When the National Islamic Front (NIF) led by Hassan al-Turabi captured power in Khartoum back in 1989, the jokers of Omdurman described the nascent regime as a mud wall without zibala. One rainy season and it’s gone, was their judgement; zibala being the ingenious fermented mix of earth, dung and straw used to protect the timeless mud houses of northern Sudan from the the annual rains.
Last June, the rulers of Sudan scarcely celebrated the twenty fifth anniversary of the 1989 coup, ushering in a time when the formative act of the regime is relegated to silent history as if it could thus escape the trappings of temporal rise and decline.
Inconveniently, if the NCP has managed to guard its mud with layer over layer of zibala the figure at its helm stands, or rather hops, witness to the human deterioration brought on by the passing of age. President Bashir declared last year that he was considering handing over power to whoever the NCP chooses to succeed him.
The people of Sudan “need fresh blood and a new impetus to continue their march,” he told the press in Khartoum in March 2013. As far as words go the president kept his pledge in the strictest sense.
He underwent two knee replacement surgeries this year, in May and in June, and is marching ahead of the Sudanese towards a new term in office with the blessing of the fourth general conference of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) held on 23 to 25 October after a year’s delay, fresh zibala it could be said on the house of mud.
The choreography of the NCP’s conference was literally spoiled by the tens of delegates who ended up in Khartoum’s hospitals suffering from food poisoning after ingestion of the party’s free meals. The broasted chicken was to blame, it was reported.
Beyond this catering mishap, which came on the back of a meat scandal in the capital concerning the sale of chickens killed by disease and the slaughtering of donkeys as beef, the highlight of the conference was the welcome appearance of Hassan al-Turabi (82 years old).
The veteran leader of the Islamic Movement and chief of the Popular Congress Party (PCP), the NCP’s break-off in opposition, was greeted with passionate slogans calling for Islamist fraternity and reunification of the two parties.
Fifteen years earlier, Turabi was elected secretary general of the NCP and Bashir its chairman in the party’s second general conference, framing a power struggle between the two men that ended with Turabi’s exit and the establishment of the PCP in June 2000.
The veteran leader’s multiple attempts at comeback, through a memorandum of understanding with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) under John Garang in 2001, alleged links with the insurgent Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), vocal support of the president’s indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC), and an eventual alliance with the anti-Islamist Khartoum opposition, has landed him in detention on at least five occasions since.
Sheer exhaustion and recent developments in the region, particularly the expulsion of the Muslim Brotherhood from power in Egypt, convinced Turabi, it seems, that survival was surer next to Bashir rather than against him.
If anybody, the new Turabi of national dialogue has a vested interest in the renewal of Bashir’s mandate. Indeed, it was the sheikh who asked the president to chair the national dialogue mechanism and name its members, seven representing the NCP and its allies and seven representing the opposition parties; and, it is Turabi’s party, the PCP, which today elatedly markets the president’s national dialogue initiative as the country’s salvation.
In that context, Turabi was at the NCP conference to bless Bashir’s affirmation as party chairman and presidential candidate in the upcoming elections, scheduled for April 2014. Ali Karti, Sudan’s foreign minister, said Bashir is “the only person trusted“ to run the country and bring the national dialogue to fruition.
A considerable proportion of the NCP, however, do not seem to agree with the course of affairs. The mechanics of the president’s re-nomination were conspicuously squeaky, revealing little of that trust, at least not much from the president’s side.
The re-nomination process began with a vote in the NCP’s leadership council. Behind Bashir, four other candidates were named in order of votes: the former deputy chairman of the NCP Nafie Ali Nafie, the first vice president Bakri Hassan Salih, the former vice president Ali Osman Mohamed Taha and the current deputy chairman of the party Ibrahim Ghandour.
According to regulations of the NCP, the shura (consultation) council, a body of over five hundred members, elects one of the five for a vote of endorsement in the general conference of over six thousand members. In the unlikely case that the general conference rejects the shura council’s top choice the two following nominees are voted on.
The bottleneck, it follows, lies in the shura council, which although without authority to conjure up its own candidates outside the list of five proposed by the leadership council, can nevertheless deliver surprises.
When it convened on 21 October, the shura council of five hundred and twenty two missed one hundred and twenty six of its members, barely securing the seventy five percent quorum required to declare the meeting valid.
Bashir won the votes of two hundred and sixty six shura council members, a majority of the attendants but just a sliver over fifty percent of the total membership of the council. The general conference, as expected, endorsed the shura council’s decision and Bashir was approved party chairman in great fanfare.
In his closing remarks to the conference, Bashir declared his intent to abolish “power centres” in the party and institute shura as its guiding organisational principle. The immediate translation was the announcement of a plan to abolish the popular election of state governors and reclaim presidential authority to appoint and dismiss governors as part of a review of the NCP-crafted federal system of rule. A day or two later, the president asked parliament to introduce urgent constitutional amendments to that effect.
The election of state governors versus their appointment was the public title of the dispute between Bashir and Turabi in 1998/1999. As speaker of parliament, Turabi drafted amendments to the 1998 constitution he had himself almost singlehandedly authored, providing for the direct election of state governors.
The pledge of “˜reducing the administrative shadow’, NCP-ese for expansion of the state bureaucracy and devolution of authority to party apparatchiks in the states, secured majority backing for Hassan al-Turabi in the NCP shura council in October 1999. Middle-ranking cadres of the party eager for a chunk of the state voted in support of amendments to the NCP’s internal regulations that stripped the office of chairman, occupied by Bashir, of all but symbolic authority but amplified the powers of the secretary general, the position Turabi assumed.
Bashir’s response to Turabi’s manouevers came in December when the sheikh attempted to push his constitutional amendments through parliament. The uniformed president backed by the core of Turabi’s keenest disciples, who came to occupy the higher echelons of the NCP but were still poorly schooled pupils in the sheikh’s sophisticated mind, declared a state of emergency and dissolved parliament.
In the NCP, the position of secretary general was abolished and replaced by two deputy chairpersons for executive and party affairs. Ali Osman Mohamed Taha and Nafie Ali Nafie held the two positions for over a decade, until the re-arrangement on 8 December 2013, when the duo was replaced by Bakri Hassan Salih and Ibrahim Ghandour respectively.
Instead of Turabi’s constitutional amendments, it was the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that provided for the election of state governors in 2010. This initiated a burst of rural politics that facilitated the emergence of regional strongmen like Osman Mohamed Yusif Kibir in North Darfur, Mohamed Tahir Eila in the Red Sea, Karamalla Abbas in Gedaref and Abd al-Hameed Musa Kasha in South Darfur. The last two, backed by considerable local constituencies, were pushed out of office by presidential decree after drawn-out public disputes over budgetary allocations to their state governments.
Electoral mandates, whatever that means in contemporary Sudan, did not prevent the president from enforcing his will whenever he saw fit. The reversal to the default of appointments however narrows avenues for channelling local interests and conflicts within the NCP’s very structures leaving the ambitious with no option but dissent.
Such was the course followed by Musa Hilal, the Mahameed chief infamous as leader of the Janjaweed. Nursing repeatedly dashed hopes of replacing Kibir as governor of North Darfur, Hilal declared his defection from the NCP in January this year and has since carved out an own statelet joining the localities of Kebkabiya, Kutum, Saraf Omra and al-Waha.
Bashir branded the conflictual politics of demands in the states as “˜tribal’ disorder that only strong central authority can rein in. His favourite appointee, the governor of East Darfur Colonel al-Tayeb Abd al-Kareem, has so far done a remarkable job at “˜tribal’ management.
A military intelligence officer who served as deputy commander of the presidential guard, the colonel from al-Gureir in the Northern State has failed to put together a cabinet since he took office in December 2013. Under his rule, the conflict between Maaliya and Rizeigat militias escalated to a full scale war, with not even an NCP chapter in the state to facilitate the antics of “˜tribal’ reconciliation.
Magdi el Gizouli is an academic and a fellow of the Rift Valley Institute. He writes on Sudanese affairs at http://stillsudan.blogspot.