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Perspective On Sudan: Hassan Turabi Interview

Related Oscillations story—“The 2019 Sudanese Revolution”

Having visited Sudan following a United Nations condemnation of the al-Bashir government for human rights abuse, I find it curious that 16,000 Americans call Sudan home, although Ted Hoagland in his exquisite African Calliope: A Journey to the Sudan noted:

“It’s a truism that people who are misfits in their own country may flourish in another, especially a “backward” or exotic one. Rough living conditions exhilarate them and distract them from the old bugaboos, much as the austerity of war might do. Clearly, more than a few of the expatriates I hobnobbed with needed all of the primitive imperatives they could find, plus the superstructure of Muslim ritual and ceremony, to damp them down and superimpose a substitute for self-control. Sometimes I find this kind of thing reassuring myself.”

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Following are excerpts from a transcript of my January 1993 video interview (roughly an hour long) with then de facto Sudanese leader Hassan Turabi at his home in Khartoum. Hassan Turabi, considered both an “evil genius” and one of the most influential political figures in Sudanese history, died in 2016 at the age of 84.

Suzan Mazur: Dr. Turabi, what authority in Sudan do you have?

Hassan Turabi: I am secretary general of the Popular Arab & Islamic [Congress] Conference.

Suzan Mazur: The only official position you have now is as secretary general of PAIC.

Hassan Turabi: Yes, and that represents actually all the popular forces, not necessarily even Muslim. There were Christians in it, I mean. There were Arab nationalists who came to Sudan immediately after the Gulf War from all over the world—from Europe, from Asia, Central Asia, Africa and from the Arab world. They established this conference to represent a popular forum for public opinion in all these areas.

Suzan Mazur: Why does everyone come to you with the political questions?

Hassan Turabi: Simply because I have been in public life for a very long time. I am a constitutional lawyer myself. So I could observe and judge the constitutional development of Sudan.

Suzan Mazur: I’d like to ask you a few.

Hassan Turabi: Yes, please.

Suzan Mazur: There’s been a civil war in Sudan these past three years. How imminent is peace with the forces opposing you—the Sudan People’s Liberation Army [SPLA], operating in the South?

Hassan Turabi: Well, the civil war is only a cycle in constant problems that arose even before independence between South and North. British colonial policy closed off the South completely and left it undeveloped.

Toward independence there was a conference of Southerners where they opted for complete unity with the Sudan. And they wanted a certain status for themselves. But the nationalists in those early days were too jealous to concede any decentralization of power of a new independent state. And there was an uprising before independence from the condominium colonial power [Britain]. And now and then, each time there was a settlement and then an eruption once more of civil strife.

John Garang left the country in early 1983 because Nimeiry [former Sudanese president Jaafar Nimeiry] did not change the Addis Ababa peace agreement.

Suzan Mazur: John Garang, head of SPLA.

[NOTE Garang died in 2005.]

Hassan Turabi: Yes. Nimeiry, in response to the Equatoria, one province in the South, representation in the regional parliament there, and in the national parliament here—it wanted its own province, like all provinces in the Sudan separated as an autonomous province. And so he [Nimeiry] divided the South into three provinces according to the old colonial provincial system. Like the North as well. I mean, that makes nine federated states in the Sudan—original states in the Sudan.

John Garang was a Dinka, and used to control, govern the whole South. He broke away; he was in the army. He broke away early 1983 and left to Ethiopia and neighboring countries.

Suzan Mazur: Who financially supports John Garang’s SPLA?

Hassan Turabi: They were supported by Mengistu [Haile Mariam] of Ethiopia; the Soviet Union was there. And that’s why he [Garang] sounded Marxist.

Suzan Mazur: And now?

Hassan Turabi: Garang established a manifesto, completely Communist, Marxist manifesto then. He was drawing his support and military assistance also from Cubans, and the Soviet Union.

Suzan Mazur: And now? Without that support?

Hassan Turabi: And he lost that and that’s why his power declined a great deal. He’s trying to smuggle into the Sudan some support from neighboring countries from the South.

Suzan Mazur: Day-to-day now, where does the money come from?

Hassan Turabi: Different organizations support him. Of course, when he goes to Europe he advocates that it’s a Christian-Muslim affair. Although he was a Marxist himself. And inside his army there are many Muslims. And there is a Muslim council. And the government army in the South is mostly pagan, or Christian or Muslim mostly. So it’s not a religious affair at all. It’s a question about power distribution.

The present government has now for the first time accepted a federal set of principles not only for the South, but for the whole Sudan, and they’re trying to talk to him [Garang] peacefully.

Suzan Mazur: Garang has said recently that if an election were held he would take up to 150 of 300 seats in parliament.

Hassan Turabi: No question, I mean, of course. He’s a Dinka! And he’s a Dinka from the southern sector of the Dinka.

Suzan Mazur: What difference does that make?

Hassan Turabi: Joseph Lago before the previous civil war, when there was reconciliation, and there were elections—he didn’t become prime minister of the South at all. It was only later on that the president elected him as vice president in the North. But he wasn’t returned at all. Garang might be returned from his own constituency, but he’ll find two or three constituencies at a maximum.

Suzan Mazur: This week, I understand, you announced that you expect Sudan will dismantle its military government in the next few months or so. Does this mean free and fair elections?

Hassan Turabi: That’s a misrepresentation by the Reuters correspondent. I tried to explain to him the promise of democratization this government has declared, and actually is going to establish, by a political constituent conference in the Sudan. So they are going gradually to democratize from below upward.

They have democratized the local government already and the trade union movement already and they are going toward, this year—according to the promise of the president himself—to democratize the state government and in the following year, perhaps, the national government as well.

I told him [the Reuters correspondent] that the military council has delegated all its emergency power to the parliament, which is now present and acting, and all its executive power to the council of ministers. It was only left with the constitutional power to organize the constitutional transition.

Suzan Mazur: Does this mean you’ll have a government representative of Sudan’s ethnic, religious and nonreligious groups, including women?

Hassan Turabi: As reflected in an election system. There is going to be a direct election system. From the people directly, from constituencies, and an indirect election system by popular conference in each region.

The conference will elect part of the seat of the local parliament by the conference and the rest by the people directly. So it will be completely representative of the Sudan.

Even the present parliament, of course, is also representative of all the ethnic groups, all the regions—even the old political friends—the religious sectors. Men and women as well and trade unions. Everybody is represented in the present parliament as well.

Suzan Mazur: There are complaints from other Arab and Islamic countries that you are misusing Islam as a tool for power. That you’ve deceived them into financially supporting you early on, telling them you were going to establish a peaceful Islamic state. They’ve voiced opposition to your human rights policies by condemning Sudan at the UN and by refusing to hold the Organization of Islamic States Conference in Khartoum, moving it to Jeddah. Economic assistance has also dried up. Would you comment?

Hassan Turabi: You know, there was a welcome of the new movement because there was a bill passed—a Sharia bill—an Islamic law bill passed unanimously by the previous parliament. And once this government took over, they welcomed it. I mean, because they thought that would overcome the Islamization process. When they realized the Islamization process is respected also by this government because it was a unanimously-passed bill by the previous parliament, there was absolutely no assistance to the federal government by any Arab state since that time, that early, I mean, that early. And the reason why they are worried with the Sudan striking an example, a model of Islamization, is because it will expose the falsehood of their own Islamic claim.

Because one country, neighboring country, claims it is the top Islamic country in the world. But it’s a monarchy! It’s a dictatorship! A monarchy! And all the money is not used by the people; it’s actually siphoned out of the country as commissions and deposited in bank accounts elsewhere. And the banking system is not independent.

The other country thinks that Sudan does not enjoy an Islamic legacy as rich as it does—our northern neighbor—but Sudan became Islamic in its public life way before [our northern neighbor] did. So they’re frightened.

Suzan Mazur: The women, for instance, in Khartoum, as I’ve noticed, are dressed in all sorts of colors. Their faces are beautifully painted. They wear jewelry. Some would say this is not very Islamic; this is not very modest. What would you say about that?

Hassan Turabi: Actually, the liberation of women in this country is due mostly to the Islamic voice. . . .

We, the Islamic party before advocated that women should share in political participation. And they were given the right then under our leadership. And now she’s everywhere! She could become minister. An ambassador. They are members of parliament. They are all over the place. And Saudi Arabia is a conservative, customary, conventional society that ascribes its customs to a religious foundation. But it’s false. It’s false. It’s absolutely false.

Suzan Mazur: Following this line—

Hassan Turabi: You know the reason why the Islamic conference was not held here? It was due to the be held here according to a previous resolution.

Suzan Mazur: But there was objection because of human rights violations.

Hassan Turabi: No, not at all. Saudi Arabia did not want to come to the Sudan because Saudi Arabia dominates the Islamic conference and so it adopted a resolution that would cancel the meeting here. Sudan was angry about that because it’s a regular meeting.

Suzan Mazur: I read that this followed the vote at the UN.

Hassan Turabi: About the vote in the UN. I asked many Western diplomats actually, and I told them, well, if you are applying a standard fairly and justly, there are a thousand times more political detainees in Egypt. In Algeria. And in Saudi Arabia. Why don’t you pass resolutions condemning them a thousand times more?

Suzan Mazur: I’d like to ask you about the reports that your regime coerces people to convert to Islam in exchange for food and basic assistance, especially in the South, and that you cut off cross-border relief from Kenya and Uganda. . . .

Hassan Turabi: Well, these are false reports. You know the missionaries who control the South completely had a monopoly on education. And on medical services. And they [Christian missionaries] were baptizing people not by persuading them to change their doctrine, but just by taking their children and baptizing them and calling them different names. The Islamic missionary work is not doing that at all. It is establishing schools. . . .

Sudan never controls the borders with Kenya because it’s under the control of the rebel forces. So Sudan could not be responsible for cutting off southern Sudan from Kenya. Sudan doesn’t control the border with Uganda or Kenya.

Suzan Mazur: If the SPLA wanted aid to go to the people of southern Sudan, aid would cross borders..

Hassab Turabi: Of course. Sudan actually is now giving—out of its own extra produce—aid not only to the South but to Somalia. To Eritrea and to the United Nations Food Organization. . . .

Suzan Mazur: The execution of two USAID workers in Juba has outraged the international community. I am advised that two other USAID workers are still missing. Do you know when they or their remains will be returned?

Hassan Turabi: Well, I’m not familiar with the inside story of all this. But I explained to—

Suzan Mazur: They were executed because it was believed they were spies.

Hassan Turabi: The emergency law is like that. I’m an emergency law specialist myself. That’s my doctorate. And I saw how people were treated during war, in America itself. All the Americans of Japanese descent—hundreds of thousands of them—were detained throughout the war [WWII]. And all the North Irish people are now being detained. And all the Iraqis in England during the Gulf War—although they didn’t constitute a risk—they were detained. So, in emergency times you can have martial courts, military courts.

There was an emergency situation in Juba. There was a military court and it sentenced two. And it passed that sentence; it was executed. . . .

Suzan Mazur: You know it seems to be very difficult to get news from Sudan. I’m curious as to why Sudan would not issue visas to press much earlier than this past week?

Hassan Turabi: Well, I’m personally absolutely for allowing press to come here to Sudan, to go all over the Sudan, and to see and to establish facts, objective facts about the Sudan. . . .

Suzan Mazur: Dr. Turabi, six main training camps have been cited from which your regime is said to export terrorists to Egypt, North Africa and the Gulf States. Three camps are supposed to be on the East Coast in the Red Sea region at Arous, Gebeit and Port Sudan. One in Kassala in the Eastern Province and another at El-Jaili, north of Khartoum and another at Wad Seidna, about 12 kilometers from where we now sit. What is your response to this?

Hassan Turabi: Oh this is an open country. This is an absolute lie. Believe me. There isn’t a single Iranian military personnel, not even a military attache at the Iranian embassy itself—at all, I mean. And there are no camps in the areas that you mentioned at all. This is an open country. These are not closed areas only for the military. There are a few Palestinian—

Suzan Mazur: Hamas is represented here.

Hassan Turabi: No. No. No. These Palestinians were created from Beirut and the United Nations and United States Command. They are brought into Sudan and are now camped in a few places in Eastern Sudan.

Suzan Mazur: I spoke with a representative from Hamas myself last night in the Hilton Hotel.

Hassan Turabi: And he has absolutely no military personnel here. Hamas. There are very few Palestinians who are Hamas supporters. Mostly they are Farah supporters—the Palestinians, only 200, 300 Palestinians in the Sudan. But there are Palestinian soldiers who were evacuated from Beirut when Beirut was dealt with—many, many years back. And they are now there. It’s the only non-Sudanese military personnel in the Sudan.

Suzan Mazur: There are reports that the Abu Nidal people are here.

Hassan Turabi: Oh. This is an absolute lie. Because when Abu Nidal himself applied for a visa entry to the Sudan—when we had visa entries—he was told we have two precedents here in this country of attacks against hotels and against embassies and we’ll never allow a Palestinian of your group ever to come to the Sudan. But other Arabs came to the Sudan without visas. And some Palestinians who were thrown out of Kuwait—who couldn’t go back to Egypt or back to Israeli-occupied or to Jordan—some of them, very few of them, came to the Sudan.

[NOTE: Abu Nidal, Carlos the Jackal, as well as Osama bin Laden apparently all had a presence in Sudan at the time of this interview.]

Suzan Mazur: Africa Watch devoted one of its recent issues entirely to the academic situation in Sudan citing that there should be a call for the re-enactment of academic freedom in Sudan; that you should cease the arbitrary arrest and detention of students and faculty; reinstate those dismissed; lift the ban on the university lecturers’ association and student unions; and reconsider the Arabization policy.

Hassan Turabi: He doesn’t know a thing about Sudan. Each university has a law by itself. It’s not under any. There is a higher education ministry. But it can’t interfere because there is a law that allows the university to have its own independent council and academic standards. And each university is independent of even the other universities on what it would educate and how it would examine. And there isn’t a single student detainee or university detainee today at all.

Suzan Mazur: That you’re aware of.

Hassan Turabi: And the students are so free that they can become Communists, Ba’athists, Arab nationalists. They’re publishing.

Suzan Mazur: Are people allowed to lecture freely?

Hassan Turabi: Oh absolutely. . . .

Suzan Mazur: When will the regime allow the Nuba to return to their land? It’s said that about 40,000 are displaced and that you’ve forced 4,000-5,000 families into Kordofan province because you’re pursuing a policy of ethnic cleansing.

Hassan Turabi: No one is forced either to move from his area to another area or back to his own area if he’s displaced by natural phenomenon like desertification or by war or such things, I mean. These Nubians used to be farmers, country farmers. But they couldn’t stay on their own farms because there were security problems over there. So they flood into the town and they were told that they could have plenty of farms elsewhere. And they said, we don’t mind going there. And they went there. But they are free to go back—either to their towns if there is security there; they can either stay on wherever they were, or go back. It is absolutely free. There is absolutely no displacement law.

Suzan Mazur: I understand Dr. Bannaga, your minister of housing and public utilities, has a very big project planned to house the displaced people around Khartoum.

Hassan Turabi: Yes.

Suzan Mazur: Does that mean the people will not go back to their lands?

Hassan Turabi: It’s up to them—if they want to stay in Khartoum, of course. They’ll find better opportunity for jobs here in a town with such an industrial center like Khartoum.

Suzan Mazur: But I’ve been seeing these people doing very menial work. Making beds; I saw some people breaking up stone, inhaling a lot of dust without protection—.

Hassan Turabi: It’s all over the Sudan like that. It’s not because they are displaced. All over the Sudan you have that. Even people who never left their country. There are people living in the desert. And they’re desperately divided. They don’t want to leave their country. They’ll hardly find water to drink there. But they want to stick to their land. These people [the displaced now living in Khartoum] are better off than most Sudanese, by the way, in the countryside.

Suzan Mazur: Will the government help to move them back to the Nuba Mountains?

Hassan Turabi: It won’t move them forcibly. They can stay on here or they can go back.

Suzan Mazur: When the war is over, if they choose to move, will the government help them move back?

Hassan Turabi: Oh yes. It would help them. Definitely. There is an agency, a relief agency that gives you transport to or from wherever you are to go. These people normally enjoy better services. They have a water service, education service, medical service.

Suzan Mazur: The camps I’ve heard in the Kordofan area are not so attractive.

Hassan Turabi: That’s of course—Kordofan is a province not as rich as Khartoum province. This is a local government. The regional government is the authority that focuses attention on someone who is displaced.

Suzan Mazur: It’s said that 40%-50% of your lawyers are women and 10% [of them] judges. . . .However, Sudan still lacks an independent judiciary. There are protests over the removal of some 300 judges and detention of lawyers. Would you comment?

Hassan Turabi: The judiciary is completely independent. And that change, if anything, was done by the judiciary itself. And not by orders from the military council or by parliament or by the council of ministers. They have absolutely no power about the judiciary in this country. . . .

The judiciary itself considered that because it inspects the judicial work of its own staff—and if they realize someone is disqualified, is not working for us, they can remove him from office. But it’s completely independent today. It’s only the chief justice and judicial council who control it completely and who transfer and graduate and dismiss and appoint anyone to the judiciary.

Suzan Mazur: Your president has said in his address before the national assembly: “We want to expose the dangers of a new world order,” saying he will open embassies in Malaysia, Korea, Central Asia, Mali, southern Africa and strengthen ties with Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Jordan.

What does he mean, expose the dangers of a new world order?

[NOTE: Former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court, is presently in a military hospital in Sudan, per The Guardian.]

Hassan Turabi: Well, most people here realize that the so-called new world order is an order of domination. Of course, we are ex-colonial people. We know that Europe, even when it withdrew its colonial forces—continuously, by remote control, controlled our economic development, tried to force our culture, and so on and so forth.

We don’t want a new order which is based on injustice. We love a human order which is very fair, where there is a revision even of the United Nations itself because it’s not really democratic. It doesn’t represent in fair proportion the population of the world.

Suzan Mazur: What is the reaction to the bombing of Iraq yesterday?

[NOTE: In a 15-minute exercise, on January 13, 1993—one week before US President George H.W. Bush left office—115 aircraft from a US-led coalition that included Britain, France and some Saudi participation—bombed missile sites in the No-Fly Zone of southern Iraq below the 32° parallel as a slap on the wrist to Saddam Hussein.]

Hassan Turabi: It was negative because the United States itself could not justify its procedure through the United Nations. It found no excuse thereby, so it took an independent initiative. . . .

Iraq was not disallowed by the United Nations resolutions to disarm itself completely from that area. It couldn’t fly, yes. But there was no order of complete disarmament in that area. The United States failed to pass any initiative through the UN so it took the initiative itself together with its two allies. . . . There are many rules applied against Iraq that are not humane. How can you boycott a country—not allowing any food to go to that country? And starving children! And starving people! Whatever, however you judge Saddam himself, it doesn’t justify starving human beings.

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