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Negotiating Sudan’s North-South Future
Negotiating Sudan’s North-South Future
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Hassan al-Turabi’s Islamist Legacy in Sudan
Hassan al-Turabi’s Islamist Legacy in Sudan
Briefing 76 / Africa

Negotiating Sudan’s North-South Future

As South Sudan’s critical self-determination referendum looms, the foundation for a constructive relationship between North and South is yet to be laid.

I. Overview

Sudan’s fragile Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) is entering its final phase, and a critical vote on Southern self-determination looms, but foundations for a constructive post-referendum relationship are yet to be laid. In addition to a handful of outstanding CPA items, future arrangements on citizenship and nationality, natural resource management (oil and water), currency, assets and liabilities, security and international treaties must be negotiated, regardless of the referendum’s outcome. Many in Sudan and abroad are focused on ensuring the referendum exercise takes place on 9 January as planned. But simultaneously pursuing agreement on the broader post-referendum agenda is not only critical for a peaceful transition and long-term regional stability, but may also serve the more immediate objective of clearing the path for a mutually accepted referendum. 

After months with little progress, the African Union (AU) High-Level Implementation Panel on Sudan and the U.S. jump-started stalled negotiations in recent weeks. But considerable work remains to bridge the gaps between the CPA parties, and time is short. Details of all the post-referendum arrangements cannot, and need not, be negotiated before the vote. But the absence of a basic blueprint for the post-2011 relationship between North and South contributes to uncertainties about the political and economic future of each, risks the referendum being viewed as a zero-sum game and thus sustains fears about the smooth conduct of the exercise and acceptance of its result.

The referendum is sure to shock Sudan’s political system. Thus, efforts have intensified to achieve a framework agreement that addresses, in concrete terms, those post-referendum issues that will have an immediate impact on the population. Such an agreement should also ensure that a mechanism is firmly in place so that negotiations can continue beyond January – up to (and possibly beyond) July 2011, the date on which both the CPA expires, and the South might expect to attain independence, if it votes for secession, as expected. The framework currently under consideration also espouses a series of general principles within which to frame future discussions. 

But with less than seven weeks until the vote, the pace of negotiations is cause for concern. Mistrust between the parties remains high, and the still unresolved issue of Abyei complicates the political environment. Given the political brinkmanship that has long characterised Sudan’s North-South politics, it is conceivable that the parties might continue to circle fruitlessly before attempting to strike a grand bargain at the last moment. Such high-stakes gambling risks instability in Sudan and the region, and should be discouraged.

As voter registration for the referendum is now underway, the chances for spoilers to derail the exercise are diminishing fast. Some National Congress Party (NCP) officials have shown signs that they may be increasingly resigned to the reality of partition, but the ruling party could still contest the results on technical grounds or withhold its recognition of an independent South. As the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM) in Juba clamours for international safeguarding of the South’s right to self-determination, the NCP waits. It could continue to stymie negotiations on post-referendum arrangements, preferring to employ its leverage at the eleventh hour in an attempt to extort significant concessions from the SPLM and the international community in exchange for their endorsement of the referendum.  

Southern Sudan’s right to self-determination is guaranteed by the CPA, and efforts must continue to ensure smooth conduct of the 9 January poll. But progress now toward a series of win-win arrangements could also remove obstacles to the referendum and temper the potential impact of its result.

Juba/Khartoum/Nairobi/Brussels, 23 November 2010

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.