KHARTOUM, Sudan — Steal a goat, you lose a hand. Use a gun to steal it, you may lose your hand and foot.
Such is the law of sharia, the Islamic judicial code in this East African nation, the abolition of which has become a powerful new organizing weapon in the arsenal of non-Muslim rebels leading a southern insurgency.
When Prime Minister Sadek Mahdi came to power in April, 1986, he promised a new code of justice to replace the ancient laws requiring amputations and public flogging--an issue that has bitterly divided his nation.
A year later, he said the same thing. He has repeated it since in speech after speech, but no replacement for the sharia code has been forthcoming.
Four months after his first administration collapsed in August amid coalition wrangling, no satisfactory formula to solve the sharia issue has been found to allow a new government to be formed. The country remains in a political limbo, bedeviled by a key religious problem that many see as insoluble.
"It is the most difficult problem for Sudanese to confront. No one can win, whichever course is chosen," one political observer in Khartoum said.
The sharia laws were introduced by ousted President Jaafar Numeiri in 1983, when the tide of Islamic fundamentalism, inspired by the 1979 Iranian revolution, was still running high. At the time, Numeiri, once a left-wing socialist, was desperately tacking for political survival and was running out of options.
The laws were a modern version of the classic sharia, a code with its roots in the Koran that has been left essentially unchanged since the 9th Century.
Amputation of the right hand, according to Numeiri's unilateral September, 1983, proclamation, was specified for a theft of goods valued more than $40. For robbery accompanied by violence, the penalty was cross-amputation--the right hand and the left foot.
Adultery, sworn to by four witnesses, was to be punishable by stoning to death. Misdemeanors such as drinking alcohol, swearing and gambling--and such economic crimes as hoarding--brought 100 lashes.
The laws were enforced. Before Numeiri fell in April, 1985, there had been more than 70 amputations, 14 of them of cross-amputations, and several hundred public floggings.
After April, 1985, the laws went largely unenforced during the 12-month military interregnum before Mahdi was elected. They have not been applied in the 17 months since he took office on a platform of unspecified reform and an end to the civil war in the country's south.
No Reform, Peace
Reform and peace have both so far proved impossible. In piously Islamic northern Sudan, the sharia laws were popular. The fundamentalist demand that sharia be retained has become a rallying cry among the young and the tradition-minded--a big constituency.
The current leader of the fundamentalist opposition, Hassan al Turabi, has justified retaining the laws with a haughty rejection of Western values.
"You in the West call such punishments barbaric," he said. "But you have not solved the crime problem in the West. A crime problem like you have in Western societies is barbaric, perhaps more barbaric than anything introduced in Sudan."
In the non-Arab, non-Muslim, black African South, the issue is central to the civil war that the southerners launched again in 1983, demanding political and religious freedom. They reject sharia outright and accuse Mahdi of political cowardice in failing to do away with it.
"Sadek is a sectarian theoretician. We want a society devoid of the influences of race, religion, creed or family," U.S.-educated rebel leader Col. John Garang, a Christian, said at a recent news conference in Nairobi.
Mahdi's search for a judicial substitute mired earlier this year. A committee of specialists from his mainstream, Muslim-led coalition recommended the repeal of sharia. But its intended replacement was a compromise that only served to deepen suspicion and division on all sides.
The draft, never published, is reported to have retained all the principal features of the September laws but said that they would not be applied in non-Muslim areas of Sudan. In those areas, according to insiders, a Western-style law was proposed. What was proposed for the religiously mixed areas of the Sudan has never been clear.
The history of Sudan is littered with Arab governments led by a coalition of two clans, the Mahdist Ansar clan from the West and Khatmiya clan in the East.
When a wrangle over power-sharing brought Mahdi's first administration down in August, he was determined to enhance his government's national appeal by including southerners. They had three seats in his former Cabinet.
Merely papered over by this minimal southern participation, the great regional divide suddenly opened again when Garang made alliances with southern political bosses in Kampala, Addis Ababa and Nairobi. He promised to end his rebellion in exchange for Mahdi's complete abolition of sharia, more autonomy for the south and new elections after a conference to reform the constitution.
Southern demands that Mahdi deliver that package have now stymied his attempt to form a broad, new administration. The issues of sharia and peace, meanwhile, have become impossibly interwoven.
Mahdi almost certainly cannot sell the total abolition of Islamic laws to even his own party, let alone the Arab north.
No Specifics on Compromise
The result is a standoff on the war and on judicial reform, a political crisis that may provoke the army to step in where civilians have failed--as has happened so often in Sudan's past.