Sudan: "Peace From Within" and the Vicious Circle of Internal Politics

  • Author: Gerard Prunier
  • Document source:
  • Date:
    1 January 1998


The limited space given to Sudanese political problems by the media is almost entirely focused on diplomatic and international questions. Sudan is mentioned only when "peace talks" are about to be held or when the United States decides on an economic embargo, as was the case in November 1997. Before that, the last time Sudan was in the news was when the U.S. had decided to reopen its Khartoum embassy, then thought better of it and decided not to reopen it after all (September 1997). Usually only the bare facts are reported, practically without any political analysis apart from a few platitudes. Press agency dispatches routinely end with a mention of "the fourteen year old civil war pitching the Moslem North against the mostly Christian and Animist South". The formula has the immutability of a religious mantra and there seems to be no questioning of the reality behind this wooden formulation. Does it mean then that there is no political life in the Sudan and in particular that nothing ever changes "in the fourteen year old civil war"? That certainly is not the case. But the nature of that political life and especially of the internal North-South relationship, acted out not in spite of the war but in parallel with it, is so bizarre by Western standards that it often goes almost unnoticed or, when noticed, is mostly misunderstood.


Western views of Islamist movements tend to be simplified and monolithical. Broadly speaking they are regarded either as belonging to an "Iranian" model or to an "Algerian" one. A fiercely religious state in one case, a madly violent insurgent group in another. The Sudanese Islamist movement is neither. It is a well-organized political movement with a large number of satellite organizations (women's groups, professional associations, press groups and so on) largely patterned on the organizational structure of the old-style communist parties. It has existed for fifty years under a variety of names and has finally reached power after protracted political struggle.

It started as al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun (the Moslem Brothers) in the 1940s and 1950s, became al-Jebha al-Mithaq al-Islamiya (the Islamic Charter Front) in 1964 after the fall of the Abboud dictatorship, existed clandestinely during the Nimeiry years without a name, turned into al-Jebha al-Qaumiya al-Islamiya (the National Islamic Front) after Nimeiry's fall in 1985, dissolved itself during the 1989 coup d'état (which it had organized) and was recently (January 1996) reborn in the form of a "national" single party with the name of Mutammar al-Watani (Patriotic Congress - PC). This development has been possible because of a fundamental characteristic: in spite of its chameleon-like quality and many names the movement has held to an unswerving view of its ultimate goal - the creation of a modernized version of an Islamic State. All the while, as it turned and twisted into many different tactical positions, the Sudanese Islamic Movement has kept a clear view of what it was aiming at and never seemed to be overly concerned about moving practically in the opposite direction from its goal, as long as the goal itself remained clear.

How can this goal be defined and how does it articulate with day-to-day tactics? The Sudanese Islamist Movement is a direct heir to the original movement of the Moslem Brotherhood, created in the 1920s in Egypt by Hassan al-Banna. But very quickly, during the Abboud dictatorship of the 1950s, the Sudanese branch of the Movement started to distinguish itself both by its willingness to adopt modernist ideas and by its extremely realistic approach to practical politics. This meant two complementary things: firstly, in philosophical terms, a practical reopening of the doors of ijtihad,[2] and secondly, in political terms, an acknowledgement of modern realities. But it would be a mistake to see this resolute practice of ijtihad as some kind of "revisionist theology" leading to a modernist approach through the abhorred process of bida'a (innovation). The ijtihad advocated by the Sudanese Islamist movement is adaptive: it intends to change in order the better to preserve and its goal is an Islamic State ruled by shari'a, even if the practical modalities of that Islamic State have to be slightly different from the practice of the Caliphate. In other words, the Sudanese Islamist Movement aims at a conservative revolution, much in the same way as the Fascist movements of the 1920s and 1930s were aiming at a revolutionary re-arrangement of conservative ideas through the promotion of l'Impero Novo (the New Empire) or of the Volksgemeinschaft (National Community).

The key concept of the Sudanese Islamists is the concept of tawhid which, in the sense used by al-Turabi, can be translated by "unity of purpose". For Turabi, religious worship is not limited to the essentials of Islam (the five daily prayers, zakat and so on). As this world is only a transition to the Hereafter, any act, including all kinds of worldly endeavours, can be seen as religiously meaningful. Thus anything is potentially religious if seen in the right light, if useful to the cause of Islam. This articulates with the notion of ketman (mental reservation) common in Islam. If a Moslem is faced with overwhelming force by the kuffar (unbelievers) he can lie, he can violate all the dictums of Islam, he can do anything as long as it is done with a mental ketman in which he says silently to himself: "this act is done for the good of Islam, bismi'llah er-Rahman er-Rahim [in the name of God the Merciful and the Misericordious]". This has led to the development of a form of Islamic casuistry, called Fiqh ad-Darura (the legal rules of necessity), not unlike the moral and political philosophy developed by the order of the Jesuits in Europe during the Counter-Reformation. Within such an intellectual framework the basic principle of Aristotelian logic, i.e. non-contradiction, does not apply. We have here a system of Islamic dialectics where elements do not exist by themselves and in themselves but only within a continuum where structures change and permute, where tactics is all and where principle is nothing, so long as the tactics can all be subsumed under the heading of a general goal, namely the Islamic State.

It is in this perpective that one needs to see the recent developments in the Sudan which seem at times paradoxical. "Democratic elections" which are neither democratic nor even elections, the signature of a "peace agreement" with allies and not with the enemy, a "political opening" created from the re-assertion of the same old slogans - these "developments" seem to be mere window dressing. But their promoters believe in them, and indeed such bizarre political devices have worked for the Sudanese Islamists in the past. For example during the time between the successful Islamist coup d'état in July 1989 and the end of that year, the National Islamic Front (NIF) leader Hassan al-Turabi was jailed and his party outlawed, when the truth was that the NIF had planned and carried out the coup d'état and Turabi was the brain behind the operation. But it was imperative at the time for the Islamists to avoid or at least to delay a possible counter-move supported by Egypt, whose General Intelligence Service had in fact also prepared a clandestine intervention, so that when Turabi's coup d'état took place there was considerable uncertainty about who was doing what.[3] Thus some almost theatrical arrangements were made, with Turabi being kept in jail during the day and going out secretly at night to attend important meetings. Absolutely improbable statements were released by the new government which denied having anything to do with the NIF. Ridiculous as this may sound it created enough of a doubt to prevent Cairo from undertaking any counter-move and it even fooled some of the country's most seasoned politicians who were jailed together with Turabi, including Mohamed Osman al-Mirghani, the present head of the opposition National Democratic Alliance.[4] With the success of such political antics to their credit, the Islamists in Sudan believe in the power of the will and in the potential success of the improbable. Both depend on the help of God which they feel is behind them. After all even ordinary Sudanese will call their country, with tongue-in-cheek humour, beled al-farhat al-kubra (the land of the great wonders).


3.1       The New Political Process

A new political process started in January 1996 with the creation of a "national" political party, al-Mutammar al-Watani (Patriotic Congress - PC).[5] The party was supposed to be "national" in that it represented not political tendencies (political parties are still banned) but the "national community". This was in accordance with the Islamic notion of umma (community of believers), an ideal state of harmony which precludes any fitna ("quarrel" - a very strong word in Arabic, with connotations closer to "treason" ). Political parties are associated with fitna in Islamist propaganda, while the new party was hailed as a symbol of unity (tawhid). Its "elected" Secretary General, Ghazi Salah ed-Din Attabani, is one of the regime's leading hard-liners, who nevertheless a year later, talking to French visitors, declared that the new system he had helped create was "more democratic than that of the Swiss Confederation".[6] A few days later the Islamist government issued its new Electoral Decree modifying Article 8/2D of the Fundamental Law. (The Sudan has lived since 1983 in a constitutional no man's land. The "Fundamental Law" of the Islamist regime is a quasi-constitution.)[7] This Decree proclaimed that 125 of the 400 member future National Congress would be nominated, not elected, with 53 seats going to different "sectors" (the Army, women's associations, youth and students), 52 to the federated States and 20 to an undefined "national college". The other 275 seats would be shared between the 26 States. The relationship between States and the Central Government was not entirely clear since for instance the decree provided for "the participation of the State Councils in the nomination of their Governments and the participation of these Governments in the nomination of the Ministers who have the responsibility of running these States".[8] It was perhaps fortunate that the same decree provided for the creation of a Constitutional Court in charge of resolving problems arising between States and the Central Government.

The next step was the organization of elections, both legislative and presidential. These started on 6 March 1996, in a state of total confusion, with 10 of the 41 presidential candidates asking for a moratorium, on the grounds among other things that polling lists were not up to date. Zakariah Abdallah, a leading member of the Patriotic Congress, said, without being corrected, that this did not matter since any Sudanese citizen aged 18 or over could vote and polling lists were "unnecessary".[9] The actual voting was spread over a period of two weeks, with polling booths remaining open during the whole period. The Government announced a 71 per cent participation rate in the North and "90 per cent of registered voters" voting in the South, a most unlikely figure given that there were usually no polling lists of any kind and that insecurity remained prevalent. A total of 47 candidates were elected unopposed, [10] and some foreign observers left in dismay after they were prevented from reporting the real voting figures.[11] President Omar el-Beshir was "re-elected" with 71 per cent of the votes. After having carried out this rather unconvincing political facelift, the regime decided to tackle the southern problem.

3.2       The Situation on the Ground

At this point the situation was poor but not desperate for the Government. The SPLA remained strongly present in its traditional bastions of Western Equatoria, the Imatong slopes, the Boma plateau and Central Bahr el-Ghazal. The Government held on to the main cities, to parts of Eastern Equatoria and to Northern and Western Bahr-el-Ghazal. However, there were also new developments, connected with the deep rift within the SPLA, which had started in August 1991 and caused major problems for the guerrilla movement.[12] The SSIM, the rival movement which had been born out of the 1991 SPLA split and was made up mostly of Nuer with a smattering of members from the Equatoria tribes, was itself in a deep crisis. For the whole 1991-1995 period the SSIM had posed a very serious threat to the SPLA. But its ambiguous attitude towards Khartoum had slowly undermined it. While pretending to fight the Islamist government, SSIM leaders were in fact discreetly collaborating with it to obtain the arms and ammunition necessary for their fight against Colonel Garang. Commander William Nyuon Bany, one of SSIM's top military men had defected back to Garang and then been killed in combat in January.[13] At the same time another SSIM leader, John Luk, had announced the reunification of the guerrilla movement, while other SSIM fighters faithful to Commander Riak Machar had attacked those supporting the intended reunification. Faced with more infighting, some commanders had withdrawn into quiet forms of private peace and others had even moved over to Ethiopia.[14] In Northern Bahr-el-Ghazal former SPLA Commander Kerubino Kwanyin Bol had to all intents and purposes gone over to the government side and was being used to carry out "dirty tricks" operations such as the attack on the Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) depot at Akon in January 1996.

This fragmentation of the guerrilla groups in various parts of the country offered the Government an interesting window of opportunity. The top SSIM leader, Commander Riak Machar, had realized that his movement was "weak and almost moribund" as a Kenyan diplomat described it. He also felt that the whole of the guerrilla movement, SPLA included, was in a crisis and that the time might be ripe to try making some kind of a deal with Khartoum. On 2 March 1996 he proclaimed a ceasefire which was immediately reciprocated by government forces.[15] A month later in Khartoum, Vice-President Zubeyr Mohamed Saleh signed a "Peace Charter" with Riak Machar and dissident SPLA Commander Kerubino Kwanyin Bol.[16]

3.3       April 1997 Peace Agreement

The process leading to the 21 April 1997 peace agreement started on a precarious footing. Riak Machar was made Third Vice-President, which was a somewhat redundant post. There was already a Second Vice-President, Brigadier George Kongor Arop, a Dinka from Bahr-el-Ghazal. It also seemed that while the Government was pretending to accommodate the Southerners' demands, its actual behaviour suggested the opposite. An eyewitness noticed that on the very day Riak Machar was made Third Vice-President loudspeakers put up by the Difaa esh-Shabiyi (Popular Defence Forces) kept blaring in the streets of Khartoum: "These infidels have soiled the land of the Arabs and the Koran. Only the blood of the Martyrs can purify it."[17] In a more sober mood the southern guerrilla media simply stated: "Riak has finally capitulated".[18] Any close analysis of the Preliminary Peace Charter seemed to bear out the truth of that statement.[19] Article Two for example stated that: "The unity of the Sudan with its known boundaries shall be preserved, its integrity shall be secured against all internal and external dangers." For Riak who had split from the SPLA to explicitly fight for southern independence, this was a paradoxical point to agree with. Article Four stated that "the signatories will boost ... the federal system and ... participatory democracy". The first term was a coded formula for the creation of 26 pseudo-federal States[20] while the second referred to the bizarre electoral process we have described above. Thus "Peace from Within" as the agreement process with the southern commanders was referred to, constituted the fifth point of the Islamic Star System of Government. Apart from "federalism" and "participatory democracy", the two others were the Islamic Legislation and the New Education System with 14 New Universities. The "Islamic Legislation" was supposed to represent "an advance in Human Rights" while the New Universities (which had neither teachers nor money) stood for "a Revolution in Education". When Abd-el-Wahab Abd-er-Rahim, the Minister for Higher Education, complained about the lack of teachers he was immediately sacked and replaced by Ibrahim Ahmed Omar who agreed that everything was fine. As we noted earlier the Aristotelian principle of non-contradiction does not apply here. Article Six mentioned the fact that "shari'a and custom shall be the source of legislation". Since the September 1983 religious laws enacted by former President Jaafar al-Nimeiry, shari'a in the Sudanese political vocabulary has been a coded term for Radical Islamic Power and mentioning it hardly seemed congruent with accomodating southern political and religious sensibilities. When he was asked about that, Vice-President Zubeyr avoided the issue, saying that "shari'a is a set of laws while Christianity is a Faith".[21] Commanders Kerubino Kwanyin and Riak Machar did not seem to mind. The other articles of the document they had signed read like a politically correct and semantically diluted shopping list: "Cultural diversity in the Sudan is recognized ..." (Art. 7), "freedom of religion and belief shall be observed ..." (Art. 8), "social development is an extreme priority ..." (Art. 9), "power and national wealth shall be shared equitably for the benefit of all citizens" (Art. 10). The political guarantees offered by such a "Charter" would appear rather limited and the recourse mechanism in case of disagreement is non-existent.

This did not prevent a number of marginal southern politicians from starting, one by one, or in small groups, to adhere to the "Preliminary Peace Charter". Former Anya Nya One guerrilla leader and Nimeiry Vice-President Joseph Lagu who had been living in self-imposed exile for the last three years came home and declared his support for the Charter.[22] A certain Topolos Ochang, "leader" of a previously unknown group called the Equatoria Defence Force (EDF) signed the Charter, declaring at the same time that "the people of Equatoria have always maintained that the forces of John Garang and those of Riak Machar are colonial forces".[23] This did reflect the dominant feeling of Equatorian tribes towards both the Dinka (Garang) and Nuer (Riak) even if it did not quite square with the "we-are-all-friends" approach of the Peace Charter. In Nairobi in June 1996, a former SPLA Nuba Commander, Mohamed Harun Kafi, also decided to join the Charter process even as the regime was stepping up its repression of the Nuba people.[24] Dissident SPLA Commander Arok Thon Arok, a Dinka, also signed in August. But all these signatories were either unknowns (Ochang, Harun Kafi) or maverick ex-SPLA men with a personal axe to grind against their former leader John Garang. None were bona fide nationalist fighters who would have recognized a reasoned need to negotiate.

In February 1997, as the National Democratic Alliance military offensive developed in Eastern Sudan, both Riak Machar and Kerubino Kwanyin were sent to fight in the Maban-Damazin-Shally el-Feil area of the old Blue Nile Province. They did not achieve much on a military level, but they ruined whatever political credibility they still possessed by being seen as the regime's willing mercenaries, especially when Kerubino boasted that he had "inflicted heavy losses on SPLA troops in Bahr-el-Ghazal where they are supported by Ugandan soldiers".[25] Apart from the fact that for a Southerner to boast about killing other Southerners was not very wise politically, the mention of Ugandan troops, a total impossiblity in Bahr-el-Ghazal but an echo of the government propaganda line, had a disastrous effect.

This did not prevent the Government from forging ahead according to its plan. On 21 April 1997 the final peace agreement was signed between the government and six groupings:

•                   The SSIM led by Riak Machar

•                   The SPLA-Bahr-el-Ghazal Group led by Kerubino

•                   The Bor Group led by Arok Thon Arok

•                   The EDF led by Topolos Ochang

•                   The Independent Movement led by Kwaj Makwal

•                   The Union of Sudanese African Parties led by Samuel Aru Bol

In addition a separate agreement was signed with two Nuba "leaders", Commander Mohamed Harun Kafi and Yunis Domi Kallo. Apart from a variety of bland statements borrowed from the 10 April 1996 Preliminary Peace Charter, there were two new important provisions in the first of the two agreements: a 25 member Southern Coordination Council (SCC) was created under Riak Machar's chairmanship and a referendum for self-determination was scheduled to take place after four years.[26]


4.1       The Forces Behind the Agreement

The basic realities behind the agreement are sobering. Considering the various signatories to the first agreement one by one, what do they represent in relationship to their communities?The main movement, Riak Machar's SSIM, is a small remnant of the once largely Nuer alliance against Garang's Dinka-dominated SPLA, born of the August 1991 split in the guerrilla movement. At the height of its influence this anti-Garang SPLA splinter comprised not only most Nuer but several Eastern Equatorian tribes and a smattering of trans-ethnic supporters, including even some Dinka. But by late 1995 it had largely disintegrated.[27] Today it is a militia-based band drawn from the Dok (Riak Machar himself is a Dok from the Bentiu area), Nyuong, Jagei, Leek and Bul sections of the Western Nuer. Riak can mobilize about 1,000 armed men and enjoys a fair amount of support on the river divide between Upper Nile and Northeastern Bahr-el-Ghazal. In addition he can count on some support among militiamen drawn from groups such as the Gaawar, Gaadbal, Gun and Mor of the Eastern Nuer. But these men (probably another 1,000) tend to take their orders directly from Elijah Hon Top, a warlord in his own right with his own connections to the government forces at Malakal. Riak Machar's SSIM remnant is important because it has control on the ground in the area where the oilfields belonging to the former Chevron exploration concessions are located. These have been handed over to a consortium consisting of the National Oil Corporation of China and Petronas of Malaysia. Although further work on these fields has not yet started, several signs point to the desire of Beijing to get work started on the concessions. Riak can ensure a minimum of military security in the area, a vital priority for the Islamist regime.

The so-called "SPLA-Bahr-el-Ghazal Group" (SPLA-BGG) has no connection with the SPLA apart from the fact that its commander, Kerubino Kwanyin Bol, is a former SPLA officer. It consists of militiamen (about 1,000 men) drawn from the northern Bahr-el-Ghazal sections of the Dinka (Reek, Malwal, Ruweng), although Kerubino can in no way be said to enjoy the support of the majority of these groups. Kerubino has committed many atrocities, including against men of his own and neighbouring Dinka sections and his grassroots support is limited.

The third "group", "led" by Arok Thon Arok, exists only on paper. Arok is a Bor Dinka like Colonel Garang, and he has practically no support in his home area.

The fourth group (Equatoria Defence Force) is completely unknown and seems to have no existence on the ground. However, one might say that it has potential since any Equatorian organization would always be able to capitalize on the strong animosity among the southernmost agricultural tribes towards their pastoral cousins, such as the Dinka and the Nuer. This dislike is partly based on fear due to the demographic imbalance. Before the war in Juba the Dinka were called "the useless majority" by the Equatoria tribes who resented their dominant presence in the High Executive Council. In 1981-1982 it was the Equatoria tribes who supported Nimeiry's plan for the redivision of the South in the hope of getting rid of the Dinka.[28] The fifth group, the Independence Movement, is also totally unknown and does not seem to represent anybody except a few disgruntled individuals.

The final signatory, Samuel Aru Bol, is a rather interesting case. He is a veteran southern politician who was first elected to Parliament in 1968. After a very chequered career during the Nimeiry years (1969-1985) he created the Southern Sudanese Political Association (SSPA) soon after the overthrow of the dictator, winning ten seats in the 1986 election. Faced with increasing political difficulties in an Arab-dominated parliament, five of the southern parties eventually banded together in a loose federation (July 1987), which they called the Union of Sudanese African Parties (USAP). USAP was led by James Eliaba Surur, and Samuel Aru Bol was simply a member representing SSPA. But after the Moslem Brothers' coup, James Eliaba Surur was detained and tortured to the point when he was believed to be dying, and the new auhorities then allowed him to leave the country. He went to Kenya, recovered and resurrected USAP in exile in alliance with the SPLA. He now resides in Uganda where he canvasses the refugees, trying to mobilize support for the guerrilla. So when Samuel Aru Bol agreed to sign the Preliminary Peace Charter, he initially did so as a member of a supposed "SSIM 2".[29] But since this did not seem very convincing he later coolly appropriated the name USAP of which he declared himself to be the leader and signed the 21 April Agreement in that capacity. This sleight of hand is quite typical of the spirit behind the whole operation.

Particularly representative of that is the fact that the "peace agreement" signed with the Nuba was different from the one signed with the Southerners. Although the two "Nuba leaders" who signed were largely unknown in their own community,[30] the Government wanted to make sure that whatever happened in terms of Southern politics (some form of autonomy or federation) its benefits would not be extended to the Nuba areas. Those had been arbitrarily placed in the "North" by the February 1972 Addis-Ababa Agreement which had drawn the boundaries of a Self-Administered Southern Sudan for the next ten years.

And as for the southern signatories, they were quickly to learn that the Government did not intend to leave any loopholes through which they could slip. Since the name of Riak Machar's organization - the Southern Sudan Independence Movement - did not fit very well with the unitary stance of the Government, all organizational names were dropped and all the signatories collectively became members of a new synthetic group called United Democratic Salvation Front of Southern Sudan (UDSFSS). Independence is a contentious word but who could be against Unity, Democracy and Salvation?

4.2       The Political Situation in the North

Politics in the North are practically at a standstill. The NIF has tight control over the whole process and since 1989 the political game can only be played behind closed doors, between competing clans belonging to its own ranks. But with the simultaneous deterioration of the situation in the political, economic and diplomatic fields, the Islamists have drawn closer together, and most of the clan infighting which had marked the years 1989 to 1995 has now disappeared.

The hold of the security apparatus is now tighter than ever, to the point where at times it seems that the security apparatus is actually running the government: in late 1996 no less than six Ministers or Secretaries of State had come from its ranks. These were Nafi Ali Nafi (Minister of Agriculture), Ahmed Mohamed al-Aas (Secretary of State for the Interior), Hassan Dahawi (Minister of Social Planning), al-Tayeb Mohamed Kheir (Minister of Information), Bakri Hassan Saleh (Minister of the Interior) and Brigadier Mohamed ar-Rafi Kasr ed-Din (Defence Secretary). In addition many ambassadors such as those to the U.S., to the UN and to Ethiopia (a key country for Sudan) are active Security men.

Under such circumstances, dissent is limited to a minimum. Such non-NIF critics of the Islamists as are still living in the Sudan are either former dignitaries of the Nimeiry regime, such as Abd-el-Majid Hamid Khalil, Khaled Hassan Abbas or Abd-el-Gadir Omer, or retired Army officers, such as former Chief of Staff, Brigadier Taj-ed-Din Abdallah. These men are more or less immune from arrest and can even at times discuss the situation with President Omar el-Beshir. Within the NIF, critics are either "liberal" intellectuals such as Abdelwahab al-Affendi, mavericks like Hassan Mekki or rich old businessmen wishing to preserve what they have gained such as Ahmed Abd-er-Rahman. None is close to the centres of power and none can be expected to seriously influence the general policies of the regime.

4.3       The Role of the International Community

The international community does not always hold a coherent view of the situation, and is the obvious target of most of this shadow theatre. The general drift of all the Sudanese Islamists' efforts since the beginning of 1996 is to try to present their regime as democratically based, peaceable towards its neighbours and open to dealing with the South. This is why the November 1997 "peace talks" in Nairobi were such a surreal affair.[31] First of all, under the supervision of Foreign Minister Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, the delegation consisted to over four fifths of black Africans, including Riak Machar, who were there, in the words of a U.S. journalist, as "just another roadside attraction". Then the proposals for peace were simply a strict reiteration of the 21 April 1997 Agreement. The fact that the SPLA did not simply agree to "join the peace process" was held up by the Government as an exemple of its brazen bad faith and warmongering tendencies.

The obvious question is whether such simple tactics, derived from the Fiqh ad-Darura philosophy of Hassan al-Turabi, can possibly work with Western politicians and Western public opinion? It depends. Some well-meaning observers who are not too well informed about the situation on the ground and who ardently wish for peace, often for religious or humanitarian reasons, can be misled. Reverend Richard Rodgers, a devoted British clergyman running a small Conflict Resolution NGO ended up praising the "Peace Charter" and being used by the regime for propaganda purposes.[32] Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter described the 21 April 1997 Agreement as "positive ... possibly leading to a general peace agreement between all the warring parties".[33] As if to prove to him that things were not that simple he was prevented from landing in Southern Sudan later the same day when government planes bombed the airfield he was supposed to use.[34] Other foreigners involved such as Dutch Cooperation Minister Jan Pronk who works with the "Friends of IGADD" group or the Khartoum UNDP office under its Director Christoph Jaeger have expressed themselves favourably concerning the "peace from within" process. In view of such reactions it is necessary to consider whether the process has any chance of success.


At present, the whole process resembles nothing so much as a sick joke. The Sudanese Government has signed an agreement with counterparts who are either discredited politicians or tribal warlords who can help it fight a war by proxy with the SPLA. The degree of political autonomy these men have in the Islamists' scheme of things is about as much as the leaders of collaborating governments such as that of Vichy France had in relation to the German authorities around 1942. They are supposed to carry out the policies decided for them by the central government in exchange for personal advantages. Southern political or even administrative autonomy is even more firmly out of the question than it has been at any time since independence in 1956 and it is extremely unlikely, to say the least, for the SPLA to accept any part of this policy.

But the future hinges on the military situation, and the SPLA has been preparing a general offensive in the South for the last six months. This offensive has been delayed by a number of adverse conditions: extremely rainy weather which has rendered the Southern Sudanese "roads" impassable, lack of food, the desertion of many Equatorian fighters who had been press-ganged by the guerrilla movement in the hope of massing enough troops to capture Juba and so on.[35][35] Under such conditions the expected SPLA offensive could easily fail or only achieve limited tactical gains.

The Southern Sudanese population is extremely weary of a conflict which is now almost fourteen years old. As a result opportunistic Southern politicians (of whom there are many as past developments have shown) might see in the until now empty shell of the Southern Coordination Council (SCC) a structure potentially favourable to their ambitions. In addition some Northern opposition politicians, concerned that a victory for the National Democratic Alliance could marginalize them, might also agree to come to some accommodation with the Government in order to avoid having to face a general election if the NIF system were to collapse.[36][36] This is what the Islamist regime is gambling on. It has nothing to lose and its long history of prevailing through tactical manoeuvring leaves the future quite undecided.


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Prunier, Gérard. Identity Crisis and the Weak State: the Making of the Sudanese Civil War. WRITENET for UNHCR/CDR, January 1996. UNHCR/CDR REFWORLD databases.

Prunier, Gérard. "The SPLA Crisis (1991-1997)". Unpublished conference paper.

Reuter [Khartoum]. "Ex-Sudan Vice President Supports Peace Agreement". 26 May 1996.

Reuter [Nairobi]. "Sudan Rebel Group Says It Killed William Nyuon". 17 January 1996.

Reuter [Nairobi]. "Sudan Army Responds to Rebel Group with Ceasefire". 2 March 1996

Reuter [Nairobi]. "Rebels Say Sudan Air Raid Stopped Carter Visit". 21 April 1997

Sidahmed, Abdel Salam. Politics and Islam in Contemporary Sudan. London: Curzon Press, 1997.

Soudan Information [official bulletin of the Sudanese Embassy in Paris]. Vol. 3, No. 1 (22 January 1996).

SPLM/SPLA Update. 15 April 1996.

Sudan Democratic Gazette. "Machar and Kuanyin Finally Join Forces with NIF Against the South". May 1996.

Sudan Focus. "Peace Accord Nears Conclusion". Vol. 4, No. 3 (15 March 1997).

al-Turabi, Hassan. "The Islamic State" in John Esposito (ed.). Voices of Resurgent Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983. Pp. 241-51.

al-Turabi, Hassan. al-Haraka al-Islamiya fi'l Sudan. Cairo: Dar al-Qari al-Arabi, 1990.

al-Turabi, Hassan. Tajdid al-Fikr al-Islami. Rabat: Dar al-Qarafi li'l Nashr wa'l Tawzi, 1993.

al-Turabi, Hassan. Islam, avenir du monde: entretiens avec Alain Chevalérias. Paris: Jean-Claude Lattès, 1997.

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Xinhua [Khartoum]. "Sudan Signs Peace Agreement with Two Rebel Groups". 10 April 1996.

[1] The following discussion is based on a number of texts, the principal of which are: Hassan Mekki, al-Haraka al-Islamiya fi'l Sudan (1969-1985) (Khartoum: Dirasat al-Ijtima'iyya, 1990); Gérard Prunier, "Les Frères Musulmans au Soudan: un islamisme tacticien" in Marc Lavergne (ed.), Le Soudan contemporain (Paris: Karthala, 1989), pp. 359-80; Abdelwahab el-Affendi, Turabi's Revolution: Islam and Power in the Sudan (London: Grey Seal, 1991); Abdelwahab el-Affendi, al-Thawra wa'l Islah as-Siyassi fi'l Sudan (London: Averroes Forum, 1995); Hassan al-Turabi, "The Islamic State" in John Esposito (ed.), Voices of Resurgent Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), pp. 241-51; Hassan al-Turabi, al-Haraka al-Islamiya fi'l Sudan (Cairo: Dar al-Qari al-Arabi, 1990); Hassan al-Turabi, Tajdid al-Fikr al-Islami (Rabat: Dar al-Qarafi li'l Nashr wa'l Tawzi, 1993); Hassan al-Turabi, Islam, avenir du monde: entretiens avec Alain Chevalérias (Paris: Jean-Claude Lattès, 1997); Abdel Salam Sidahmed, Politics and Islam in Contemporary Sudan (London: Curzon Press, 1997). The discussion also draws on the author's twelve years of experience of discussions with members of the Sudanese Moslem radical movement.

[2] Without entering into a long discourse on Islamic political thought, one needs to know that "the closure of the doors of interpretation [ijtihad]" in around AH 300 (AD 900-950) marked the beginning of an inward-looking, sterile process in Moslem thought. Only four "schools of interpretation" (madhab) were allowed in standard Sunni Islam, leading to progressive impoverishment of Islamic thinking. Hassan al-Turabi, the Sudanese Islamist leader, considers himself to be a bold mujtahid (re-interpreter). For a general discussion of these concepts, see W. Montgomery Watt, Islamic Political Thought (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1968) and Bernard Lewis, The Political Language of Islam (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1988)

[3] Deng Alor, assistant to John Garang, Addis-Ababa. Personal interview, July 1989

[4] Mohamed Osman Saed, DUP representative in France. Personal interview, Lyon, December 1997

[5] See La Lettre de l'Océan Indien, "Soudan: nouvelle structure du pouvoir", 13 January 1996

[6] French Defence Ministry official. Personal interview, Paris, December 1997

[7] On this perennial Sudanese problem, see Peter Nyot Kok, "La transition permanente" in M. Lavergne (ed), Le Soudan contemporain (Paris: Karthala, 1989), pp. 435-57

[8] Soudan Information [official bulletin of the Sudanese Embassy in Paris], Vol. 3, No. 1 (22 January 1996)

[9] Agence France Presse [Khartoum], "Soudan: confusion de l'électorat et suspension du scrutin", 4 March 1996

[10] Agence France Presse [Khartoum], "Premiers résultats des élections législatives", 19 March 1996

[11] Member of the Yemeni Observer Team. Personal interview, Paris, October 1996. He estimated the participation rate at between 5 and 10 per cent of the adult population, a rate close to that given by several other eyewitnesses.

[12] For an overview of this situation, see Gérard Prunier, Identity Crisis and the Weak  State: the Making of the Sudanese Civil War (WRITENET for UNHCR/CDR, January 1996, UNHCR/CDR REFWORLD databases)

[13] Reuter [Nairobi], "Sudan Rebel Group Says It Killed William Nyuon", 17 January 1996

[14]  La Lettre de l'Océan Indien, "Soudan: les seigneurs de la guerre du Haut-Nil", 26 January 1996

[15] Reuter [Nairobi], "Sudan Army Responds to Rebel Group with Ceasefire", 2 March 1996

[16] Xinhua [Khartoum], "Sudan Signs Peace Agreement with Two Rebel Groups", 10 April 1996

[17] Africa Confidential, "Talk in New York, War in the Horn", Vol. 37, No. 8 (12 April 1996)

[18] Front page headline of SPLM/SPLA Update, 15 April 1996

[19] See Sudan Democratic Gazette, "Machar and Kuanyin Finally Join Forces with NIF Against the South", May 1996

[20] This administrative reform enacted in 1994 was in fact a way of delegating local control to "State Governments" picked by the Islamist regime but deprived of any financial resources or administrative autonomy. This system was not without parallels with the old USSR system of "Federated Republics". But contrary to the old USSR internal borders, the Khartoum planners were careful to deprive these "States" of any ethnic coherence for fear that they could at some point tend towards a real form of autonomy.

[21] Agence France Presse [Khartoum], "Khartoum et deux groupes sudistes appellent le SPLA à signer la paix", 11 April 1996

[22] Reuter [Khartoum], "Ex-Sudan Vice President Supports Peace Agreement", 26 May 1996

[23] PANA Agency [Khartoum], "Little Known Rebel Group Signs Peace", 23 June 1996

[24] See Le Monde, Jean Hélène, "Au Soudan: la tragédie des Noubas", 13 August 1996

[25] Agence France Presse [Khartoum], "Une faction rebelle se bat aux côtés du gouvernement au sud", 26 March 1997

[26] Agence France Presse [Khartoum], "Signature de deux accords de paix entre Khartoum et sept factions rebelles", 21 April 1997

[27] For a detailed study of this whole period see Gérard Prunier, "The SPLA Crisis (1991-1997)" (unpublished conference paper)

[28] Concerning the developments of this period see Gérard Prunier, From Peace to  War: the Southern Sudan (1972-1984) (Hull: University of Hull, Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, 1986)

[29] See Sudan Focus, "Peace Accord Nears Conclusion", Vol. 4, No. 3 (15 March 1997). This is pro-government publication.

[30] See Nafir, "Who is this Mohamed Harun Kafi?", Vol. 2, No. 2 (July 1996). Nafir is published by the Nuba refugee community living in England. Mohamed Harun Kafi is a former SPLA member who was living in Nairobi at the time he joined the government peace process. He had been away from Southern Kordofan for the last twelve years.

[31] Author's interviews with several of the participants. Nairobi, November 1997

[32] See Light and Hope Newsletter [Birmingham] (July 1996)

[33] Agence France Presse [Addis-Ababa], "Mr Carter juge positif l'accord entre deux factions sudistes", 21 April 1997

[34] Reuter [Nairobi], "Rebels Say Sudan Air Raid Stopped Carter Visit", 21 April 1997

[35] Author's interviews with Ugandan authorities and with NGOs, Kampala, November 1997 and with SPLA leaders, Nairobi, November 1997

[36] See for instance former Sudanese Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi's communiqué from Cairo on 31 December 1997 offering to negotiate with the Khartoum Government (verbal information from sources in Cairo).

This issue paper was prepared by WRITENET mainly on the basis of publicly available information, analysis and comment. All sources are cited. This paper is not, and does not purport to be, either exhaustive with regard to conditions in the country surveyed, or conclusive as to the merits of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and are not necessarily those of UNHCR. WRITENET is a network of researchers and writers on human rights, forced migration, ethnic and political conflict. WRITENET is a subsidiary of Practical Management (UK)

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