Sudan: Politics of a North-South Divide

Published February 22nd, 2001 - 02:00 GMT

By Nigel Thorpe 

Senior English Editor - Amman 


Switzerland was the unlikely stage on which two equally unlikely allies added a new chapter to Sudan’s story of a north-south divide and friend turned foe.  


The news from Switzerland is that the leader of Sudan’s southern rebels, John Garang, and Hassan al Turabi, head of the Popular National Congress, a breakaway faction of Khartoum’s ruling Islamist party, have agreed to use peaceful means to force President Omar al-Bashir to accept a multi-party government.  

The surprise alliance led Wednesday to the arrest of Turabi, the outcast godfather of the Islamic revolution in the Arab-African country. 


The confused state of Sudan’s politics and the uphill battle faced by President Bashir to form a broader, stable power base can only truly be understood in terms of Sudan’s unnatural birth and turbulent history. 


Sudan’s current political and socio-economic problems can, in most cases, be traced back to the country’s colonial past. Sudan, like many other former African colonial territories, was an unnatural political, geographical and ethnic unit welded together by the fierce heat of independence. Freed from their former European overlords, the approximately 500 ethnic groups with their deep-seated regional, religious, and tribal loyalties struggled to find a new identity and purpose in a single unified country. As William Langewiesche comments in his recent Atlantic online article, “the national borders as drawn by the British seem to invite trouble. With a territory nearly a third of the size of the United States, Sudan has practically no industry and few natural resources beyond river water and some untapped oil reserves. Poverty, famine, and sickness are endemic.” 


From remote antiquity until relatively recent times, the north of the territory formed part of a region known as Nuba. The Arab influence on the North of Sudan began with the penetration of the Egyptians into Nuba during the Old Kingdom (circa 2575 – 2134 BC). By 1550 BC, Nuba had been reduced to the status of an Egyptian province and from 1880 – 1885, the country, although under remaining nominally ruled by Egypt, became increasingly a British holding. Between 1877 and 1880, the British general and administrator Charles George Gordon served as governor of Egyptian Sudan and attempted to end the slave trade. The political tide turned once more when, in 1883, Islamist forces took their revenge and annihilated the Egyptian army in the country. Two years later General Gordan was speared and decapitated by the Sudanese during their capture of Khartoum and it was not until 1898 that a joint expedition of British and Egyptian troops returned and regained control of Sudan after a series of bloody battles. For the next fifty years, Egypt and Britain exercised joint sovereignty over the country until it became independent in 1956. 


The Nilotic, or southern part of Sudan, largely resisted Egyptian influence and its culture, traditions and religion remained true to “black Africa” that lay further to the south. In 1972 under the Addis Ababa peace agreement between the government and the Anna Nya, the south became a self-governing region. The economical potential of the south leaped when in 1978, oil was discovered in Bentiu. Rising tensions led to another civil war in the south when the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) commanded by John Garang fought government troops from the north. 


Sudan’s history has therefore left it with a predominantly Arab population in the north, and a black African population in the south. The large majority of the 70 percent of Sudan’s Muslims are Sunnis living in the north, while the remaining 25 percent of the country’s population in the south are Christians or following traditional African religions such as animism. Whilst the official language of Sudan is Arabic, people in the south speak a mixture of African languages. The current “Arabization program” pursued by the government in the north which is designed to encourage greater use of the Arabic language is meeting strong resistance because the southern Sudanese are fiercely proud of their African inheritance. The government’s attempts to enforce Shari’a (Islamic) Law on non-Muslims has also fuelled the south’s resistance to their Islamist rulers in the north. 

After years of coup, counter-coup, and a brief flirtation with democracy in 1986, an Islamic revolution swept Sudan and laid the seeds of the present “Mexican stand-off” between a “military Islamist”, Omar Bashir, and the “civilian Islamist” intellectual Sheikh Turabi. In a strong alliance forged by their opposition to the then coalition government, Lieutenant General Omar Hussan al-Bashir and Sheikh Turabi overthrew Mahdi’s democratically-elected government in a bloodless coup. The army officers who swept Bashir and Turabi to power were themselves radicalized Muslims (Islamists).  


Bashir was declared head of a junta called the Revolutionary Command Council and remains formally in charge of Sudan to the present day. Soon after the coup, however, the junta quietly handed power over to Turabi and his Islamic brethren in the National Islamic Front, a political group that had grown out of the Muslim Brotherhood. Early in 1991, the government of Sudan instituted a new criminal code that revitalized the Shari’a. Bashir was declared elected president in a 1996 poll that was widely denounced as being fraudulent.  


Since the early 1990’s the country has drifted like, in Langewiesche’s words, a “ship with two captains” which is manned by an often-mutinous crew and battered by the squalls of drought, famine and civil war.  


Sheikh Turabi is nominally the leader of Sudan’s Islamic movement, speaker of the parliament that was suspended by President Bashir on December 12th, 2000, and former leader and general secretary of the National Congress (NC). In the same month, the power struggle between the two came to a head when Turabi attempted to pass constitutional amendments which would have reduced Bashir’s presidential powers by calling for the creation of the office of prime minister, accountable to parliament. In response to this threat to his authority, Bashir dismissed Turabi, dissolved the National Assembly, and suspended parts of the constitution. When an internal attempt by NC to reunify the party failed, Qatari foreign minister Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani tried unsuccessfully to defuse the political crisis during his two visits to Khartoum in early January. Turabi himself spent three days in Qatar. Al-Thani, unfortunately, by backing Bashir and political status quo in the Sudan proved to be anything but an honest broker. Hamad’s key proposal was that Turabi should resign as secretary-general of the National Congress and allow Bashir to be appointed in a move that would have solved the “one ship, two captains” dilemma.  


In an attempt to consolidate his power base, Bashir called a general election in December which was boycotted by most opposition parties including Turabi’s Popular National Congress (PNC) that was formed as a splinter group from the National Congress Party (NC).  


To survive as president, Bashir must counter strong challenges from Turabi and other opposition parties by weaving a new strong political life line from the current tangled web of political intrigue. Earlier this week, president Bashir announced that he would form a new government including several political parties who had reached an agreement with the NC. 

The strict preconditions set by the popular opposition party Umma for such an alliance with the NC casts doubt on Bashir’s ability to form a stable new government. Umma says it will only join a Bashir government if it was formed after a new general election and also included other opposition parties. Turabi’s backstage maneuvering in Switzerland and the unlikely alliance he has forged with the southern opposition party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), observers believe, has also made Bashir’s own position insecure. His new-found political friends are unreliable, to say the least, and he has just cause to fear Turabi his past friend turned foe. His political survival may well depend on his proving himself capable of destroying Turabi and controlling the NC. Sheikh Turabi has shown clearly that he will fight this and renewed his commitment to Sudan’s Islamic movement who are now scrambling to distance themselves from the unpopular military junta that gave them political power.  


The importance of Sudan is, as Langewiesche observes, not Sudan. The political maelstrom in Khartoum is being anxiously watched by all of North Africa and much of the Middle East that, observers believe, teeter on the brink of their own Islamic revolutions. No where is this more true than in Egypt where president Hosni Mubarak, an established enemy of Sudan’s Islamic movement who marshalled support for Bashir’s coup, has been quoted as saying “we have cut off the snake’s (Turabi’s) head ……. And the tail (Bashir) will be dealt with soon.” The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood continues to be the greatest political danger faced by Mubarak.  


Because of the importance of the Sudanese “experiment” in Islamic eyes, Turabi has become perhaps the most influential Islamist in the world. According to some reports, the Emir of Qatar has offered Turabi retirement in Qatar, to remove him from the Sudan’s political scene. Qatar’s involvement should surprise nobody because the Sudan’s Islamic movement active role in Sudan’s government has been a major irritant to other Arab governments who have, it is reported, joined with the US and its African allies in trying to prevent the “metastasis” of extreme Islamist movements across the region.  


Whether Turabi and his new southern rebel friends will succeed in unseating Bashar and forming a new broad-base government that can unite the disparate north and south under one political umbrella remains to be seen. The south’s demands, which are uncannily similar to those of the opposition in southern Nigeria, are that it retains its religious freedom, plays a greater role in government, and gains a fair share of oil revenues from the wells in its territory.  


One clear lesson that can surely be learnt from Sudan’s long-standing political turmoil is that it is one thing to win power in a successful coup, but quite another to establish a long-term stable government that benefits the people.  










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