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Sudan: A Case Study Demonstrating Why Islamists Cannot Govern – Professor Hussein Solomon

September 10, 2013

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Sudan: A Case Study Demonstrating Why Islamists Cannot Govern

By Professor Hussein Solomon

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 1 (2013), Number 20 (September 2013)

In recent years across the African continent from Egypt and Tunisia to northern Nigeria and Mali and on to Somalia, there have been efforts to establish an Islamic state. Islamists in these countries rather naively believe that with the establishment of an Islamic state following shari’a law political problems will evaporate and economic prosperity and spiritual piety will be result of this Islamist polity.

Under the circumstances, an examination of Sudan might be useful as to why Islamist governance is incompatible with effective and responsive governance in a democratic policy. The Islamists here, after all, have been in power for more than two decades. The Sudanese Islamist movement developed as an off-shoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the mid-1940s and in 1954 was formally constituted as the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood Organization. A decade later, in 1964, it established itself as the Islamic Charter Front and sought to lobby for an Islamic constitution for a Sudan ruled by Islamic shari’a law[1]. The rise of the fortunes of the Islamists in Sudan was intrinsically linked to the charismatic leadership of the Muslim intellectual and Islamist, Dr. Hassan `Abdullah al-Turabi[2].

The obsession for political power is clearly seen in Turabi’s Islamists approach when General Nimeiri seized power in a military coup in May, 1969. Turabi and his party allied themselves with Nimeiri’s military government and were soon reaping the political and economic advantages this collaboration provided to them. Islamists soon came to occupy senior positions in various government departments, including its security forces, and Turabi himself was appointed Attorney-General in 1979[3]. Being the only political party to legally operate, the Islamists were able to extend their influence across Sudanese society. Moreover, given their position, the Muslim Brothers were able to entrench themselves in the economic sector from Islamic banking and investment to clothing and trade[4]. Whilst Turabi’s Islamists were enriching themselves and gaining political influence, it came at a tremendous price. Ordinary Sudanese were shocked at the political opportunism displayed by the Islamists and their hypocrisy. Whilst preaching about democracy, they allied themselves with a military junta which undermined the political freedom of every Sudanese citizen. Whilst preaching about social justice, Sudan’s Islamists were enriching themselves whilst economic opportunities for ordinary citizens were diminishing. To compound matters, these Islamists not only allied themselves with an authoritarian regime but also one which was increasingly corrupt and incompetent providing little by way of services to ordinary citizens. Popular disenchantment with the Nimeiri regime hence was also directed at the Muslim Brothers who were his praise-singers.

Serving as cheerleaders for Nimeiri however served the purpose of getting even greater influence within the government for Turabi who managed to get the regime to Islamize every aspect of Sudanese society culminating in the declaration of shari’a law by Nimeiri in September 1983. Commenting on this Mahmood wrote that: “The regime’s shift to the right and its gradual Islamization reached a dramatic climax in 1983 when Nimeiri announced the imposition of the Islamic penal code or hudud. The new harsh and extreme penal measures of limb amputation and humiliating floggings were enthusiastically promoted and implemented by the Muslim Brothers”[5].

The very success the Muslim Brothers had in getting shari’a law to be implemented in the Sudan was to prove their undoing however. The implementation of shari’a in a multi-religious, multi-ethnic society such as Sudan where even the majority of Sudanese Muslims did not support it resulted in further popular alienation against the Nimeiri regime and political unrest followed. Too late Nimeiri woke up to the dangers of his marriage of convenience to the Muslim Brothers. He wrongly assumed that dressing his military dictatorship in Islamic attire would give it greater legitimacy. What it did was further undermine its legitimacy. He promptly named them `radical’ and `satanic’ and expelled senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood from his government. Turabi, meanwhile, was jailed[6]. However, this could not save the Nimeiri regime from popular protests which resulted in his regime being overthrown on 6 April 1985[7] and the subsequent release of Turabi.

The period between 1985 and 1989 witnessed the flowering of Sudanese democracy with previously banned political parties operating freely as well as a number of civil society organizations emerging and the appearance of a number of new newspapers and radio stations. This Sudanese “Spring” however proved too much for the Muslim Brothers who had nothing but contempt for democracy. Once more under the leadership of Turabi, the Brothers re-invented themselves now calling themselves the National Islamic Front (NIF – Al Jabha al-Islamiyya al Qawimiyya) in May 1985 by forging ties with conservative tribal figures in an effort to stem the tide of secularism unleashed by the overthrow of the Nimeiri regime and the emergence of democratic governance[8].

The machinations of Turabi and his NIF soon resulted in their finding their way back to power. Turabi and his NIF played a key behind-the-scenes role in another military coup led by Brigadier-General `Umar Hassan Ahmad al’ Bashir in 1989. This put an end to the democratically-elected government of Al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, the great grandson of the Mahdi, leader of the Umma Party and, as Yehudit Ronen reminds us, the brother-in-law of Turabi[9].

Once in power, Turabi and his NIF proved their hostility to democracy by curtailing freedom of expression and association. Turabi, imitated Mao’s Cultural Revolution in seeking to Islamize the education curriculum and broader society. This proved devastating as educational standards at Sudanese universities plummeted and the economy suffered as the dearth of properly qualified graduates became obvious to all except the NIF. Mohammed Saeed Al Gadal[10], for instance, observed that “Khartoum University has become the possession of a political party, because appointments and promotions occur according to party loyalty”. For party loyalty, read loyalty to the NIF.

This, however, was not the only failing of the NIF once in power. Regular attendance of mosque and prayer were considered as the main criterion for promotion for civil servants as opposed to suitable skill-sets[11]. Under the circumstances, it should come as no surprise that the Sudanese government grew ever more inefficient. Despite the growing incompetence of the state, the impulse of Khartoum, given the underlying Islamist ideology, was to centralize power – this despite the fact that Sudan was a country of more than one million square miles divided into 26 states and hundreds of administrative districts[12]. Under the circumstances the incompetence of the government increased and became all the more apparent. Soon places like Darfur and Beja were to join the South in rebelling against Khartoum’s centralization.

Far from attempting to engage in political compromise with these regions and local leadership, the Islamists in control of Khartoum sought to reinvigorate the war effort against these regions with the description of the war against the predominantly Christian South Sudan as a “jihad” and the establishment of the Popular Defence Forces (PDF) which consisted of young Islamists ideologically indoctrinated to prosecute the war effort and protect the Islamist character of Sudan[13]. This, however, proved to be a miserable failure with South Sudan having seceded from the North whilst atrocities in Darfur resulted in President Bashir being indicted by the International Criminal Court. Moreover, the war effort also resulted in a massive increase of military expenditure whilst social expenditure dwindled resulting in popular resentment against both the Bashir regime and Turabi’s Islamists[14].

Popular resentment was further fuelled by the raft of Islamist legislation push through by Turabi with his messianic zeal. This included a ban on alcohol consumption, the enforced closure of shops during Friday prayers, segregation of the sexes on public transport and the limitation of the employment of women to the welfare sector[15]. Even prominent Islamists were compelled to admit that in view of popular opposition to the measure, such legislation was counter-productive. `Abdelsalam Al Mahaboub, a leading Sudanese Islamist noted that with the passing of such legislation, Khartoum was treating the whole society as the proverbial `other’ – the enemy. In the process, Sudan’s Islamists and citizens were isolated from each other and viewed each other with growing antipathy[16].

In 1995, popular resentment resulted in political unrest against the regime and Bashir in an effort to hang onto power opted to move away from the Islamist project. This resulted in increased tension between Bashir and Turabi. Numerous political prisoners including Al-Sadiq al-Mahdi were released[17]. Various draconian laws were repealed and several Islamic laws were not implemented. Learning the lesson from Nimeiri, Bashir eventually ousted Turabi from power.

What is clear from the Sudanese case study is that Islamists are willing to sacrifice democracy in an effort to create an Islamic nirvana – in the process creating a gulag state. Once in power, though, their supposed piety is a poor substitute for effectively governing modern polities.


[1] Bashir Ali, `Repression of Sudanese civil society under the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party,’ Review of African Political Economy, Vol. 37 No. 126, p. 438.

[2] Yehudit Ronen, `Between the Mahdiyya and the Muslim Brotherhood: Continuity and Change in Islamic radicalism in Sudan,’ The Journal of North African Studies, Vol. 12 No. 1, p. 2.

[3] Ali, op. cit., p. 438.

[4] Ibid.

[5] M. Mahmood, `When Sharia Governs: The Impasse of Religious Relations in Sudan,’ Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, Vol. 18 No. 2, p. 277.

[6] Ronen, op.cit., p. 8.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ali, op.cit., p. 439.

[9] Ronen, op.cit., p. 2.

[10] Quoted in Ali, op.cit., p. 440.

[11] Ibid., p. 443.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ronen, op.cit., p. 11.

[14] Ali, op. cit., p. 443.

[15] Ronen, op. cit., p. 10.

[16] Ali, op. cit., p. 442.

[17] Ronen, op.cit., p. 12.

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