent this means he is not going to be the president of the movement any more."
But even if Mr. Wahid is unseated, he has many supporters and the SLA may split into two groups. A split would be a devastating blow to the movement, and to the prospect of peace in the region. A split would complicate further talks between the government of Sudan and rebel forces.
Mr. Minnawi told reporters he hopes the movement will remain united.
"Abdel Wahid is person and Minni is person. But the movement is the people of Sudan. I myself am not going to be leader. I myself am not going to delete every person. But it is the decision of the movement leadership," he noted.
The conference is also meant to illustrate the strength of the movement. The rebels have long insisted they are not a poorly organized gang of bandits, but a legitimate political force. Accusations that they continue to raid aid convoys have earned them a reputation as thugs.
Dr. Ibrahim Imam is the president of the American chapter of the Sudan Liberation Army. He says the movement is popular in the united States, where he has been invited to give talks on Darfur by universities, museums and religious groups.
"As a people in America they know Darfur and they are working for Darfur. And there are many agencies and many humanitarian organizations, and many religious groups. Even in Congress they support Darfur, and in Senate they support Darfur," commented Dr. Imam. "This is good really, and I thank them."
By the end of the SLA conference's first day, most attendees are exhausted. Women and children have retreated to shade trees and men sprawl in the grass and sleep. Political deliberations are left to movement leaders and a few dozen listeners, with many Darfuris caring more about keeping the movement intact than about who will lead it.