Although women have played a clear role in Sudanese political life since the 1960s, and many of them have held important political positions, none has been as controversial as Badria Sulaiman, deputy speaker of Sudan’s parliament and chairwoman of the Emergency Constitutional Amendments Committee.
Since becoming a prominent figure in constitutional legislation in 1983, Sulaiman has continued to contribute to major political developments, although these contributions have not be without controversy.
Sulaiman (1949) was born to a politically active family in Omdurman, a city to the west of the capital Khartoum on the banks of the Nile. In 1970, aged 21, she was arrested after being caught with a pamphlet denouncing Gaafar Nimeiri, an army general who had come to power in a 1969 coup. She would later become his staunch supporter.
She studied law at the University of Cairo in Khartoum, graduating in 1970. She went on to earn a master of laws from the University of London in 1979 and a PhD in constitutional legislation from al-Neelain University in Sudan in 2012.
She practiced law for several years before joining the attorney general’s office in Khartoum as a legal adviser. In 1978, she was assigned to work in the president’s legal department , where she started a decade-long campaign to win Nimeiri’s trust.
From the beginning, Sulaiman proved to have excellent political instincts and the ability to adapt quickly to shifting directions and loyalties – skills that have kept her at the forefront of Sudanese politics for almost four decades.
Following the suppression of a coup attempt in late 1976, Nimeiri embarked on a political course of ‘national reconciliation’ with the religious parties. He agreed to a principal Muslim Brotherhood demand that the country’s laws be based on Islam (sharia).
The process of Islamizing the legal system culminated in the summer of 1983 with the establishment of a three-member legal committee. The committee, of which Sulaiman was part, was authorized to issue, revoke and amend legislation in an unprecedented manner. In September 1983, Nimeiri issued several decrees, known as the September Laws, which made sharia the law of the land. In November 1983, the People’s Assembly approved without debate legislation to facilitate the implementation of sharia. The bills put forward included a new penal code based on hudud punishments such as flogging for defamation and limb amputation for theft.
In addition, ‘Prompt Justice’ courts were established, purportedly to simplify and accelerate the legal process, and court proceedings were broadcast on television as a way to denigrate and expose the perpetrators. Judicial officials who disagreed with the changes were purged and it was not long before the courts were being used for political ends. Death penalties were issued against political opponents, such as Professor Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, who was executed on 18 January 1985.
Sulaiman’s involvement in the September Laws made her a household name in Sudan, especially in relation to unpopular legislation. After the uprising that overthrew Nimeiri in April 1985, Sulaiman joined the National Islamic Front (NIF), the political branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and the only party to defend the September Laws. She switched allegiance again in 1989, joining Omar al-Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP), which seized power in June 1989 and has ruled ever since.
Sulaiman played a similarly important role in 2009, when she chaired the Emergency Constitutional Amendments Committee that drafted the most important law and constitutional amendments in the country’s history, namely the South Sudan Referendum Law, under which South Sudan established itself as an independent state in 2011. The law was enacted under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed by the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), following the ceasefire and SPLM’s participation in the government in 2005.
The SPLM claimed from the outset that it had not been consulted about the formation of the committee. Yasir Arman, head of the SPLM’s parliamentary bloc, said: “The agreement was to establish such committees after consulting with the SPLM and other parliamentary blocs, but none of this happened, and we were not consulted on the formation of the committee.”
He added: “We said that as long as the chairperson of the committee is an affiliate of the National Congress Party, then the vice-chairperson should be from the SPLM. We hoped that the head of the South Sudan Referendum Committee would be from the SPLM or South Sudan because the issue concerns South Sudan in particular.”
However, the committee pressed ahead with the endorsement of the constitutional amendments, against the SPLM’s wishes and despite its political and international influence. Sulaiman defended the committee’s approach and exchanged strong words with the SPLM leaders until the law was drafted as desired by the government.
In 2016, after nearly three years of national dialogue aimed at bringing about political transformation, in part as a consequence of South Sudan’s secession in 2011, most of the outcomes of the dialogue found their way into Sulaiman’s hands. As chair of the Emergency Committee for Constitutional Amendments, Sulaiman oversaw the efforts to translate these outcomes into constitutional and legislative amendments that met their demands.
However, opposition parties and their representatives accused Sulaiman of manipulating the amendments in favour of the ruling party and of submitting to parliament in February 2017 drafts that differed from those agreed upon by the dialogue committees. These drafts were dubbed ‘Badria’s amendments’.
The main sticking points between the government and the other dialogue parties related to public freedoms, the independence of judicial institutions and the powers of the security services. The opposition insisted throughout the talks that the powers of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) to collect and analyze information be limited, as should its special powers to detain citizens for long periods of time and to censor the media.
The government made some minor concessions to these demands, which the NISS strongly resisted, on the grounds that Sudan is facing major security challenges that require strengthening the security service, rather than limiting it. The NISS’s position was backed by the parliamentary Security Committee.
Lawyer Kamal Omar, a leading figure in the Popular Congress Party, which emerged from a split within the NCP in 1999, and one of the most important opposition figures in the Emergency Constitutional Amendments Committee, withdrew from the committee in protest at what he called “Badria’s Committee”. He referred to the amendments as “sacred” because they represent the national dialogue and because they are higher than any constitutional authority and express the will of the participants of the dialogue, not only the will of the Popular Congress Party. He stressed that Sulaiman’s conduct sent negative signals about the possible implementation of the outcomes of the national dialogue, especially since the president himself had presented the amendments to parliament after they were approved by the late opposition leader Hassan al-Turabi.
Omar accused Sulaiman of being good at “playing political games”, even though “the situation in Sudan does not tolerate any games and requires seriousness”. He added: “What happened is an infringement on the outcomes of the dialogue that were approved by the General Assembly of the Sudanese-Sudanese National Political Dialogue.”
Sulaiman responded to the criticism by saying that all the parties had agreed on the document that laid out the outcomes of the national dialogue and that this document had been the main reference when drafting the constitution. She said that the committee would hear statements by representatives of the Sudanese state services and people to answer questions about the text and language of the document and possible contradictions in some of the texts.
In April 2017, the Sudanese parliament passed the constitutional amendments as they had been drafted and submitted by the committee, without taking into account the concerns or demands of the opposition.
Sulaiman predictably came under fire again for her role in the committee. She was accused of fabricating the amendments, prompting her to threaten legal action against her accusers.
New legislation in April 2017 established a multiparty political system based on free elections and a legal system that guarantees freedom of expression and belief and does not discriminate on the basis of religion, at least in theory. Despite the differences between the two systems, Sulaiman was again involved in both because that is what the man in power wanted.