They came to say good-bye
Frank discussions between north and south suggest what must be done if Sudan is to remain one country, reports Asmaa El-Husseini from Juba
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Sudanese Islamist opposition leader Hassan Al-Turabi (r) and southern Sudan's regional president Salva Kiir attend the Juba conference in the capital of semi- autonomous south Sudan
Recently, the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) of President Omar Al-Bashir turned down an invitation to participate in a conference in Juba. Its absence didn't make much difference, for the accusations came thick and fast anyway. The south, which will have a referendum on its secession in January 2011, seems to have given up on unity with the north. Its politicians blame everything that went wrong in the country and in their own region on the ineptness of the northern leaders who have ruled Sudan since the 1989 coup.
Some northern leaders turned up in Juba, but their attempts to soothe nerves have been less than successful. Among the northerners who travelled to Juba were Umma Party leader and former prime minister Al-Sadeq Al-Mahdi, National Islamic Front leader and former parliamentary speaker Hassan Al-Turabi, and Communist Party leader Mohamed Nugud.
The southerners are livid that the northern leaders have failed to establish a Sudanese state that tolerates diversity. Some accused the northerners of waging a jihad against the south during the years of the National Salvation Revolution. Some recalled certain atrocities that took place in the south during Al-Mahdi's rule. References were made to "broken promises" and "forgotten vows".
The conference brought back memories of another meeting that was held in Juba in 1947, before the country won its independence. Northern politicians spoke of that conference as an event that launched a united Sudan. But the southerners recalled a different story.
Yasser Arman, deputy secretary-general of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), said that the first Juba conference was a "painful memory" to the southerners. It was a ruse that continued until independence, he added.
It was in Juba in 1947 that the southerners voted for unity with the north. "They were promised federalism, but the northern political leaders cheated them. It is therefore a tricky business, reminding the southerners of that conference. For them, it is a sad memory," Amnad said.
Speaking at a session of the south Sudan parliament, Paul Mayom, information minister, said that the process of unity in an Islamic country differs from that in a diverse country such as Sudan. "The peace agreement concerning the south is not a solution, but a means to an end, which is self- determination," he said.
Mayom denied that the partitioning of Sudan would be bad for Africa. "We cannot live in a unified Sudan at a time when leaders of the country manage politics by the standards of religion," he pointed out.
John Luk, minister of energy and mining of the south Sudan government, called on the Sudanese to stop blaming the colonialists who left the country 50 years ago. He criticised leaders of the north for monopolising power, but stated that Sudan may be able to remain united if religion and politics are separated. He said that the peace agreement has given Sudan two governments, an Islamic one in the north and a secular one in the south.
Luk called Al-Mahdi and Al-Turabi to come up with ideas on how religion and politics can be handled in Sudan. Khartoum should start acting differently if it wants the country to stick together, he added.
Malik Aggar, deputy leader of the SPLM and governor of the Blue Nile Province, said that today's Sudan is not one country-one nation, but one country with many nations. He blamed the northerners for the current strife, adding that the attempt to impose Arab culture on others has ripped the country apart. Unity, he added, cannot be attractive to southerners when the northerners want half of the oil revenues of the south.
Reacting with remarkable calm, northern leaders did their best to refute the allegations. Al-Mahdi said that he wasn't against the peace agreement and the gains of the south, but only wanted the agreement to be expanded to include other Sudanese parties.
Al-Mahdi said that the Islamists don't see eye-to-eye on all matters. He spoke of a future Sudan where citizens' rights and religious freedoms would be honoured under a democratic regime. He said that he is ready to face the blame for his mistakes, but added that the southerners also made mistakes that must be addressed.
This is a time for reconciliation and healing, Al-Mahdi declared. He denied that he came to the south to promote unity. The colonialists mustn't be blamed for everything, but the Sudanese should keep in mind that colonialism has left many inequities in the country, ones that had not been addressed in full. Despite Sudan's troubles, Al-Mahdi said, the country can, through a serious and open dialogue, achieve true democracy.
Speaking at the same event, Al-Turabi said that his idea of jihad was limited to self-defence. He said that Sudan's diversity makes it necessary for the Sudanese to keep an open mind and stop judging their compatriots by standards of colour and race. Al-Turabi went on to reiterate some of his conservative opinions regarding women and freedoms.
Mohamed Nugud said that through dialogue the Sudanese may be able to establish a modicum of national consensus. He warned of the adverse impact of personal vendetta on Sudanese politics. Then he reminded the southerners that unity has to be attractive to the northerners as well.
Lam Akol, former Sudanese foreign minister and leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-Democratic Change (SPLM-DC), said that the criticism directed at the northern leaders is a normal outcome of long standing grievances. He hinted that the northerners are trying to involve the SPLM in their power games, adding that the south must not be dragged into these games.
Nhial Deng, defence minister in the south Sudan government admitted that hopes for unity are fading. "If we look at the situation realistically, we see that the chances for unity in the south have perhaps diminished. This is because the NCP, our partner in government since the beginning of the peace agreement, didn't pay enough attention to that matter. This is because when we said that unity should be attractive, we meant that something needed to be done for the sake of unity. We needed to act even before the ink dried on the agreement. But unfortunately this didn't happen... The simplest thing that the national unity government should have done for example was to rehabilitate the national projects that existed in the south so as to prove to the citizens in the south that it was sincere about healing the wounds and opening a new page. But none of this happened."
In interviews with people in the street, Al-Ahram Weekly learned that the mood was mixed. Some were happy that eminent leaders from the north have deigned to come to the conference in Juba. Others saw the conference as the beginning of the end. "They came to say good-bye, for in 14 months [January 2011] it'll all be over," a southern man told me.