Home | Comment & Analysis    Sunday 22 February 2004

Turabi should realise that time is up


By Chege Mbitiru, The Nation

NAIROBI, Feb 23, 2004 —There is a turbaned and bearded dervish in Khartoum. He’s called Hassan al-Turabi. Normally the label dervish is tagged on an Islamic sect member riding a horse and whirling a sabre. In Mr. Turabi’s case, it’s whirling political sabres.

Mr. Turabi’s latest whirl is an insinuation of spinelessness by President Omar el-Bashir and Col. John Garang, leader of rebel Sudan Peoples Liberation Army/Movement, or SPLA/M to save bytes. Mr. Turabi chose an opportune moment. Negotiations to end south Sudan conflict were resuming.

Mr. Bashir and Mr. Garang are bowing to pressure from the United States to enter into a peace deal that favours secession for the south, Mr. Turabi said. He added a land-locked south wouldn’t be viable. Hogwash! There are nations with long shorelines and yet are paupers.

Of course the United States isn’t interested in a settlement for the love of Dinkas and their cattle. The money people in the States, who are prohibited by their government from dipping fingers in Sudan’s oil till, are busy lobbying.

Besides, Washington is a major contributor of money for relief in southern Sudan. This is directly or through other organizations, including United Nations agencies. No country likes putting money in a bottomless pit. If that’s reason for wanting a settlement, it’s a valid one.

Mr. Turabi, who is influential in Islamic scholarship, is right in implying the Bush Administration needs breakthroughs. It isn’t surprising the search for Osama bin Laden is on high gear. President George W. Bush is seeking a second term. His campaign is wobbly. A south Sudan settlement and Mr. Laden’s scalp won’t hurt.

Whatever Mr. Turabi says, SPLAM and Khartoum are at a point of no return. They have agreed on major issues, such as allowing the south a referendum six years after the signing a peace deal. Also agreed is wealth sharing formula and a security arrangement that should deter Khartoum from past wayward.

Mr. Turabi sees an anti-Islamic card in all this. According to him, there are those in Washington who would only want a united Sudan only if the south remains a cog in the country’s anti-Islamism machine. It’s unfortunate a person of Mr. Turabi’s intellect holds such a narrow view.

Unlike Sadiq el-Mahdi, whose ancestors butchered British General Charles Gordon in Khartoum, Mr. Turabi, 73, has no lineage in Sudan’s power aristocracy. He’s from Kassala. The town isn’t an intellectual hub. It’s just a dusty cluster of buildings. Among its inhabitants are descendants of Hausa pilgrims who never reached Mecca. If they did, home became too far. Islam is deeply rooted in Kasalla, though.

Mr. Turabi made it to Khartoum and obtained a degree in law. He proceeded to London and left with a master’s, again in law. From Soborne, France, it was a doctorate. He was back in Khartoum lecturing in law. Mr. Turabi is well versed in law and Islam.

Since 1964, Mr. Turabi has engaged in politics. He had skirmishes with different rulers and held various positions in government. The apex of his career came after nurturing the military take-over by General Hassan el-Bashir in 1989. From all accounts, Mr. Turabi became the power behind the throne.

A great deal of attention is paid to southern Sudan conflict. The rest of the country didn’t fair any better under Mr. Bashir, fronting for Mr. Turabi. While southerners died from the fighting, diseases and famine, equally abominable occurred in the north.

Popular political participation was zero. Freedom of assembly, speech and press were equally so. Security organs arbitrarily arrested and tortured dissenters. Discrimination on the basis of ethnicity was galore. While Mr. Bashir and Mr. Turabi strived to create an Islamic state, some Muslim sects were more equal than others.

Mr. Turabi earned notoriety by associating with Osama bin Laden. It was for the advancement of Islam. There is plenty of literature about Sudan’s support for groups that ended up in terror campaigns. With much devastation, these groups are heard from, now and then. Mr. Turabi can’t wash his hands off the mayhem. Innocent blood is shed and property destroyed.

If Sudanese people gained anything from Mr. Turabi’s volleys, only he knows. Mr. Bashir belatedly realized Mr. Turabi aimed at achieving more power to drive Sudan further down the drain. He tilted Mr. Turabi from his perch as speaker of parliament. Mr. Turabi isn’t close to a shadow of his former self.

Mr. Turabi is entitled to his opinion. But for a person of intellect who once wielded immense powers, he has little to show. He squandered opportunities by championing havoc in the name of Allah, who won’t approve. Mr. Turabi now calls Mr. Bashir a dictator, a sort of sabre whirling for democracy. Mr Turabi should be left to wallow in ignominious doldrums.

Mr Mbitiru, a freelance journalist, is a former ’Sunday Nation’ Managing editor

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