Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
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NDA split over Mahdi's deal

By Mohamed Khaled

A 'declaration of principles' signed by Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir and former Prime Minister and Al-Ummah Party leader, Sadeq Al-Mahdi, in Djibouti on Saturday has been denounced by several exiled opposition leaders, with others saying that the deal concerns the Al-Ummah Party alone and therefore does not represent a solution to the country's political problems.

Al-Mahdi told reporters after meeting Al-Bashir that what had been reached was "a declaration of principles" and not an agreement. Nevertheless, the declaration calls for a four-year transitional period in Sudan to ensure equality for all citizens, the recognition of all people's ethnic, religious and cultural rights, devolution of powers to the regions, even distribution of the country's wealth, and the adherence to international human rights covenants.

Al-Mahdi, who was overthrownby Al-Bashir in a military coup 10 years ago, lived for several years in Sudan under near house arrest, before being spirited out of the country by supporters three years ago in an operation hailed as a victory for the opposition. He then became secretary-general of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), an umbrella movement that unites the northern Sudanese opposition parties with the southern Sudanese People Liberation Army (SPLA) led by John Garang.

When Al-Mahdi held a surprise meeting with Al-Bashir's closest ally, Hassan Al-Turabi, in Geneva earlier this year, the door was opened for speculation that Al-Mahdi was working on a deal with the Sudanese government, especially given Khartoum's indication that it was ready to restore democracy and political parties that had been banned in Sudan immediately after Al-Bashir took office. Al-Turabi, who is the leader of the National Islamic Front (NIF) and Parliamentary Speaker, is also Al-Mahdi's brother-in-law.

Reacting to criticism of the agreement from other opposition leaders, Al-Mahdi said that Garang's SPLA had been holding meetings with the government for the past 10 years, and he saw no reason why contacts should be limited to this party alone. He also criticised the Asmara-based NDA, led by Othman Al-Merghani, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, saying it lacked any serious programme or structure to achieve its goal of overthrowing the government in Khartoum.

Al-Mahdi pointed out that the main purpose of his meeting with Al-Bashir had been to make easier any collective meeting with other opposition parties. He affirmed that, "we are not running after a partial bilateral agreement, but rather we are aiming at a collective meeting that can achieve a comprehensive peaceful solution".

For his part, Al-Bashir said that "This agreement will be the beginning of the end of the major problems for Sudan".

Adel Abdel-Hady, spokesman of the Unionist Democratic Party, said that it considered the deal signed by Al-Mahdi and Al-Bashir as only "a bi-lateral agreement between the Al-Ummah Party and the regime. The opposition as a whole is not obliged to adhere to the agreement because they were not consulted".

Abdel-Hady pointed out that the Djibouti meeting had been aimed at pre-empting the Egyptian-Libyan initiative proposed over the summer in an attempt to restore peace and to end war in the south of the country. He said that the agreement "will only help in prolonging the regime's lifespan".

"This agreement is a total violation of the Asmara Declaration, on the basis of which the NDA was founded [in 1995]," said SPLA spokesman, Yasser Arman.

"It is clear from what General Al-Bashir said on his return from Djibouti that the agreement was drawn up from the government's constitution, which the NDA has rejected. Thus, it is a bilateral agreement between the Al-Ummah Party and the [Al-Turabi's] NIF. In the SPLM/SPLA we are not concerned at all with the agreement," Arman told the Weekly.

In addition, NDA spokesman, Farouk Abu Eissa, said that "this agreement is trying to downplay important issues that were settled at the Asmara Conference at which the NDA was created. In a country that has been suffering from the dictatorship of the National Islamic Front in the name of religion, the relation between state and religion must be clearly described. Another issue is that the agreement states that 'international conventions are to be considered', and yet there is no clear commitment to these agreements."

"The Asmara resolution on the other hand is unequivocal on ethnic, religious and human rights. It said it will include human-rights conventions in any constitution and not just 'consider' them." Abu Eissa added.

A statement by the Communist Party of the Sudan described the agreement between al-Bashir and al-Mahdi as "a serious surrender of the resolutions and principles of the NDA", warning that "such moves would seriously endanger the unity of the NDA".

If the agreement has caused controversy among opposition groups, however, it has also caused problems on the government side.

"Since there are two conflicting centres of power in Sudan, Al-Turabi and al-Bashir, the value of the Djibouti agreement is only that at least one of them has agreed," said one leading figure in the Al-Ummah Party.

For the time being, the strong reactions that have greeted the agreement between Al-Mahdi and Al-Bashir may be enough to indicate that its influence will be limited, its most far-reaching effects being felt on NDA unity.

"The Al-Ummah Party should decide on which ship it is going to sail in. Is it going to ally itself with an exhausted force like the NIF, or will it join the forces of the future in the NDA that truly represent the aspirations of the Sudanese people?" asked Arman, the SPLA spokesman.

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