Sudan reckons with bid to separate religion from the state

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Sudan’s perennial struggle with its identity has been at the root of the Arab-Afro nation’s tragic record of civil wars that have left hundreds of thousands dead, millions displaced and devastated the economy.

Often since independence in 1956, the vast nation appeared to be on the brink of disintegration, with a multitude of wars simultaneously raging unabated. Invariably, each of those conflicts had heavy ethnic or religious undertones.

A pair of agreements reached recently in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Juba, South Sudan, between Sudan’s transitional government and two rebel outfits offer a glimpse of hope that Sudan could at last be reunified, but analysts and activists contend that the challenges ahead remain daunting and the concessions Khartoum must offer in exchange for lasting peace could prove very politically costly.

Sudan’s woes were deepened by dictator Omar Al Bashir’s 29-year rule, which ended last year when his generals removed him from power after months of violent protests orchestrated by pro-democracy activists striving to realise the elusive goal of a new Sudan, where citizenship supersedes ethnicity or religious affiliation.

Sudan's protest leader Ahmad Rabie (second right), flashes the victory gesture alongside General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan (centre), the chief of Sudan's ruling Transitional Military Council (TMC), during a ceremony where they signed a "constitutional declaration" that paves the way for a transition to civilian rule, in the capital Khartoum. AFP

Sudanese protesters from the city of Atbara arrive at the Bahari station in Khartoum, to celebrate transition to civilian rule. AFP

Men stand behind a large Ethiopian flag and wave flags of Sudan as protesters from the city of Atbara arrive at the Bahari station in Khartoum, to celebrate transition to civilian rule. AFP

Sudanese protesters from the city of Atbara arrive at the Bahari station in Khartoum, to celebrate transition to civilian rule. AFP

Sudanese protesters from the city of Atbara arrive at the Bahari station in Khartoum, to celebrate transition to civilian rule. AFP

A young Sudanese girl waves a national flag as people celebrate outside the Friendship Hall in the capital Khartoum where generals and protest leaders signed a historic transitional constitution meant to pave the way for civilian rule in Sudan. AFP

Sudanese people celebrate outside the Friendship Hall in the capital Khartoum where generals and protest leaders signed a historic transitional constitution meant to pave the way for civilian rule in Sudan. AFP

Sudanese men and women celebrate outside the Friendship Hall in the capital Khartoum where generals and protest leaders signed a historic transitional constitution meant to pave the way for civilian rule in Sudan. AFP

Sudanese men celebrate outside the Friendship Hall in the capital Khartoum where generals and protest leaders signed a historic transitional constitution meant to pave the way for civilian rule in Sudan. AFP

Sudanese men celebrate outside the Friendship Hall in the capital Khartoum where generals and protest leaders signed a historic transitional constitution meant to pave the way for civilian rule in Sudan. AFP

Sudanese men celebrate outside the Friendship Hall in the capital Khartoum where generals and protest leaders signed a historic transitional constitution meant to pave the way for civilian rule in Sudan. AFP

Sudanese pro-democracy supporters celebrate a final power-sharing agreement with the ruling military council, in the capital, Khartoum. AP

Sudanese pro-democracy supporters celebrate a final power-sharing agreement with the ruling military council. AP

Sudanese pro-democracy supporters celebrate a final power-sharing agreement with the ruling military council in the capital, Khartoum. AP

Sudanese pro-democracy supporters celebrate a final power-sharing agreement with the ruling military council n the capital, Khartoum. AP

Sudanese pro-democracy supporters celebrate a final power-sharing agreement with the ruling military council in the capital, Khartoum. AP

It’s a tall order in a country where religious piety and conservatism are defining societal traits and a Muslim and Arabised clique has enjoyed a firm hold on political and economic power since 1956.

Ending that domination would require a dramatic makeover to the country’s political landscape that Sudan’s transitional government may not be able or willing to implement.

The change required to bring peace to Sudan after years of civil wars in the west and south of the country is also likely to trigger spirited resistance from economic interest groups, Islamists and supporters of powerful “traditional” political parties, like the Umma of former prime minister Sadeq Al Mahdi, whose followers, like generations before them, were born into privilege and a sense of ethnic and cultural superiority over the Africans of Sudan’s outlying western and southern regions.

Sudan’s new leaders are adamant that change is a must if the country is to restore democratic rule and prevent further splinters - the oil-rich Christian and animist south seceded in 2011 after a 1983-2005 war with the north.

Peace is also desperately needed to reduce the government’s massive defence spending - about half of the national budget - to fund public services and overhaul the collapsing infrastructure. It is also required to secure the resumption of aid by western donors unhappy to see widespread human rights violations continuing to this day in conflict areas in the west and south of the country.

But questions have also been raised about whether Sudan’s joint military-civilian leadership has a genuine desire to make those changes or is qualified to conduct negotiations in a fashion that would resolve core issues and not just offer rebel groups political bribes as part of shaky agreements the likes of which had not endured in the past or led to the emergence of new groups.

Nevertheless, Sudan already has taken steps, albeit mostly symbolic or of limited scope, toward realising the elusive dream of equality for everyone on its soil as a prelude to a lasting peace.

Last week, the government, amid media fanfare, signed a peace deal with a coalition of rebel groups that barely has military presence on the ground. Ominously, details of the deal mirrored the bribes Al Bashir and another Sudanese dictator, the late Jaafar Nimeiri who ruled between 1969 and 1985, gave to rebel leaders in the south in exchange for agreeing to peace deals that were either ineffective or eventually unravelled and fighting resumed.

For example, under the latest deal with the Sudan Revolutionary Front, the government agreed to give the rebels three seats on the Sovereignty Council which has acted as a collective head of state since a power-sharing agreement between the military and pro-democracy groups was reached in August last year. It also offered the front five ministerial posts and 75 of the 300 seats of a transitional parliament yet to be formed.

The tough parts of the deal are those on integrating rebels into the armed forces, offering compensation to residents forced by the fighting to leave their homes and to those who lost their land to the government or allied militias.

“The success of this agreement depends on the seriousness of both sides in implementing them and refraining from embracing narrow and self-serving interpretations,” said Attiya Issawi, an Egyptian analyst who has closely monitored Sudan since the early 1990s.

“The incorporation of rebels in the ranks of the armed forces could be the trickiest one given the likely friction between former enemies when they serve together,” he said.

On Thursday, the government acknowledged the principle of separation of state and religion as the basis of Sudan’s future constitution in an intensely publicised joint declaration with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, a major rebel group active in the west and south of the country and which had refused to be included in last week’s agreement.

The Sudanese media celebrated the declaration as a political milestone, but activists and analysts saw it as no more than a show of mutual goodwill as the two sides enter new peace talks.

They also raised questions about the sincerity of the rebel group’s declared wish to enter peace negotiations when its dream of secession continues to be the heart and soul of its ideology.

Led by Abdel Aziz Al Hilu, the SPLM-North has a stronghold in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan which has a significant Christian community among its mainly non-Arab population. The area has been the main battlefield in a civil war that broke out in 2011. Mr Al Hilu has long championed a secular state to replace Al Bashir’s Islamist government.

However, according to Amany Al Taweel, another prominent Egyptian expert on Sudan, Mr Al Hilu could be open to accept the separation of state and religion in lieu of the right to self-determination.

“The separation of religion and state is a historical demand in Sudan and is key to the ‘margin’ regions of the south and west where it is seen as the appropriate response to the country’s diversity,” she said. “It is not a demand that is in isolation of the political history of Sudan,” she added, explaining that while such separation is a political taboo in most Muslim majority nations, it is generally accepted in the Sudan because of its unique makeup.

“Thirty years of Al Bashir’s rule have shown the Sudanese that bringing religion into the affairs of the state could bring about the collapse of the nation,” said Mrs Al Taweel of Cairo’s Al Ahram Centre of political and Strategic Studies.

Earlier this year, Sudan’s transitional government took several small steps to dismantle Al Bashir’s legacy and win back some of the international respectability lost by his rule.

It has moved to criminalise the commonly practiced female genital mutilation, struck out laws regulating women’s attire in public and prescribing capital punishment for apostasy. It also allowed non-Muslims to buy, possess and drink alcohol but maintained the alcohol ban on Muslims.

The government also agreed in principle to hand over Al Bashir to the International Criminal Court to answer charges of crimes against humanity and genocide during the civil war in the western Darfur region that, according to the UN, killed 300,000 people and displaced more than 2 million in the 2000s.

“Peace in Sudan remains a distant goal,” said Rasha Awad, a prominent Sudanese analyst who runs an online news site. “The core issues such as the relation between the state and religion have not been resolved,” she said, explaining that the transitional government has yet to wholeheartedly move to dismantle the biased and divisive legacy left behind by Al Bashir.

Updated: September 9, 2020 08:38 AM

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