Always smooth, Dr Hassan al-Turabi, leader of Sudan’s opposition Popular National Congress (PNC), has been honing his skills lately. But the latest rabbit he pulled out of his turban, the alliance the PNC forged with the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), has landed him and scores of his supporters in prison.
Early this month, Hamad ‘Umar Hamad, chairman of the committee interrogating the jailed PNC members, announced that five unidentified PNC leaders will be tried on criminal charges over the deal signed with the SPLA. Although he did not specify the charges, the announcement indicated a shift in the government’s strategy. By emphasizing that the indicted five, originally detained under the country’s National Security Act, will be tried on criminal charges, Hamad signalled the government’s desire to play down the political nature of the case by treating it as a criminal one.
Hamad did not reveal whether Turabi was among the five indicted. Turabi and a number of his close aides were jailed on February 21, three days after forming an alliance with the SPLA, which has been spearheading a civil war with successive governments of Sudan since 1983. Scores of other PNC officials were jailed during the next few days. Among the men arrested was Musa Mek Kur (a former government minister and PNC deputy secretary general), Muhammad al-Hassan al-Amin (former governor of Northern Kordofan province and PNC legal and constitutional affairs secretary), and Hamed ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Ma’ruf and Khalifah Shaykh Sayf, two of Turabi’s closest aides. However, the government later announced that an unspecified number of PNC officials had been freed after renouncing the agreement.
In an interview with Saudi Arabia’s al-Watan newspaper (February 26, 2001), Wisal al-Mahdi, Turabi’s wife and the sister of Ummah party leader al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, said that her husband was in solitary confinement in a prison cell “full of rats” with no access to “newspapers, magazines, papers and pens.”
On February 18, the PNC signed a “memorandum of understanding” with the SPLA in Geneva. It called, among other things, for joint peaceful resistance against Sudanese president ‘Umar Hasan al-Bashir and the ruling National Congress (NC) party. Bagan Amoun and Yasser Arman signed the memorandum in Geneva on behalf of the SPLA; Mahboub ‘Abd al-Salam and ‘Umar Ibrahim al-Turabi, former diplomat and nephew of the PNC leader, signed on behalf of the PNC.
The Sudanese government reacted angrily to the news, saying that the declaration was aimed at toppling the government, and justified the arrests. Speaking on national television, Bashir characterised the deal as “a violation of the law.” He also warned that “The government will not tolerate such acts and will safeguard the country’s security and stability.” The government also tightened security in the capital, Khartoum, apparently to guard against potential attacks by militiamen loyal to Turabi. Speaking to reporters on February 28, NC secretary general Ibrahim Ahmad ‘Umar said that the authorities had “intensified the security after it was disclosed that certain agencies collaborating with the rebel movement are planning to carry out threats announced by the rebel movement.”
The crackdown on the PNC was accompanied by a reshuffle of key cabinet ministers. On February 22 Bashir dismissed finance minister Muhammad Khayr al-Zubayr and replaced him with ‘Abd al-Rahim Hamdi, a former finance minister. ‘Abd al-Rahim Muhammad Hussein was transferred from the presidential affairs to the internal affairs portfolio, replacing al-Hadi ‘Abdallah, who became the new minister of cabinet affairs. The ministers of defence, foreign affairs, justice and energy retained their portfolios.
The new 28-member cabinet is a coalition of three registered political parties: the ruling NC, which received most of the ministries: the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of al-Sharif al-Hindi; and the United Democratic Salvation Front (UDSF), a medley of SPLA factions that signed a peace agreement with the Khartoum government in 1997.
A careful reading of the memorandum cannot but leave one melancholy about Sudan’s future. Some passages in the document deal with generalities, praising political freedoms and some aspects of Sudanese society, such as its diversity. “Sudan’s political, religious and cultural diversity necessitate the formulation of a social contract that prevents discrimination due to religion, culture, race, gender or geographic region,” the document says. It also states that “the two sides have agreed to work jointly for putting an end to the Sudanese crisis and to establish a democratic system, just peace and federal government in Sudan.” Yet, while emphasizing the “need for escalating peaceful popular resistance to force the regime to abandon its totalitarian policies,” the memorandum does not call for the separatist SPLA to abandon its armed rebellion, which has cost the lives of some 2 million people in war and war-related outbreaks of famine and disease. In fact, the memorandum seems to have emboldened the southern-based SPLA, which on March 2 launched an attack against a small police-station at Abu Talha, south of Kassala, in the east of the country. Last year the SPLA joined its northern opposition partners in an offensive that briefly captured the city of Kassala. More ominously, some passages could have grave long-term implications for the future of Sudan and its unity and territorial integrity. The document states that the people of southern Sudan have a “legitimate right” to self-determination. It also stresses that “the unity of Sudan should be determined by the free will of its people.”
The move took many by surprise, even in the labyrinth of multiple double-crossing that the Sudanese political landscape has become. SPLA’s partners in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the SPLA-led umbrella organization that comprises most of Sudan’s opposition groups, were thrown into disarray. While some NDA constituent organizations have kept their composure in public, putting on a show of unity, others have expressed outrage. Al-Tijani al-Tayyib, a senior member of the Sudanese Communist Party, was quoted by Egypt’s English-language magazine al-Ahram Weekly (March 1-7, 2001) as saying: “Since his debut on the Sudanese political scene in 1965, Al-Turabi has been hell-bent against the Communists. We are naturally perturbed by these developments.”
Turabi has been looking for support since he broke away from the Bashir government in December 1999. Until then, Turabi was an ally of General Bashir, whom he helped bring to power in a bloodless military coup in 1989. The nature of the power-sharing formula forged by Turabi and Bashir meant that the political system always teetered on the brink of instability. In practice, it turned out to be a cumbersome political hydra: a system with two competing figure-heads. It eventually collapsed under the weight of its inner contradictions, and the incessant recurrence of feuds between the two figureheads as their alliance turned into open rivalry. Things came to a head in December 1999, when Turabi as parliamentary speaker sponsored laws that would curb the presidential powers dramatically. Bashir declared a state of emergency and removed Turabi by dissolving parliament. In May last year he orchestrated a successful effort to suspend Turabi from his post as secretary general of the ruling NC, a move that prompted the latter to form the PNC.
The rift prompted both rivals to scramble for allies. Bashir tried in vain to enlist the support of some opposition groups including the Ummah party, whose leader, al-Sadiq al-Mahdi was allowed to return to Sudan in November after four years of self-imposed exile. Sensing his increasing isolation on the domestic scene, Bashir sought to forge better ties with Sudan’s African and Arab neighbours. He also made some overtures tothe US, which were largely snubbed. As part of his continuing diplomatic offensive, a series of high-profile gatherings were held last month in Khartoum, including a summit of Sahel and Sahara countries and an international trade fair, both of which drew a host of international dignitaries.
For his part, the wily Turabi, who has been a significant political force in military-run governments for the past two decades, has tried to present himself as an advocate for democracy. In statements he gave to the press before his arrest, Turabi claimed that he wanted to set up a broad-based national front to restore democracy and rid Sudan of dictatorship (a system of government that he himself had played a key role in creating). By making a deal with the SPLA, Turabi effectively dropped the last vestiges of his claims to a morally superior version of governance and politics. Turabi, 69, now stands poised to end his political career with yet another cardinal political sin. His attempt to obtain political power has effectively led a large segment of Sudan’s Islamic movement to shed many of its original principles at the altar of expediency. His unquenchable lust for political power has now driven him to run the risk of dismembering Sudan. It is noteworthy that after the signing of the memorandum, John Garang, the leader of the separatist SPLA, declared: “We have not compromised our principles. We have won al-Turabi over.”