Hassan al-Turabi

Life of battles

Print edition : April 15, 2016

Hassan al-Turabi (left) with President Omar al-Bashir in the presidential guest house in Khartoum on March 14, 2014. Photo: EBRAHIM HAMID/AFP

Hassan al-Turabi (1932-2016) was an influential politician in Sudan’s history despite the ups and downs of his political fortunes.

THE death of Hassan al-Turabi, noted Islamic scholar and politician, on March 6 in Khartoum marks the end of a tumultuous chapter in the history of Sudan. Turabi, who died of a heart attack at the age of 84, was a feisty opponent of the military-led government in Sudan led by Gen. Omar al-Bashir even though he played a key role in the developments that brought Bashir to power after a military coup in 1989. There was a bitter falling-out between the two in the late 1990s. Turabi faced several spells of incarceration but he continued with his spirited opposition to the policies of the Sudanese government on key issues, including the contentious one of Darfur. He was also among the first prominent politicians in Sudan to acknowledge South Sudan’s right to secede.

Under the military dictatorship of Gen. Jaafar Nimeiri, Turabi spent seven years in jail only to emerge later as a key adviser to the strongman in the early 1980s. During his 16-year tenure, Nimeiri transitioned from a pro-Soviet Arab nationalist to an ardent Islamist. After Turabi was released from jail in 1979, his influence over Nimeiri played a big role in his espousal of Islamist policies. Turabi became the virtual power behind the throne, a role he would go on to reprise after the military coup in 1989. Under Nimeiri, Turabi held the post of Attorney General. Sudan was put under Sharia law in 1983. Total prohibition was declared, and copious amounts of alcohol, worth more than $5 million, were symbolically emptied into the Nile, which flows through Khartoum, the capital. It was the imposition of sharia law all over Sudan that rekindled civil war in the country and ultimately led to its disastrous partitioning. Turabi no doubt was responsible for the historical course the country took after that, though he later distanced himself from the hard-line positions he had taken in those volatile years. Nimeiri once again incarcerated Turabi shortly before his own ouster in 1985. Turabi’s last stint in jail was after sporadic “Arab Spring” protests broke out in Khartoum in early 2011. Turabi’s influence at one particular juncture transcended Sudan and the Arab world. In the early 1990s, a prominent American publication stated that he perhaps was the most influential figure in political Islam after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Turabi was the author of highly regarded books on Islamic theology and jurisprudence. In a series of books— Renewal of Islamic Thought, Renewal of Islamic Legal Theory, Women between Religious Teachings and Social Customs—he was sharply critical of traditional Muslim scholarship. The Sheikh, as he was called by his followers, had distinguished himself academically as a young man, having pursued higher studies in London and Paris. He was proud of the fact that he had earned his doctorate from the prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris while most of the elite from anglophone African countries preferred to get their degrees from Oxford and Cambridge. His doctoral thesis at Sorbonne was on constitutional law.

During this correspondent’s numerous visits to Khartoum, it was a privilege to interact with the late Sudanese intellectual. He always had a warm welcoming smile on his face. It was in 1995, when Turabi was the Speaker of the Sudanese parliament, that this correspondent got the first opportunity to interview him. During the interview, he spoke on a wide variety of subjects, including sharia law. While defending the introduction of the law in Sudan, Turabi explained that it was only implemented in the predominantly Muslim north of the country and that its brutal aspects such as beheadings and stonings were rarely, if ever, carried out.

He went to great lengths to explain that Sharia law, if properly and justly implemented, was compassionate. Muslim women need not cover their heads, and they should be allowed to lead mixed prayers, he said. He insisted that there was no attempt to Arabise the animist and Christian south of the country and that sharia law was not being implemented there. “Religion is based on sincere conviction and voluntary compliance…. Islamic thought, like all thought, only flourishes in a social environment of freedom and public consultation,” Turabi wrote in 1983.

Interestingly, in 1995, Turabi’s brother-in-law, Sadiq al-Mahdi, the leader of the Umma Party, who was ousted as Prime Minister in the 1989 military coup, was under house arrest. But he was allowed to meet with this journalist from India. Mahdi remained critical of his brother-in-law’s politics, but they found themselves in the same boat eventually in the united struggle to restore genuine multiparty democracy to Sudan.

Osama bin Laden

Also, around that time, a young Saudi businessman, Osama bin Laden, came to Sudan and set up a construction firm. By then he had fallen out with the Saudi royalty and turned against his erstwhile American patrons with a vengeance. In a subsequent meeting with Turabi more than a decade later, this correspondent asked him about the allegations regarding his “close” links with bin Laden and his role in providing refuge to the founder of the Al Qaeda franchise. Turabi said that he had only met bin Laden twice during the latter’s sojourn in the country. Bin Laden’s company had undertaken the contract to build an important road connecting Khartoum to the city of Port Sudan on the Red Sea. Both of them were present at the formal opening of the road. The other meeting was at his residence. He said that the reclusive Al Qaeda leader had made an unannounced call. Anyway, the Saudi dissident was under close watch by Sudanese intelligence agencies and was expelled under American pressure in 1996. It was only after he once again relocated to Afghanistan that he sprang to worldwide prominence and notoriety.

During the years when he wielded influence in the corridors of power, Turabi’s focus was on building an alliance encompassing Islamists, Arab nationalists and anti-imperialist left-wing groups in the region. He was non-sectarian in his religious outlook, and the Sudanese government under his influence befriended both Hizbollah and Hamas and maintained good relations with Iran and Iraq. The political party he led at the time was called the National Islamic Front and it held sway over influential sections of the Sudanese armed forces. As a young student activist, he had made his reputation as a pugnacious foe of left-wing groups. The Sudanese Communist Party in the 1960s was the strongest in the region. A coup backed by the communists in 1971 was brutally crushed by Gen. Nimeiri, the military ruler at the time.

The party never recovered from the massacres that followed. However, Muhammad Ibrahim Nugud, the charismatic long-serving leader of the Communist Party who passed away four years ago, had forged a working relationship with Turabi when both were in the political wilderness. The communists were part of the political alliance that Turabi’s Popular Congress Party (PCP) forged in the last decade. They fought together in the elections that were held in 2010. During Turabi’s tenure as Speaker and his influential role as Bashir’s erstwhile political mentor, the communists had become a fading force. The fight was with more mainstream establishment parties such as the Umma Party and the Democratic Unionist Party, which had alternated in power during the country’s brief stints of civilian rule.

It was only after he was imprisoned and sidelined by Bashir that Turabi tried to forge a broader political front. He tried to position the PCP as a champion of the marginalised.

In 2014, after a decade and a half of sparring with Bashir, Turabi agreed to participate in a national reconciliation dialogue with the government. But the dialogue so far has been inconclusive. Turabi was the only well-known opposition leader who supported the call for President Bashir to face trial in the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes committed in Darfur. The African Union has strongly opposed the demand of the West to bring a sitting African head of state to trial on charges of “war crimes”.

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