With more than 2 million people facing starvation in the war-engulfed provinces of southern Sudan, Sadiq Mahdi faces a critical choice. He can order an all-out war against the southern rebels or he can risk the possible breakup of his newly elected coalition government by immediately abolishing the controversial implementation of Sharia (Islamic law).
The leader of the rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), Col. John Garang, has offered to order an immediate cease-fire and has said he would enter into negotiations with the government, provided that Sharia is unconditionally and immediately scrapped.
Sharia was imposed on the country in September 1983. The law, as defined under then-President Jaafar Nimeiry, did more than merely introduce his own version of Koranic punishment, including amputation of limbs for specific crimes. It also sought to turn Sudan into an Islamic republic.
In a country that is 70 percent Muslim and 30 percent Christian or animist, the proposed Islamization of Sudan was predictably divisive. Mr. Nimeiry's policy upset not only the predominantly non-Muslim southern peoples but also the Muslim northerners, many of whom are secularist in their outlook. Islamic leaders, including Mr. Mahdi, protested Nimeiry's laws, which they saw as a travesty of true Koranic teaching.
The imposition of Sharia triggered the armed struggle by the SPLA. After nearly 17 years of civil war in the south from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, there had been relative calm for nearly a decade. The resurgence of southern rebel activity in 1983 began with a declared aim to end the Islamization of the country, and Nimeiry's dictatorship. The rebels also sought to oppose any form of military rule. Principally supported by southerners, the SPLA declares itself to be a national movement for all Sudanese who favoured a united democratic Sudan.
Ethiopia allows Colonel Garang to train his army on Ethiopian soil and to maintain SPLA headquarters near Addis Ababa, because Ethiopia's rulers believe Sudan supports rebels operating in northeastern Ethiopia.
This connection between the ``Marxist'' regime in Ethiopia and Garang prompts suspicion that the SPLA is part of a communist conspiracy -- a charge firmly repudiated by Garang. Those in close touch with Garang remain convinced that the SPLA's ties with Ethiopia are simply ``an alliance of convenience.''
Although Sudan's Mahdi is publicly committed to abolishing Sharia, he has come up against opposition from some of his partners in the coalition government and from other traditional Muslim centers. Although the prime minister commands the biggest party in the constitutional assembly, his authority is heavily circumscribed by unreliable ally.
As a result he has delayed abrogating Sharia until he has had time to draft an alternative set of equitable laws acceptable to Muslims, but which would not apply to non-Muslims.
Mahdi's delay is unacceptable to Garang, who has intensified the struggle in the southern region by seizing two of the provincial capitals, Juba and Wau.
These cities have been main distribution centers for international food relief brought to Sudanese victims of the African famine. Relief agencies say supplies have run out and starvation is imminent.
With both sides using food as a weapon of war, the situation is extremely grim and has been further worsened by Uganda's recent decision to close its frontiers, preventing the transport of food. Uganda's President made this decision last week because he alleges that the Sudanese military have allowed his armed opponents to stage attacks across the border. The charge is strongly denied by Sudanese authorities.
In the recent past, Army leaders and Sudan officials have repeatedly declared that the war against the SPLA cannot be won, because the rebels are too strong.
Mahdi must therefore choose between a decision to order a full-scale war with only a slender prospect of success, or abrogate Sharia and weather the political consequences of that decision.
Many observers feel that only the latter could bring a cease-fire and thwart the calamity that is imminent in the south.