IN MID-1991, SUDAN was ruled by a military government that exercised its authority through the Revolutionary Command Council for National Salvation (RCC-NS). The chairman of the fifteenmember RCC-NS and head of state was Lieutenant General Umar Hassan Ahmad al Bashir, who also served as prime minister, minister of defense, and commander in chief of the armed forces. The RCC-NS had come to power at the end of June 1989 as a result of a coup d'état that overthrew the democratically elected civilian government of Sadiq al Mahdi. Although the RCC-NS initially stressed that its rule was a transitional stage necessary to prepare the country for genuine democracy, it banned all political party activity, arrested numerous dissidents, and shut down most newspapers. Subsequently, members of the RCC-NS claimed that Western-style democracy was too divisive for Sudan. In place of parliament, the RCC-NS appointed committees to advise the government in specialized areas, such as one concerning the legal system to bring legislation into conformity with the sharia, or Islamic law.
The factors that provoked the military coup, primarily the closely intertwined issues of Islamic law and of the civil war in the south, remained unresolved in 1991. The September 1983 implementation of the sharia throughout the country had been controversial and provoked widespread resistance in the predominantly non-Muslim south. The Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) and its military arm, the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), were formed in mid-1983. They became increasingly active in the wake of President Jaafar an Nimeiri's abolition of the largely autonomous Southern Regional Assembly and redivision of the south, and as his program of Islamization became more threatening. Opposition to the sharia, especially to the application of hudud (sing., hadd), or Islamic penalties, such as the public amputation of hands for theft, was not confined to the south and had been a principal factor leading to the popular uprising of April 1985 that overthrew the government of Jaafar an Nimeiri. Although implementation of the sharia remained suspended for the next four years, northern politicians were reluctant to abolish Islamic law outright, whereas southern leaders hesitated to abandon armed struggle unless the legal system were secularized. The continuing conflict in the south prevented progress on economic development projects and eventually compelled the Sadiq al Mahdi government in the spring of 1989 to consider concessions on the applicability of sharia law as demanded by the SPLM.
On the eve of an historic government-SPLM conference to discuss the future status of Islamic law in Sudan, a group of military officers carried out a coup in the name of the newly constituted RCC-NS. Their intervention in the political process halted further steps toward a possible cancellation of the suspended but still valid sharia. Although the RCC-NS initially announced that the sharia would remain frozen, the government encouraged courts, at least in the north, to base decisions on Islamic law. SPLM leaders charged that the government was unduly influenced by Islamic political groups and announced that the SPLA would not lay down its arms and discuss political grievances until the government abrogated the sharia. Because neither the RCC-NS nor its southern opponents were prepared to compromise on the sharia, the military conflict continued in the south, where the government's authority was limited to the larger towns and the SPLA or other militia controlled most of the secondary towns and rural areas.
Although the RCC-NS banned all political parties following the 1989 coup, members of this ruling body have not concealed their personal and ideological ties to the National Islamic Front (NIF), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. RCC-NS policy decisions on many social, as well as political and economic issues, reflected strong NIF influence. For example, the RCC-NS purged hundreds of army personnel, senior civil servants, and teachers perceived as being insufficiently Islamic, decreed that men and women must sit in separate sections on public buses, and forbade any Sudanese female to leave the country without the written consent of her father or legal male guardian. Finally, on New Year's Eve 1990-91, the government announced that the sharia would be applied in the north.
The RCC-NS policies aroused antagonism in the north as well as the south, and consequently political instability has continued to dominate Sudan. During 1990, for example, the Bashir government announced that at least two alleged coup attempts within the military had been foiled. In addition, there were several instances of antigovernment demonstrations being violently suppressed. Opposition politicians, international organizations, and foreign governments all accused the government of systematic human rights abuses in its efforts to quell dissent. Opposition to the Bashir government induced exiled leaders of banned political parties in the north and SPLA leaders in the south to meet on a number of occasions to work out a joint strategy for confronting the regime. Consequently, in mid-1991 the regime's stability seemed fragile and its political future uncertain.
Further clouding the regime's prospects for stability was the threat of famine in many parts of the vast country as a result of the drought, which had been sporadic throughout the 1980s and particularly severe since 1990, and of the continuing civil war. The Bashir government was preoccupied with the political ramifications of food shortages because it was acutely aware that riots by hungry Sudanese were one of the factors that had brought down the Nimeiri regime in 1985. Nevertheless, the government was determined that any food aid the country received not reach SPLAcontrolled areas. The efforts to mix politics and humanitarian assistance angered foreign aid donors and international agencies, resulting in food shipment suspensions that have aggravated the food shortages.
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