Federalism and the Interim Constitution in the Sudan

By: A/Rahman Sayed


The present world media coverage of the “Darfur conflict” in Western Sudan has once again put the country on the world agenda, indicating that the problems of this vast country are far from over. Many who thought of the Sudanese conflict as North/South or Arab/African or Muslim/Christian etc. may also realise that such simplistic classifications, often with sinister agendas, are indeed unconstructive and do little to resolve the real issues within the Sudan.

Although most Eritreans are well acquainted with the issues and politics of the Sudan due to their cultural, historical and geographical bondages with the people of Sudan, it may still be useful to republish with some modifications a viewpoint  I wrote in June 2005, as part of my attempts to analyse federalism trends in the Horn of Africa. 

Federalism is not a new concept in Sudan. It has been on the political agenda as one of the political solutions to the “North-South” conflict. Prior to Sudanese Independence in 1956, Northern and Southern Sudan politicians had an unsuccessful agreement to adopt federalism to accommodate Southern Sudanese concerns. The Sudanese failure to adopt federalism resulted in rebellion led by the Southerner Joseph Lago, which came to an end only when the government of President Numeiri agreed to reinstate the federal arrangement in 1972. Numerie’s withdrawal from the 1972 agreement in 1983 ignited another rebellion by Southerners led by John Garang. In 1989 when the present government took over power in a military coup, they attempted to re-introduced federalism.

However, in all the cases, the so-called Northern Sudanese political elites have proven to be dishonest and too reluctant to relinquish their hegemony in favour of power-sharing with the diverse peoples of the Sudan. Thus the conflict within the Sudan this time deepened due to distrust of the Northern elites. Peace between the warring factions had to be brokered with the support and sponsorship of international and regional actors that culminated in the Mashakos agreement in Kenya in January 2005.

The Mashakos Comprehensive Peace Agreement has clearly stipulated not only the urgency for fair distribution of power and wealth, but also the Southerners’ right to self determination including secession through a referendum to be held after an interim period that lasts 6 years from the date of the agreement coming into effect. The very agreement to this principle has been a courageous and commendable step that will have a far reaching impact on post-colonial African politics. If successful, the Sudan may set a new precedence to the concept of national unity and territorial integrity in countries with boundaries drawn by and inherited from colonial European rulers.

The current federal system in Sudan, which includes 26 states, 3 of them in Eastern Sudan, has given the different social and cultural communities of the heterogeneous Sudanese society a degree of autonomy, although the national government and associated civil services and mainstream economic ventures still remain in the hands of the Northern elites. However, with the Mashakos agreement between the SPLA/M and the Sudanese government, as well as the growing rebellion in Western Sudan (Darfur) and Eastern Sudan (Beja Congress), the Northerners’ unjust hegemony over Sudan will keep dwindling to give more room to accommodate the legitimate demands of the oppressed and marginalised communities of the country.

 Nevertheless, the Mashakos Comprehensive Peace Agreement (MCPA), signed between the Khartoum government and Southern rebels, is problematic when it comes to its application to the rest of Sudan. So far the signs and indicators are not very encouraging. A Draft Constitutional Text produced on 16 March 2005 and adopted on July 9th as an “interim constitution” for the transitional six years period, which incorporates the above agreement, includes articles that explicitly state that power is to be shared between the North and South only. For example, The Preamble of this interim constitution confines the right to “self determination for the people of Southern Sudan”. This implies that the Sudanese diversity is only to be expressed in the so-called North-South divide, which seems to explain the motives behind the current uprising in the West (Darfur movement) and East (Beja movement) of the country, who have been left out of the agreement and the resulting power-sharing arrangement that is being crafted in the Sudan.

The Sudan is home to some 200 ethnic communities divided into Four to Five geographical regions (North, South, West, East and Central Nuba Mountains). Confining the power-sharing arrangement between the North and South only is set to ignite more difficult conflicts in the already excluded and long neglected parts of the country.

Part I, Chapter IV of the draft constitution introduces a “decentralised system of governance” with extensive autonomy rights to South Sudan. It allows the South to have a government that would oversee the states within its region, which implies the “states” in the other parts of the Sudan will fall within the jurisdiction of the Sudanese government dominated by the Northerners. This arrangement goes beyond the type of asymmetric federalism practised, for example, in Spain’s Catalan and Basque regions. The Sudanese arrangement seems closer to  confederation i.e. an alliance between two sovereign states. The levels of autonomy given to the South will most likely be demanded elsewhere in the country with similar distinctive historical, ethnic and cultural features.

Another pitfall of the interim constitution is the way the presidency institution is worked out. Part III, Chapter II deals with the “Institution of the Presidency”, which consists of the President of the Republic, who would be elected to office by the people of the Republic, and two vice presidents with similar roles but slightly different status. They would be known as the “first Vice-President” and “Vice President”. (Note: the second vice president is not referred to as “second”, but just as “vice president”. When the position used to be held by a Southerner, it used to be known as a “second vice president”). The two vice presidents would be appointed, not elected, by the elected president. They also have to be from the North and South. This arrangement suggests that the selection of the “First Vice President” would be influenced by the background of the elected president. If the president of the republic is a Northerner, s/he would appoint a Southerner as “First Vice President” and vice versa. This means, peoples of Eastern and Western Sudan as well as of the Central Numba Mountains will remain “constitutionally excluded” from holding presidential powers at the national level.

Interestingly, Chapter II, Article 51, Sub-Article 2 of the interim constitution states that “there shall be partnership and collegial decision-making within the Institution of the Presidency in order to safeguard stability in the country and implement Comprehensive Peace Agreement”, but fails to see that such “partnership” and “collegial decision-making” can and must incorporate in the “Institution of the Presidency” the remaining stakeholders in the Sudan. Bypassing all other partners who did not raise arms and wage a protracted armed struggle simply means the country is posed for yet another such conflict in different areas outside the North-South divide.  

I believe, in the interim period, the Sudanese diversity would have been best served if the “Institution of the Presidency” consisted of 4 to 5 vice presidents with equal powers representing at least the 4 to 5 geographical regions of the Sudan. Such an institution with that of the bicameral system and autonomous states at the second level of governance would have ensured participation and inclusion at all levels of governance. In the long-run, this particular institution could be reviewed to reflect the diversity and aspirations of the peoples of the Sudan. Instead of having a president with several vice presidents, it may be useful to look into the Swiss model of the “Federal Council”, which is an executive body composed of 7 ministers. The post of presidency in this particular model is annually rotated between the members of the executive council.

I would very much hope the permanent constitution would result in some amendments of the articles deemed controversial or exclusionist in favour of a more inclusive approach. This is very possible in a country like Sudan, where the people are known for their tolerance and capacity to accommodate the ones on the opposing side.  Some press statements made by Mr. Aldardiri Mohammed and Mr. Yasser Arman, members of the National Commission that was revising and preparing the country’s interim constitution, indicated that any agreements that may be reached to settle the rebellions in the Western and Eastern regions of the Sudan will be incorporated into the constitution. Whether such a statement is genuine or otherwise will remain to be seen.

May Peace & Justice prevail in the Sudan and the region at large! Ameen.

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Posted by on May 16 2006 Filed under Articles. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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