Friday,20 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1144, 18 - 24 April 2013
Friday,20 October, 2017
Issue 1144, 18 - 24 April 2013

Ahram Weekly

The Juba juxtaposition

Al-Bashir’s first visit to Juba as the capital of an independent state to hold talks with his South Sudanese counterpart could be seen as a mantra for peaceful co-existence, or perhaps the two leaders are doomed to clash with competing powers, postulates Gamal Nkrumah from Khartoum

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir will not be pilloried for the rest of his life as a fugitive from justice. He arrived in South Sudan last Friday for the first time since Africa’s once-largest country split in 2011, raising cautious hopes the two adversaries may be edging towards establishing peaceful co-existence.

Sudan and South Sudan have strutted together for so long, long before British colonialism and the pairing has known bitter times — one of Africa’s longest civil wars. Now Al-Bashir and his South Sudanese counterpart Salva Kiir must tend the near-sacred conjugal relationship, a pillar of peace in the conflict-ridden region.

Agonising love, the two countries are destined for a marriage of convenience — a love-hate relationship that is ignited by conflicting economic interests. The divorcees agreed in March to resume cross-border oil flows and take steps to defuse the tension that has plagued them since South Sudan’s independence in July 2011 following a treaty which ended decades of civil war. All these amorous overtures reflect a deeper malaise. Sudan and South Sudan have stopped dreaming of a joint destiny.

Perhaps this is because the ruling parties in Juba and Khartoum come from rival ideological orientations. The National Congress Party in Sudan is avowedly Islamist, and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in South Sudan is decidedly secularist. The ambiguity of the relationship between Juba and Khartoum is under strain.

It is against this backdrop that Al-Bashir visited South Sudan. In some ways, the South is the troubled child of the North, and not a partner of Khartoum. But like many couples that have cohabited for decades, familiarity breeds contempt at times. For all its problems, the relationship between Juba and Khartoum remains remarkable, and not just because it overcame war bitterness but also because it transcends deep political differences.

Tormented to the point of self-destruction, the ruling National Congress Party of Sudanese President Al-Bashir decided that if its Islamist agenda is to succeed, then the South must secede. Khartoum has tried to court the oil-rich Gulf Arab countries, and Juba has at times linked arms with both Western powers and its non-Arab African neighbours. But, in the end Juba and Khartoum need each other. North and South Sudan are destined to stick together.

When the two decide to reach a compromise despite starting from such different world perspectives, they can iron out their differences. The ruling SPLM in Juba seems committed to loosening ties with Khartoum, however. The two states need each other, each choosing where to co-operate and where to opt out.

A new treaty might codify this new relationship. The South Sudanese authorities could have handed over Al-Bashir to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the Netherlands. However, Juba chose not to. Neighbouring Kenya barred Al-Bashir from attending the official inauguration of the country’s new President Uhuru Kenyatta. Nairobi made it clear that the Sudanese leader was not welcome in Kenya. Even as Juba and Khartoum agonise about their future, South Sudan gave Al-Bashir the red carpet treatment in Juba over the weekend. Al-Bashir who arrived in Juba last Friday prayed at the South Sudanese capital’s largest mosque.

Still, there was a bit of tit for tat. The ruling National Congress Party in Khartoum is currently undergoing tremendous change. Political infighting and factionalism threaten to split the party. All eyes are on Al-Bashir who is rumoured to be ailing — throat cancer it is whispered in Khartoum. The rival factions within his party and leading political personalities vie for the position of leading Sudan if and when Al-Bashir steps down.

“If there are free and fair elections today the NCP will not garner more than 20 per cent of the vote,” Sadig Al-Mahdi, leader of the opposition Umma Party and a former Sudanese prime minister whose democratically-elected government was toppled in a military coup d’état masterminded by none other than Al-Bashir himself.

Yet that analysis follows two rather breathless and seemingly admiringly qualities of the Sudanese opposition: the three most influential opposition parties are Islamist to some degree. Al-Mahdi’s Umma Party is moderately Islamist and is buttressed by the Sufi religious order of Al-Ansar. In 2002, 37 political office members split from the Umma National Party and formed the Umma Party (Reform and Renewal) led by Mubarak Al-Fadil Al-Mahdi, a first cousin of Sadig Al-Mahdi, whose own son Abdel-Rahman Al-Mahdi is a high-profile presidential adviser to Al-Bashir.

Another particularly influential political movement is the Popular Congress Party whose leader Sheikh Hassan Al-Turabi, Sudan’s chief Islamist ideologue, intellectual and academician who was awarded two doctoral degrees from Oxford and the Sorbonne. Fluent in English and French, Al-Turabi was a close political ally of Al-Bashir as leader of the now defunct National Islamic Front. However, Al-Turabi fell out with Al-Bashir and was incarcerated in Kober (Cooper) Prison in March 2004 on the orders of Al-Bashir, he was released in June 2005 only to be arrested or detained many times since.

Al-Turabi’s brand of Islamism is different from Al-Bashir’s NCP. He espouses women’s rights and is a dedicated democrat who believes that there is no contradiction between Islam and democracy. It is his championing of women’s rights that has earned him many accolades in Sudan, though. “The prophet himself used to visit women, not men, for counselling and advice. They could lead prayer. Even in his battles, they are there. In the election between Othman and Ali to determine who will be the successor to the prophet, they voted,” Al-Turabi extrapolates.

The difference matters. Al-Bashir is widely seen as authoritarian, a military man who has not completely embraced democracy. Al-Turabi, in sharp contrast, is an avowed democrat. Al-Turabi’s political narrative has gone down well with huge swathes of the Sudanese public and has given his adversaries in the ruling party a headache.

However, many Sudanese regard his present utterances with deep suspicion. Al-Turabi, after all, was the man responsible for instituting Islamic Sharia law in Sudan, alienating the Southern Sudanese and his detractors believe that when in power his regime was characterised by gross human rights violations.

The third Islamist opposition force is the Democratic Unionist Party under the leadership of Al-Sayed Mohamed Othman Al-Mirghani the leader of the Khatimiya Sufi order with followers in Sudan, particularly the eastern part of the country and in neighbouring countries such as Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. Something of a mystic and a recluse, Al-Mirghani rarely issues political statements, preferring instead to work behind the scenes.

I take another stab at the question of the Sudanese North-South split. All three opposition Islamist parties oppose South Sudanese independence. They call for a united Sudan. Only Al-Bashir and the ruling party wanted the South to secede.

Perhaps recalling his years behind bars, Al-Mahdi adds, “A multi-party pluralism is essential for democracy to thrive in Sudan. The North and the South are bound to work together for the economic development of Sudan and the entire region. Al-Turabi is married to Al-Mahdi’s sister, Wisal, a clear example of the closely knit Sudanese political establishment.

Juba and Khartoum purport not to interfere in the domestic political affairs of each other, and agreements were signed in Juba during Al-Bashir’s visit. But they still have not agreed who owns Abyei and other regions along their disputed 2,000km border. When the South gained independence in 2011 after a referendum in which the overwhelming majority of the South Sudanese electorate opted out of Sudan, it retained more than 75 per cent of the country’s oil wealth.

South Sudan’s Petroleum and Mining Minister Stephen Dhiew Dau declared that the first oil shipment, destined for international markets, reached the Sudanese territory last Saturday, but it is not clear whether the two countries fixed the transit fees. South Sudan halted its oil production early last year after a dispute arose between it and neighbouring Sudan over transit fees.

The resumption of oil flows through Sudanese territory and on to the Red Sea ports is considered as an important diplomatic breakthrough — a watershed in the relations between North and South Sudan.

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