Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1267, (22 - 28 October 2015)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1267, (22 - 28 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Sudanese discourse

Sudan’s national dialogue, begun this week, is being boycotted by the opposition, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

Many politicians in contemporary Sudan would hesitate to express an opinion on the state of the country’s politics and its relationships with its Arab and African neighbours and the international community at large.

Sudan has been the third-largest recipient of United States aid since 2005, behind only Iraq and Afghanistan. It is also a major recipient of funds from the oil-rich Arab Gulf nations. Sudan has in recent years curtailed its relationship with Shia Iran, and last week it intervened militarily in neighbouring Yemen as part of the Saudi-led Arab force fighting against Shia Houthi militias and the forces of Yemeni ex-president Ali Abdallah Saleh.

Ironically, Sudan used to be one of Saleh’s main supporters, at a time when Yemen, Sudan and Ethiopia formed a coalition of sorts. This may partly explain why Sudan’s current national dialogue, initiated by Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir, has raised eyebrows both in Sudan and abroad.

Today’s Sudan is a brutish masterpiece of Machiavellian political intrigue. Al-Bashir has long enjoyed the status of a statesman handing down apparently incontrovertible judgements on the political future of Sudan.

Moreover, the Popular Congress Party (PCP), headed by former Al-Bashir mentor Hassan Al-Turabi, a chief Islamist ideologue in contemporary Sudan, has made something of a political comeback, adding to the forces arrayed behind Al-Bashir.

Al-Bashir has managed to outmaneuvre his political rivals. “We committed ourselves to a national dialogue as an approach to compromise,” he declared on Monday in his address to the opening of a second parliamentary session. “Arrangements are proceeding well to hold a referendum in all of Darfur State in April 2016.” Last month, he declared a two-month cessation of hostilities in South Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur States, which have long been wracked by civil conflict.

Delegations from the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF) and the National Umma Party (NUP), under the leadership of Malik Agar and Sadig Al-Mahdi, signed the Paris Declaration in August 2014 in the French capital, calling for a “credible national dialogue” and transitional government in Sudan. It is this dialogue that Al-Bashir is apparently now continuing.

However, in the face of this week’s boycott, many commentators are asking what Al-Bashir will do should the dialogue fail. Just as peace continues to evade Sudan, south of the border, in the four-year-old nation of South Sudan, a new civil war pitting the two largest ethnic groups against each other has been underway for the past two years.

South Sudanese politicians are wary of Khartoum’s interference in the country’s internal affairs in particular, and Al-Bashir is widely suspected of supporting Riek Machar, the former vice-president of South Sudan.

South Sudan and peripheral non-Arab regions of northern Sudan have become cogs in the engine that drives Sudanese politics. “I personally, and the Umma Party as a whole, will not take part in these farcical peace talks. Al-Bashir is a trickster, and we have suffered his kind of trickery for a long time now. Nothing whatsoever will come out of such talks,” Mariam Al-Mahdi, daughter of veteran Sudanese leader Sadig Al-Mahdi and assistant deputy leader for communications of the Umma Party, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“I feel particularly sensitive because I know Al-Bashir is a deceiver. What Sudan now desperately needs is democracy. Al-Bashir has been in power for decades, and there is no sign of him giving up power. I cannot condone this hypocritical farce. It is totally unacceptable. Surely there must be an alternative,” Al-Mahdi added.

“We have decided to suspend our participation in the national dialogue,” her father, Sadig Al-Mahdi, concurred. Meanwhile, Al-Bashir has rebuffed calls from the Sudanese opposition to link the political negotiations with peace talks between various Sudanese political groups.

The Umma Party will need all its determination and traditional resilience if it is to have a credible say in Khartoum politics. And it is not just the Umma Party that faces significant changes. One question that has been doing the rounds this week is whether the Umma Party, or any other Sudanese opposition group, still has what it takes to succeed Al-Bashir.

The Umma Party was for decades a leading player on the Sudanese political stage. Yet it failed to stop South Sudan from seceding from the country. The party, like other Sudanese opposition groups, with the notable exception of the SRF, has failed to market itself as a prudent, socially progressive voice with the clout that comes from political credibility and widespread popularity. It is regarded as an elite group and almost as a spent force.

The fighting between forces loyal to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Machar, is being used by the Khartoum political establishment to regain control over the oil resources of South Sudan. Only Al-Bashir has made his mark in this attempt, and the other Sudanese political groups have faltered.

Meanwhile, more than 2.2 million people have been rendered homeless as a result of the conflicts in Sudan and South Sudan, and the humanitarian catastrophe in Sudan and in particular in South Sudan is being exacerbated by plummeting oil prices. War is a constant menace, and while South Sudan successfully seceded from Sudan in 2011, there are many in Juba and Khartoum who have been questioning its rationale.

Khartoum is also in dire straits, and Al-Bashir has been courting the oil-rich Gulf Arab states for funds. But Sudan has other powerful allies, among them China, the country’s main trading partner. “The United States very often just says ‘sanctions, sanctions, sanctions’, and in some cases severely aggravates the situation,” says Russian UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin.

Neither Sudan nor South Sudan today is a success story. “After independence in 1956, the northern-dominated government in Khartoum sought to Arabise and Islamicise the South,” explains commentator Francis Deng.

Today, Sudan and South Sudan are embroiled in international geopolitical competition between the US, China and, most recently, Russia. Three successive US presidents have stated that Sudan is a top-priority foreign policy concern, partly due to Sudan’s strategic location, potential agricultural wealth and oil.

The cessation of hostilities in the border regions of Sudan is now imperative, including in the Nuba Mountains of Southern Kordofan, the Southern Blue Nile and the disputed territories of Abyei and Darfur. These regions have for too long been marginalised and excluded from the decision-making processes of the Sudanese political establishment.

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