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Darfur JEM Rebel Group Risks Losing Dominance

Darfur’s main rebel group may risk losing its dominance in the region, as Chad ends support and rival rebel coalition gains strength.

Monday, JEM – the Justice and Equality Movement – officially suspended peace talks with the government, following months of stalled negotiations. JEM has also accused the government of attacking its positions in western Darfur.

E.J. Hogendoorn, Horn of Africa director for the International Crisis Group (ICG), reacted to JEM’S decision to suspend peace talks.

“My initial reaction is that the JEM has been frustrated by the fact that Khartoum has been talking to other rebel factions; and it is now trying to put pressure on the government to deal more seriously with them,” he says.

Why drop out now?

“The talks have been stalled in large part because most of the people were focused on the elections. And I think that there was some perception that once the elections were completed there would be further movement along the talks. But that hasn’t happened,” he says.

Many had criticized the elections, including those in Darfur, as being rigged even before the first vote was cast last month.

Hogendoorn says, “Our understanding is that once the JEM had entered into the framework agreement (with Khartoum) in February that everyone recognized that very little would be completed until the elections were finished.

However, he says, “JEM wants to present itself as the umbrella group that represents all the Darfurian rebels, but there is another fairly large group that has emerged lately that is also in talks with the government that now seems to have the upper hand.”

The other rebels

The coalition of four rebel groups challenging JEM for dominance in Darfur is the Sudan Liberation and Justice Movement.

“If in fact they are able to keep themselves unified, they present a fairly significant force, especially in light of the fact that Chad and Khartoum entered into agreement in which they agreed not to support each other’s rebel groups. And for Chad that meant principally JEM,” Hogendoorn says.

As a result, JEM has lost its biggest military supporter.

“So, JEM is actually in a fairly difficult negotiating position, especially if it looks like the four (rebel groups) are developing their own political agenda. And JEM can no longer credibly claim to be the most powerful Darfuri group operating there,” he says.

JEM and the Sudan Liberation and Justice Movement have different ethnic bases and relations between the two groups are strained.

“JEM largely receives support from a tribe called the Zaghawa in northern Darfur, whereas the Sudanese Liberation and Justice Movement is largely comprised of another ethnic group, the Fur,” he says.

He says the groups have been competing for “attention” and the “spoils of any peace deal.”

The spoils of peace

The ICG analyst says such a peace agreement would lead to an ending of fighting, continued control of territory by the rebels and senior positions in the Khartoum government for rebel leaders.

“Most of the people who have entered the government from rebel factions have been frustrated by the fact that they have very little power relative to their NCP (ruling National Congress Party) counterparts,” he says.

Hogendoorn gives the example of Minni Minawi, a Darfuri rebel leader who became a senior presidential adviser to Omar al-Bashir.

“Although the title sounds relatively powerful, it has really meant very little on the ground in Khartoum,” he says.

Bashir’s strategy?

With the elections over, attention is now focused on the January 2011 independence referendum in South Sudan.

“Obviously, it is in Bashir’s interests to try to settle these conflicts, especially if he fears that the SPLM (party) of the south may try to use Darfuri opposition to put pressure on his government. But it’s unclear really what his thinking is,” he says.

The Darfur conflict began in 2003, after rebel groups accused the government of marginalizing non-Arab ethnic groups. Since then, millions of people have been displaced, with hundreds of thousands crossing into neighboring Chad. The death toll has also been estimated in the hundreds of thousands.

Arab militias have waged much of the fighting on behalf of Khartoum, and many, including the United States, have called the killings there genocide. The Khartoum government rejects the charge and says the casualty figures have been exaggerated.

What’s more, the situation is complicated by the fact that the International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants against President Bashir, accusing him of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.