Bona Malwal was elected to the Sudanese parliament in 1968. He was minister for culture and information from 1972 to 1978 and minister of finance and economic planning for the south from 1980 to 1981. His English-language newspaper, the Sudan Times, was banned when the current regime seized power in June 1989. He now lives in Britain and publishes the Sudan Democratic Gazette. Joe Stork and Gayle Smith interviewed him in Washington in June 1991.
Will the developments in Ethiopia and Eritrea make it more or less difficult to move things forward in Sudan?
They will probably make things slightly more difficult than they already are. Khartoum is celebrating the fall of Mengistu as the end of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, and taking the position that it need not negotiate seriously to end the civil war. In Khartoum I suppose they have good reason to be happy, because the arms that finally made the difference in Ethiopia came from Libya through Sudan. The SPLA, for its part, may fear that negotiating seriously now might be seen as weakness. Practically speaking, I don’t think that it is really going to have much effect on the SPLA. Much of the territory the SPLA won in the last two years it gained without any support at all from Ethiopia. To the contrary, the SPLA has been gradually disengaging from Ethiopia. There have been some losses, like the radio station in Addis Ababa. But radio stations send out information, they do not win territory. The SPLA will continue to win territory in the darkness and not be able to announce it instantly to the rest of the world. They will find their own way of getting information out to whoever wants it.
Does the SPLA have any relations with the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, the group now in control of Addis Adaba?
No, they don’t.
This is a problem, don’t you think?
I think it is. The Front will want to guard their relations with Khartoum, not least to protect its relations with Libya.
Looking at the different forces that sustain the Bashir regime, how much weight would you give to external regional forces as opposed to internal?
Very little of both. The most significant external support was Iraq, until the Gulf crisis. Iraq gave military hardware, oil, money. That has dried up. Some Iranians have come to bolster the security apparatus of the Islamic fundamentalists in Khartoum.
Yes. There’s talk from Khartoum that the people doing the torturing in the safe houses are Iranians, not Sudanese.
How many? Several hundred?
No, probably 100-150. They came to train the militias and security people.
Haven’t the Saudis been an important source of support for the National Islamic Front and for this regime?
I don’t think there’s been significant Saudi support since June 30, 1989. The Saudis bolstered the NIF’s economic and financial strength, which emboldened them to take over the power of the state. After the coup, the Saudis gave some petroleum products, not more.
You see, the regime came with two basic slogans. The first slogan was an Islamist state, and the Saudis knew that it meant the continuation of the civil war. Saudi interest in Sudan is not just ideological. They have huge economic interests in Sudan. War jeopardizes their economic activity. They would have loved an Islamist regime that would end the civil war, which would mean keeping the Islamist agenda in the background. Very quickly the Bashir regime issued a second slogan: Arab nationalism, Arab unity. The Saudis are very suspicious of that kind of thing. Then too, the degree of repression came as a great surprise to many people in the Arab world. So the Bashir regime had isolated itself at least seven or eight months before the Gulf crisis.
Do we have to distinguish between Saudi government support and private Saudi financial links?
To an extent, yes. The Saudis’ Islamic banking system, for instance, was much more in league with the NIF than was the Saudi government. But everyone understood that they couldn’t have done it without the sanction of the ruling family.
When I asked you about external vs. internal support for the regime, you said you didn’t think they had much of either. We’re left with the puzzling question of how they manage to survive.
Repression! This is a regime that has used more extreme measures of repression than have ever been seen in Sudan. Some 4,000 army officers have been dismissed. A coup would not be that easy. People who ordinarily would come out and demonstrate against the regime face imprisonment, torture and death. In conditions of famine and economic bankruptcy, it is not easy to ask people who have to spend six or seven hours a day looking for food for their children to demonstrate against the regime.
After two years in power, this regime still maintains a curfew; you can’t move freely in the streets. There is a state of emergency. The regime is not surviving. It has simply barricaded itself in Khartoum, and the country is without a government.
You don’t see the militias and armed groups as representing an extension of state into the hinterland?
The militias are an effective arm of repression. They are not an effective arm of administration.
Certain forces in society might actually be benefiting from this particular regime, and therefore represent some sort of popular base.
The popular base is the Islamic fundamentalists. In Sudanese society they make up less than 10 percent of the population. Even this credits them too much. Sudanese public opinion has simply withdrawn from this regime.
How would you assess the state of the opposition today?
The Islamists in Sudan have calculated that they can get away with what I call “religious apartheid” without being challenged. This religious apartheid cloaks a great deal of racism. Power is in the hands of a particular group that is perpetrating religion as a basis of denying power to other groups. If anybody is going to tell me that the Muslims in the Sudan are a majority and therefore are entitled to rule the Sudan, I would say that as an African, I should be entitled to run my country. The Muslims are 60-65 percent of Sudan’s population; the Africans are 75 percent of the population. So who is entitled to run the country? Is it the religious majority, or the racial majority? If the Arabs wanted to keep power as an ethnic group, they would have been seen for what they are: less than one third of the population. They use religion because the majority of the people, including Africans, happen to be Muslim.
Those of us who come from the south feel we have created awareness among the African population in northern Sudan — which is basically Muslim — that the issues involved here are not issues of religion. We are not against Islam. We don’t care how many of you are Muslims. We do care about power in our state. The Arabs are using Islam against you and against us. The resources with which the Arabs have supported regimes in Sudan….
When you say “the Arabs” — who do you mean?
The larger Arab world. Some of the most uninformed communities in the world about the problems in Sudan are the Arabs — because they are not prepared to inform themselves. No Arab country is prepared to question the posture of any Sudanese regime over the question of Islamic and Arab extension into black Africa. There is a certain notion that during the colonial period the European powers prevented Arab influence from getting into Africa. Many Arabs think that now they have the resources and the religious drive to change that.
What is the African Muslim presence in the NIF?
One or two people, as window dressing. That’s it.
Is there any formal political expression for African Muslims?
It exists now in regional organizations. The General Union for the Development of Darfur is very much a political movement, but the people in Darfur are Ansar by tradition, supporters of the Umma Party. This and other regional organizations have begun to send people to the SPLA.
There was a meeting in Addis Ababa in March 1991 that you helped convene. Who was there?
The SPLM, the Umma Party, the DUP, the professional groups, the trade unions, the Communist Party, the organization of retired army officers — all the opposition groups.
What, besides opposition to Bashir, defines this coalition? If Bashir were to go, would it come apart?
This is something we are very sensitive to. These discussions have produced a constitutional framework, which defines the country as secular, non-racial, non-religious, pluralistic and democratic, based on the principle of devolution of power to the regions. This is the minimum acceptable: a strong federation that would allow the regions a high degree of autonomy with very little interference by the center, except in foreign affairs, defense, currency and things like that.
Has the Umma signed on to this?
Nobody has signed yet. The Umma was represented by seven members in Addis. We’ve set up two committees to put this document into final form. The parties are now arranging a next meeting.
Can you comment on the weight of new forces vs. old in the opposition coalition?
You cannot leave groups like the Umma and DUP outside of what you are trying to do. You structure things in such a way that they, in the end, become enveloped in the process. These traditional forces, when they counted the numbers in the legislative body and the councils that will constitute the institutions of the state, found themselves in the minority. They said, why don’t we leave the numbers for later, we don’t have to specify the numbers in this agenda. Everybody else said no, this is the potential area of disagreement, and if we’re not going to agree on it now then forget the rest of the agenda. Omar al-Bashir and Sadiq al-Mahdi, and before them Ja‘far Numayri, have destroyed the basic tenets of Sudan’s political framework. We will need a prolonged and effective transitional government. This is going to be a five-year process, so people have agreed on how the legislative council, for instance, would be composed in this transitional period, after which there will be an election.
Why should the Umma agree to this?
It’s this or Omar al-Bashir.
But they’ve been closest to the NIF.
Yes, but they know that the power they get from Bashir is very tenuous and short term.
If this moves ahead, will the SPLM be the dominant force?
The SPLM has been arguing as feverishly as the traditional forces when it comes to the question of numbers. They claim that they are the only effective opposition fighting Omar al-Bashir. They are being told that the SPLM is a political movement, and therefore it will share in the 40 percent allotted to political parties; the SPLM has an army, so it will share in the 20 percent that is allotted to the armed forces; the SPLM has a professional association, so it will share in that 30 percent. They say no, give us 50 percent of everything and then you can divide the rest among yourselves. That became my problem as chair of the conference. People were crafty in getting me to confront the SPLM. I argued that what is required is a political agenda that embodies your ideas. Even if you are represented by one person, you want to see that your agenda is the one on the table. If you don’t have the agenda, even if you dominate the council numerically, people are going to say what you are implementing doesn’t represent us.
Do you feel it’s an alliance that can last?
The professional groups, the trade unions and the SPLM will definitely remain together. I’m not so sure that the DUP and Umma Party will stay on board. But they have lost so much credibility they will have to be careful in the first year of this process. If the first year is effective and meaningful, they will find it increasingly difficult to challenge it. If it is not, then even some of the other elements will begin to say we’ve put together something that is not working.
Assuming this transitional agenda is implemented and the regime can be supplanted, what will happen to the NIF forces?
The NIF are going to have a very difficult time. Ours is a coalition that is very diverse, talking about democracy but at the same time some are talking about violent measures. They feel that these people have abused, have debased the Sudanese population. The hope is that many of the NIF will not wait for the change — when they see that the Bashir regime is really in a corner many of them will flee the country and, with the passage of time, tempers will cool off. But right now it is very difficult.
You discussed the NIF purges in the officer corps. This has also happened in the courts, in all the institutions of society. Surely the longer this continues, the more difficult a reversal becomes.
No, the more this regime continues, the more Sudan will be fragmented, and nobody is going to care about the courts in Khartoum. People are going to cease to look to Khartoum as the seat of the government. People are going to think of alternatives, and that’s the scary part of it. It’s such a vast country. After all, Darfur wasn’t part of Sudan until 1916, and I think people of Darfur are going to have an effective army of their own. They can control Darfur. The SPLM may very well control the south at any time. Who in the world will ask them not to set up an administration to run the affairs of the people of the south?
You’ve been here in Washington talking to different people in the Bush administration. How would you assess US policy toward Sudan at this moment?
Very frankly, I don’t see a US policy in Sudan. People are reacting to the famine disaster, they want to do something, and regard the government as negative or positive on that basis — it’s not a policy. I said to [Assistant Secretary of State for Africa] Hank Cohen: Here is a regime that in no way fits the US idea of the new world order — democracy, human rights and all those kinds of things — yet the US does not want to talk about these issues. This sounds like a double standard. He replied that we don’t have to talk about multi-party democracy, we can talk about representation. Whom are we deceiving? Omar al-Bashir thinks that he represents the whole of Sudan. Omar al-Bashir indeed says that his regime is democratic. The US attitude is that Sudan is not high on their agenda.