IRIN: SUDAN: Interview with Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi, Ummah party president.

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

OMDURMAN, 5 Oct 2005 (IRIN) – Al-Mahdi’s Ummah party, the largest opposition party in Sudan, opted out of the newly established Government of National Unity (GNU). He has been critical of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) – signed between the Sudanese government and the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) – that ended the country’s 21-year civil war that claimed two million lives.

Al-Mahdi first became Sudanese prime minister in 1966, but his government collapsed in 1967. He was re-elected prime minister in 1986 until current President Umar al-Bashir overthrew him in a military coup in 1989.

A descendant of the Mahdi who led a successful rebellion against Egyptian and British forces in 1881, he is the spiritual leader of Muslim religious sect, Al-Ansar, and brother-in-law to Hassan al-Turabi, the leader of the Popular National Congress party.

In an interview with IRIN on 3 October in Omdurman, just north of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, he presents a critical analysis of the CPA, the political situation in Sudan and the prospects for peace. Below are excerpts:

QUESTION: The CPA has been in place now for about nine months and the GNU, as well as the southern transitional legislative assembly, have been established. Do you feel that the framework of the CPA constitutes a good basis for a stable and prosperous Sudanese future?

ANSWER: The answer is no. It [the CPA] is neither comprehensive nor is the government a government of national unity. We think that the Sudan does need a comprehensive peace agreement and does need a government of national unity. However, the present representations do not subscribe to what we need.

How can you call it a comprehensive peace agreement when you admit that you are engaged in peace negotiations in [the Nigerian capital] Abuja [on the ongoing conflict in the western Sudanese region of Darfur] and also are going to be engaged in peace negotiations in the east [with rebels of the Eastern Front] and are engaged in some kind of negotiations with the NDA [National Democratic Alliance, an umbrella group of Sudanese opposition parties] in Cairo? How can you call this a comprehensive agreement when you are still negotiating with other parties on relevant questions?

As far as Ummah is concerned, we have four types of reservations, which we have expressed:

One, you cannot arrive at a bilateral agreement, ratified bilaterally, and say it is inclusive. Our first reservation is that we want the agreement to be ratified by a national forum, not a bilateral forum. It can only be described as comprehensive if you can get others on board like they did in South Africa, in Codesa, in 1993.

Second, the parties to the agreement have not really been authors but respondents. They responded to initiatives from intermediaries because as the negotiations proceeded, they found that they did not arrive at an agreement so the third party suggested a compromise. The compromise resulted in about 20 points in the agreement that are ambivalent. They can be interpreted differently. We need a national forum to go beyond this ambivalence and define what is really meant. If you leave these 20 points in their ambivalent form or characterisation, you only invite future trouble.

Third, there are many issues which have been important as causes of conflict and which need to be addressed in order to arrive at a real general agreement. They have been neglected. For instance, there should have been a cultural protocol, because culture is a bone of contention. Also, there needs to be an inter-religious protocol. Also the attitude to power sharing has been very superficial – almost looking like simply dividing up ministerial posts and civil service posts. This is not a fundamental attitude to power sharing.

Also, there is no fundamental attitude to wealth sharing. We have only shared some customs proceeds and revenues from oil, but that’s not enough. Also, there is a lot of controversy about foreign policy; this should have been ironed out in a protocol on foreign policy. Also, the question of accountability – you can’t simply bypass years of conflict and bitterness without having something like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, which would have ironed out these problems that cannot simply be neglected, as happened in this agreement.

Fourth, there are certain aspects of the agreement that have to be amended, for instance, you may say that until there is a census, that you will divide up [power] between north and south, two-thirds to one-third. However, in order to actually take it to implementation, you must have a north-north and a south-south dialogue to share up the two-thirds and the third. Otherwise you will get yourself in a fix, which now, the negotiators in Abuja are facing.

They reserved 52 percent for the [ruling] National Congress. The only percentage they are now offering to all types of other northern parties is 14 percent [under the power-sharing agreement of the CPA, the SPLM/A will receive 28 percent and other southern parties get the remaining six percent of seats in parliament/government]. This means that they have really clad themselves in a kind of iron jacket that is not capable of accommodating others.

Again, when you say the north will be governed by Sheria [Islamic law] and the south by secular law, what you have done now is to say the north will be governed by [the strict version of] Sheria as interpreted by the governing party. This is unacceptable, because the majority of Muslims do not accept that. So you may say that the north will be governed by Sheria, I guess, but Sheria according to the support of the majority of Muslims.

Also, the CPA says that the question to be presented to the plebiscite in the south is whether the status quo as constructed by the peace agreement should continue, or separation. Now, this is a very vicious way of giving permanence to the transitional constitution, which is unacceptable and which negates the results of any kind of democratic decision.

Those are our four types of reservations, which we think need to be properly addressed. Because of the shortcomings of the CPA, the constitution reflects all these weaknesses and has been endorsed by the two parties, along with other political sections, who are negligible, but they have supported it.

The so-called GNU is not a national unity government; it is a coalition between two parties and their supporters. In fact, really major sections of opinion in the Sudan do not accept this as a government of national unity. It is normal, but you have to call it a coalition government of some sort and not the government of national unity.

All this means that this is a very half-baked enterprise. The misfortune of this is that the international community, without doing their necessary homework, has accepted the claims of the CPA and the GNU, and are making the – at least apparent – congratulations and support as if what has been achieved is comprehensive and is a national unity government. Now, this is irresponsible.

I can see the two parties to the negotiations being blinded by parties and interests. The United Nations and the international community, however, are bound by all the charters of human rights; they cannot overlook the need to enfranchise everyone, the need to protect civilians, to protect human rights. So, they will be very much neglecting their duty if they accept the claim of the CPA as genuine and accept the claim of the national unity government as meaningful.

Q: The Ummah party has decided not to join the new government and go into opposition instead. Elections are foreseen within four years. Do you think national elections, in which all parties could participate and get their rightful share, would address some of the issues you mentioned?

A: Yes. We have said there are three possible scenarios from here: The most acceptable scenario is to say the CPA is necessary but not sufficient and to call for a Codesa-type national conference, and to expect it to rectify whatever is wrong.

The worst is for the two parties to say this is a comprehensive peace agreement and a national unity government and whoever opposes them will lose their rights, and so create a confrontational situation.

There is a middle ground, which we are proposing as a compromise, by which they say: For three years we will govern the country as a coalition, we will guarantee human rights – we expect you to support the basic points of the agreement like self-determination and the need to share things between north and south, we will guarantee that no one will abuse the institutions of state, we will guarantee free and fair elections and we will accept the verdict of the national elections after three years. In the meantime, you deal with our government as a temporary government and let us have whatever issues are controversial to be decided by the electorate.

If they accept this, it will be a kind of compromise solution, which we hope the international community will endorse. So the international community should, we think, avoid the confrontation scenario and work for either of the other two scenarios. Either the genuinely comprehensive one or for the compromise, which will allow both sections of the body politic of Sudan to coexist without a kind of zero-sum confrontation. That’s how we see it.

Q: Your government was ousted in 1989. What do you see, personally, as the main underlying reasons for this coup and to what extent have these underlying reasons now been resolved?

A: The real reason behind the coup was the power-hunger of the so-called National Islamic Front [NIF – now the ruling National Congress Party]. They sought to use the coup as a means of controlling power in Sudan. Their main reason at the time was that they thought we were going to reach an agreement with the south, which – according to them – would be at the cost of the Islamic character of the Sudan.

And in order to avoid compromising on Islam, they thought to make the coup in order to assert the Islamic character of the Sudan and therefore they created a kind of confrontation between themselves and the majority of Muslims in the north and between themselves and the southerners, because they developed the civil war into a religious war. And that is how they lived for most of the time since they came to power.

I think after about 10 to 12 years of this ideology, they decided it would not work. Therefore, they began to address what to do. From then on, they climbed down from their ideological agenda. And actually, they began to adopt almost all the recommendations and positions of the opposition.

First, they accepted the need for self-determination for the south. Also, they accepted the need for constitutional rights to be based on citizenship, not religious loyalty or commitment. They accepted, basically, religious plurality in the country, cultural plurality. All of these ideas were [previously] an anathema, but after their experience of government and war, I think they decided to climb down.

Also, they decided to climb down on the issue of political plurality and the need for democratisation, which they hitherto rejected – and established a totalitarian system. But after their experiences, they decided this needed to be reviewed so they reviewed much of their ideological agenda.

As things stand now, many of the present policies do respond to the positions of the opposition. However, what went wrong is that they used this climb-down as an opportunity to make a kind of deal with the SPLM/A. Instead of going all the way towards a comprehensive peace agreement and a real democratic transition programme, they qualified that with the establishment of a diarchy between themselves and the SPLM/A, which is unwarranted.

So we support all the elements in the agreement, which have made it possible for a compromise to be reached, such as self-determination, religious plurality, and so on; all of them are really our ideas, which they adopted, so we are not opposing them. What we oppose is the diarchy.

Q: The CPA is being implemented and there will be elections in a number of years. Given the length of the civil war and some of the entrenched differences that have developed over time – the polarisation that took place – do you think Sudan is ready for democracy?

A: If you ask dictators, they will not only say no, but they will make every effort to make it difficult for the establishment of democracy. However, I don’t think there is a more complex – a more hydrogenous – society than the Indian society and yet you have got in India a thriving democracy. If India can make it, anyone can make it.

So, yes, there are many problems – it took centuries for the west to develop its democracy through all kinds of wars, civil war, religious war, you name it – so we should not say that because there are difficulties to establish democracy, we should throw the baby out with the bath water. We accept the challenge and see how to face it.

If the Sudan is not yet ready for a democracy, it is even less prepared for a dictatorship. Because, what we have arrived at now is almost a failed state. The UN’s role in Sudan, now, is almost a protectorate; you must call things by their name. The Sudan is under UN protection now. So a dictatorship took us to this situation, where the country has lost much of its sovereignty. We say that the UN should accept its mandate as necessary in terms of he actual situation in Sudan, but help the Sudanese rather than entrench the causes that led to this deterioration and help the Sudanese move out, so that it can disengage and leave a more stable and democratic and peaceful Sudan. I think this is possible, but it needs a lot of work; it cannot grow out of thin air.

In fact, we are writing a memorandum to the UN to say that we expect from them to restore the Sudan, support peace, democratisation and so on, because we think that what the UN is going to do – and what it is not going to do – in the next few years in Sudan, is going to be very, very important for the future of Sudan.

Q: Some observers say that some of the problems Sudan is trying to overcome right now are partially a result of decisions and actions taken either by you personally or by the Ummah party. Do you agree with these observations and would you – with the benefit of hindsight – have done certain things differently now – now that you’ve seen the consequences?

A: First, these kinds of allegations are completely false. When this government came to power, there was almost a peace agreement. We had already agreed that there would be a national constitutional conference to be held on 18 September 1989. The agenda of that conference was agreed. There was a continuing cease-fire at the time. The UN had responded to us – we had appealed to them – and they came and we agreed on the Operation Lifeline Sudan, to help relief the Sudanese people from hunger and want. At the time there was no self-determination, no external mediation, external arbitration, no UN protection – nothing of the sort. We had a nationally controlled peace process without any external involvement, no IGAD [regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, which negotiated the CPA], and no one else; we were directly talking to each other.

How can you compare that with what is happening now? The break-up of Sudan is on the cards, because of self-determination, and all Sudan’s problems have been externalised. They are being mediated or arbitrated in foreign capitals. There is a complete difference between the peace process today, and the peace process as it was during my time in office [when] there was an ongoing – and almost succeeding – peace process, which was subverted by the coup. The situation now is very much deteriorated from what it was in 1989 and this deterioration is the direct consequence of the policies of a single-minded, partisan, big-headed, Islamist, political party.

Also with regard to Darfur: there were problems in Darfur [in the past], as there were problems with the north and south, there was war, but the [current] regime had raised the issue not only in quantity but also in quality. The same in Darfur: there were problems of the gap of development, the gap of services, tribal problems, some armed conflicts between the tribes, border skirmishes between the different elements, some tension between the settler and the nomadic populations over resources, armed robberies; but that was all. And they were all within the national capability to resolve. But under the present regime, the war has changed quantitatively and qualitatively, in the south, and the same with Darfur.

There were four brand-new problems: First, the problem of politicised ethnicity – before this there was no such phenomenon. There were problems between tribes, but never before problems of politicised ethnicity.

Q: But the politicisation of ethnicity had clearly been taking place for some time in the south…

A: No, I’m talking about Darfur, the south had its own problems over a different time.

In Darfur, secondly, there was the problem of armed insurrection against the state. There had been different conflicts, but never directed against the government. Third, the massive humanitarian problem. There were no internally displaced people, there were no refugees, no war crimes and no crimes against humanity; all these issues were not there at all in Darfur. And, fourth, the international engagement: we’ve got AU [African Union] troops and all kinds of external engagements.

These problems did not exist before and are the direct creation of this regime’s policies and there is no way to resolve them – as they are trying now – within their own policies. That’s why we think that Abuja, as it is going, is futile, because it is conceived of under the ceilings of the policies of this regime, which have caused the problems. You cannot be the cause of the problem and at the same time use the same policies that have been the cause of the problem to resolve them.

The UN [Security Council], from November 2004 to July 2005, has – for the first time – taken about 10 resolutions concerning the Sudan. Sudan became almost a major occupation of the UN, because of the troubles they were facing. Never before was the Sudan an issue for the UN under Chapter VII [of the UN Charter, authorising the use of force].

Yes, there were problems in the country, but this government changed their quantity and quality so that now they are of a completely different type. These problems are the direct result of the mistaken policies.