ISS Interview with Imam Al Sadig Al Mahdi

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1 May 2003


Khartoum, 1 May 2003

The peace talks between the government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement facilitated by the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and hosted by the Kenyan government are currently continuing in Nairobi, Kenya.


The exclusion of other parties or groups from the talks is increasingly being seen as problematic and there are growing calls for a widening of the process in order to achieve greater sustainability of a final agreement.


The following highlights the main points of an interview with the leader of the opposition Umma Party, Al-Sadig al-Mahdi, held in Khartoum on May 1, 2003.


On the prospects for peace and the emergence of the ‘new forces’…
  • Al-Sadig al-Mahdi supports the IGAD peace process, but considers that it should only serve as a preparatory agreement that moves on to a national all-party constitutional conference, which will give the agreement legitimacy and bring the new forces into the political process.
  • Al-Sadig calls for ‘IGAD Plus’. This would not involve post-IGAD negotiations, since he accepts the principles already agreed upon at Machakos, the proposed transitional period and the vote on southern self-determination. But further measures would be subject to elections. Moreover, the electoral process would be based on a commitment to the peace process.
  • In theory the prospects for peace are good, in practice they are bad and Al-Sadig largely attributes this to the emergence of what he calls the ‘new forces’, which need to be recognized as an essential component in any legitimate peace process.
  • The ‘new forces’, according to Al-Sadig, are made up of the Sudan Civic Forum in Kampala, Sudan marginalized minorities, (South Sudan Defence Forces) SSDF, Democratic Forum in London, Nuba Mountain Conference, South Blue Nile Conference, Gok Dinka Conference planned for May, and the armed resistance in Darfur, Western Sudan. He sometimes includes what could be called the cast-offs of the government – the Turabi faction and the Justice Party. The new forces combined with the increasing lack of authority of the National Islamic Front (NIF) Government, makes a bilateral Government of Sudan – Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement/Army (GoS-SPLM/A) peace agreement seem unrealistic.
  • Al-Sadig drew attention to the significance of the recent insurrectionary developments in Darfur, saying that it was ‘harvesting the failure of the regime’. It was clear that the group challenging the GoS in Darfur has the sympathy of a wide swathe of the territory and involves progressive inclusive politics, as opposed to the exclusivist politics practiced by the GoS since coming to power.
  • The emergence of these new forces in many ways gives validity to SPLM/A leader, Dr. John Garang’s notion of New Sudan. While many would contend that New Sudan involved a challenge to traditional parties like the Umma, Al-Sadig contends that New Sudan is a ‘necessity’, that the ‘old democracy’ is not sustainable and there is a need for more balance among the political forces and for an emphasis on development.
On the National Islamic Front and the way forward…
  • The NIF had hoped for an opportunistic power-sharing agreement with the SPLM/A, but for ideological reasons, its clear weaknesses, and the significance of the emerging new forces, the SPLM/A rejected the proposal.
  • Faced with this, Al-Sadig told ISS that the NIF has three alternatives: first, stick to the existing policy; second, ‘escape forward’ by which he means blaming the country’s fragmentation on the SPLM/A and at the same time supporting the early secession of the South to stop the change, or third, move forward through a vehicle like South Africa’s CODESA.
  • When asked by the ISS if he could accept a Mahatma Gandhi position when on the eve of Indian independence Gandhi offered to turn the leadership of the country over to the Muslim leader, Jinnah, to ensure the unity of the country, Al-Sadig responded ‘why not?’ He said, ‘Who governs Sudan is a matter of consensus or democratic decision. It is a question of how the Sudan is governed, not who governs.’
  • Concern with unity leads Al-Sadig to support the integrity of the NIF government. Were the government to disintegrate, he feared this would lead to the widespread emergence of militias. Al-Sadig is prepared to join the government, but the bottom-line is an NIF commitment that the government assume a transitional status as a prelude to the holding of genuinely democratic elections. This has been the Umma Party position for some years, but the government does not yet appear willing to make the concessions necessary to get his party on board.
On the New Umma Party…
  • According to Al-Sadig, the Umma Party has streamlined its positions and now expresses the views of ‘all moderates who support radical change without violence’.
  • By assuming the religious leadership of the Umma Party at the party’s recent convention as well as holding its political leadership and maintaining its integrity in the face of his cousin Mubarak Al-Fadl Al-Mahdi’s defection to the government, Al-Sadig contends that the party is more united and committed than ever.
  • Al-Sadig takes some credit for convincing Sudanese Muslims that country’s government should not be a theocracy, but based on a religiously neutral constitution. The position of head of state has been de-mythologised, he told the ISS, and this has created the grounds for the acceptance of a non-Muslim or a woman as president. He said that Sudan will no longer have a ‘Khalifa-like head of state’, referring to the traditional head of state in historical Sudan.
  • Al-Sadig contends that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has steadily declined because of a lack of planning and as a result it has been the Umma Party that has popularized changes that are crucial to the country’s democratic peaceful transition. Among these changes he identifies that rights be based on citizenship, which he contends has sidelined the old debate between secularists and those who favoured the imposition of a theocracy. He also gives credit to the Umma Party for winning the argument that there can be no Islamic state under Islam, only pursuit of Islamic principles.
  • Significantly, Al-Sadig points to his party’s affirmation of self-determination for the South as crucial in gaining its acceptance among the northern Sudanese population.
  • As a result of the near collapse of the ruling NIF and the decline of the DUP, Al-Sadig optimistically anticipates that his party could end the pattern of coalition governments that have characterized Sudan’s experiments with democracy and win a majority vote in a democratic election.
On the Umma Party and the SPLM/A…
  • The Umma Party has resolved its problems of dialogue with the SPLM/A and this development also challenges the viability of a bi-lateral peace agreement, or at least an agreement that ends with the IGAD process. Garang sent a positively received speech to the recent Umma Party Convention, and contacts are currently underway to make arrangements for a Garang-Al-Sadig meeting in the near future.
  • While Al-Sadig acknowledges that only very recently relations between the SPLM/A and Umma Party were distinctly frosty and his personal relations with Garang were tense, his analysis now emphasizes their areas of agreement, and most importantly, that these two parties alone have the capacity to make a sustainable peace, ensure a united Sudan, and underpin a democratic future for the country.
  • Not surprisingly then, Al-Sadig calls for a ‘strategic alliance’ between the SPLM/A and the Umma Party, the major political blocs of the South and North. This would not constitute an electoral alliance of the kind that the NIF favoured with the SPLM/A, but more an alliance based on a similar understanding, commitments, and acceptance of a program on the way forward after a national election. Such an alliance, Al-Sadig says, has broad support in the Umma Party. Garang, however, would face more difficulties, apart from a historical distrust of the Umma Party. These problems involve the difficult transition from a primarily military SPLM/A to a political party, dependence upon political advisors from the North with limited visions, and the extent of influence by the US on the SPLM/A.
  • When questioned by the ISS why the SPLM/A would accept the Umma Party proposal which essentially involves going beyond a peace agreement in IGAD to accepting a two stage process, Al-Sadig contends that the SPLM/A is increasingly entertaining diverse views, recognizes the tenuous hold on power of the government, appreciates the growing significance of the new forces, and understands the authority of the Umma Party as the country moves to democracy. He also feels that the SPLM/A cannot be unresponsive to the national and international communities and this means accepting the notion of a more inclusive peace and one tied to the democratization of the country. In addition, the Umma Party and Al-Sadig personally have made clear their support for an unambiguous self-determination for the south, something that has not always been the case with the government, and hence he contends that the SPLM/A would find the Umma Party a more acceptable bargaining party. Lastly, both the SPLM/A and the Umma Party acknowledge the importance of the new forces and that they be brought into an inclusive peace process.
On the Umma Party and the United States…
  • Al-Sadig al-Mahdi readily acknowledges that from his years in government to the present his relationship with the US has been problematic and that Washington continues to be suspicious of the Umma Party. When prime minister in the 1980s Al-Sadig once famously said that the US preferred dictatorships to democracies as they were easier to manipulate and more predictable and he still contends that the Americans favour ‘weaklings who don’t think’. But he thinks that the US approach to the region is now more rational, based on a commitment to democracy, and that it too will recognize the changing political realities in Sudan which includes the moves to democracy and the need to engage the Umma Party.
  • Al-Sadig believes that the US must recognize the problems inherent in basing a peace process on agreement between two dictators, Garang and Beshir. He also thinks that the US has been badly tainted in the Arab World as a result of the war in Iraq and this will increase the pressure on it to support genuine democratic transformations and this can only be accomplished in Sudan through the involvement of the Umma Party. Moreover, as Al-Sadig never tires of stressing, Sudan is the only country in the Arab World that is effectively ‘immune’ to Islamic extremism because it has experienced the phenomenon and it would be decisively rejected in any fair electoral contest.
On the emerging Arab World…
  • Al-Sadig’s views on the Arab World were controversial even before the advent of the Iraqi War. He has regularly noted the lack of democratic legitimacy of most regimes in the region and held that they were only made secure by the support of the US and, with American blinkers largely removed after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, that this security blanket should be eliminated. He bluntly says that he ‘favours kicking out the old guard in the Arab World’. He holds that the drive behind the bin Ladins in the Muslim World is US support for oppressive regimes and it is time this ends. Al-Sadig goes on to say that since the US has to deal with the realities of Islam, that it needs to engage the leaders of the Islamic world, particularly those with democratic bona fides, and that includes himself.
  • After Iraq, Al-Sadig says that the Arabs are ‘out of history’ and they ‘have to be dragged into it’. In this light, he contends that the Arabs may have to deal with a new generation of colonizers, which in any case is preferable to home-grown dictatorships, which are invariably more deceitful and offensive. He thus welcomes US proclaimed efforts to bring democracy to the Middle East and says that the people of the region will support such efforts, if they prove genuine. However, he notes the weakness of this project because it will likely bring unity to Arabs, Muslims, and nationalists who will solidly reject the Americans. And he further notes that the people are better poised to challenge the colonizers than national dictators.