Friday, April 12, 2024

Sudan Tribune

Plural news and views on Sudan

PROFILE: Ali Uthman Muhammad Taha

The son of a Khartoum zookeeper, Ali Uthman Muhammad Taha’s rise to the pinnacle of the Islamic movement in Sudan demonstrates the opportunities that the rapid proliferation of post-colonial educational provision offered to those who were talented, ambitious and ruthless enough to seize the opportunities it granted. Taha demonstrates the broad yet narrow social and ethnic base of those who staff the current regime – whilst he is a Shayqiyya and Umar al-Bashir is a Ja’ali, both share common regional origins in the riverain north and both attended the same secondary school in Khartoum, at which time both men were active members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Taha was head of the pupils’ union.

Whilst pursuing his law course at the University of Khartoum in between 1969-1971, Taha rose as a representative of the Islamic Movement to become the head of the student union, and is credited alongside others with fostering a culture of violence and radicalization within the university political environment. When Taha completed his university studies, political parties were outlawed under Jafa’ar Nimeiri’s ‘May Regime’ (1969-1985) and Taha thus chose to put his legal qualifications into practise, at first in the judiciary and then as an advocate.

These experiences would later assist him in helping Nimeiri’s regime ‘Islamize’ the laws once Nimeiri had re-incorporated the right-wing religious parties into the government following the National Reconciliation of 1977. During this period Taha won a seat in Khartoum West and was granted a senior position in the national parliament in spite of not yet having reached the age of 30.

However, he fell foul of Nimeiri in 1985 when the latter ordered his arrest and that of other senior members of the Islamic movement – ironically, a month before Nimeiri was overthrown by a civilian uprising. This incident would allow Taha, like other Islamists, to conveniently distance himself from his former association with the dictator whilst he was the leader of the opposition during the third parliamentary period.

During this period he helped consolidate links between military and civilian Islamists, in preparation for Umar al-Bashir’s coup of 1989 during which Taha was sent to prison, as part of a convenient charade to disguise the true nature of the coup to nearby powers. However, Taha was soon released to take up the position of Minister for Social Affairs during which he was charged with engineering the National Islamic Front’s utopian ‘civilizational project’ (1993-1995).

Here he oversaw the establishment of dawa’ist missionary and humanitarian agencies throughout Sudan’s provinces in what is now regarded as a failed attempt to impose the NIF’s rigid definition of social and religious norms upon a culturally diverse and ethnically heterogeneous Sudanese public.

Following this, Taha took up the post of foreign minister in between 1995 and 1998 before the death of Umar al-Bashir’s military vice president Zubeir Muhammad Salih in 1998 gave Taha the opportunity to outstrip his former political master Hasan al-Turabi and become the top civilian Islamist in Sudan.

Whilst al-Bashir by appointing Taha to the post of vice-president was superficially making concessions to the need for civilian representation in the higher echelons of government, the move effectively enabled Sudan’s president to divide the civilians and ultimately led to al-Turabi and his followers seceding from the government in 1999.

This in turn enabled Taha to take Turabi’s position as leader of the Islamic movement. During the new millennium, Taha became the leading figure in peace negotiations with the south, and personally negotiated the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement with SPLA leader John Garang through a series of one-on-one, private meetings in Kenya between 2003 and 2005.

The significance of Taha’s role was acknowledged during the actual peace ceremony held in Khartoum in 2005, when it was he, not Umar al-Bashir, who acted as northern signatory alongside John Garang. However, whilst playing the role of dove in the south, Taha was acting as a hawk in the west. He is believed to have been personally responsible for releasing Janjawiid leader Musa Hilal from prison in 2003 and providing him with the weapons he used to commit atrocities in North Darfur.

In spite of this, Taha as well as then intelligence chief Salah Gosh acted in the same period as a key figure in intelligence sharing with the United States. However, the removal of Salah Gosh , who like Taha is Shayqiyya, from his position in 2009 seems to have caused a narrowing of Taha’s political power base compared with that of his main Islamist rival, Nafi’ Ali Nafi’ who hails from the same Ja’ali ethnic group as al-Bashir.

Recently released Wikileaks cables demonstrate that removal of Gosh was almost certainly a result of secret plotting between him and Taha to have Taha replace al-Bashir as president in the wake of the ICC arrest warrant. In 2011, it was reported that Ali Uthman Taha was frustrated at being left outside the ‘security loop’ which is unofficially controlled by Nafi’; the two have recently been involved in a number of heavily publicized confrontations.

(ST)

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