Sudan Abolishing Sharia-Based Legal System Against Public Opinion?

On March 28th, 2021, the Sudanese government signed an agreement in Juba with a rebel group, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), paving the way for a peace agreement. The agreement abolishes the Sharia-based legal system, which caused many controversies, particularly in the public.

The so-called ‘Declaration of Principles,’ was signed on Sunday and specifies that “the freedom of religion, the freedom of belief and religious practices and worship shall be guaranteed to all Sudanese people by separating the identities of culture, religion, ethnicity and religion from the state. No religion shall be imposed on anyone and the state shall not adopt official religion.” Moreover, the declaration entails the decentralization of the state and the reformation of the military.

The Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General (SRSG) for Sudan, Volker Perthes, has stated that the agreement is “a step forward towards comprehensive peace in Sudan.”

Nevertheless, the agreement has to be viewed with caution because it is just a step towards peace in Sudan. The Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, Cameron Hudson, said regarding the peace agreement in August that “it’s a peace agreement that integrates armed movements but doesn’t reform the armed forces who are ultimately responsible for most of the past violence.” Therefore, the separation of the state from religion can initiate a transformative process, which would need to go further for peace in the area.

The Sharia-based legal system was first imposed in Sudan in 1983 by the former president Omar al-Bashir, who came into power after a military coup. During the regime, Islamic law was imposed in Sudan through transforming state institutions and imposing measures, such as the banning of alcohol and segregation of the sexes. After the social protests in April 2019 then President Omar Hassan al-Bashir was deposed. This was followed by controversies regarding Sudan becoming a secular state and the role of religion.

Last October, peace agreements took place in Sudan between the government and diverse rebel groups. The SPLM-N was not part of the agreements, because SPLM-N leader Abdelaziz al-Hilu demanded that Sudan should abolish the Sharia-based legal system and become a democratic and secular state. SPLM-N has been operating in regions that are inhabited by minorities, such as Christians and diverse African believes, which faced a long time of discrimination under Sharia law.

In contrast, opinions from the public seem to be divided in the discussion of what role religion should play in Sudan. A shift away from the Sharia-law is not being widely accepted in the eyes of the public. Survey data from the Arab Barometer, a research network, showed that the Sudanese population may not support the separation of state and religion. In December 2018, the survey showed that 61 % of the Sudanese said that the law should be based on Sharia, whilst 27 % said that the law should be equally based on Sharia and other wishes of the population. Particularly younger Sudanese people favor a separation of the state and religion. Nevertheless, this data has to be seen in the context of time because the majority of citizens linked the Sharia-based law to good governance, providing for example basic services. That is why it is unclear if the population is necessarily against the separation of state and religion. What the data shows is that Sudanese people demand a good government, irrespective of religion.

Despite controversies regarding the role of religion in Sudan, the agreement can be seen as a crucial step towards a peace agreement ending decades of conflicts. Especially if the Sudanese government manages to provide good governance and basic services in this transitional time.