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Special Reports

In the eye of a storm

The choice is between Islam and apostasy
M H Faruqi
Mohammed Mahjoub Haroun

Sudan’s borders with Ethiopia had always been peaceful and, therefore, lightly defended with only symbolic units in the border posts. Kurmuk and Qaysan were two such small garrison towns on the Ethiopian borders. Kurmuk lies only a hundred metres from the border. On 12 January, ‘the Ethiopian troops invaded and occupied the border towns of Kurmuk, Qaysan, Yarda and Menza with a force of 6,000 troops and 22 tanks assisted by some rebel elements’, according to the Sudanese complaint to the UN Security Council.

Foreign Minister Ali Uthman Muhammad Taha told the Council that the latest aggression had been committed in the wake of a number of violations which Ethiopia had carried out against Sudanese unity and security, preceded by an intensive artillery barrage from inside the Ethiopian territory. Sudan called for an emergency meeting of the Security Council and to take the necessary measures to ensure Ethiopia’s compliance with the UN charter and withdrawal of its forces from the Sudanese territory.

Never have the Eritrean and the Ethiopian regimes made any secret of their support to the Sudanese opposition and southern rebel elements of the John Garang wing of the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army). Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told the Emirates daily Al-Ittihad that he saw little embarrassment in assisting any elements seeking to overthrow the Sudanese regime.

The former Ethiopian dictator Mengistu had even laid a claim to all the Sudanese territory east of the river Blue Nile down to Khartoum. This was during the last months of the Sadiq administration, but his own overthrow as well as Sadiq’s did not give him the opportunity to pursue the claim. For his Tigrayan successor Meles Zenawi there seemed a good opportunity now to push those territorial ambitions.

President Isasas Afewerki of Eritrea too has a ‘declared’ position that they ‘have strategic interests with these people’ and ‘the Eritrean government and people will stand by the [Sudanese] opposition’ ‘There is nothing strange in this position,’ he told the Egyptian news agency, MENA.

Eritrea also hosts the Sudanese opposition NDA (National Democratic Alliance) as well as its joint military command headed by the southern rebel SPLA faction leader, John Garang. Eritrea has severed diplomatic relations with Sudan and handed over the Sudanese embassy premises to the NDA. Three years ago Eritrea laid out its policy towards Sudan in a paper entitled, ‘The IGADD [Inter-Governmental Authority for Drought and Development, since renamed Inter-governmental Authority for Development] declaration of principles and the challenges they pose to the problem of south Sudan: an Reran view.’ The memo suggested that Sudan be made a secular state or face the separation of the southern Sudan.

Both Eritrea and Ethiopia were hosting several training camps for the Sudanese rebel. But while there was ‘nothing strange in this’, neither Asmara nor Addis Ababa was prepared to admit that its armed forces were involved in the cross border attacks against Sudan. The US agreed that the Ethiopians were not involved and the Security Council refused to discuss the Sudanese complaint. Sudan also claimed that it had captured Eritrean and Ethiopian prisoners of war, but instead of rushing any mission to investigate the complaint against Ethiopia and ascertain the facts on the ground, the Security Council said there was not sufficient evidence to prove the involvement of Ethiopia.

Sudan has further charged the Ethiopian forces with violating the Geneva conventions and committing the most ugly and brutal crimes against innocent civilians, women, children and the old in Kurmuk and Qaysan. Eighty high school pupils and 15 female teachers were abducted and taken into Ethiopia where they were raped. Scores of civilians, including local officials and religious leaders, have been executed. Some 3,000 to 4,000 civilians were missing, presumably held as prisoners or taken as hostage to Ethiopia.

The Sudanese waited in vain to hear from the so-called human rights bodies in Europe and America. All this only confirmed to them the American and UN collusion against the Islamic orientation of Sudan.

President al-Bashir believes ‘the US plan aims at achieving various goals which serve one another. Some of these goals are aimed at destabilising the regime or toppling it, with the result that the central authority would fall and the country would be enmeshed in a civil war. Stirring up a civil war has the aim of partitioning Sudan, according to declared plans published in all the world’s papers’. Accordingly, he said, the UN and its organs were pushing the neighbouring countries into attacking Sudan and financing the attacks after John Garang had failed to implement their schemes. .

After its Somali misadventure Washington now wanted to use its client regimes on the continent or Africa to serve US policy goals. The Sudanese president quoted the former US national security adviser, now President Clinton’s nominee to head the CIA, Anthony Lake, declaring in Addis Ababa that Sudan should be contained by its neighbours. This was both instigating and telling Sudan’s neighbours, especially Eritrea, Ethiopia and Uganda, that they had US support in any action they took to contain their Sudanese neighbour.

The Sudanese were never in doubt about what really concerned the US and its allies: their determination to build an independent and Islamic Sudan. Every single visitor to Khartoum, from Jimmy Carter to Madeline Albright, from Pope John Paul II to the Archbishop of Canterbury, has been telling them directly, or in so many words, that all their problems would be solved if they gave up their insistence to implement Islamic Shari’ah, no matter that the non-muslims were assured of all their religious and fundamental rights, and were free to vote out from the application of Shari’ah in the southern states. Otherwise, be ready to face the consequences.

‘They are dissatisfied with the Islamic trend in Sudan,’ says al-Bashir. ‘They are dissatisfied with Sudan’s independent course, which rejects foreign Intervention in the region, as it did during the Gulf war.’ That left Sudan with little choice except either to hold fast to its Islamic path or to go back on Islam itself:

‘The opposition strategy,’ according to John Garang, consisted of ‘three axes: first, armed struggle in the south; second, the new front in eastern Sudan and the Blue Nile. The Third axis is the uprising in Khartoum.’

The first offensive in the east appears to have been contained and Ethiopians forces have been pinned down to the two small towns of Kurmuk and Qaysan. The Sudanese said they were now preparing to liberate the occupied areas, ‘every inch of it’. On the Eritrean side, Sudanese special force pre-empted any rebel mobilisation by destroying several of their camps in one nightly raid.

For all the bravado of John Garang’ military communiqué claiming victory after victory, the opposition force were in disarray. The Beja recruits were, illiterate tribesmen who had gone to look for work, not to fight any real war. Garang too did not have enough men besides, his forces had already a morale problem. The 12 January adventure only made their poor morale more poor.

In the south, the Garang rebels made a probing attack in the Torit area near the Ugandan border. They were beaten back. There were, however reports of a new Ugandan build-up along the Sudanese border.

Two weeks ago President Museveni came to London for a ‘private conference’ and the London Times correspondent reported from Nairobi that ‘with the enthusiastic backing of the United States and the quiet approval of’ Britain ... the leaders of four African countries have launched a cross-border military purge of ‘their enemies’. The four leaders were Museveni of Uganda, Afewerki of Eritrea, Zenawi of Ethiopia and Rwanda’s vice president and minister of defence Major General Paul Kagame. Paul Kagame is a Museveni mate and fellow Tutsi, the minority tribe that dominates Rwanda and Burundi. He was until 1990 head of Museveni’s military intelligence.

In London however, Museveni also took the opportunity to call on the OAU (Organisation of African Unity) to declare the Garang insurgency in south Sudan as a ‘colonial conflict’. ‘Until the OAU defines the south Sudan as a colonial question we are inhibited from supporting them,’ he told The Financial Times (27 January). It was interesting that while Sadiq and al-Mirghani were trying to promote Garang as a ‘national’ leader and assuring Arab countries that there was no threat to Sudan’s unity and integrity, the Ugandan president was seeking to turn a dying insurgency into a legitimate liberation movement deserving of support by the OAU and the international community. It only went to support the view in Khartoum that the two gentlemen were simply playing the stooge for the designs of their patron powers and they had no independent existence of their own.

Meanwhile armed with the approval and backing of both Britain and the US, Museveni was weighing the pros and cons of getting involved in any direct conflict with Sudan given that he also has to take into account the internal challenges to his regime which come from more directions than one. The Sudanese were waiting for him to make the first move.

Clearly the greatest disappointment of the piece was the total failure of the ‘third axis’ in the NDA and its backers’ plan: uprising in Khartoum. Both Uthman Al-Mirghani and Sadiq al-Mahdi had told themselves and assured their friends that Sudan was on ‘verge of a popular uprising’.

We ‘represent over 90% of the Sudanese people,’ he told the Saudi newspaper, Al-Sharq al-Awsat (9 January 1996), on the eve of the Ethiopian invasion, and ‘our entering Khartoum will not be a matter of foreign invasion but will take the form of a popular uprising’.

In the event, the ‘popular uprising’ took place, not only in Khartoum but over the entire country. But, it was an uprising against foreign invasion and domestic treason which made plain to all concerned that the drive to Khartoum was not going to be a picnic. There was a tide of popular support for the government with hundreds of thousands of students and youth rushing to join the Popular Defence Force. More than 100,000 marched to defend the Blue Nile capital al-Damazin, but many had to be turned back because the place had become saturated with mujahidin volunteers.

President Negaso Gidada of Ethiopia has offered Sudan to hold talks for ending the conflict suggesting to both his government as well as to that of Eritrean to ‘cautiously handle the crisis’ in Sudan. ‘We are ready to talk,’ says President al-Bashir, ‘but all Sudanese territories should he liberated first.’

Courtesy: Impact International, London.

Muslimedia - March 1-15, 1997

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 26, No. 1

Shawwal 21, 14171997-03-01

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