Within days of toppling President Jafaar Nimeiry, the new military leadership in Sudan has outlined its intent to come to grips with the civil war in the south and appears to be moving cautiously toward a transition to civilian rule. At his first news conference Wednesday, Gen. Abdel-Rahman Swareddahab, head of Sudan's new 15-man military council, expressed his desire for talks with Col. John Garang, leader of the rebellious Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA).
The military council, which holds legislative and veto powers, is negotiating with representatives of half a dozen political parties and some 40 trade unions on an acceptable strategy for transition to democracy.
The two years of fighting between the Sudanese Army and the SPLA, which is estimated to have 10,000 to 12,000 well armed men and is backed by Ethiopia and Libya, has virtually isolated the Christian and animist south from the Muslim north of Sudan.
Land and river links have been severed, and major economic enterprises ranging from oil exploration to the digging of the Jonglei Canal, a controversial irrigation project, have been abandoned.
Senior military officers have acknowledged that only a political settlement can solve the friction. ``In many respects, this is our Vietnam,'' noted one retired Army officer. ``Not only is it an unpopular war that has been draining our resources, but it cannot be won on the battlefield.''
Earlier this week, Colonel Garang criticized the military rulers for having usurped the people's power. Garang questioned whether the new government was not Nimeiry's regime without Nimeiry.
Garang, a former officer in the Sudanese Army who led a mutiny against Nimeiry in 1983, has demanded that the ``gang of four'' (referring to the four top military commanders) hand power to the people in seven days. Otherwise, he said, his forces would launch a new offensive.
As the largest southern-based political movement, the SPLA is not seeking secession from the north but rather advocates democracy for the whole country. It remains questionable whether Garang is indeed as radical as his speeches often sound, or whether he is being pragmatic about his Ethiopian and Libyan backers. In any case, most observers do not consider Garang fully representative of regional sentiments, particularly in Equatoria Province in the south where ethnic divisions also come into play.
Nevertheless, it is certain that Garang commands a certain respect as an assertive guerrilla leader. One West European diplomat described General Swareddahab as a professional soldier, not a political animal. The diplomat said that while Swareddahab was taking the SPLA seriously, Garang's ultimatum for immediate transfer of power was not possible.
However, Swareddahab claimed that one of the military council's top priorities is to hand over rule to a civilian government as soon as conditions permit.
For the outside observer, the Sudanese people appear genuinely excited by the concept of democracy, a mood which has come to the fore after nearly 16 years under Nimiery.
``A major drawback, however,'' said one West European diplomat, ``is that the Sudanese have little or no democratic experience. An entire generation has missed out and most of those who didn't left the country.''
The new leadership has appealed to those Sudanese who left to return home or otherwise support their country in its reconstruction.
Many Sudanese, notably those in parties and trade unions, recognize that Sudan's return to democracy must be cautious. According to informed sources represented at the military-civilian talks, both sides are examining the possibility of a three-year transition period in which to review the Constitution, the judiciary, and the reestablishment of a national assembly and the holding of elections.
Introduction of Sharia, or Islamic law, by Nimeiry in September 1983 was unpopular among much of the population and is regarded as one of the key factors that led to Nimeiry's ouster.
Despite conflicting reports, Sharia seems to have been quietly dropped. Some Sudanese say Islamic law may be officially abandoned through an annulment of all laws instituted by Nimeiry and the reinstitution of the 1956 Constitution.
``Sharia is a very sensitive issue and one must be careful not to upset the more conservative elements by flaunting a freer life style in their faces,'' explained a Sudanese engineer.
Neverthless, Swareddahab is expected to move carefully in regard to Islamic law. Alcohol is not being sold openly, but for the first time in three years Sudan television has been showing Egyptian and Lebanese singers and dancers, previously banned by Nimeiry.
An administrative civilian body consisting of political and trade union leaders is being formed. According to Sudanese and diplomatic sources, civilian participation in a transitional government is expected to include appointments to head certain ministries such as foreign affairs or health and education. National security and defense, however, will remain in the hands of the military. The military council has also said it would retain control as long as transitional rule remains.
While numerous members of the professional organizations who spearheaded the overthrow of Nimeiry believe that the military is sincere in its assertions that it does not wish to keep power, there is a degree of underlying concern.
``We have not fought for democracy for so long to see it trampled by the military,'' said Dr. Ahmed Abdel Mageed, a spokesman for the trade union group. The professional organizations have also made it clear that if the military backtracks they could immobilize the country through renewed strikes.
Over the past few days, life in the Sudanese capital has begun to return to normal. More shops are open, the streets are congested with traffic despite gasoline shortages and many parts of this former British colonial city have regular electricity supplies. But troops continue to guard the banks, government offices, and gas stations. Telecommunications remain sporadic, while both the airport and Port Sudan, the country's logistical lifeline, remain closed except for military movements.