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Hassan al-Turabi’s Islamist Legacy in Sudan
Hassan al-Turabi’s Islamist Legacy in Sudan
Briefing 110 / Africa

The Chaos in Darfur

The two-year-old flare-up of violence in Darfur continues, adding 100,000 people this year to more than 2.5 million who have lost their homes since war began in 2003. Sudanese, regional and international peace processes have stalled. They should restart with parallel initiatives that take into better account all of Darfur’s communities and armed groups.

I. Overview

Violence in the Darfur region of Sudan’s far west continues unabated. Some 450,000 persons were displaced in 2014 and another 100,000 in January 2015 alone, adding to some two million long-term internally displaced persons (IDPs) since fighting erupted in 2003. The government remains wedded to a military approach and reluctant to pursue a negotiated national solution that would address all Sudan’s conflicts at once and put the country on the path of a democratic transition. Khartoum’s reliance on a militia-centred counter-insurgency strategy is increasingly counter-productive – not least because it stokes and spreads communal violence. Ending Darfur’s violence will require – beyond countrywide negotiations between Khartoum, the rebel Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF) coalition and unarmed players – addressing its local dimensions, within both national talks and parallel local processes.

Darfur’s complex and multiplying local conflicts are increasingly ill-understood, due to lack of information and the limitations of reporting from the hybrid UN/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). Intensification of combat with rebel factions prompted the government in 2014 to fall back again upon notorious military auxiliaries, this time its new Rapid Support Forces (RSF), thus worsening violence and displacements. Arab militias and paramilitary forces like the RSF attacked non-Arab communities accused of being pro-rebel, fought each other, took part in communal conflicts and even hit at regular government troops.

Increasingly divided over Sudan, the UN Security Council has been unable to develop consensus around a new peace strategy and largely supports the untenable status quo. Discussions are now underway with the government about a possible UNAMID drawdown. Without strong support from New York and the African Union (AU) when the government obstructs it, the mission has been too deferential to Khartoum and systematically presented a narrative of an improving situation divorced from reality. It has also frequently failed to intervene and protect civilians, leading the UN to acknowledge “record levels of civilian displacement not seen since 2004”.

Peace in Darfur is unlikely separate from a solution to Sudan’s wider national problems, for which a number of processes need to be revived, modified or initiated, including an effort, especially in the UN Security Council, to review and rethink policy on Darfur and toward Khartoum generally. This briefing has a more limited purpose. It concentrates on Darfur dynamics, in particular a mapping of the complex conflict lines between and among communities and armed groups and militias, some sponsored by the government.

Suffering from a weak economy and without a military breakthrough, Khartoum appeared more open in 2014 to the inclusion of armed opposition in an AU-facilitated national dialogue. The AU mediation hoped to obtain separate ceasefires for Darfur and the “Two Areas” (South Kordofan and Blue Nile) in a “synchronised” way, paving the way for SRF inclusion in the dialogue. However, the process stalled, largely over Khartoum’s reluctance to negotiate with Darfur rebels on a basis other than the 2011 Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (DDPD). While this may suit the government in the short term, the region’s continued fragmentation into competing armed communities will become increasingly difficult to arrest and reverse.

Darfur’s different conflicts cannot be addressed all at once or in the same way. Crisis Group analysed the limits of the existing peace process in January 2014, and many of its recommendations are still relevant, in particular to review the DDPD, some of whose provisions require establishing a national consensus around the relationship between central government and peripheries, while others – chief of them the increasing communal violence – are too local to solve by national dialogue only. While Sudan’s government has remained reluctant to compromise on the DDPD and invokes as justification the document’s importance for Qatar – which indeed considers it a major diplomatic achievement despite the lack of implementation – it would be in Khartoum’s own interest to address swiftly both the national and local dimensions of the violence in Darfur. For the latter, the government should in particular:

  • progressively control and disarm paramilitary forces and militias, via a mix of incentives, such as participation in local peace processes and the national dialogue, as well as development and services, but also coercion, including arrest and prosecution of those responsible for crimes; and
  • initiate and support communal dialogue and durable local peace and reconciliation mechanisms involving traditional and militia leaders, while leaving mediation to respected, neutral Sudanese, including from outside Darfur, and limiting the government’s role to facilitating, supporting and guaranteeing agreements.

To advance resolution of Darfur’s conflicts, the government and armed opposition should:

  • reach a ceasefire in Darfur, synchronised with a similar one in the Two Areas, including provisions for unfettered humanitarian access in both; and
  • develop proposals to address concerns of all Darfur communities on issues such as security, land ownership, services and development.

International players, particularly the AU, arguably have a more important role to play in national than local processes. However, the UN Security Council and the AU Peace and Security Council should:

  • agree on a Sudan strategy and then properly support it with political backing and appropriate resources.

Nairobi/Brussels, 22 April 2015

Leading Sudanese opposition figure Hassan al-Turabi gestures during an interview in Khartoum on 3 October 2012. REUTERS
Commentary / Africa

Hassan al-Turabi’s Islamist Legacy in Sudan

The death of Sheikh Hassan al-Turabi on Saturday 5 March marks the eclipse of a radical era of Sudanese Islamist politics. But Turabi’s legacy is still keenly felt in the country’s fractured domestic politics and isolated international position, themes which Crisis Group examines in its recent briefing Sudan’s Islamists: From Salvation to Survival.

Turabi, a lawyer and Islamic scholar, was the intellectual architect of the National Islamic Front (NIF), a group of Islamist politicians and intellectuals which took power through a coup in 1989 and, following its evolution into the National Congress Party (NCP), rules to this day. This was a joint operation between Islamist politicians and army officers, led by Omar al-Bashir, eager to see the back of then Prime Minister Sadig al-Mahdi’s chaotic administration. They were also wary of a peace process with the southern rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which was set to challenge the Sharia laws imposed by government in Khartoum.

To disguise the true nature of the new regime from the anti-Islamist government in Cairo, Turabi famously told Bashir to “go to the palace as president” while sending him “to prison as an inmate”. The plan worked: Egypt welcomed the military intervention and Turabi was soon released to take up an influential, but slightly removed role as the regime’s ideologue-in-chief, operating mainly from his house in Khartoum.

In Sudan, Turabi is particularly remembered for the pivotal role he played in the Islamisation of Sudan’s laws.

In Sudan, Turabi is particularly remembered for the pivotal role he played in the Islamisation of Sudan’s laws, a process which formally began in 1983 while he served as Attorney General to then President Gaafar Nimieri. The attempt to impose Sharia nationwide, including in the mainly Christian south, was a major driver of the war with the SPLA that lasted until 2005.

Internationally, Turabi is perhaps best known for his attempt to turn Sudan into a centre of Islamic learning and leadership through the formation of the Popular Arab and Islamic Congress (PAIC), which invited notable figures from international Muslim and Islamist movements to Sudan, including Osama bin Laden, Yassir Arafat and Rached Ghannouchi.

Turabi’s internationalisation of the NIF’s Islamist revolution proved problematic. Bin Laden lived and operated businesses in Sudan from 1991 to 1996, between stints in Afghanistan, before his expulsion at the request of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. In 1995 a radical Islamist group operating from Khartoum, possibly with the knowledge of some in the government, attempted to assassinate the then Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak. In response to the attack, the UN imposed sanctions and the U.S. added Sudan to its list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, where it remains.

Although the allegations surrounding the Mubarak assassination attempt were never proved, Sudan had got itself an unwanted reputation. In 1998 the Clinton administration, in response to al-Qaeda attacks on embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, bombed a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum that the U.S. said was producing chemical weapons for al-Qaeda – an allegation that was never proven.

This was the high point of both Sudan’s linkages with international extremism and also Turabi’s authority. Turabi had by then become Speaker of Parliament and, seeking to reduce the president’s powers and increase his own, in 1998 he attempted to introduce the position of prime minister and remove Bashir’s powers to appoint provincial governors. Bashir, perhaps underestimated by the more cerebral Sheikh, made a pre-emptive strike. Confident of his support from the armed forces, the president dissolved parliament and declared a three-month state of emergency thereby strengthening his hold on power. Soon after, Turabi went into opposition and founded the Popular Congress Party (PCP).

For the next fifteen years Turabi remained active in politics but his status as a member of the opposition prevented him from effecting real change on an increasingly dictatorial system. Turabi sought alliances with other opposition groups. In 2001, he even signed a Memorandum of Understanding with SPLA leader John Garang. But it was his old protégé, a younger and more moderate Islamist, Ali Osman Taha, who ultimately ended the war in the south through negotiating the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).

Turabi’s marginalisation in later life is an indication of the trajectory of Sudanese politics since his split from the ruling party.

Despite high-profile coverage in Sudan of Turabi’s political manoeuvers, he never regained the influence he enjoyed in the 1990s. Toward the end of his life he engineered an apparent rapprochement with Bashir over the “National Dialogue” – an unconvincing effort to negotiate a political settlement with opposition groups that may have been an attempt to secure his legacy as a unifier.

Turabi’s marginalisation in later life is a useful indication of the trajectory of Sudanese politics since his split from the ruling party in 1999. This has seen the NCP move further away from the radicalism of the NIF era and toward a more pragmatic form of government that would see it offer intelligence cooperation with the U.S. after 9/11 and allow South Sudan to secede in 2011.

That Sudan has been unable to achieve the normalisation that it seeks in its relations with western powers is largely a consequence of the NCP’s ineffective militarised approach to tackling domestic conflict, particularly in Darfur, where thousands were killed or displaced in a counter-insurgency that failed to defeat the rebels, rather than genuine international fears of its Islamist pretensions. And even though Turabi may have spent more time in opposition post-1999 than he did in government before it, he bears much responsibility for the system that produced the NCP dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir.