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Ali Osman Taha: Forty Years at the Top of the Islamic Movement

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Ali Osman Taha. Photo Ebrahim Hamid

Throughout his more than 40-year career in Sudanese politics, Ali Osman Muhammad Taha (1944) has been an influential, active and frequently controversial figure. Although he was discharged from his last official post as deputy vice president in December 2013, he remains an important figure. In late September 2016, Khartoum newspapers quoted him as saying he was working on an evaluation of the ‘Islamic Civilization Project’, as Islamists in Sudan refer to their grip on power which has lasted since 1989. Many questioned the significance of such an evaluation at a time when President Omar al-Bashir was preparing to announce the outcome of a national dialogue that had lasted more than two years.

A similar outcry erupted after a meeting held by Taha with a large number of the ruling National Congress Party youth in June 2016, at which he addressed the experience of the Islamists’ rule in Sudan from a critical viewpoint. He appealed to the Islamists not to monopolize power, drawing comparisons with the Tunisian Renaissance Movement, which reevaluated its experience more successfully than its Sudanese counterpart. This angered some of his Islamist rivals.

Taha also made headlines after he was accused of masterminding the aborted assassination attempt on former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Ethiopia on 26 June 1995, an allegation he categorically denied. The allegation was made by Sudan’s opposition leader Hassan al-Turabi in an interview for al-Jazeera TV, broadcast after al-Turabi’s death in May 2016.

Rising Political Star

Born into a humble family in the Northern Governorate, Taha is a member of the Shaygiya tribe. He is married and has three daughters and two sons.

His political star began to rise in 1970, when he was elected chairman of Khartoum University Students’ Union representing the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which he had joined in high school. The Muslim Brotherhood, led by al-Turabi, was at the time leading the resistance to the regime of former President Gaafar Nimeiri which was allied with communists and Arab nationalists. Taha caught the eye and interest of al-Turabi to the extent that Taha’s personal history became inextricably entwined with the contemporary history of the Islamic movement in Sudan.

Taha was elected a deputy in the National People’s Assembly (parliament) in 1977, after a national reconciliation deal between the Muslim Brotherhood and Nimeiri a year earlier. Taha’s mentor al-Turabi pushed him to the first rows of parliament where he was chosen as leader of the parliamentary bloc of the ruling Socialist Union. Many considered this move part of al-Turabi’s quest to curb the influence of the historic leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood by promoting his young followers, among whom Taha was the smartest. He was a member of parliament for three terms, becoming the right hand of his mentor until a power struggle separated the two leaders in 1999.

When Nimeiri turned against the Islamists, one month before being deposed in April 1985, he imprisoned their leaders, including al-Turabi. Taha was one of the few who managed to escape and issued a statement from his hideout in Khartoum, urging Nimeiri not to hurt the Islamist leaders.

Taha again won a parliamentary seat in 1986, this time becoming the opposition leader to Sadiq al-Mahdi’s coalition government after the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Turabi’s wing) was renamed the National Islamic Front (NIF).

The Second Ascent

Taha’s second ascent began with the military coup on 30 June 1989. A new ministry, named the Ministry of Social Planning, was created for him in 1993 to undertake the task of re-shaping the Sudanese character according to the ideological vision of the ruling Islamists. The objectives of the ministry were to ensure ‘that Sudan shall be the best of the developing world communities, in terms of religion, ethics, culture, livelihood and environment’; to be responsible for the religious education of the community, management of the Popular Defence Forces (PDF), a governmental Islamic militia, and literacy; and to strengthen the family, women and sports for all. It has so far been unable to accomplish this utopian task.

Taha was Sudan’s foreign minister from 1995 to 1998, a turbulent period during which the government allied with Islamic radical movements and remained isolated from the regional and international communities. At the time, Osama bin Laden was in Sudan and Hosni Mubarak’s would-be assassins had set off from Khartoum, with the consent of the authorities if not with Taha’s personal involvement.

As foreign minister, Taha was soft spoken, tried hard to ease Sudan’s international isolation and appeared willing to deal with West, no easy job in a regime dominated by al-Turabi who was not accepted by the international community.

The gap between Taha and al-Turabi had begun to widen by the time Taha was appointed first vice president in February 1998. It widened further when President al-Bashir and Taha joined forces to limit al-Turabi’s influence, eventually toppling him from his post as speaker of the house in December 1999. They later jailed him in what became known as the split between Islamists.

Peacemaker or Troublemaker?

Ironically, Taha’s greatest political achievement ended with his demotion from first vice president to second vice president. This was the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which Taha had spent years negotiating, with Colonel John Garang‘s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement on 9 January 2005. The agreement put an end to the 22-year civil war and made Garang first vice president. However, it also brought about a referendum that resulted in the separation of the south from the north in July 2011, plunging the country into crisis as the north found itself cut off from 70 per cent of the oil resources, on which the economy had been dependent and which are located in the south. Many held Taha responsible for the secession of the south. One of his Islamist opponents even demanded he be tried for high treason for signing the agreement.

Taha was also in charge of the Darfur crisis file in 2003-2004, a period which saw a rebel uprising, bloody clashes and the beginning of the use of local Arab tribes’ militias against the rebels in Darfur. A report by Amnesty International alleged that Taha had a personal connection to the local tribal leader Musa Hilal, who was accused of committing atrocities against the African tribes of Darfur. Taha ordered his release from prison.

After the secession of the south, Taha returned to his former post as first vice president under President al-Bashir and resumed his earlier dispute with al-Turabi. By this time, the latter was the leader of the Islamic Popular Congress Party, which fiercely opposed the president and his deputy.

Besides al-Turabi, Taha made new enemies among the ruling party and the Islamic movement due to small and large differences that had accumulated throughout his 13-year tenure as vice president.

Nafie Ali Nafie, an influential leader in the ruling party who has held several important positions, including head of security, was one of Taha’s main opponents and rival for President al-Bashir’s favour. This rivalry weakened both men, and ultimately the representation of civilian Islamists in power. President al-Bashir eventually ousted Taha, appointing General Bakri Hassan Salih as deputy vice president and his friend, General Abdul Rahim Hussein, as governor of Khartoum State. An increasing number of men in uniform are being appointed to positions in the executive branch at the expense of civilian Islamists, who remain the political backbone of the regime.

Over four decades of political wrangling and upheaval, Taha has shown that he is not al-Turabi’s creation. His political and leadership abilities have enabled him to stay on the frontlines of the Islamist movement and to weather Sudan’s stormy political scene. The government in Khartoum is considered to be one of the most corrupt in the country’s history, yet Taha has managed to remain remarkably untarnished.

Although he does not currently hold an executive position, his political career is far from over. He continues to be an influential member of the leadership of the National Congress Party, ready and able to spring into action as the shifting political alliances demand.

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