Home | Comment & Analysis    Monday 20 July 2015

In Sudan a budding opposition party is under greater crackdown, here’s its story

By Khalid Omer Yousif*

In the afternoon of Monday 6 July 2015, the presiding judge of Omdurman Criminal Court, Amin Hasan, sentenced to flogging Mastoor Ahmad Mohammed, the 36-year old deputy chairman for political affairs at the Sudanese Congress Party (SCP), and two other party members Asim Omar Hassan (21) and Ibrahim Mohammed Zain (27). The sentence was duly carried out in the courtyard, where the backs of the three politicians received 20 lashes each under the sweltering heat of Sudan’s summer.

The execution of this brutal sentence came against the background of a rally that SCP members held in Sabreen station in Omdurman on 28 April calling for the release of the party’s detainees whose number has exceeded 20 in sporadic parts of the country. They were detained because they took part in the activities of the Irhal (Leave) campaign which forces of the Sudan Call opposition alliance launched to boycott April’s general elections and promoted it through a nationwide tour. The SCP bore a great deal of effort in promoting this campaign, owing to its widespread presence throughout the country as well as its enthusiasm for the Sudan Call project. As a result, party members were arrested in the towns of Khartoum in Khartoum State, Al-Doaim in the White Nile State, Sinnar and Al-Suuki and Abu Ni’ama in Sinnar State, and in Al-Qadarif in eastern Sudan, and Karima in northern Sudan. This campaign of arrest that the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) conducted also featured the use of law and judiciary in the form of article 50 of the Criminal Code (Undermining the constitutional system), which carries the death penalty for those convicted of it. This article was used against three of the party’s members: Mohammed Yousif al-Bokh, Ali Omar al-Faki, and Ahmad al-Taib Mohammed who were acquitted of the charge after spending two months in detention, whereas SCP’s secretary of training and civil society activist Adel Bakheet is still awaiting trial on the same charge after he was released on bail.

This was not the first campaign targeting SCP in recent years. The party’s chairman Ibrahim al-Shaikh Abdel Rahman, 58 years, was arrested at his house in Al-Nuhud town in West Kordofan State on 8 June 2014 after he criticized the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces in a public rally in the same town. His arrest alongside ten other party members and subsequent detention lasted for a 100 day he spent shuttling between the prisons of Al-Nuhud, and Al-Fola and Al-Obaied. He was released concurrently with SCP’s secretary-general in West Kordofan State Sidiq Norrain after he spent 6 months in Al-Obaied prison without any discernable charge. This was also not the first time the party’s leader was arrested. He was released from Kober prison in October 2013 after he was arrested alongside the party’s secretary-general Abdel-Qaium Awad al-Seed Badr and a number of the party’s members due to their participation in the September 2013 revolt in which the regime killed 177 protesters with live bullets in a new massacre joining its long list of massacres in Sudan.

It is hard to observe the aforementioned events without discerning a pattern of systematic targeting of the SCP by the regime’s security apparatus, which led some to wonder about this phenomenon and why is this party in particular being targeted in such an aggressive manner. It made those who are not thoroughly familiar with the Sudanese political scene go back to the drawing board and looking for the history of this party and its political stances in the hope of finding an answer to their questions.

The genesis of the SCP can be traced back to three historical events that incrementally shaped the SCP of today. The first event took place on 7 July 1977 when a group of students at Khartoum University, the institution that played an important role in the Sudanese political scene since its inception in the beginning of the 20st century, gathered to establish a political student body they named the Congress of Independent Students (CIS). These students were driven in their quest by their rejection to the reconciliation of opposition forces left and right with the totalitarian regime of former president Jaffer Nimairi. They saw the need for the emergence of a political organization to spearhead the struggle against totalitarianism without being tarnished by any form of past association with the totalitarian regime. This student’s political organization CIS spread quickly in Sudanese universities and groups of students studying abroad until 1982, when CIS led massive demonstrations in which its member Abdel Hamid Saeed was shot and killed. This incident was followed by a continuation of rapid CIS growth until it controlled the students unions of all Sudanese universities by the year 1985, either single-handedly as was the case in Al-Jazzera University or as part of a coalition where it held the majority of seats as was the case in Omdurman Islamic University and Khartoum University whose 40-seat students union was chaired by the current party leader Ibrahim al-Shaikh (executive) while the union’s chairman was the current vice-president Omar Al-Digaier. That same year witnessed the April revolution which overthrow the military regime and in which CIS played an important role in mobilizing the student’s movement as part of the coalition of professional unions that led the political strike such as the doctors unions and Khartoum professors unions inter alia.

After the fall of Nimiray’s rule, CIS students struggled to find a foothold in the democratic period so they came up with the idea of establishing a proper political party. Their idea was shared by a great number of leaders of the unions’ coalition who were not politically affiliated. The second event occurred when that idea materialized in 1986 with the birth of a political party that was called the National Congress under the leadership of renowned judge Molana (honorific) Abdel Majid Imam. The party was established but did not have a chance to participate in the 1986 elections.

Unfortunately the democratic experience quickly deteriorated leading to the coup of the Islamic Front in June 1989 which gutted political life and strike the party’s power base with constant arrests, torture and purging its leaders from the civil service. Then the Islamists hijacked the party’s name for their and gave it to their new ruling party.

The party leaders who remained in Sudan during the tumultuous first years of the coup attempted to reconstitute the budding party but faced severe difficulties due to the restrictions on public political activities as well as the disconnect between the party and its students base. At that time the biological link between the CIS and the party was non-existent, leading many students and party members to join the Sudanese National Alliance movement of Brigadier-General Abdel Aziz Khalid in the years where armed opposition to the regime was popular These factors led to the near demise of the party in the 1990s.

However, the final chapter of this project was yet to be written. Thanks to the vibrant activities of the CIS in universities and the determination of the National Congress leaders, both parties initiated in-depth discussions on how to build a new party and rejuvenate the project which the NIF coup decimated. Indeed, the third event happened when a general conference was held in 2005 and was attended by members of the National Congress on one hand and CIS members and graduates who did not join any political party on the other. The attendees picked a new name for their old party. They decided to name it the Sudanese Congress Party, and this party has since embarked on a gradual and consolidated process of spreading its influence, starting from its call for protests in 2008 against rising costs of living to the 2010 elections in which the party’s president Ibrahim Al-Shaikh ran for the national parliament in the geographical constituency of his hometown of Al-Nuhud, heralding a breakthrough that enabled the party to construct a broad base of supporters across the greater Kordofan region thus breaking out of the cocoon of elitist politics into the process of becoming a popular party. Building on its success in Kordofan, the party took further steps by spreading its influence to other parts of Sudan, especially in Darfur states, and contributing massively to the opposition’s political actions whether individually or collectively during the period of the former opposition coalition the National Consensus Forces and later with its partners in the Sudan Call Alliance.

There is a joke within the SCP that the party should allocate a quota of its membership to old people as opposed to the quotas allocated for youth and women in some other opposition forces. The punch line is that the SCP is a youthful party par excellence whether on the level of ranks or leadership. It is enough to point out that the ages of three of the party chairman’s four deputies are below mid-thirties. Whereas other opposition parties continue to age left and right, there is an up-and-coming political party with a constituency of young people embracing new ideas. These ideas are based on the construction of a secular state in lieu of the one that has existed since independence by restructuring its institutions to truly reflect the reality of Sudan’s ethnic, cultural and societal diversity as well as reforming the country’s economic setup by dismantling the centralized economic structure that the Sudanese state inherited from its colonial predecessor and chart a different course based on balanced development with a clear-cut set of state social responsibilities. In this sense the SCP can be classified alongside the social democratic parties around the world if we’re to find it a description by the international standards of political parties in stable democracies.

In a country torn by wars and exhausted by successive totalitarian regimes, hopes for a new political reality and a better future for coming generations may well be in the realm of wishful thinking. And in this context, the task of a political party aiming to contribute to democratic transformation, stability and comprehensive peace is an arduous and complicated one. Amidst this grim picture there is a ray of light and a new experience that might succeed in achieving what the parties of old Sudan politics failed to achieve. But can this party find answers to the questions that eluded Sudan’s successive political elites? I don’t have a definite answer but the SCP represents a new experience worthy of observation and support, for it may be a precursor to undoing the damage of the Sudanese state.

*Khalid Omer Yousif is the former secretary-general of the Sudanese Congress Party and its current deputy chairman for external relations. He can be reached at khalidomer1979@gmail.com