|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
28 June - 4 July 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Talking to 'bad boys'John Garang, head of Sudan's chief armed opposition group, met President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt last week. Gamal Nkrumah spoke to the visiting SPLA leader
Whatever else he is, John Garang is seldom dull. He was among leaders of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in Cairo last week for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. As usual, Garang's public remarks were rich in controversy. He deplored the use of oil in the civil war, referred to President Omar Al-Bashir, as a "devil" and accused the Sudanese regime of ethnic cleansing.
photo: Sherif Sonbol
The NDA is the umbrella opposition grouping that includes Sudan's main armed opposition group, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). The leaders were in Cairo to review the latest developments in the 18-year old Sudanese civil war and discuss Sudanese politics. As well as Garang, other visiting leaders included Othman Al- Mirghani, head of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the current NDA president. Two days earlier, Mubarak also conferred with Sadiq Al-Mahdi, Umma party leader, who withdrew his party from the NDA last year. Competing with Garang for the headlines, Al-Mahdi emerged from his meeting with Mubarak with an unprecedented statement that the northern Sudanese owe the southern Sudanese an apology.
Garang, who met President Mubarak in Alexandria, was tight-lipped about some details of his meeting. But on some points he was refreshingly candid. After thanking Egypt for its diplomatic efforts, Garang got to the meat. He emphasised that national reconciliation must be achieved by the entire country. Taking his cue from earlier Egyptian diplomacy, Garang urged the Sudanese parties to adopt the Egyptian-Libyan initiative on the Sudanese political impasse and combine it with the older initiative of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a group of seven east African countries.
"The IGAD initiative deals specifically with southern Sudan and is based on regular high-level meetings between the Sudanese government and the SPLA. The Egyptian-Libyan initiative aims at broadening the negotiation process so that the northern Sudanese opposition groups can [enter into] dialogue with Khartoum. The two initiatives are complementary. They are neither conflicting nor contradictory," Garang told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Nor did Garang shy from speaking plainly about the role of oil in Sudan's woes. "Oil is a killer. Oil has displaced over 100,000 people. The Sudanese government has embarked on a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing to clear indigenous people from oil- producing regions. If the government is serious about the cease-fire, it must comprehensively cease oil production," he said. He then warned the government not to use oil as a weapon in the civil war and linked a cease-fire to a halt in oil production.
Continuing, Garang remarked, "The government wants to use the cease-fire to continue to exploit the oil reserves in southern Sudan, concentrate its war effort in eastern Sudan, and carry out further Islamisation of the country. We don't want to be wrong-footed. The government refuses to separate religion from state. This is unacceptable. We don't want a theocracy. The government's insistence on Islamisation threatens the unity of Sudan. We did not come up with the confederal proposal [whereby Sudan is divided into north and south]. The boundaries between north and south Sudan were never properly demarcated. The government put forward the confederal proposal. Our first option is a united, democratic and secular Sudan where religion and politics are clearly separated."
Garang also scoffed at accusations that the SPLA works with the US to divide Sudan into north and south. "There is no US plan that I know of designed to divide Sudan into two states," he said.
Garang went on to defend the SPLA's recent decision to sign a memorandum of understanding with former opponents, the opposition Popular National Congress (PNC). The congress is headed by former Speaker of the Sudanese Parliament and chief Islamist ideologue, Hassan Al-Turabi. Al-Turabi formerly led the National Islamic Front (NIF), before it split into two factions, one backing President Omar Al-Bashir, the other Al- Turabi. Expanding on the SPLA's links with the PNC, Garang said, "The SPLA signed a memorandum of understanding, and not an agreement, with Al-Turabi's PNC. We uphold all the principles and abide by our commitments within the NDA. We ask all members of the NDA to enter into dialogue with Turabi's PNC," Garang said.
"We are already having talks with one section of the old NIF, the government; why not talk with the opposition section of the NIF? Al-Turabi is painted as the devil, but in my book Al-Bashir is a devil, too. Al-Bashir and Al-Turabi are both bad boys. Why is there so much concern over us talking to one bad boy and not the other? It is healthy to talk to both bad boys. We can talk them out of their bad ways," Garang explained.
He stressed that the rapprochement is part of a broader policy of engagement. Garang is keen to engage with a broad spectrum of the Sudanese political establishment, both government and opposition. "I met Sadiq Al-Mahdi in the Nigerian capital Abuja recently, and I hope to meet with Al-Turabi in the near future. I find these meetings very meaningful and fruitful even when we do not always see eye to eye," Garang said. "We have been negotiating with the government for almost a decade now under the sponsorship the of IGAD, so why do critics object when we speak with Al-Turabi now that he is out of power? We engage Al-Bashir in power politics and we would like to have an intellectual dialogue with Al-Turabi on how best to organise our multi-ethnic and multi-religious society." He said the three principal Islamic leaders in Sudan Al-Mirghani's DUP, Al-Mahdi's Umma Party and Al-Turabi now "are all against the regime." "This ought to be food for thought," he added.
Garang emphasised that he is not a rebel fighting a government; he is merely fighting one faction of the Sudanese political establishment which happens to have seized power. "I am fighting a NIF army, not a national Sudanese Army," he said. "I myself was a colonel in the Sudanese army. The NIF regime purged the army of all non-NIF elements and used this new NIF army to consolidate power and systematically transform the country into a religious state."
Garang then reminded critics of the stark choice facing Sudan and its political actors. The "NIF is at a crossroads. The government and [Islamic] fundamentalists must now decide if they want a theocratic state (or) the unity of Sudan," he declared.
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