Military Grip Tightens on Sudan
New leader shows little inclination toward democracy or negotiations with rebels in the south. ATERMATH OF COUP
KHARTOUM, SUDAN — TANKS still guard military barracks and bridges over the two Nile rivers that come together at this desert capital. Military roadblocks are set up every evening at main intersections for the night-long curfew. And most of the top political leaders one once saw being driven around town are now in jail. But little else appears to have changed since a pre-dawn coup June 30 turned Sudan - formerly one of Africa's few multiparty democracies - into a military dictatorship.
The outlook here, among Sudanese civilians and Western diplomats, is that Sudan is probably in for a prolonged period of military rule.
``He doesn't like political parties; he denounces them,'' says a Western diplomat here who has met Sudan's new, self-appointed military ruler, Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan al Bashir.
This diplomat says General Bashir sees the military as the logical, ``ultimate'' form of power. And that Bashir plans to stay as long as it takes to restore the economy and obtain an end to Sudan's six-year civil war with rebels in the south. These rebels are demanding a larger share of power in a unified government.
But Sudanese civilians and Western diplomats here say Bashir's actions toward achieving these twin aims have been confusing and conflicting. There is growing concern here, say some of these sources, that Bashir may in fact be leaning toward resumption of the war, rather than making a peace pact.
The new strong man still faces the uncertainty that a number of other military coups were in the making when Bashir made his move, diplomatic sources here say. Although he has since dismissed more than 300 Army and police officials and retired a number of senior military officers, he cannot be sure he has flushed out his potential rivals.
Meanwhile, he has transformed an open, free-talking atmosphere in Khartoum to one of caution, even fear. ``People are afraid,'' says one Sudanese journalist. ``We could be arrested at any time,'' a University of Khartoum professor says.
The military government of Bashir has banned all political parties, all newspapers (save a military one), all civilian associations, and all civilian meetings without government permission. The government also has detained without charges not only most of the top political leaders of the previous regime, but a number of civil and human-rights activists too.
Among those detained, according to a reliable Sudanese human rights activist who asked not to be named, is Ushari Ahmed Mahmoud, a lecturer at the Universityof Khartoum; Mustafa Abdel Gadir, a civil-rights activist; and Khalid El Kid, professor of political science at nearby Omdurman Ahlia University. All three have criticized the military under past governments.
``They [the current military government] are settling scores'' with people who have opposed the military in the past, says this activist.
On the three issues of peace, the economy, and democracy, most Sudanese interviewed are willing to ``wait and see'' how the new government handles them.
``I think he [Bashir] will be given a chance to see what progresses. Let's say a year,'' says El Fatih Mekki, a Sudanese pediatrician.
Peace: Both Bashir and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) publicly say they are ready to negotiate peace. On Aug. 14 SPLA leader John Garang broke a long silence on Bashir and said the General might be more interested in dividing the country into two parts than in reaching an agreement with the SPLA for a united Sudan. The next day Colonel Garang called on Bashir to form a new national army, including the SPLA, and to hold free elections. He rejected Bashir's offer for a cease-fire and for an amnesty for the rebels, but said he remains willing to talk. SPLA officials are discouraged, one of them says.
Bashir has thrown out the agreement which the previous government reached with the SPLA. It called for a cease-fire, an end to Sudanese foreign military pacts, freezing physical punishments under sharia (Islamic law), and holding a constitutional conference.
Instead, Bashir has offered two things the SPLA does not want: Secession of the south, and a popular, nationwide vote on whether to keep sharia. The SPLA suspects that such a vote would bring new support to keep sharia, something the SPLA insists must be set aside because the many non-Muslim Sudanese.
``I get the impression there will never, never be any peace'' under Bashir, says a European diplomat in Khartoum. The diplomat says Bashir may have come to power ``to preempt peace,'' noting that the coup took place just as peace negotiations appeared to be making progress. But another possibility is that he jumped in front of other military officers also planning imminent coups.
Bashir, this diplomat adds, either does not understand peace negotiations or wants to ``provoke'' the SPLA into action that would be an excuse for moving toward secession - dividing Sudan into an Muslim-dominated north and a predominantly animist-Christian south. But a Western diplomat says most Sudanese would likely not support a move toward secession.
On the issue of setting aside sharia, Mounir Ahmed, a private Sudanese social-work administrator and a devout Muslim, says he could never accept such a thing for the Muslim dominated areas of Sudan. Given the choice between more fighting and losing sharia, ``I would choose to fight,'' he says.
But a Muslim Sudanese physician says, ``Peace is more important. People are starving; children are dying.''
Economy: Bashir's government has made some popular moves to force merchants to sell basic foods at low, government-decreed prices. But shopkeepers have either quickly run out of goods or refused to open their stores.
``Prices are low, but the stores are empty,'' complains a Sudanese taxi driver here. He and others complain of shortages of gasoline, sugar, bread, and other items.
The new government leaders ``have no conception of what an economic policy is,'' says the University of Khartoum professor.
If the war is resumed or the economic crisis deepens, people are likely to demonstrate in the streets in large numbers, says the Western diplomat. Such demonstrations helped bring down the Jaafar Nimeiry government in April, 1985.
Democracy: At first, Bashir did not use the word ``democracy'' in his speeches. Then it began to crop up. But Sudanese civilians interviewed expressed no sadness at the demise of democracy, saying that the former democratic government of Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi had failed to end the war or improve the economy.
``Everyone felt there was a need for a change,'' says Ahmed. ``But nobody can tell whether he [Bashir] would be satisfied with the Army ruling the country for the long run.'' Ahmed, like other Sudanese contacted, cited alleged corruption under the previous government as one of the reasons why people welcomed change.
``Democracy is very important,'' says Dr. El Fatih. ``But democracy in such a country as Sudan?'' he asks rhetorically, citing the nation's low level of literacy and high level of poverty. The government of Mahdi, he alleged, ``misused democracy.''
A Western diplomat said the tragic flaw in Sudan's recent democratic period was that the political parties fought with each other instead of pulling together for the national good. ``I hope it [democracy] will come again,'' says El Fatih. ``But I'm afraid if it comes some day ... you'll again have the same parties.''