Sudan: A plea for constitutional reform and party politics

By Omer M Shurkian*


The crisis of governance has eluded Sudan since its independence in 1956. This is mainly due to the nature of politicians, the course of politics they have followed and ideological beliefs they preach and practise. In the departing years of colonialists, the Supreme Council of State was established to replace the role previously played by the governor-general, which was supposed to safeguard the aspirations of the Sudanese people, particularly, the Southern Sudanese, but the council failed to live up to its functions. In fact, the Self-Rule Constitution which begot Self-Rule Bill was eroded and its fundamental roles washed away by the sectarian parties, leaving no choice for Mr Ibrahim Badri, the leader of the Socialist Republic Party, but to quit the meetings of Constitution Amendment Committee in protest and warning the parties’ representatives that they were showing the seeds of future crisis in Sudan in which the South would be engulfed in bloody conflict.

However, there was a sense in the Southerners’ action, and they were right to resent the Northerners. In the latter’s euphoric rush to the country’s independence in 1956, they undoubtedly did neglect the feelings of the frustrated Southerners and underrated the eternal facts of ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.

During these tumultuous years of independence, the forebears of Sudan’s independence promised the Southerners to look favourably into their demand for the federal system of governance in the South if they were to vote in favour of Sudan’s independence with the Northerners in the then-inchoate Legislative Assembly. Not long after securing the Southerners’ votes, this promise was dishonoured ignominiously, and so the Southerners became the victims of a broken pledge. As years went by and in so many an experience, their hopes were shattered by ‘too many agreements dishonoured’, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon them. In actuality, the reneging of such agreements merely rationalises some deep-rooted prejudices, and to attempt to counter them with facts and statistics one could fill pages. The Southerners were left with no alternative except to prepare for a direct action, whereby they could present their very bodies as a means of laying their case before the conscience of the central authorities.

This situation created ungovernable areas in the South and later on in other parts of the country, whereby no order or law was implementable, including the conduct of elections. Some would argue that holding the law in abeyance in the war-savaged areas was the creation and responsibility of rebels. These critics have failed to express similar concerns for the conditions that brought the situation to these tragic ends. This is the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects, and it does not grapple with underlying causes.

When they took power in June 1989 in a military coup d’état, the National Islamic Front (NIF) junta pronounced that they were so doing because the multi-party system was inefficient and party bickering was squandering away the country’s invaluable time and resources. A decade later, the same military regime introduced political associations: a kind of charade which was meant to absorb the internal dissent and appeal to the international community that the regime had restored multi-party democracy. These political associations turned out to be the regime’s allies; they lacked economic resources, freedom of expression and movement to extend their political activities beyond the national capital, Khartoum. As the years unfolded, the development of plural democracy in the way its architects visioned faltered, and moral corruption grew and the traditional sense of solidarity and family togetherness fell apart.

This paper is meant to tackle four issues. It briefly looks at attempts aimed at reaching a workable constitution that could have accommodated political practices in a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious society in the wake of somewhat chaotic post-independence Sudan. Secondly, it highlights how these fruitless attempts, however, were scuppered by party bickering and military seizures of power and the replacement of them by presidential decrees or one-party system model. Thirdly, it focuses on the very military bids to introduce their own vision of multi-party system, however unsuccessful these attempts might have been. Fourthly, it analyses the political groupings which were established as a result of the 1999 Political Association Act, which was introduced by the Bashir military regime to revamp body politic in Sudan.

The first multi-party democracy

To begin, since Sudan’s independence in January 1956, the quest for the country’s workable Constitution has been an uphill struggle. Not long before independence, Sudan was ruled by the self-rule Constitution, which was drafted by a British judge of the High Court, Mr Justice R C Judge Stanley-Baker. It was hoped, however, that after independence Sudan would establish the Constituent Assembly which would pave the way for self-determination and the formulation of the Constitution. In the course of events, these great expectations did not materialise, and, in the ensued constitutional vacuum, a Provisional Constitution was adopted by Parliament based on the self-rule government law. During the turbulent years of the first multi-party democracy, the 1956 Constitution was the order of the day.

However, the first multi-party democracy in Sudan was a short-lived one, proving what was once stated by ‘Greek philosophers [who] spoke of a law, a sequence in which aristocratic oligarchies are always replaced by democracies that are short-lived as these, in turn, are replaced by dictatorships.’

The Abboud military regime

On 17 November 1958, the aforementioned Constitution was expurgated from the statute by Lt-Gen Ibrahim Abboud. After a year of his coup, Abboud formed a committee with no specific functions under the chairmanship of chief justice (who??) to recommend the best way to allow the Sudanese citizens to take part in Government administration so as to pander to their effective participation and the development of their affairs prior to reaching constitutional dispensation compatible to the Sudanese natural environment and debarring them from the vices of imported systems. After two years since Abboud’s announcement, the committee was established to enact the Central Council Bill.

In 1961 and after Abboud had expressed his desire to promulgate the Central Council, the Sudan Communist Party (SCP) distributed anti-Government pamphlets denouncing the council as a treason to the country and the only way out of the morass created by the regime was the complete eradication of dictatorial, military regime; it called for organising National Democratic Front for the struggle of establishing the demanded national, democratic Government. The pamphlet also called for the annulment of laws restricting public freedoms, lifting the state of emergency, allowing the freedom of press. The SCP further indicated that the council was a tool for distracting people and an attempt to indulge them in vacuous discussions. While the elections of the council were under way, the SCP declared its position that the council was far away from achieving democracy, because it was not entirely elected. It went on to state that a council, which had no power to look into the already signed agreements by the current regime on grants and loans, had shackled the independence of Sudan and thrown it into the resources of foreign colonialism; it was a reactionary council. Moreover, the SCP’s pamphlet affirmed that a council that had no power to appoint or dismiss the prime minister and ministers and bring them to the book was a skeletal council with no power or influence.

However, in 1963 the council was pronounced to absorb people’s dissent against the regime which began to grow and spread. In fact, it was meant to be a legislative body, or rather a totalitarian organ to comprise all political forces and social entities. Ironically, Abboud was said to have links with the Khatmiyya sect of Sayyid ‘Ali al-Mirgani, and it was no surprise that the council contained 46 members of the Khatmiyya and unionists out of 70, with only 12 members for the Umma Party. Most importantly, the Umma Party was the champion of dissent against Abboud’s regime with its chairman, Sayyid Siddiq ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi, Sadiq’s father, as the leader of Opposition United National Front. Abboud, therefore, leaned heavily to Khatmiyya sect with its rural bases to garner popularity for his despotic regime. The council also had all ministers as members, and 18 members appointed by the Chairman of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces – that is, none other than President Abboud himself – and 54 members at the rate of 6 members per province. Since the members of provincial councils were either appointed or elected, it became apparently clear that most of them were appointees. The chairmen of provincial councils were military men representing the military Government and were appointed by President Abboud, the Chairman of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. Hence, these councils were quasi-military bodies to prosecute the policies of military regime and with no real sense of democracy whatsoever.

The elections of the council were ostensibly boycotted by the banned political parties, with the exception of SCP, which vociferously denounced the council in strongest terms. Nonetheless, it avowedly ‘broke away from the front and decided to contest those elections, probably to call Abboud’s bluff, but certainly as a result of frustration with the disarray of the opposition after the death of Siddiq al-Mahdi.’ Although the Communists put all their weight behind the elections in both the capital and regional constituencies, it failed to win a single seat. Whatever their motives were, the participation of Communists and sectarian parties alike in the council gave the military regime the legitimacy it was desperate to have. The transparent failure of the electoral process to translate the will of the electorate into recognisable results at the polls led to mass frustration and violence, which culminated in popular uprising in October 1964 and ended Abboud’s regime.

The second multi-party democracy

Prior to Abboud’s coup d’état, there was a call for an Islamic Constitution and presidential republic, which was basically a campaign for autocratic rule or a theologian one. This call pushed intra-party dispute among the political players in the name of religion to its zenith, but such a call was defeated in 1957. It was replaced by a secular Constitution in the same year, but Abboud’s coup in 1958 put an end to it. However, Dr Hassan ‘Abd Allah al-Turabi’s position towards the religionization of Constitution was pushy, whereas Sadiq al-Mahdi’s was an elusive one, concentrating his political infight with his uncle, Sayyid al-Hadi al-Mahdi, for the control of Umma Party. Sadiq was quoted as saying: ‘Talking about the Constitution, prior to the overcoming of the major problems of the country which are threatening its borders, is worthless to its utmost.’ So, the call for the Islamic Constitution, presidential republic, the amendment of Constitution in order to expel the Communists from Parliament and ban their party paved the way for Col Nimeiri’s coup d’état on 25 May 1969.

Following the demise of Abboud’s regime in October 1964, the 1956 Constitution was amended to adapt and adopt the vagaries of political atmosphere. In June 1965, the Constituent Assembly was elected. In their efforts to draft a new constitution, a committee representing the North and the South was set up in January 1967 to draft the Constitution Bill. The committee had been meeting for a year to discuss the Southern problem with a view to finding a solution and recommending a political and administrative structure. Its findings were presented to the Assembly in January 1968, and the committee found out that the answer lay in a regional structure for the whole country. Its recommendations were accepted by the National Committee, which was preparing a draft constitution. But political dogfight between the Government and the opposition parties led to the dissolution of the Assembly in February 1968. The political atmosphere was ripe with the sectarian parties vying for the creation of Islamic Republic in Sudan.

The Nimeiri military regime

Much to the dismay of the sectarian parties, then Col Ja’afar Mohamed Nimeiri’s putsch of May 1969 put an end to the constitutional bickering. Like every military regime, the early years of Nimeiri’s rule was governed by presidential decrees. A secular Constitution was implemented by President Nimeiri in 1973, only to be tampered with later. After ten years, that is, in September 1983, Nimeiri, surprisingly enough, codified a morass of Islamic and secular laws, which were notoriously known as the September Laws. Never has the nation been so traumatised by penal code as did the September Laws.

To avoid a return to party politics that dominated the political scene prior to his coup, Gen Nimeiri launched the Sudanese Socialist Union (SSU) in January 1972. The SSU was the masterpiece of Kamil Mahgoub, who established it as a political, totalitarian party to control the populace and to form the people’s National Council as a legislative organ in 1974. Moulded on the Egyptian Socialist Union and other Arab countries’ models, the SSU was theoretically meant to give the Sudanese people an opportunity to popularly participate in the Government through the alliance of interest groups called people’s forces, comprising labourers, soldiers and national businessmen, though the implementation was in great contrast with the theory. The SSU, therefore, was envisaged as a union of forces, and an organ and tool of popular mobilisation behind a clearly defined programme of action. Eventually, the SSU, which was introduced to be a political organ based on the coalition of popular working forces, turned out to be lacking popularity, responsiveness and democracy. The SSU reached its zenith in 1977, and by the 1980s it was at its lowest ebb; it was unceremoniously destroyed by President Nimeiri, its very architect.

Nimeiri’s downfall from power was the result of a large protest movement together with the complex patterns of elite self-interest recycling. The elements of dissent were numerous and resenting the infamous Shari’a laws, dubbed September laws as mentioned earlier. However, these laws were one component of the root causes of the uprising that eventually succeeded to oust the Nimeiri regime in April 1985.

The third multi-party democracy

When Nimeiri was deposed in April 1985, there was a call for the return to the 1956 Constitution with its amendments of 1964, and due consideration to the Self-Government of Southern Sudan. The irony was that the autonomous position of the South was incorporated in the Constitution after the Addis Ababa Agreement in 1972, resulting in the 1973 Constitution; so, such a constitutional anachronism was merely a political charade. Some had called for a return to the 1973 Constitution, while knowing that, at a certain stage, Nimeiri fiddled with this Constitution so much that it was left as a ‘skeleton without flesh’.

Nonetheless, the Transitional Military Council (TMC), which ousted Nimeiri, formed a committee of hand-picked party representatives – namely, the National Islamic Front (NIF), the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Umma Party – and instructed them to draft a Transitional Constitution. Working in plenary sessions, the committee presented its bill, which was passed on 21 August 1985, to a joint meeting of the TMC and the civilian cabinet. The rationale behind the exclusion of other parties was that the TMC was in no way ready to accept or even tolerate neither the secular views nor the Southerners’ opinion. The latter, striving to attest to the aspirations of the people of Southern Sudan, was an anathema to the TMC, which was executing the NIF policies. Through coercion and coalescence, the NIF managed to achieve its political aims. In 1988, Dr Hassan ‘Abd Allah al-Turabi, then Attorney-General in the Sadiq al-Mahdi Government, proposed a package of Islamic Code, which was dubbed the September Laws II. These laws were fiercely opposed by all political parties, especially the African Bloc, which expressed their indignation by walking out of the Constituent Assembly en masse on 19 September 1988.

Throughout this constitutional odyssey, the Sudanese people have never had a chance to participate in the making of constitution, either by a ‘free and fair’ referendum or by electing a nation-wide Constituent Assembly that will pass the Constitution. Using the civil war in Southern Sudan as a scapegoat, the so-called ‘general elections’ tend to produce a partial assembly every time the Sudanese population are granted a chance to vote for their candidates.

The NIF military regime

The third military regime in Sudan was ushered in through a classic army take-over on 30 June 1989, though with a covert ideological trend. After declaring a state of emergency, then Brig Omer Hassan Ahmed al-Bashir suspended the Constitution, dissolved Parliament, made himself all-powerful chief executive and ended all hope of an early return to democratic rule.

In October 1997, Bashir’s Government set up a National Committee for the Constitution. The committee was chaired by former Chief Justice, Khalaf Allah al-Rasheed. It was composed of 386 elected members, including states’ governors, federal ministers and state ministers. A technical committee, comprising 67 members, and a twelve-member advisory committee were also formed. The majority of the committees’ members were the NIF loyalists; also listed in these committees the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the Umma Party, ex-military officers, the leftists and Mayists, or supporters of former May regime of Nimeiri.

The Opposition parties – that is, the DUP, the National Umma Party and the Leftists, denounced the regime’s committees and asserted that their members were obtruded on such committees without their respective parties’ consent. Amid such confusion, the committees were ordered to knuckle down to their task with a will. Having prepared their draft Constitution, it was then dispatched to President Bashir to approve it before transferring it to Parliament. However, the committees’ members were surprised to find out that the draft in Parliament was a changeling; the one that they prepared was fiddled with so badly by a committee of NIF die-hards in presidential palace. With a few alterations, the new Constitution was deliberated and unanimously passed by the rubber-stamp Parliament on 28 March 1998 in a session attended by 298 out of 400. The eligible electorate began to register on 1-15 April 1998, and a partial referendum on the Constitution took place on 23 April – 2 May.

On 20 June, the constitution was ratified by President Bashir. As we have said earlier, there is nothing cogent about this constitution that it is going to be a panacea for all the Sudan’s political ailments. In spite of the ambiguity of the language of its text, the obscurity of some key articles and the strong objection of the opposition parties, the constitution was adopted and adapted by the Government. Although conceived as an attempt by the regime to conceptualise a new political order, such a constitution reflects an intention to establish a theocratic and totalitarian system as a fait accompli. The foundation for this lies in the inclusion of terms such as: hakimiyya (God is the source of governance), jihad (holy war) and Islamic Civilisation Trend, which are all but a sort of fanatical fantasies of setting up an Islamic state in Sudan through adopting divine slogans to address the chronic problems of the country.

President Bashir issued a presidential decree revoking the presidential decree number two of 1989, which banned all political parties and outlawed their activities. No sooner had the president repealed the aforementioned presidential decree than the political parties were allowed to be formed and function according to article No 26 (2) which states:
*- There shall be guaranteed for citizens the right to organise political associations; and shall not be restricted save by the condition of consultative decision-making and democracy in the leadership of the organisation and use of propagation not material force in competition and abiding by the fundamentals of the Constitution, that as regulated by law.
*- The seven basic provisions and principles of the constitution are listed in article 139 (3), including the adoption of Islamic law and custom as the prevalent sources of law. Custom, however, is generally and practically regarded by Khartoum rulers as custom of Arabia, not of disparate Sudanese population, assuming that Sudan is an Arab and Muslim country. But what makes a great number of Sudanese people intransigent to the Islamic proselytization is the fact that Islam once spreads beyond the Arab countries, it makes people strangers in their own lands; because it seeks an article of faith to erase the past. The believers, in the end, honour Arabia alone; they have nothing to return to. Islam requires the convert to accept that ‘his land is of no religious or historical account; only the sands of Arabia are sacred.’ This emanates from the fact that in the tribal communities of the North, customary law is interwoven with Muslim law.

One of the strongest criticism then Brig Omer al-Bashir launched against the defunct Government of Sadiq al-Mahdi in June 1989 was that the political arena was congested with ineffective parties that numbered more than forty in all but names. Following the ratification of a bill allowing the formation of political associations in 1998, more than forty political parties and associations emerged. In this aspect, the military regime displayed the political deficiency so characteristic to its predecessor in spite of castigating it. This democratisation of tyranny was hailed by the regime supporters that the Government was in a position to tolerate the other shades of opinion. By August 1999, only seventeen parties and associations out of forty-one barely survived, raising questions about the nature of these parties, their political role and future amid the mood of the hitherto national reconciliation engulfing the Sudanese public.

Since then, the Government ‘has been aggressively campaigning throughout the world in an attempt to demonstrate that democratic reform is afoot, and a new era of openness has begun.’ And despite its totalitarian nature, the positive response of Northern Opposition parties in Khartoum to the regime’s declaration of the multi-party system indicates that the North-North dichotomy is always as fickle as spider’s web. After all, they can be categorised under one main group, which are mere quarrelling over power-sharing but have a lot in common, including Islamic faith and Arab culture. On the other hand, the Southerners who participated in that so-called plural democracy were opportunists, who were enticed by money and perks. So, what were these parties which were cajoled into or enticed by believing that the Government was serious about the parliamentary system?

Inqaz multi-party democracy: associated and non-associated parties

The 1999 Political Association Act lifted the ban on political parties which refrained from using violence as a means for achieving political goals. After the introduction of the act, the political parties in Sudan were classified into two categories: associated and non-associated parties. The former were those willing to work under the guidelines of the Government, whereas the latter were those opposed to the regime whether inside the country or abroad. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) – an umbrella group of political parties, trade unions and professionals – saw this as an unsuccessful attempt by the regime to democratise its dictatorship, and opted for opposing it. The regime, on the other hand, refused to recognise the NDA on the ground that it advocated violence against the state and the people. Parties – or, officially, associations – were required to register and, for their registration to be valid, they had to prove a democratic inner party structure and practice, the transparency of their sources of funding and voluntary affiliation to their rank and file.

The political parties, as they came out in myriad, included the National Congress Party (NCP), which was introduced in 1991 as a popular organisation in lieu of the banned political parties. The NCP became the ruling party, which was in fact the NIF under a different guise. Based on the ideology of the Libyan Popular Committees, the NCP was, and is, a reminiscent of the SSU, which was established by former President, Ja’afar Mohamed Nimeiri, and the only party allowed to work freely throughout his years in office. Nonetheless, the NCP had been in existence before the burgeoning of the new parties; it was receiving slush fund to organise its members, and enjoying the blessing of the Government. The NCP was run by its Secretary-General, Dr ‘Ghazi Salah al-Din al-’Atabani, before its second conference on 16-19 February 1998. In fact, the NCP was more powerful than Parliament. It was composed of 120 MPs out of the congress 6000 members, representing the different localities of Sudan, including trade unions, youth and women.

During the second conference of NCP, power struggle erupted amongst its leaders. This party bickering started when a ten-man memorandum was delivered to the Shura (Consultative Council) demanding more democracy within the party, reactivation of the high leadership and the adoption of unity as a safeguard against the enemies of the Islamic Movement. The memorandum was construed by political observers as a scourge to curb Dr Turabi’s powers in favour of President Omer al-Bashir. Having felt a rebellion of a handful of his disciples, Dr Turabi resigned as the Speaker of Parliament. Two candidates emerged to replace him: Mr Justice ‘Abd al-’Aziz Shidu, Deputy Speaker of Parliament, and Makki ‘Ali Bala’il. Mr Bala’il, a Nuba and NIF member since his schooldays, was nominated and supported by MPs from Western and Southern Sudan. To the Northerners, it was so much a shock if the legislative body were to be chaired by someone outside central Sudan – that is, the presumed habitat of Sudan’s elites and policy-makers. They would rather maintain Dr Turabi, the devil they knew, than voting in a different stuff and, to be precise, a Nuba, albeit he was a long standing NIF stalwart. In the end, Turabi was re-nominated by Mr Shidu, seconded by Mohamed Dawood al-Khalifa and voted in by a ‘silent consensus’. Like the political association, the ‘silent consensus’ was a term created by the NIF to execute their decisions and pass their legislations.

The Muslim Brotherhood – the antecedent of Islamic Charter Front (ICF), the NIF and now the NCP – was divided into two factions: one, which was registered according to the Political Association Bill and led by Sadiq ‘Abd al-Majid; another, which was a radical, non-associated faction and was headed by al-Sheikh Suleiman Abu Naro, who succeeded Dr al-Hibir Yousif Nour al-Dayem in 1991. Naro’s group was uncompromising as far as the issue of Shar’ia (Islamic code) was concerned, arguing that the regime was appeasing secularists.

The background to schism among the Muslim Brethren can be traced to their national conference in April 1969 in which the party broke into two factions: Dr Turabi’s ICF and Naro’s faction of Muslim Brotherhood, which favoured the pursuit of Islamic education and guidance among the youths in the Sudanese societies before thinking of wielding power. However, the division became acutely sharp in 1979 after Nimeiri’s National Reconciliation with the Northern Opposition parties – that is, the National Front in exile. Consequently, Dr Turabi was released from prison, grasped the opportunity and joined Nimeiri’s regime with a meticulously concealed plan to work within the system and infiltrate the structures of power. As a shrewd politician, Turabi managed to transform the insignificant ICF into a sound-bite political party through the pragmatic exploitation of Nimeiri’s SSU and later during the TMC tenure after Nimeiri’s demise in 1985. Ideologically, Naro’s group had bitterly accused Turabi of adopting secular views, pointing out some disagreements between the two factions on the interpretation of hadith (the Prophet Mohamed saying) and the punishment of apostate.

Meanwhile, Dr Hussein Suleiman Abu Saleh, former Foreign Minister, resigned from the Politburo of NCP and joined Farouq Hilal’s Nile Valley Unity Party. Other leaders of the party were: Tawfiq Mohamed Nour al-Din, whose father was the champion of the Nile Valley Unity until his death, Osman al-’Awad, former ambassador, and Lt-Gen (retired) Omer Zarouq. In a press conference, Abu Saleh was quoted as saying ‘[our] strategic purpose is the union of Sudan with Egypt on a scientific basis to achieve the mutual interest, and we believe that the union will help Sudan to achieve peace, reconciliation, stability and comprehensive renaissance.’ It was hardly believable that a country that had failed utterly to reconcile its own people could achieve these goals after union with another country and, worse still, a former colonial power in Sudan with all its inequities which are still fresh in Sudanese minds, including slavery. It is worth mentioning that the Nile Valley Unity Party appeared, first and foremost, in the Sudanese political arena in the 1940s. Like then existing cronies’ movements and coffee-shop unionist parties, the party was led by urban elites in the national capital, Khartoum, and after negotiations for Sudan’s independence, the unionist factions – such as, the Unionist Party, the Liberal Unionists, the Nile Valley Unity Party and the National Front – agreed to merge into the National Unionist Party. The merger was established under the aegis of Egypt’s Chairman of Revolutionary Command Council, Maj-Gen Mohamed Nagib, in his house in Cairo just before the signing of Self-Determination Treaty between the United Kingdom and Egypt on 12 February 1953. So, the Nile Valley Unity Party is the old wine in a new bottle.

Another ideological party, which was registered as a political association, was the Libyan-based Sudan Revolutionary Committees Movement. The philosophy of the Revolutionary Committees Movement was based on Col Qaddafi’s Green Book, or the Third Theory. In fact, the movement appeared in the Sudanese political arena after the downfall of former President, Ga’afar Nimeiri, in April 1985. It came to Sudan through the Sudanese nationals who were part of the National Front: an umbrella group of Northern Opposition, which comprised the DUP, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Umma Party. These members were supported by Qaddafi’s Libya in the 1970s. Dissatisfied by the experience of third democracy (1985-1989), the Revolutionary Committees rallied behind the regime of Omer al-Bashir from its outset. They participated in the regime’s conference which deliberated the political structure for Sudan and, to their satisfaction, the regime adopted their concept of ‘popular committees’. The Revolutionary Committees were also boosted by the defection of Mr Idris al-Banna, former member of the Supreme Council of State, representing the Umma Party, to their rank and file. However, Mr Banna’s defection was not evoked by a fundamental, political difference, but it was invoked by personal complaint against the Umma Party’s neglect to him while serving prison sentence he received for corruption charges after the advent of Bashir’s putsch in June 1989.

One of the radical parties, which were established under the Political Association Bill, was Mohamed Abu al-Gasim Haj Hamed’s Sudan Central Movement for Development, Unity and Freedom. Hamed, former member of People’s Democratic Party, rejected the federal system, which was introduced by Bashir’s regime as an empirical formula for ruling the country. Instead, the movement advocated centralisation as the best method of governance. Hamed was not a product of special interest group, nor was he a populist who hoped to organise his popular base. He was a researcher in regional security and advisor to a number of regional leaders, including President Issias Afeworki of Eritrea and Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan of the United Arab Emirates. Benefiting from the regime’s overture that allowed political organisations to register and operate, Hamed returned to Sudan in 1998 and formed his movement. He soon got disappointed by the outcome of Khartoum Forum, which was convened by the regime to draw up agenda for the Libyan-Egyptian proposed conference. Protesting against what he called the regime’s procrastination on the issues of democracy and national reconciliation, Hamed then dissolved his movement. The dissolution of Hamed’s movement on these flimsy allegations rather than staying to fight for development, unity and freedom, as pronounced in the movement’s manifesto, has proved the fragility of these parties.

It is worth mentioning that the Sudanese leaders have never learned from past experiences. Former President, Ja’afar Nimeiri, in his bid to dive and rule, divided the Umma Party into two factions: he cajoled Sayyid Ahmed ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi, Sadiq’s uncle, into assuming the role of the leader of Ansar, the backbone of the Umma Party in order to deepen feud within the Mahdi family. Although the fruits of his policy were hardly noticed, such a division became very slim after the downfall of Nimeiri’s regime in 1985. Under the current Political Association Bill, the Umma Party disintegrated into three factions: al-Nour ‘Abd Allah Jadein’s faction, Usama Mohamed Osman Abu Saq’s Islamic Revivalist Umma Party and Ansar Sect, and Wali al-Din Hadi al-Mahdi’s Islamic Umma Party. Abu Saq’s intention to lead such a splinter group was driven by a racial drive, claiming that Sadiq al-Mahdi had lost control of the Umma Party because the party had been dominated by a majority group from Western Sudan, the party’s citadel.

Piqued by the Government’s license that a group of hundred people was free to form a political association, a number of Sudanese citizens took this initiative as a challenge worthy of trying. So, there was Sudan National Front, which was led by ‘Abd al-Jalil Mohamed Rifa, former Security officer under Nimeiri’s regime. Then there were al-Shareif Zein al-’Abideen al-Hindi’s Democratic Unionist Party, the Sudan Socialist Popular Party by Khalifa Idris Habbani, former candidate for presidential elections in 1996. But the most fanatical party was established by Siddiq al-Haj Abu Dafeira. Mr Dafeira, French language lecturer in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Khartoum, is a man of eccentric personality. He was the author of the theory of number 13, who ran for President of the Republic of Sudan in 1996. His party, Islamic Path Rectitude Movement, rejected the Sudan Constitution of 1998 on the ground that it contained a number of secular articles, and vowed to amend it in future. In the economic sphere, he assured the Sudanese people that he would scrap taxes should he fail to find a reference to them in the Islamic religion.

Other parties include: the International Popular Friendship Party, the People’s Popular Association, the Islamic Path Party, the Liberation Party, the National Salvation Party, the Islamic Christian Solidarity, the Brotherhood and Labour Party, the Future Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Sudan Democratic and Islamic Party, and the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party with its two factions, Mohamed ‘Ali Jadein’s group and Mohamed Osman Abu Rass’s faction.

It is worth noticing that in 1990, the Ba’athists suffered a heavy blow by the regime when their military cadres instigated an abortive coup against Bashir’ fledgling Government. In the wake of this botched putsch, a lot of army officers were executed, imprisoned or cashiered. Now, the position of Ba’athists was exacerbated by internal schism and ideological feud. The emergence of an identity issues in the North-South dichotomy and the status of the marginalised regions of Sudan dictate that the Ba’athists have to nationalise their Arab nationalism ideology. If this were to be done, the Ba’athists would then have to review their external relations and the slogan of ‘one Arab nation with ever-lasting message’. The Ba’athists – or, more explicitly, the Arabists – are incapable of reconciling themselves with the reality of Sudan’s Africanity; they have failed to see the contribution which a Sudan, united by recognising its Africanity, could make to an Arab world on which it was obtruded. In contrast with the views of the majority, certain elements within the Sudanese society – traditionalists as well as modernists – never saw their country as an entity of its own, but always as an extension of others. And in such a way, the complexity of a periphery – in the case of Sudan, as ferociously striving to attach itself to the centre of Arabia – becomes the order of the day, and the under-addressed factor in Sudan’s ailments.

Even former President, Ja’afar Nimeiri, after fourteen years in self-imposed exile in Egypt, was allured by the Political Association Law. He was quoted as saying that he returned home to participate with his brothers, who had chosen him as the ‘head of the Coalition of Working People’s Forces in the practice of real democracy and the peaceful rotation of power.’ After sixteen years of totalitarian rule, Nimeiri’s Coalition of Working People’s Forces modified their manifesto to adapt the liberal democracy.

Thence to the regionally based parties. The presence of Southern parties among this travesty of democracy serves two objectives for the regime: they are always presented as ‘the real representatives’ of the people of Southern Sudan in lieu of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). Secondly, ‘there is one psychological barrier: the inability on many Northern elements to perceive that a Southern-based and led movement can have national claims, and that it is not simply a pressure group seeking to achieve regional aspirations.’ Even federalism was introduced by the NIF regime through the Fourth Constitutional Decree of 1991 as a political expediency, which would allow the implementation of Shari’a in the North. And from the NIF’s perspective, it would undercut the SPLM/A’s demand for a greater Southern say in national affairs. This was confirmed by ICF’s past policies towards the South in which it had vehemently opposed Southern demands for a federal system. So, a federal system as a means of solving the question of cultural and regional inequalities in Sudan has been denuded from its noble objectives by the NIF. This parochial and racial perception of Northerners to deprive the regionalists of participating equally as essential, national forces is the salient cause of bloody conflicts in Sudan.

Some Northern scholars have argued that the lack of state funding for political parties has an adverse effect on the North-South schism. Since Northern merchants and traders control trade in the South, they have stifled the growth of any Southern Sudanese business community. This, in turn, has led to a situation in which political parties in the North have to adjust their, and the state’s, policies towards the South in order to suit the interests of the Northern business community. Moreover, Southern Sudanese politicians and political parties have no Southern source of income (donations), because the Northern business community view them as a potential threat, unless they are prepared to play the role of pawns.

Led by Dr Riek Machar, Assistant to the President of the Republic and Chairman of the Co-ordination Council of Southern Sudan, the United Democratic Salvation Front (UDSF) broke away from the NCP and registered as a separate party. The front was an assembly of six Southern factions which signed the Political Charter with the Government on 21 April 1996. Apart from Dr Riek Machar and Mr Kerubino Kwanyin, neither of these self-appointed leaders commanded an army. Their personal security was at stake, prompting them to seek protection from the Khartoum regime, and claiming to have political bases. Under the auspices of the Chief of the Shilluk tribesmen, negotiations between Dr Lam Akol’s SPLA-United took place in Fashoda, Upper Nile, during the period of 18-20 September 1997. The talks led to the signing of another charter. After one year, the front signed the Khartoum Peace Agreement with the Government, but the agreement lacked weight and teeth since the main rebel SPLM/A was not party to it. No sooner had the agreement been signed than the factions announced their unification into a body known as the UDSF, and their military was the South Sudan Defence Force (SSDF). The SSDF was also put under the leadership of Dr Riek Machar.

Two citizens with links with the South registered their South-based parties. Ahmed al-Tayib Mohamed Habib Allah, hailed from Khartoum North, had been working as a trader in the South since 1956. His party, the National Alliance for Southern Sudan for Dialogue, aimed at consolidating relations between North and South Sudan. He was quoted as saying that he had good relations inside Sudan and abroad, especially in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya. He added that his Northern co-founder had matrimonial ties with the South, and the party comprised 60% Northerners and 40% Southerners. Maj-Gen Ahmed Kon John Akot, Muslim and Commander of People’s National Forces, – Mairam Sector, claimed that his party, Sudan National Patriotic Labour Party (SNPLP), enjoyed a wide support from the citizens of Bahr al-Ghazal. He called for the unity of the Southerners and the Northerners, and announced that his party was ready to ally with the ruling party, the NCP, for the realisation of peace in the South. It is worth noting that his party broke away from Dr Machar’s SSDF, the military wing of UDSF, in 1998. To assure the Government that it would remain a loyal militia, the SNPLP vowed to protect the oil fields in the buffer zone against the main rebel SPLM/A.

Other parties approved by the Registrar of Political Associations, Mr Justice Mohamed Ahmed Salim, included: Sudan People’s Federal Party by Reth Chol Jok, former Minister of Local Governments under Nimeiri’s regime and Governor of Upper Nile in 1988, and Peace Democratic National Party by Ramadan Chol, former candidate for presidential elections in 1996. The Sudan National Liberal Party, led by Rev Philip Abbas Ghabboush, was registered as well, and so was the National Reform Congress of ‘Ali Hamouda. Hamouda’s congress campaigned for even development between the centre and peripheries, with special reference to Southern Kordofan, and the cessation of hostilities in the region. Some of these parties were too poor to function: they lacked financial resources to compete with the ruling NCP to establish branches in the regions. Money is not simply ‘the mother’s milk of politics’, but it is everything. There were a number of party founders who begged for money to pay their parties registration fees. Security problems, on the other hand, were a great threat if these fledging parties were spread across the whole country for half of the country was savaged by the civil war, and it was beyond the Government ambit.

The Government’s claims of free expressions proved fallacy when prosecutors charged eleven Opposition politicians with holding an illegal meeting in June 1999. They were among eighty-four people detained in Omdurman at a news conference to announce the formation of a new political party, the Democratic Forces Front. The four men charged were ‘Abd al-Majeed Imam, former High Court judge and front’s honorary president, Ghazi Suleiman, leader of the National Coalition for the Restoration of Democracy, Dr Tobi Madut, former Commissioner of Bahr al-Ghazal Region, and Mohamed Isma’il al-Azhari, whose father was Sudan’s first prime minister after independence. The regime enacted a press law which sanctioned the detention of journalists and the crackdown of newspapers for merely publishing articles criticising its policies, resulting in the closing down of several newspapers, including al-Rai al-Akhar, al-Rai al-A’am and al-Anba’a. In the closing down of al-Anba’a, the mouthpiece of the regime, the authorities were too nervous to tolerate their own critics. By showing intolerance, the Government needed only disciples and not real competitors.

Feeble Parties against Dominant Military Institutions

Political parties in Sudan were deficient because they did not operate as part of the democratic process. Although called ‘parties’, they were really mass organisations acting as public fronts for the main religious sects – namely, the Umma Party’s Ansar and the DUP’s Khatmiyya. They were not led by political leaders but ruled by religious overlords. Their policies were neither action-oriented, nor did they have specific programmes to handle the so-called Southern problem and economic and social development. Far from aiding and abetting the development of democracy, the Political Associations Bill of 1988 produced feeble parties and rickety entities, because of the domination of the military institution in all forms of the Government. However, most of these parties expressed the vested interests of their leaders and their jockeying after power. To the dismay of the populace, these parties did not stand on strong foundations, and they were merely breakaway factions from mainstream parties. Furthermore, these political associations had certain traits in common: they circled around Islamic fervour and Armed Forces, which were the most powerful tools in pursuing civil wars in Sudan and meddling in politics. Surprisingly enough, some Christian leaders had fallen from grace to this foul Islamisation of politics and the jingoistic slogans of regime. Incapable of standing on their own platforms, most of these associations had shown great interests and willingness to ally themselves with the ruling NCP, attesting that there were no ideological differences between them and the NCP or, presumably, they were its satellites. The NIF had assumed that these client organisations would give the regime a semblance of nation-wide support. By introducing this bogus form of democracy, the regime aimed at eroding the political bases of the Opposition parties and coaxing the rest to join in in this process. At its inception, the NIF regime had succeeded in dismantling the economic powers of the Opposition parties and, through this latest process of bogus democratisation, it succeeded in destroying the popular bases of the Opposition and moved to break the international isolation with an appalling record of human rights violations.

Some observers might have argued that electoral reforms were needed for sustainable pluralism and stable democracy in Sudan. Others might have suggested that the way out of the vicious circle of military dictatorship and democracy is through a common formula between the traditional and modern forces. This antidote will never cure the ailments of the Sudanese crisis of governance. The regional forces and the army themselves are potent forces to be reckoned with. There have been a number of coups d’état that has been dubbed ‘racist conspiracies’, simply because the protagonists are hailed from the marginalised regions of Sudan. It is true that most military coups d’état are plotted and executed in collusion with political parties, but others are carried out by disgruntled army officers acting alone and out of adventure. Sudan is infested with a long history of intellectuals supporting or admiring dictatorships. The role of trade unions in the political process in Sudan cannot be underestimated. Thus, all these forces are to be accommodated should the Sudanese people aspire to live in a stable and harmonious country.

When Bashir and his co-plotters toppled Sadiq al-Mahdi’s Government in June 1989, they said they would allow political space to open up again once Sudan’s security situation was stabilised. When they opened up, it was a travesty of democracy. This spurious democratisation process was dictated by a political expediency rather than a genuine desire to uphold and serve the real objectives of democracy. The abolition of such a process after barely a year indicated that it was neither workable nor was the regime serious about it. However, the partial introduction of this ‘guided democracy’ while the rest of the country was ridden by internecine civil war was just a shambles. Without real peace and the lifting of the state of emergency, there could have never been a genuine democracy in Sudan. Until the Government is redeemed by one that is willing to give ground for the other shades of Opposition, the Sudanese people will have to wait for so long a time before reaping the fruits of a stable, harmonious country.


The first multi-party democracy in Sudan was a short-lived one when Lt-Gen Ibrahim Abboud seized power in 1958, putting an end to the existing secular constitution and reducing the great expectations of the Sudanese populace. Alas, his regime failed to peacefully resolve the so-called ‘Southern Problem’, which was essentially the core problem of Sudan despite its claim to have come to solve, amongst other things. In fact, it went on an all-out onslaught on the South, and in the North the regime restricted parties’ activities and public freedoms, culminating in public dissent which led to the 1964 uprising and paved the way to the second multi-party democracy.

Likewise, the second multi-party democracy failed miserably when it was on the verge of adopting an Islamic constitution, the amendment of Constitution to expel the Communists from Parliament, the dogfight between the Government and the Opposition parties and the undermining of the quest of the people of South Sudan for self-rule and/or federation. All these factors had led to Col Ja’afar Mohamed Nimeiri’s putsch on 25 May 1969.

Nimeiri ruled by presidential decrees through which he implemented the secular constitution and launched the SSU as a ruling party in order to consolidate his grip on power which reached its zenith in 1977 and its lowest ebb in the 1980s. In 1972, Nimeiri signed Peace Agreement with the rebel Southerners as one of his greatest achievements, but he tempered with it in 1983 and unceremoniously destroyed it, leading to his regime’s demise in April 1985 and thence the Transitional Military Council (TMC) that ousted Nimeiri, and finally the third multi-party democracy.

The TMC was intolerant in accepting the secular views or the Southern opinion when it instructed the sectarian parties to draft a transitional constitution, thus executing the NIF’s policies; most notably was the adoption of Islamic code, which was dubbed the September Laws II. However, this code fiercely was opposed by all political parties, especially the African Bloc in the Constituent Assembly.

On 30 June 1989, the NIF military regime came to power by a military coup led by then Brig Omer Hassan Ahmed al-Bashir and the rest is a history to this day because of the presence of feeble parties struggling against powerful and dominant military constitutions and rulers.

Looking at these splinter groups and numerous parties, which were hatched by the introduction of Political Association Bill in 1998, they hardly represented the aspirations of the entire population of the country. They were mainly Khartoum-based parties, whose leaders created these groupings for self-aggrandisement, jockeying for power and had no neutral stance in their political visions if any. They, therefore, tended to be the satellites of NIF. The peripheries were bereft of these parties and their influence was non-existential since self-interest was involved, the sense of reality became unhinged. This stark reality debunked the falseness of what the regime had called plural and multi-party democracy for the whole episode was a travesty of representation. The real Opposition parties were either banned, their leaders incarcerated and languishing in jails or in exile. The armed Opposition, on the other hand, was pursuing a civil war on all fronts against the incumbent Khartoum regime.

Constitutions are formulated and voted for to uphold the basic constitutional rights of citizens in the respective country. The making of constitution should have the participation of people composing the population of such a country in whichever way the legislators deem convenient and representative so that the laws emanating from it could be democratically expressing the popular will of people. But if a power group enacts a law and then compels the majority group to obey it, this will not be a just law nor a moral one either, because they have no part in enacting or devising it. Upon this, there is no more responsibility to obey this kind of unjust law. At this juncture, we ought to differentiate between a just law and unjust one. The former is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, whereas the latter is out of harmony with the moral law. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust, and any law that uplifts human personality is just. All Sudanese statutes that are based on Shari’a code segregate between males and females, Muslims and non-Muslims and slaves and masters in terms of inheritance, provision of testimony, eligibility to govern, dispensation of justice and so forth. They are, therefore, unjust to dispense with justice in Sudan.

* The writer is the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) representative in the UK and the Republic of Ireland. He is the author of War in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan (1983-2011): The Root Causes and Peace Settlement; The Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS), CASAS Book Series No 117: Cape Town, 2016. He has also published a number of books and articles in Arabic. He can be reached at:

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