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  • The Agony of the Sudan
  • Bona Malwal (bio)

On 30 June 1989, four years of ineffectual democratic government in the Sudan ended abruptly when a group of relatively unknown army officers calling themselves the "Revolution of National Salvation" seized power in the capital of Khartoum. The coup marked the failure of the Sudan's third, and arguably most important, attempt at democratic government since independence in 1956. After the toppling of General Jaafar Mohamed Nimeiri's one-party dictatorship in April 1985, the Sudan had become one of Africa's few multiparty democracies. Amidst the public euphoria that followed Nimeiri's downfall, almost all Sudanese favored a return to democracy and felt optimistic about its prospects. Their hope was that a democratic government might finally resolve the explosive ethnic, regional, and religious divisions that had led to a resumption of civil war in 1983.

Sadly, however, the government formed by Prime Minister Sadiq E1 Mahdi following the elections of April 1986 proved unequal to the task. The civil war continued to rage in the predominantly Christian south as El Mahdi pursued an Islamic fundamentalist agenda. Meanwhile, the economy disintegrated, and war and drought visited famine upon the [End Page 75] south. El Mahdi eschewed the democratic principles of compromise, tolerance, and responsiveness to public opinion, choosing instead to govern through political maneuvering and intimidation even as his political base grew ever more narrow and unstable.

As a result, the public initially welcomed the June 1989 coup d'etat, believing that the new military government led by Brigadier General Omar Hassan Ahmed El Bashir could not possibly be worse than what it had replaced. Concealing the true political aims of their intervention, the coup leaders posed as saviors of the nation and sought to play upon widespread public disgust with El Mahdi's government. Soon they would order the arrest of almost all of the country's civilian leaders, including prominent trade unionists and professionals. Yet in the days immediately following the coup, people were unsure of the direction its leaders would take, and assumed that the change would be for the better. President Hosni Mubarak of neighboring Egypt seemed to agree when he visited Khartoum in early July to offer his public endorsement of the takeover.

When the new regime finally announced its policies, however, the country was shocked to learn that they amounted to a continuation of the disastrous course that had so exacerbated the Sudan's problems. The unkindest cut of all was the announcement that the Islamic law (or shari'a) would remain in force. Nimeiri had promulgated shari'a in September 1983 to gain Islamic fundamentalist support and weaken the autonomy of the largely non-Muslim southern Sudan. This move—which contributed significantly to his downfall—was part of an illegal revision of the Constitution of 1973, Article 16 of which forbade any religion from using constitutional or legal provisions to compromise the civil and political rights of any citizen.

Article 16 is one of several constitutional provisions based on the Addis Ababa Peace Agreement of 1972, the negotiated accord that provided for an autonomous southern Sudan and ended the long, bloody civil war, whose origins predated the Sudan's independence. The efforts of Nimeiri and his fundamentalist allies to impose shari'a throughout the enormously diverse Sudan violated the constitutional understanding first reached in the 1972 accord and provoked a resumption of the civil war, which has been fought with greatest fury in the south. There the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (or SPLM), as the insurgency that controls 90 percent of the region is called, and its military arm, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), are waging a bitter struggle against the central government. They have vowed that there will be no peace and no constitutional settlement until shari'a is repealed.

This massive resistance notwithstanding, the 15 members of the revolutionary junta have declared themselves willing to sacrifice their own lives and those of countless others in the name of Islam, a religion that half the country does not profess. When the Islamic fundamentalist nature of the coup became apparent, urban public opinion swiftly turned [End Page 76] against it. To the...


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