Sudan's chilling challenges
Journalist beheaded and protesters take to the streets as Khartoum faces off with Washington over disbarring UN peace-keeping troops from Darfur, writes Gamal Nkrumah
Few Khartoum mysteries can rival the beheading last Thursday of the editor-in-chief of the Sudanese daily Al-Wifaq, Mohamed Taha Mohamed Ahmed. The gruesome and cold- blooded assassination has already led to the eruption of mass demonstrations in the Sudanese capital by journalists, rights activists and members of opposition parties.
In a narrow legal sense, it looks doubtful whether the perpetrators of Taha's grizzly murder will be brought to justice. There was a public outcry, and protesters urged the Sudanese government to speak out unequivocally against the outrage. The Sudanese authorities are called upon to de-legitimise zealous violence and anathematise bigotry and intolerance. Sudan's authorities, however, seem more concerned with the deployment of foreign troops in the westernmost Sudanese war- torn province of Darfur.
At the African Union (AU) in Sirte, Libya, Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir reiterated his opposition to the deployment of UN peace-keeping forces in Darfur. "We shall never accept foreign troops on Sudanese soil," Al-Bashir told African leaders in Libya. His host, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, concurred. "The deployment of foreign troops in Darfur is tantamount to re-colonisation," the Libyan leader warned.
President Al-Bashir used the AU Summit that took place in Libya on Saturday as a platform to mobilise African leaders against the proposed stationing foreign peace-keepers in Darfur. Sudanese opposition figures strongly disagreed.
"The Sudanese government has created a catastrophic situation in Darfur. It has to pay the price for its blunders in Darfur; the Sudanese government must atone for its failures. The people of Darfur must not be made to pay for the mistakes of the ruling clique in Khartoum," Sheikh Hassan Al-Turabi, Sudan's foremost Islamist ideologue and leader of the opposition Popular Congress Party (PCP) told Al-Ahram Weekly.
In or out of prison, Turabi has been cast as the evil genius in Khartoum. Turabi strongly condemned Taha's assassination, which he said added to the alarm signals emanating from Khartoum.
Taha's cruel murder was unprecedented as far as Sudan is concerned, but it does fit a pattern in the Sudanese political establishment of playing fast and loose with the facts. "There is a change of political mood in Sudan and Taha's murder exacerbates the political tempo in the country," Turabi explained. "This change of mood really matters," he added.
The threshold for the prosecution of Taha's murderers is therefore set high. Turabi dismissed the notion that Taha's assassination was payback for the prominent newspaperman's questioning of the prophet's parentage. "There are serious curtailments on press freedom. These restrictions are real," Turabi said.
Taha was considered Islamist in ideological orientation, but he had no strong political affiliation with the ruling National Congress Party (NCP). He was arrested last year after writing a series of articles questioning the parentage of Prophet Mohamed. Soon after many Sudanese militant Islamists called for Taha to be put to death. He survived an assassination attempt in 2000 after writing an article critical of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP).
The case, however, noted Turabi, is a warning shot of the strength of militant political Islam in Sudan. There are many sympathisers in Sudan for militant Islamism. What they must not be is underestimated. "The people want social justice and Islam represents the ideal way forward," Turabi said.
Even though Taha was far from being a secularist -- at one point he was closely associated with the regime of President Al-Bashir -- he was, nonetheless, fatally punished by his attackers. His head was next to his corpse, hand-and-foot- bound. "There is no God but God" and "God is Greatest", yelled his supporters. Sudanese police fired tear gas on demonstrators protesting against inflation and the kidnap and gruesome murder of Taha.
Militant political Islam is not an easy phenomenon to explicate, or to penetrate. As Sudan democratises it becomes more difficult to pigeonhole Islamist politicians, both government and opposition. However, there are deciding markers. "When you open this evil door to hell, and knives and bullets take the place of the pen, this means we are on the path to chaos," warned an editorial of the Khartoum daily Al-Watan.
Some believe that Taha was killed because of what many Sudanese saw as sneering prurience in his coverage of Islamic affairs. "None of that limits the rights of journalists to write. And, justifying atrocities against journalists in the name of religion is unacceptable," Turabi told the Weekly. Taha was not one of those who confuse the traditionally tolerant religion of Islam with totalitarianism. He paid dearly with his life for his liberal views and open-mindedness.
Many Sudanese decry the stifling of debate and enquiry in the country. Blasphemy incurs the death penalty in northern Sudan, including the national capital Khartoum, governed by strict Islamic Sharia law since 1983. But in practice courts have flexibility in interpretation of Islamic law. Sudanese Interior Minister Al-Zubeir Bashir Taha and Defence Minister Abdul-Rahim Mohamed Hussein were booed as they emerged from the morgue where Taha's body was laid.
Sudanese authorities quickly moved to reset the focus, accusing opposition forces of inciting sedition. President Al-Bashir warned opposition groups of the consequences of their support for the "external plot" against Sudan. The reference was a clear pointer to the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Darfur and the 31 August UN Security Council Resolution 1706 that urged the deployment of up to 22,500 blue-helmeted peace-keeping troops and police officers in Sudan.
Until now, the Sudanese government rejects 1706 and instead vows to dispatch more than 10,500 Sudanese government forces to Darfur.
Opposition forces have wasted no time putting the government on the defensive: "we urge African leaders meeting in Libya to exert maximum effort to find a political solution to the Darfur crisis and to prevail on the Sudanese government to accept the demands of the people of Darfur. We don't want just another formal African summit that is little more than a talking shop," Abdul-Wahid Mohamed Al-Nour told the Weekly on the eve of the Libya summit.
Al-Nour, the leader of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) Al-Nour faction, rejects the 5 May Darfur Peace Agreement signed between the Sudanese government and his rival Arko Minni Minnawi, leader of the SLA Minnawi faction. Minnawi is now special presidential advisor to Al-Bashir. An ethnic Zaghawa, he is opposed by Al-Nour, an ethnic Fur -- the largest ethnic group in Darfur. Khalid Ibrahim, the leader of the Justice and Equality Movement closely affiliated with Turabi's PCP, also opposes the 5 May Darfur Peace Agreement.
Intense regional and international pressures on Khartoum have caused the Sudanese government to start talking in crisis terms. A flurry of diplomatic activity is underway. French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said he would fly to Sudan and try to persuade the Sudanese authorities to accept foreign peace-keepers in Darfur. UN Secretary-General Annan warned of a humanitarian crisis of a "catastrophic scale" in Darfur unless action was taken.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres disclosed that, "millions are already at grave risk" in Darfur. "Hundreds are still dying amid ongoing violence, and thousands are still being forcibly displaced. Urgent and concerted international action is needed," stressed Guterres.
There are no signs, however, that Khartoum is prepared to alter its position. Khartoum is banking on the backing of powerful permanent UN Security Council members such as China to block US threats of UN sanctions against Sudan. In April China abstained from a UN Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on four prominent Sudanese political figures -- including notorious Janjaweed leader Moussa Hilal.
Still, UN Resolution 1706 spells out that the deployment of foreign troops in Darfur is contingent on consent by the Sudanese government.
"China hopes the parties concerned could resolve the Darfur issue at an early date through dialogue and patient negotiations," Chinese Vice-President Zeng Qinghong told Nafie Ali Nafie, currently special Sudanese presidential advisor and a former head of the Sudanese intelligence and security services. The politically powerful and highly influential Nafie was on a five-day visit to China, the main importer of Sudanese oil.
The protection of highly placed Sudanese officials indicted by the International Criminal Court investigating war crimes in Darfur is often cited as the real reason for Sudan's reluctance to accept foreign troops on its soil. The release of Pulitzer prize-winning US journalist Paul Salopek this week along with two of his Chadian aides stands in sharp contrast to Taha's brutal murder.
Salopek, working for the National Geographic, was released because New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson intervened on his behalf with the Sudanese authorities. Taha had no one to protect him. This is a lesson for the whole of Sudan. If figures like Taha are not protected, and along with him the freedom of expression, Sudan could slide dangerously towards ungovernability.