Bitterlemons International Interview With Alimam

Necessary but not sufficient

An interview with  Sadiq al-Mahdi

We in the North need the southern element as a check against Islamic fanaticism.


Edition 5 Volume 3 – February 10, 2005


Necessary but not sufficient
an interview with Sadiq al-Mahdi

BI: Recently the Sudanese government and the southern opposition movement led by John Garang signed an historic North-South peace agreement. Will it last? As leader of the opposition Umma Party, can you support it?

al-Mahdi: The agreement is a very great step forward toward peace and democratization in Sudan. However there are certain drawbacks: the agreement has been reached by two Sudanese parties to the exclusion of others, particularly northern parties with very wide popular support and southern parties with arms.

Therefore this agreement is necessary but not sufficient. The external contributors to the agreement have done a wonderful job through the IGAD states [Intergovernmental Authority on Development, incorporating Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Uganda and Kenya] and the troika–the US, UK and Norway. The exchange has not involved all of Sudan’s neighbors and they have to be involved also.

This is a formal critique. In substance there is a need for certain aspects that would make the agreement sustainable. We need to define them better.

BI: For example?

al-Mahdi: There are ambiguities that need to be defined. For instance, the North will be allowed Islamic legislation and the South will be secular. What about the capital, Khartoum? Further, the North is Islamic, but according to which interpretation of Islam? The interpretation of the ruling party does not represent many of Sudan’s Muslims.

Secondly, there are items in the agreement that need to be amended in order to correct mistakes. When you state that 50 percent of Sudan’s oil wealth will go to the South, southerners will support secession in order to get 100 percent of the oil. We need to state that the natural resources of the entire country should be divided among the population on a per capita basis, with positive discrimination for areas like the South that have suffered.

Thirdly, some items are missing. Part of the problem [between the North and the South] was religion; we need a chapter on religious pluralism. We need a truth and reconciliation commission to absorb the bitterness. We need a national conference to transform the agreement from bilateral to national. We need a protocol on foreign policy: for example, the North favors the Palestinians while the South leans toward Israel; this has to be resolved, too.

BI: The agreement provides for a referendum in six years, in which the South can decide to secede. What will keep North and South together six years from now?

al-Mahdi: At present bitterness is high. But we in the North need the southern element as a check against Islamic fanaticism. The South needs the North as a check against tribal fanaticism.

Secondly, there is a demographic reality that makes secession impossible. There are four million southerners in the North–a number larger than all the southerners in the South. The majority [of southerners] in the North will not accept repatriation, as they are integrated into the northern money economy. Secession for them means forced repatriation or ethnic cleansing. Also, the Bagara Arab borderline tribes that live between the South and the North could only be prevented by force from grazing in the South eight months out of the year. So there is an organic link for unity.

Regarding oil, too, the infrastructure, representing an investment of $8 billion, is oriented toward the North. Secession would create more problems for both sides than unity.

BI: What impact would secession have on the region?

al-Mahdi: An independent South would have an impact on our southern borders, which have their own internal tensions, for example between eastern Congo and the rest of Congo, and northern and southern Uganda. Southern independence could destabilize East Africa and the Horn. Similarly, a North that is not tied to the South will have a potential effect on North Africa.

BI: Can a united Sudan serve as a bridge between the Arab Middle East and black Africa? Between Islam and Christianity and African religions?

al-Mahdi: If Sudan manages to stay together, it will reflect a need for Islamic extremism to accommodate with modernization and pluralism. It will create new conditions for religious communities to coexist. It will show the way for meaningful Afro-Arab accord. And it will allow Sudan to play its rightful role in the Nile basin. There are growing tensions between the countries of the Nile sources and the countries of the Nile flow. Only Sudan borders them all.

BI: How does the agreement affect the Darfur situation?

al-Mahdi: Some of the problems in Darfur are developmental and tribal. These can be resolved through traditional Sudanese means. However, the current crisis in Darfur has four new elements caused by present regime policies: politicized ethnicity; a huge humanitarian problem; the existence of armed groups confronting the government; and internationalization of the problem. If the crisis in Darfur is not resolved, it will derail the North-South agreement, since the North and the South of Sudan have diametrically opposite views on Darfur.– Published 10/2/2005 (c)

Sadiq al-Mahdi is a former prime minister of Sudan, and currently leader of the Umma Party.