Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
14 - 20 December 2000
Issue No.512
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Showdown in Sudan

By Gamal Nkrumah

A Sudanese soldier walks past the blood stained sandals of victims of Friday's shooting
(photo: AP)

Doors are now firmly shut on the political opponents of Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir's ruling National Congress Party, but the opposition is not interested in gate crashing Al-Bashir's party either. Progress towards internationally accepted democratic norms is proving tortuously slow, with opposition groups still subject to severe constraints that were intensified in the lead-up to parliamentary and presidential elections which began yesterday.

Last week, the Sudanese authorities arrested six leading opposition figures belonging to the Sudanese opposition umbrella group the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) after they met with a United States diplomat Glen Warren at a dinner party hosted by Al-Haj Musa who was also detained. The six, Mohamed Mahgoub, Ali Al-Sayyed, Mohamed Suleiman, Al-Tijani Mustafa, Mohamed Widdaa and Joseph Ukel, Chairman of United Sudan African Parties (USAP) and the secretary-general of the NDA Secretariat, along with Musa, were then charged with treason and sedition.

The authorities also arrested outspoken government critic and human rights activist Ghazi Suleiman for criticising Al-Bashir's election platform. "[The Sudanese government] is trying to fool the international community and the Sudanese people," Suleiman told Al-Ahram Weekly just before his detention last week. "The government must be held accountable for the widespread human rights violations it is committing. There is nothing democratic about this totalitarian regime," Suleiman added.

The elections, which began yesterday, are being held against the backdrop of a further deterioration in Sudanese-US relations which have sunk to an all-time low. Sudanese Foreign Minister Mostafa Osman Ismail recently accused Washington and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) of plotting to recruit 3,800 Sudanese children from the Kakoma refugee camp in Kenya into the US Marine corps. Ismail also told foreign reporters in Khartoum that the Sudanese government was obliged to hold parliamentary elections, after President Al-Bashir dissolved parliament and declared a state of emergency, with or without opposition support and participation.

Although the main issue in the election is the 18-year-long civil war raging in the south, resulting in the death of two million people -- most of whom are from the south -- the presidential hopefuls are all northern Muslims. Former Sudanese President Gaafar Al-Numeiri, whose tenure saw the eruption of war in the south spearheaded by the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), and current President Al-Bashir are the only well-known presidential hopefuls. Totally discredited and lacking any domestic power base, Al-Numeiri doesn't stand a chance. The SPLA, which is an integral part of the NDA and its major military component, rejects the elections outright.

"The outcome of the elections is a foregone conclusion and the regime has no credibility either at home or abroad. The elections are boycotted by the vast majority of Sudanese political parties and the government is clamping down hard on opposition forces in a desperate attempt to silence dissent," Farouk Abu-Eissa, member of the NDA Leadership Council and NDA presidential adviser on legal, constitutional and human rights affairs, told the Weekly. "These are meaningless elections since the main political parties are not participating," said Abu-Eissa, who is also the head of the Cairo-based Arab Lawyers Union. The Cairo-based Abdun Agau of USAP concurred. "The southern Sudanese people will never accept the current regime no matter how much window-dressing it engages in. The people are not fooled by cosmetic changes," Agau told the Weekly.

Al-Bashir has extended a hand of friendship to a select few opposition leaders, the most important being former prime minister and Umma Party leader Sadig Al-Mahdi, who was toppled in a military coup staged by Al-Bashir. Al-Mahdi recently returned to a triumphant welcome by his supporters in Sudan after five years of exile in Eritrea and Egypt. But Al-Mahdi refuses to take part in the presidential race and his party is not participating in the parliamentary polls. "The present constitution contains certain theocratic and totalitarian aspects that have to be reviewed and with which I fundamentally disagree. Sudan is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country and all Sudanese people regardless of religion and ethnic background must participate freely and fully in the political and decision-making process," Al-Mahdi told the Weekly. "The electoral laws must be radically reformed."

The presidential and parliamentary elections were originally scheduled to take place between 11 and 20 December, but sweeping detentions and arrests of public figures and a terrorist attack on civilians belonging to the Sufi order of Ansar Al-Sunna Al-Mohamadiya, delayed the polls. The Sufis, whose group is closely linked to Sudan's largest political organisation, the Umma Party, were attacked while praying the taraweeh, the traditional Ramadan evening prayers. The Sudanese government pointed accusing fingers at the NDA, but to the authority's chagrin a militant Islamist group, Al-Takfir wal-Hijra, claimed responsibility. Over 25 people were instantly killed and another 60 were critically injured. The massacre took place in the village of Al-Garafah in the vicinity of the Sudanese capital Khartoum.

The government was severely criticised for security lapses as the militant group is notorious for targeting civilians. They first burst onto the scene in 1994 with a similarly executed massacre of praying crowds, and then repeated the crime in 1997. The founder of the group, Mohamed Al-Khalifi, who held dual Tunisian-Libyan nationality, was put to death in Khartoum in 1995.

To the government's utter embarrassment, Abbas Al-Bakr Abbas, who masterminded the latest Al-Takfir wal-Hijra attack, was trained by its own militia, the so-called Popular Defence Forces set up originally to counteract and target opposition NDA forces. The shady group, however, soon turned against the government, using the training for its own purposes.

Al-Takfir wal-Hijra, many of whose members originally belonged to Ansar Al-Sunna Al-Mohamadiya, preached a virulent anti-social message claiming to be God's instrument for punishing infidels. Ironically, by the mid-1990s they considered Sudan's National Islamic Front regime headed by former Speaker of the Sudanese Parliament Hassan Al-Turabi, to be an infidel government and branded anyone who does not espouse their harsh and extremist creed as a non-believer. Al-Turabi himself has been sidelined politically after a widely publicised split with Al-Bashir. Relations between Khartoum and Sudan's neighbours have improved since Al-Turabi's political demise which highlights the characteristic splintering of Islamist forces in Sudan.

Al-Takfir wal-Hijra has attracted a number of disgruntled, well-educated but unemployed youth who dedicate their lives to the cause of Islamising society. But their views were unorthodox even among their own ilk: at one point they attempted to assassinate Saudi dissident Ossama bin Laden who was residing in Sudan at the time. The authorities foiled their assassination plot.

Next, the NIF government tried to woo them back into its fold. In the late 1990s, the NIF regime encouraged members of Al-Takfir wal-Hijra to participate in discussion sessions with ulema, or religious scholars, to persuade them to relinquish their militant ideology. The authorities even officially declared on several occasions that the group had been won over.

Members of Al-Takfir wal-Hijra, mainly petty traders who roam the vast country, are to be found in central and western Sudan. They are armed to the teeth and there is growing evidence that they engage in arms smuggling across Sudan's porous borders.

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