The NI Interview
Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim
Wayne Ellwood talks with a Sudanese activist who has long campaigned for women’s rights
in her country and is now a strong critic of the country’s Muslim fundamentalist regime.
Fatima Ibrahim is a fighter and it shows. A Muslim, a former Member of Parliament in Sudan and president of the banned Sudanese Women’s Union, she has a long history as an outspoken defender of human rights in her country. Now in her early sixties, she crackles with energy as she denounces the Islamic fundamentalists whose regime, she says, has turned her homeland into a war-torn, shattered nation.
‘These Islamic extremists are nothing but parasites,’ she says, her voice quivering with anger. ‘They claim to govern on behalf of God and yet they do nothing but enrich themselves. I can give you names; some of my own relatives who were very poor are now very rich. They send their children to schools in Britain and put their money into banks in Switzerland.’
Since General Omar Hassan al-Bashir came to power by a coup in 1989, backed by the National Islamic Front, Sudan has been on a downhill skid. One of the first things the new government did was to dismiss thousands of government employees and military leaders and replace them with Muslim militants. According to Fatima Ibrahim, fundamentalists from Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, Algeria and Egypt were imported because there were not enough Sudanese extremists to do the job. The country’s once numerous middle class was systematically hounded into exile, imprisoned or killed. A quarter of the population (nearly seven million people) is estimated to live outside the country – Fatima Ibrahim among them. There are now more Sudanese doctors practising in London than in Sudan.
This has been a disaster for Africa’s largest nation, which has had a solid tradition of strong civic institutions – trade unions, women’s groups and student organizations. Sudan was also a country of religious tolerance where Christians and Muslims mixed freely. ‘In my family,’ says Ms Ibrahim, ‘my father was a Muslim Imam, my sister-in-law was a Christian. We used to get together to celebrate both Christian and Muslim holidays.’
Now most of these social groups have been banned. ‘Anyone, [she carefully emphasizes each syllable: an-y-one] who opposes this regime is under threat,’ stresses Ms Ibrahim. ‘Armed men kidnap any figure who dares to speak out. People are murdered or run over by a car and the official explanation is that it was a madman or an accident. I myself was watched by security men 24 hours a day; those who came to my house, whether a relative or a neighbour, were arrested.’
Ms Ibrahim fled Sudan in 1989 soon after the fundamentalists took power, though she continues to return, clandestinely, when she can. Her usual route these days is through the non-Arab south, where government control is weakest.
It’s also in the south that the fundamentalist forces have done their greatest damage. Here government troops have been fighting a brutal war against two contending separatist groups for the past 13 years – the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army and the Southern Sudanese Independence Movement. In an effort to crush the rebels and forcibly convert the largely Black and Christian population to Islam, government troops have run amok. More than a million people have died.
‘It is a holy war for this Islamist regime,’ Ms Ibrahim says, her voice rising, her wiry body tense with emotion. ‘The southern people, since they are Christians, are called pagans. Women are raped routinely because this is seen as a way of putting more Islamic babies into the world. They are flogged for cultural practices like brewing beer; afterwards the money they make from selling it is confiscated.’
Reports from human-rights organizations like Africa Watch and Amnesty International confirm the genocide in southern Sudan. The Bashir regime is completely committed to a unitary Muslim state and appears willing to extirpate all non-Muslims in its quest. This single-minded crusade has led to more than two million internal refugees, most of them southerners who are now camped out in desperate conditions around the capital, Khartoum.
According to Ms Ibrahim, austerity programmes prescribed by the IMF and World Bank have both worsened Sudan’s poverty and helped strengthen the power of the fundamentalists. ‘They’ve devalued the currency, lifted subsidies on basic foods and sold off state-owned enterprises for next to nothing. Tens of thousands of government workers have been dismissed. We used to have free education and free health care; now they’re both gone. Islamic millionaires run all the old state-owned businesses. In the Qur’an there is a verse which prohibits any Muslim from getting rich at the expense of others. It seems they’ve conveniently forgotten this aspect of Islam.’
Though she paints a dire picture Fatima Ibrahim is not without hope. ‘You see,’ she confides, ‘the conditions for change are better than ever. The economy has been destroyed, the majority of people are hungry, the regime has virtually no support anywhere and public anger is widespread. Plus all the forces of opposition are now united. This past September the police refused government orders to fire on demonstrators in Khartoum. Instead, the Government had to bring in its own élite-trained militia. I believe that tens of thousands of police and soldiers are now an armed reserve for a popular uprising.’
The Islamic regime is also increasingly isolated diplomatically. All neighbouring countries – Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda – have cut relations. ‘But we need Western governments and businesses also to cut relations with the Bashir Government,’ urges Ms Ibrahim. ‘Any economic support will only help to maintain this dictatorship. Already the bitterness runs deep. We need to replace the negative with something positive and we need to do it quickly.’
For more information contact the International Campaign for Peace in Sudan. Europe – Box 297, S-751 05, Uppsala, Sweden; Canada – c/o Bea Hampton, 1 Nicholas St, Ste 300, Ottawa, ON K1N 7B7; US – c/o John Prendergast, 3700 13th St NE, Washington.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996