Occasional Papers Series
THE POLITICS OF NATIONAL RECONCILIATION IN THE SUDAN:
THE NUMAYRI REGIME AND THE NATIONAL FRONT OPPOSITION
Mohamed Beshir Hamid
Center for Contemporary Arab Studies
Georgetown University Washington D.C. 20057
“I don’t see much sense in that.” said Rabbit.
“No,” said Pooh humbly, “there isn’t.
But there was going to be when I began it.
It’s just that something happened to it on the way.”
A.A. Milne. The House at Pooh Corner
The Historical and Political Background
Located astride a number of significant cultural and strategic boundaries, the Sudan occupies a key position between the Arab and African worlds. Its modem history can be traced to the Egyptian invasion in 1820, under the nominal sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire. The Turco- Egyptian occupation lasted for over sixty years and was ended in 1885 by an Islamic nationalist movement under the leadership of Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi. The Mahdist revolution succeeded in the reconstruction of a politically independent and unified Sudan; but the Mahdist state itself was short-lived. Al-Mahdi’s successor, the khalifa ‘Abdullahi, was defeated in 1898 by the combined forces of Britain and Egypt, and the Sudan came to be ruled under the so-called Anglo-Egyptian “condominium.”
The political and administrative nature of this “dual rule” was to influence the evolution and orientation of the Sudanese nationalist movement. While the Mahdist followers, the Ansar, became identified with the idea of independent Sudan linked with Britain to undercut Egyptian influences, the rival religious sect the Khatimīa became associated with Egypt under the slogan of unity of the Nile Valley to counter British dominance in the country. The emergence of the major political parties followed the same sectarian lines: on the one hand, the Umma Party appeared as the political arm of the Ansār; and the other hand, the Khatimīa supported the Ashiqqa Party, later the National Unionist Party (NUP) and the pro-Egyptian People’s Democratic Party (PDP), an offshoot of the NUP.
With the coming of self-rule in the early 1950s, the proposed anschluss with Egypt began to lose its attraction; it was, in fact, the NUP’s first national government under Ismā’il al-Azhari which opted for the complete independence of the Sudan, officially proclaimed on January 1956. But because the nationalist movement and political parties were drawn along partisan and sectarian lines, the immediate post-independence period was marked by the intensification of old rivalries and intrigues and the creation of new political divisions.
In November 1958, the military stepped in under General Ibrāhīm ‘Abbūd with the declared aim of finding effective solutions to the problems of nation-building and national integration. But the ‘Abbūd junta only managed to exacerbate existing problems and corrosive domestic cleavages. The suppression of civil liberties in the north and the harsh and brutal policy to quell the rebellion in southern Sudan were hardly conducive to fostering any sense of social cohesion and national unity. The overthrow of the military government by a unique popular uprising in October 1964 seemed at first to herald a new era in the history of the Sudan but it, too, soon proved to be another false dawn. The traditional political parties, which resented the leftist composition and radical orientation of the transitional government, moved quickly to undermine its authority and by early 1965 made a successful bid to reassert their political ascendancy. The return of party politics, however, failed to resolve the “southern problem” and to find an acceptance formula for a permanent constitution.
By 1969 regional, sectarian, and ideological divisions were becoming sharper and wider while the continuing civil war in the south was driving the country to the verge of national disintegration. In May 1969, the military moved in again and took power, this time under young army officers headed by Colonel Ja’far Muhammad Numayri. According to one observer, “in contrast to the ‘Abbūd regime, the seizure of power by President Numayri and his fellow free officers appeared to herald something new, and certainly Sudanese politics changed considerably in subsequent years, though not always in ways that could have been predicted at the outset.”1 The new regime began by effectively excluding traditional forces of the old party system from any active political role. This led to a bloody confrontation with Mahdist followers in March 1970 in which the Ansār spiritual leader and patron of the Umma Party, Imam al-Hādi al-Mahdi, was killed.
During this period, the new regime was supported by some prominent leaders of the Sudan Communist Party (SCP) as well as by other leftists and Sudanese Arab nationalists. These groups 3 identified with the ideological commitment of the young army officers to a program of political and socio¬economic transformation that drew its inspiration from the Arab socialism of President Gamāl ‘Abd al-Nāṣir of Egypt. But the SCP leadership was badly split over the issue. While a faction opted for collaboration with the new regime because of its radical and socialist orientation, the rest of the leadership under Secretary-General ‘Abd al-Khāliq Maḥjūb refused cooperation with a regime whose military mentality and ideological and political stance they still considered suspect. For his part, Numayri became increasingly hostile toward the SCP and began a crackdown on its leadership.
The crunch came in July 1971 when a group of communist army officers made an unsuccessful bid to seize power. Numayri reacted by brutally crushing leftist opposition; the officers involved, together with the SCP leaders, including Mahjūb, were executed. After the abortive coup there was a steady shift in the regime’s internal and external policy orientation-from the previous radical posture to a more conservative approach. Numayri moved quickly to consolidate his position by trying to “institutionalize” and legitimize his political system. In October 1971 he staged a plebiscite that elected him to the first presidency of the republic. Numayri established for himself an important southern power base when, in March 1971, he concluded with southern leaders the Addis Ababa agreement that ended the civil war in the south. In January 1973 the Sudan Socialist Union (SSU) was inaugurated as an umbrella organization to act as the political arm of the regime. A series of denationalization measures were initiated in 1973 to dismantle some of the economic institutions established during the early radical phase. The government launched a new policy of infitāḥ (economic ‘open-door’ policy) designed to attract Western and Arab investment to the country. In foreign policy, the regime made a complete reversal of the earlier pro-Soviet stand and committed itself to the Cairo-Riyadh axis and. by proxy, to Western strategies in the Arab world and Africa.
But the break with the leftists and the subsequent reappraisal of the regime’s economic and foreign policies did not signal any immediate rapprochement with the leadership of the traditional and right-wing political parties. Indeed, the hostilities and the mutual feeling of animosity tended to intensify rather than to abate. The two main exiled opposition leaders were Ṣādiq al-Mahdi of the Umma Party (a nephew of the late Imam al-Hādi and a former prime minister) and Ḥusaīn Sharif al-Hindi of the NUP (a former minister of finance and veteran politician). In addition to these two was al-Mahdi’s brother-in-law and former professor at Khartoum University, Hassan al-Turābi of the Islamic Charter Front (lCF)-a grouping of Muslim Brotherhood activists who advocated an Islamic constitution and were the ideological rivals of the SCP and leftist groups. During their years of political exile, these leaders formed an opposition National Front with the avowed aim of bringing down Numayri’s regime. Libya and Ethiopia, which for different reasons sought the same goal, provided opposition forces with funds, sanctuary, and training bases near the Sudanese borders. The National Front was able to mount a number of coup attempts which came close to overthrowing Numayri in September 1975 and July 1976. As one writer put it in 1976, the Numayri regime “has already eclipsed all Sudanese records for governmental longevity on the one hand and for enduring -and surviving-a staggering number of coup attempts on the other, as paradoxical as this may seem.”
It was against this background of recurrent crises and violent confrontations that the move was made to initiate the policy of “national reconciliation.”