Hassan al-Turabi: A Political Autopsy

PDF Print E-mail

With all the turmoil, fluidity, and fluctuations of Sudanese politics since independence, one thing remained constant i.e. Hassan al-Turabi. Some assert that Turabi was a master of staying on top of the shifting coalitions of Sudanese politics. He led decades- long Islamist movement, saw and took the chance to seize power and use the state for a comprehensive transformation of Sudanese society. Whether one proceeds with a remorse or a closure it goes without saying that Hassan al-Turabi was a mastermind who left his mark on everything he touched about political Islam in Africa.

           The death of Hassan al-Turabi on March 5, 2016, went largely unremarked by all but a few of his immediate contemporaries. The big television stations made a passing remark about it. There was no global tremor when his mortal remains were laid to rest in the presence of close to three thousand people. No notice of his passing was taken in the editorials of newspapers outside Sudan or in the newsletters that circulated on the African Continent. I could be wrong but it is my impression that Turabi’s passing was an entirely local Sudanese event, and regionally it seems scarcely to have been noted. It is  expressive irony that the man who, a quarter of a century ago, came closer to altering ideological and geostrategic courses and sent shock waves globally attracted little attention in death.

Hassan al-Turabi was Africa’s most dynamic contemporary Islamic ideologue. Though a supporter of an Islamic Caliphate Turabi recast himself, rather curiously, as a champion of parliamentary democracy and women and minority rights agitating unsuccessfully for a ‘different kind’ of Islamic governance. As many Islamists in history and contemporary struggle for redemption he struggled to marry radical Islam with democratic governance. It goes without saying that Hassan al-Turabi was a mastermind who left his mark on everything he touched and talked about Sudanese politics and political Islam. But there is also a strange sense that his own political characters and schemes seized upon him as much as he seized upon them.

I was always impressed with his gift of oratory and the penchant for academic discourse both in public and small gatherings at his residence. As far as I can remember his dining room was like a conference hall. Against this background I can’t help but recall my piece on Turabi from the debris(below). The attached peace was published on August 13, 2004 under the title “Turabi and the Darfur Agenda”, in one of my weekly columns at the Sub-Saharan Informer. It looks like yesterday. Of course, some points that were relevant twelve years ago might not be so anymore. But most of the underlying issues remain applicable. As such Turabi was not of an age, but for all time. It is this sort of constant variable in Sudanese politics that has become defunct. Whatever the catalogue would have been;for whatever it is worth a library is lost.



Dr.Hassan at-Turabi and the Darfur Agenda.

Medhane Tadesse

Sub-Saharan Informer

August13, 2004


Every body seems interested on the developments in Darfur, but not more than Dr. Hassan at-Turabi. Strategically speaking, the conflict in Darfur is not marginal to the power politics in Khartoum. It is related to the alliances and counter alliances created in the 1990’s amidst the Sudanese civil war. And more important, the insurrection in Darfur is central to the on-going power struggle within the National Islamic Front (NIF) which rules the Sudan since 1989. In their choice of name and platform the Darfurian rebel movements have obvious echoes with the political /armed forces fighting the regime led by General Omar Hassan El Bashir.

There are two principal armed groups in Darfur. One is the Sudan Liberation Army/ Movement (SLA/M) which recently changed its name from the Darfur Liberation Front. Central to its political agenda is the creation of a secular Sudan with equality for all citizens and justice for the marginalized areas. It is almost an SPLA without “P”. The second major group is the Justice and Equity Movement (JEM). And this is essentially the Darfurian branch of the NIF, which split with both Turabi and Bashir in the period of turmoil around 1999. The leader of this group is Dr. Ibrahim Khalil, a disciple of Turabi.

My main interest here is to look at the national dimension of the Darfur conflict. The region is neglected and has, along with eastern Sudan, the lowest proportion of its people holding positions in the central government. But it has a substantial electorate. National politicians of all shades have consistently sought to manipulate Darfur for their own agendas. The Umma Party’s arming of Arab militias in the 1980s seriously escalated the violence in that period. The SPLA sought to establish a Darfur front with its ill-fated expedition into the region in 1991. However, it was Turabi’s Islamic civiltilisation project that cultivated support in the west of Sudan, including Darfur in mid 1990’s.

By the later 1990s, Darfurian Islamists were dissatisfied with their continuing marginalisation in Khartoum. Several of them published a ‘Black Book’ that documented their systematic under-representation in government, possibly with the help Dr. Hassan at-Turabi. Reportedly the split in the NIF in late 1999 aggravated their grievances. Their modest stake in central government was all-but-eliminated. Indeed the split is crucial in understanding the war in Darfur, Turabi’s connections as well as the reaction of the government. It also reveals the extent to which the split has weakened the Islamist cause in Sudan. Sudanese leaders admit that it has cost the Islamists the support of youth, students and women, demoralized the army, party and civil service, and damaged the running of the government. Unlike their neighbors’, Sudanese leaders had almost officially regretted the incident.

Similar to the splits within the ruling parties in Ethiopia and Eritrea, the split within the NIF had serious political consequences.  No doubt, the split fatally undermined the legitimacy of the Islamist project in Sudan. The two camps accused each other of corruption and criminality, and produced evidence in support of their claims. Turabi accused Bashir of being a dictator, accompanied by a group obsessed with power. Like in Ethiopia and Eritrea the disaster was self-inflicted and entirely home-grown. The dispute was purely and simply over power, and the cynicism with which both parties pursued their agendas dwindled their credibility.

Did you know that the division took on a regional and ethnic character? Turabi’s followers included many from the west of Sudan, who pointed out the way in which state power have been monopolized by the riverine elite, including almost all of Bashir’s camp. A ‘Black Book’ was published detailing these accusations. Reflecting the strength of Turabi’s following, and the unwillingness of the government to provoke a potential civil war among the Islamists, his followers were permitted to organize a legal opposition party. Four years ago, Turabi was put under house arrest and formed the Popular National Congress. When the PNC was looking for allies to bring down the central government, “the marginalized region of Western Darfur, with its Islamic tribes and it’s ambivalent and, occasionally, rebellious attitude towards Khartoum was an obvious place to look.” The PNC made common cause with the Darfur rebels and also greatly helped the circulation of the Black Book.

With all the turmoil, fluidity, and fluctuations in Sudanese politics since in dependence, one thing remains constant i.e. Hassan at-Turabi. Some assert that Turabi is a master of staying on top of the shifting coalitions of Sudanese politics. He led decades- long Islamist movement saw and took the chance to seize power and use the state for a comprehensive transformation of Sudanese society. With the failure of this grand plan, and even after being pushed from office, Turabi continues to play a pivotal role in Sudanese Politics. Frequently described as a man of brilliant intellect and ineffable charm, Turabi is admired by many, and feared by some including his former students, now running the government.

Turabi was arrested in March for allegedly plotting against Bashir, but negotiations are still going on between the two and he is expected to be released soon. The leaders in Khartoum seem to have realized that it is time to talk to him so as to stay in office. Turabi has ambushed them in Darfur. The militarization of the Government and its handling of the crisis in Darfur is primarily a response to internal contradictions in Khartoum, specifically fear of the continuing power of Hassan al Turabi, who remains the number one threat to President Bashir. That is why the government’s main concern in the political talks is primarily aimed at undermining  the JEM, which it fears is a Trojan Horse for Turabi’s PNC to re-enter government.

President Basher’s control of the Government does not appear secure. He is not only threatened in Darfur, the South or an Eritrean backed insurgency in the east but also by the Popular Congress Party headed by Hassan al Turabi. There may be further embarrassment to come. So eager is the president of Eritrea to control the change in the Sudan. This will complicate regional security and inter-state relations. President Bashir has had severe difficulties in putting together his internal coalition. The strategy of bringing in the opposition one by one is not working at the moment. The regime seems to have exhausted all its cards on Darfur.

Resource and ethnic based conflict does not explain the whole story. Indeed, the ethnic and racial dimension has obscured what appears to be an influential part of the conflict in Darfur. As the NIF exploited sectarian lines in its siege against the South, Hassan al-Turabi has manipulated ethnic/religious divides in order to wage war against his former protégé, Omar al-Bashir.  Definitely, there is a power struggle within the NIF, and Turabi is using Darfur to undermine the Khartoum government. The Darfurian rebels are still seeking a consensus, internally and with its allies in the region, on a political strategy and a minimum negotiating stand. But too many hands are involved to allow for inter-group cooperation.

Some believe that Turabi could again emerge as the most serious political threat to president Bashir. One thing is clear though. The absence of Turabi in the National Congress Party/NCP/ will continue to delegitimize the regime. Lacking a strong ideological component the leaders in Khartoum will risk becoming mere representatives of a small ethnic and security cabal. They will become more motivated by survival than the pursuit of a national project. The tactical details of his positioning aside, it is certain that Turabi will remain as active as he can be in the political scene. This may complicate matters in Darfur, because of Turabi’s alleged links to the Islamists among the rebels there. But all these are tactical. Everything in that country is tactics. In Sudan, entrenched interests die hard.

Last Updated on Sunday, 24 April 2016 10:44



We have 14 guests online


Here you can find some
of my books.