Sudan between war and politics

Fred Halliday
13 April 2005

Sudan, Africa’s largest country, defies the easy characterisation that aspirant Islamist dictators inside and observers outside tend to ascribe to it. Its sheer diversity of languages (more than 100 are spoken) and religious groups compare with India or Nigeria, while its several, interwoven regional wars reflect a complex history and politics that even the most sophisticated minds in its capital, Khartoum, struggle to comprehend.

This complexity is quickly evident to a visitor to Khartoum, a city of spacious tree-lined avenues, white colonial-era buildings and the ever-present sense of water from the two, white and blue, Nile rivers.

Also in openDemocracy, on the crisis in Darfur, western Sudan:

“Who is accountable for Darfur? An interview with Gareth Evans” (August 2004)

Stephen Ellis, “Darfur: countdown to catastrophe” (June 2004)

Lyndall Stein, “Darfur journal” (November 2004)

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Dancing among ghosts

Sudan has been a one-party state since 1989 when the National Islamic Front (NIF), a coalition of radical military and Islamist ideologues, seized power. But divisions within the ruling elite mean that the NIF is effectively two separate parties, and the chief ideologist of the 1989 regime, Hassan al-Turabi, remains in jail.

Beyond the NIF lies a definite if officially unrecognised realm of public debate. The Umma party of Sadiq al-Mahdi – the Oxford-educated former prime minister and grandson of the famous 19th-century anti-imperialist leader, the Mahdi – operates openly. The Communist party, once a major force and in many ways a model for the NIF, functions in a semi-tolerated twilight, legal yet underground.

As in Iraq, the main political forces throughout the country have survived years of internal and regional conflict. This is reflected in the January 2005 peace agreement that promises to end twenty-two years of war in southern Sudan. Together, the factional leaders who waged and benefited from this exhausting, brutal conflict have presided over the corruption and degradation of Sudanese society, infrastructure and agriculture; now, the enticements of oil revenues and international approval have proved attractive enough for them to cut a deal. But the younger generation that has grown up under war’s shadow is growing impatient.

At a recent seminar on international aid, a young Sudanese man responded to a question about what the international community could do for Sudan thus: “Take the leaders of all the main political factions, put them on a plane, send them to Guantànamo, and keep them there”. If such a remark was not reported in the local media, he did at least feel free to say it.

Indeed, and in contrast to authoritarian states to the north, the regime is remarkably low-profile. Sudanese opposition leaders, liberal and communist, tell of the terrible tortures they endured in secret detention centres after the 1989 coup. Arrests of dissidents continue, and people quietly point out the security forces’ large compound towards Khartoum’s airport. But there is a striking absence of images of the president, Omar al-Bashir, and other leaders.

Instead, some placards hail the peace, development and democracy symbolised by the agreement in southern Sudan, which quote a Koranic verse (Al-Hujuraat, 13) that has become a staple in contemporary middle-eastern discussions of pluralism: Allah has “made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another”.

Beneath an intermittently ferocious Islamist regime, Khartoum’s social mores are remarkably lax. Many women, especially those from the non-Islamic south, do not cover their hair. As the sun sets over Omdurman cemetery on Friday evenings, hundreds of Sufi dancers – proponents of a mystical Islamic popular tradition of the kind the NIF detests – gyrate and chant to the rhythm of drums around the tomb of a Muslim saint. The organisers pass round braziers of incense for the audience to inhale, and along the streets women offer cups of tea; but something stronger than Liptons is also available.

The story is told of a Khartoum governor, an Islamic zealot, who imbibed the offering of one of these women and indignantly declared: “This drink is against Islam. It is forbidden. Do you know who I am? I am the governor of Khartoum”. “That may well be”, replied the alcohol-vendor, “and if I refill your glass, you will tell me you are President Omar al-Bashir!”

Sudan in the world

Sudan, a country with nine neighbouring states – more than any other in Africa, alongside the Democratic Republic of Congo – has been riven in the past generation by three major internal conflicts of variable scale and duration: in the south since 1983, where the war has killed a million people and displaced another 4 million; in the western region of Darfur since March 2003, where vicious assaults by Janjaweed militia have caused a humanitarian disaster in which 300,000 people have died (an issue reported by the United Nations Security Council to the International Criminal Court in Resolution 1593 of 31 March); and in the eastern provinces of Kassala and Red Sea, where the Eastern Front is contesting government from Khartoum.

In Khartoum itself, it is the perennial north-south conflict that commands most attention. The January peace agreement proposes a referendum in the south on independence after six years of transition. Sudanese and foreign observers alike believe that the south (a region that has yet to find a name – some propose “New Sudan” as a default) will chose independence, so tired are people there of Arab and Islamic pressures from the north. Some northerners who still dream of creating an Islamist state in Khartoum would also be content to rid themselves of the south.

These internal conflicts have been fuelled by the way that Khartoum’s distinct brand of radicalism has impacted on and been affected by its regional and ideological affiliations. In its early years, the NIF regime was committed to an Islamist version of revolutionary internationalism – with considerable support from Osama bin Laden, who lived in Khartoum from 1991-96. It sought then to export its revolution to other African majority-Muslim states, notably Egypt, Eritrea, Tunisia and Algeria.

The conflicts in its west, south, and east have all involved Sudan in dense relationships of rivalry and solidarity. Sudan was for several years a conduit of arms for Eritrean guerrillas in their struggle against Ethiopia (a relationship that has soured since Eritrea’s independence); the rebel forces in Darfur are aided from Chad and the Central African Republic. The European Union is financing the African Union military observer team of 2,000 officers in Darfur. The southern agreement has facilitated millions of dollars of aid and a decision of the Security Council on 25 March to send up to 10,000 UN troops to monitor the peace deal.

The United States’s role in Sudan is paradoxical. In reprisal for the bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, Bill Clinton – in a mistaken identification of a bin Laden asset – ordered the destruction of the al-Shifaa chemical factory in Omdurman. Christian NGOs and the evangelical right in the US have long mobilised support for guerrillas in the south, whose Christian population live alongside others practising indigenous African religions.

Yet the George W Bush administration has – in contrast to its confrontational role in Iraq and Palestine – engaged with the Khartoum government and played an important part in drafting the Security Council resolutions that led to the January peace agreement. In a land grown weary of war and of Islamist revolutionary rhetoric, sentiment towards the United States is probably more positive than in any other majority-Arab country.

Darfur and Sudan’s future

Such compromising moves and sentiments coexist with growing international pressure to prosecute Sudanese government officials over the genocidal atrocities in Darfur. A list of names of those to be charged by the International Criminal Court (ICC) has provoked fear among some Sudanese of a rejectionist coup by intransigent elements opposed to the now relatively conciliatory NIF government. Several western diplomats, meanwhile, see such pressure, and the enticements of peace, as a form of “regime change by stealth”.

The continuing emergency in Darfur notwithstanding, Sudan’s future as a nation-state will depend largely on progress in north-south relations and on whether real power-sharing occurs, on a proper distribution of oil wealth and international aid, and on whether its neighbours leave Sudan alone. The problem of Darfur will be resolved in the broader context of how the National Islamic Front regime in Khartoum evolves. For all the country’s dispersal and diversity, the Sudanese complex will be clarified above all by the politics of this expansive city on the banks of the two Niles.

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