By Omer M Shurkian
Since their formations in the early 1940s, the Sudanese political parties have invested their strategies in short-term goals. Established by the British colonial power and used as a bulwark against the Egyptian influence in Sudan, the Umma Party and other independence parties campaigned for the complete independence of Sudan. The National Unionist Party (NUP), on the other hand, favoured and urged the Sudanese people to accept unity with Egypt. Both parties did receive financial support from their respective sponsors in the Condominium Rule. In the post-independence Sudan, the sloganeering of al-tahreer qabl al-ta’ameer (liberation before rehabilitation) became obsolete, and the political leaders were left with no congenial slogans to convince the masses that they were the new saviours. Sudan was then replete with time-bomb crises; perhaps the most incomprehensible example in the modem history of Sudan was the looming instability and security issue in the South, and so was the rampant illiteracy, underdevelopment in the vast territories of the country, the crisis of identity and so forth.
The unionist parties were numerous in the political arena, only united in their competition to please Egypt, and with some whose membership barely reached a handful of loyalists. In the 960s and under the tutelage of Col Nasser’s Egypt, the NUP and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) were united under the name of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) with Isma’il al-Azhari as the dynamo of these political manoeuvres. In one of his atavistic rubric, Azhari, the leader of al-Ashiqqa (brotherhood) Party, once reiterated that if Sudan were to become a kingdom, he would be its king; if it were to become a republic, he would be its president; and if it were to be united with Egypt, he would be its prime minister. This is a vivid corroboration of Azhari’s megalomaniac intention, which summarises the innately despotic nature of one of the key figures in the tenor of Sudanese modern history.
These parties or, rather, political associations were, in fact, old boys clubs with no socio-economic programmes after abandoning their shibboleth. Adding to their failures, the new leaders of independent Sudan rejected the country’s partnership in the commonwealth. The commonwealth was mainly meant to assist the newly independent Anglophone states in terms of trade, education, health and socio-economic co-operation so that they could stand on their own feet. But Sudan started barking before growing: ‘We do not want neo-colonialism,’ they argued. The same flaw was committed by the opportunistic members of the General Congress of Graduates, who disappeared and dissolved into then existing parties for vested interests in the power game of politics. This rudderless posture of intellectuals and their shifts in principles plunged the country into despair and evaporated hopes, with no vision and conviction for the post-independence Sudan. Among the Umma Party new recruits was Mohamed Ahmed Mahgoub: an opportunistically shrewd engineer and lawyer by profession and politician by inclination. Mahgoub played a central role in nationalist Governments but to the detriment of the marginalised population of Sudan at large.
In their hasty departure, the British left behind a country simmering on in three basic issues: the constitution, whether the country should be a parliamentary republic or a presidential one and the thorny relationship between the North and the South. So much was said about the constitution. While the Islamists of all hues called for an Islamic state, the secularists, on the other hand, insisted on a secular Sudan that would guarantee equality, justice and human rights for all the Sudanese citizens, regardless of their religion, colour of skin, texture of hair, gender, race or place of origin. In actuality, the constitution was (and is) not a magic wand that could have turned Sudan into a land of milk and honey, but the guarantors, checks and balances were the most tangible themes that could ascertain the implementation of law and order equally and equitably. The chopping off of thieves’ limbs, flagellating adulterers, flogging alcohol consumers and crucifying armed robbers could only exacerbate the crisis of governance and national unity in a country so congested with the corruption, disrespect of human rights, inequality, miscarriages of justice, racial discrimination, prejudices and stereotypes. Domestically, this religionization of politics has created a schism in body politics, augmented the crises of national unity and adversely impacted on the social fabric. Internationally, it has strained Sudan’s relations with foreign governments, compromised humanitarian relief and the country’s commitment to the universal covenants and treaties, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
For the quest of constitution, the reunited factions of the Umma Party, one led by al-Hadi al-Mahdi and another by his nephew Sadiq, reached a deal in which al-Hadi would be a candidate for the presidency of the Republic of Sudan, contending only with Isma’il al-Azhari. Sadiq al-Mahdi, for his part, would be nominated for the portfolio of the premiership. In so doing, the whole country was reduced to nothing more than a domestic estate owned by the Mahdi family without a divine lease, with only Azhari competing desperately with the holy flock. This is a haughty attitude to the Sudanese people. And to add insult to injury, the conference in which such a deal was reached was held under a provocative slogan of al-balad baladna wa nahnu asiadaha (the country is ours and we are its masters). In such a case all the formalities required to distinguish a correct and legitimate act from a seditious tumult, and the will of a whole people from the clamour of the party was lost. Azhari’s credentials were that he hoisted the independence flag, and he was the first elected Sudan’s prime minister. However, the agreed deal to heal the rift in the Mahdi family had nothing to do with the country’s welfare: it was merely a medication for the inter-party wrangles and family bickering. This family feud in the Mahdi household, with wrong members in control, bungled the state apparatus, and the cream of the country’s intelligentsia was either reticent or condoning the mismanagement of these familial affairs in the pseudo-name of national interests. Moreover, these party squabbles attested that the dying out of inner-party democracy eventually led to a dying out of Sudan’s democracy in general.
This party bickering was a kind of mantra to so many a politician of the day of whom Sadiq was one. Sadiq, alas, was born to rule or so he believed. It was in the 1960s when Sadiq, neither with sufficient skills and experience for leadership nor had he reached the legal age of premiership, pestered Mr Mahgoub to step down as a Prime Minister in order to give way to the scion of the Mahdi to blossom. Mahgoub responded to the burning desire of the Mahdi that one day he might be a premier, but his tenure would only last for nine months. In fact, Mahgoub prophesy was materialised in 1966/67 when Sadiq only reigned for nine months as a prime minister. The Muslim Brethren were the prime movers and extreme campaigners for the adoption of the Islamic constitution. Their bigotry reached its apogee in 1965 when they collided with the sectarian parties in Parliament, banned the Sudan Communist Party (SCP) and expelled its MPs. In these tumultuous times, the presidential elections were to take place in 1970, and the Islamic constitution was being deliberated in Parliament, thanks to the colonels who smashed these heresies on 25 May 1969.
The Southerners, to their doom and despondency, were demanding a federal system as a basis for the governing of their three provinces – that is, Upper Nile, Bahr al-Ghazal and Equatoria, but the rather deceitful Northerners cajoled them into voting in Parliament for independence and afterwards their demand for federalism would be considered favourably. With no scruples, Mahgoub later revealed that they only deceived the Southerners to keep them happy and vote for independence. It was the first act of betrayal and dishonouring of agreements by the Northerners. In his political memoirs, Mahgoub complained about the persistent demands of the people of Sudan’s regions. He moaned that the representatives of these regions continued to emphasise the need for discussing their constituencies’ problems – such as, health, wells, education services, building roads and bridges. One would wonder what Mahgoub was to expect from the countryside folks, who were (and are) seared by the heat of injustice and negligence, other than to reiterate their social and economic desires. In reality, they were persistently craving for the simplest means of their survival and humble life. Later on, we will see how these basic regional demands have caused and fuelled bloody conflicts in years to come as the country’s peripheries engulfed into internecine civil wars and recurring famines.
The socio-economic prerequisites of the marginalised regions of Sudan were universal rights. They were people’s inalienable rights, and that the necessity of the countryside dwellers to enjoy public care was asserted by Al Gore, the former US Vice-President, in his speech to the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in Los Angles:
It is a matter of guaranteeing access to essential services. We cannot tolerate – nor in the long run can this nation afford – a society in which some children become fully educated and some do not; in which some adults have access to training and lifetime education, and others do not.
In the 1960s, Fr Philip ‘Abbas Ghabboush, a Nuba civil rights activist who endured so grand trials and tribulations for the sake of his people, logically argued that dispatching a battalion of Sudanese soldiers to go and fight for the Palestinian cause in the Fertile Crescent should be coincided with digging a canal from the White Nile to the Nuba Mountains in order to irrigate the arable lands in South Kordofan. Nonetheless, Fr Ghabboush’s statement was dismissed as emanating from a lunatic. Had the authorities adopted Ghabboush’s proposition, some sort of socio-economic self-sufficiency could have been attained by the population of the province. However, Sudan has a long and somewhat complex history with Arabs. It was their leaders who met in Syria and resolutely decided that Sudan should be part and parcel of Egypt under the Egyptian crown. This was just before Sudan’s independence in 1956. The Arabs probably scented that Sudan, though erroneously and politically considered as an Arab state, might jettison the Arab world and side with its mother Africa. It was, therefore, decided that it should be connected with an Arab neighbour in some way or another to keep it in a constant check.
After Sudan’s independence in 1956, the nationalist leaders squandered the country’s invaluable time and wealth on trying to reconcile the Arab foes – that is, Col Nasser’s Egypt and King Faisal’s Saudi Arabia over the Yemeni armed dispute in which both countries had meddled into back an ally. These ancien régimes (old guards), with a complete fiasco, embarked on flurry diplomacy to find a settlement for the Palestinian problem by wiping the state of Israel off the face of earth. This was portrayed in the Khartoum conference on 29 August 1967, reputedly renowned as the summit of three noes – that is, no peace, no recognition and no negotiation with Israel. The aforementioned rejections were one of the three resolutions adopted by the summiteers. To all odysseys between Arab capitals, Sudan’s civil war was not touched. It is deplorable to admit that through most of the years of civil strife (from 1955 to 1969) no negotiations for the peaceful settlement to such a bloody conflict had ever taken place. It made no difference whether the central Government was under a civilian democrat or a military dictator, since they all believed in a decisive military victory over the guerrilla fighters, rendering the Sudanese authorities desperate addicts of human misery.
Arming civilians to fight on behalf of Government troops is not a new venture. In the 1960s, Mahgoub had admitted in his memoirs that his Government gave arms to tribal chiefs in the South to allegedly defend themselves against the Anya-Nya fighters. The masochistic Mahgoub mendaciously claimed that the arms were demanded by these tribal leaders. To sustain Sudan’s first civil war (1955-1972), the successive regimes in Khartoum received arms, ammunition and money from the United Arab Republic (then Egypt and Syria), Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. This was all too true when even some African leaders, for one reason or another, seemed not to understand the plight and ordeal of their fellow Africans in Southern Sudan. Among those manipulated by politics and misunderstanding was President Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya. Mahgoub, while attending the Eastern and Central African States Summit in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, on 31 March 1966, duped Kenyatta into rounding up all Sudanese refugees in Nairobi and shipping them back to Sudan.
The fratricidal war of attrition in South Sudan became a conflict of opposing cultures – that is, Arab culture versus African one. Nevertheless, the subsequent denominations of these cultures are now symbolised by Islam, Christianity and Noble African Religions. But why the word ‘culture’ has become a political and class battleground over which, when mentioned, passions run higher? Or, in other words, what is it about ‘culture’ that makes some people stiffen their sinews, summon up their blood, soften the brain and talk pretty good nonsense? For a handful of Sudanese people, culture denotes the claims to superiority of a particular group or do I say race? Those who acclaim culture as only Arabism and Islam are erroneously interpreting the concept of culture for their own domination and the subjugation of others. It is anthropologically argued that culture is the whole life of a people. The term is said to include ‘every custom of a tribe, from its rites of initiation and passage, its taboos, its tastes in food.’ Based upon these criteria, the Sudanese people cannot be Arabs in their culture or Moslems in their religion as long as there are numerous spoken languages and other adored deities.
The product of culture – for example, the total sums of its institutions, works, art and writings – constitutes a heritage. This heritage is a given fact, a datum, in a changing world. It may survive or it may die. It may alienate or it may liberate, to the extent that it fulfils that function, its contribution remains a vital one. It is reckoned that not only does history continue to be made with ideas, and cultural references, but it is also the product of experience, actions and the behaviours of those who are living. But the worst experience is shouldering the burden exerted by the shackles of cultural imperialism and intellectual subjugation, for an alien cultural heritage always alienates those who adopt it, rendering them slaves.
It is a well-renowned fact that when an individual is no longer a true participant when he no longer feels a sense of responsibility to his society, the content of democracy is emptied. When culture is degraded and vulgarity enthroned, when the social system does not build security, but induces peril, inexorably the individual is impelled to pull away from a senseless society. This process produces alienation: perhaps the most pervasive and insidious development in contemporary society.
The Sudanese people are so courageous a people: the masses are always alert and they know how and when to depose their despots, especially when oppression soars in fascist and totalitarian regimes. To this end, the tyrannical regime of Gen Ibrahim Abboud represented a fascist regime of a small clique of the loose-knit commonwealth type held together by some common tradition and certain common interests that bound the riverain rulers intimately – that is, Arabism and Islam. In fact, it was revealed that ‘Abd Allah Khalil, then Prime Minister representing the Umma Party, handed over power to army officers in November 1958. Under Khalil’s persistence, Abboud was badgered into seizing power only after the former drafted three copies of quasi-military orders in his capacity as a Prime Minister and Minister of Defence to the army chief – that is, Gen Abboud: one copy was said to have been despatched to Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, the second was lodged with the British Embassy in Khartoum and the third was kept by Abboud himself. It was most likely that Khalil, himself a retired army officer, never believed in democracy. As a Secretary-General of the Umma Party, Khalil must have acted with the blessing, if not the instructions, of the party leaders, notably Sayyid ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi and his son, Siddiq, who was the chairman of the party.
Nimeiri’s military regime that began on 25 May 1969 was a serious test for the Sudanese political parties in the opposition National Front. To wield power, three issues are often harnessed: money, media and army. In the Western world, party politics has reached maturity that the rotation of power mainly depends on money and media to further the political causes of parties, including elections. The developing world, on the other hand, resorts to the army to divest power. In this sense, the Sudanese political parties have failed miserably through political alliances to establish a broad, common front based on a moral conviction in order to guarantee freedom for all so as to participate in party politics without fear or favour. This has not been materialised due to lack of political consciousness, popular will and the domination of self-centred political leaders. Furthermore, the Sudanese political parties failed to wrestle power from the army when the latter was at the helm of Government, judging by a number of botched coups from within and without. The two popular uprisings that took place in 1964 and 1985 were mass movements by the Sudanese multitude, and the parties’ leaders only joined in when the revolution was ripe and they were merely there to reap the fruits of the power of people.
Claiming to rectify the May Revolution which they alleged that it went wrong, the SCP launched a coup d’état on 19 July 1971. According to the protagonist of the aborted putsch, Maj Hashim al-‘Atta, they had taken this step because President Nimeiri had diverted from the original doctrine of the revolution. Whatever may be said about the July putsch, only the Politburo of the SCP could one day reveal the truth behind it. To distance themselves from their military members, some Communists had argued that while the military band was being played in the Omdurman state-owned radio, Maj ‘Atta was going around in Khartoum looking for al-Tijani al-Tayib Babiker to draft a communiqué for what would be a Government. Another comrade had recalled al-Shafei Ahmed al-Sheikh, the trade union leader, as saying ‘these young officers have seized power in forty minutes, but this adventure will leave scars upon us for forty years to come.’ It was not long before ‘Atta’s coup fizzled out, and his comrades were faced with enantiodromia. Upon his return to power, President Nimeiri and his fellow members of the Revolutionary Command Council acted like The Return of the Musketeers. He told both local and foreign journalists that
they arrested me while I was in my sleeping clothes, with no shoes and guns were pointed at my back. I spent three days, living on the water. Two of my trustworthy friends had betrayed me ...
The kangaroo courts formed by Nimeiri to try the plotters sentenced the coup leaders to death and others were imprisoned for long terms. However, it was not clear whether the Communists wanted to implement ideological socialism or ethical socialism: the former is centrally concerned with ownership and control, hence the commitment to ‘the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’. Ethical socialism, on the other hand, is essentially connected with the values of liberty, mutual support and social justice. Ideological socialism is a mission to destroy capitalism; ethical socialism is not. A balanced view must recognise the immense achievement of Nimeiri’s regime in concluding peace accord with the Southern Sudanese rebels against enormous odds, even though he was, ironically, the architect of its destruction and, most importantly, the agreement emphatically convinced the population of other marginalised regions that the only way to secure civic rights in Sudan was to take to arms and launch a rebellion against the Khartoum Government.
Finally, the Sudanese political parties tried to infiltrate the army institution to affect change from within and wield power. This was exemplified by numerous abortive coups, including that of Muslim Brotherhood and other leftist officers in 1959 and the SCP’s bid in 1971 as adduced to above. Nevertheless, the National Islamic Front (NIF) was eventually successful in this enterprise, having learnt from their own previous fiasco in 1959, the bungled bid of the SCP in 1971 and other known or unknown attempts to seize power militarily. It was no secret that the NIF resorted to a long-term strategy, employed highly technical expertise, used meticulously organisational programme and garnered planning forces and financial resources that were not available to other Islamic movements.
So much so the Sudanese political parties, as in the way they flourished to inherit colonial power, failed to formulate a permanent constitution, retain national unity through an acceptable matrix to address the once highly volatile North-South relations, redefine the cultural identity of the state, adopt a secular system to govern the country whereby all Sudanese citizens are treated equally. Throughout decades, these mounting problems were exacerbated by other factors to create the crisis of governance in Sudan, leading to the secession of South Sudan in July 2011.
The author is the SPLM-N representative in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, author of War in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan (1983-2011): The Root Causes and Peace Settlement and a number of books in Arabic. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org