15 – 21 July 2004
Issue No. 699
By Gamal Nkrumah
A tall, trim, rather diffident Sadig Al-Mahdi enters the spacious lounge in striking traditional Sudanese garb. His is an extraordinarily handsome face. His billowing robes, blindingly white, gently flutter. He adjusts his turban in the sitting room of his apartment in Nasr City, Cairo. He’s smiling and affable.
His easy charm and natural flair for politics seem to have weathered the rigours of time as well as his features.
Al-Mahdi is a hard man to track down, but when I finally secure a meeting it proves well worth the wait. The photographer and I were served freshly squeezed orange juice. Al-Mahdi, himself, eats plenty of fresh fruit and salad and rarely touches red meat.
“He eats very little,” I am told by a close acquaintance of his — perhaps this is the secret of his seemingly eternal youth. And, he drinks lots of milk. Al-Mahdi’s attendants instantly appear only to disappear as quickly with a nod of his head or a slight wave of his hand.
Al-Mahdi’s aristocratic bearing betrays the fact that he has spent much of his life in the sumptuous surroundings where the Sudanese elite mingles. Theirs is a world at once both Western and traditional, African and Arab. He leans back in his chair to deliver what are clearly his favourite pieces of Sudanese political miscellany — Darfur, southern Sudan, political Islam, women in Islam, Islamic banking and underdevelopment. He is obviously no stranger to wealth but Al-Mahdi, equally, is no man of leisure. He hails from the most distinguished political and religious family in Sudan, a nation of which his great-grandfather, Mohamed Ahmed Al-Mahdi, is generally seen to have founded.
Sadig Al-Mahdi might have been ousted from office, but he is unquestionably a man of authority. He possesses the kind of stature, name, knowledge, and political skills that the position of Sudanese prime minister demands. He is after all, the only Sudanese who has held the position — once Sudan’s highest political office — twice and who hopes to return to office, though “only by the ballot box”.
Much of Al-Mahdi’s political thinking is laid out in his books and publications. He served as prime minister between July 1966-May 1967 and again between May 1986-June 1989 when his government was toppled by the military coup headed by current Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir.
He offers few personal reminiscences of his long political career. He is not a man of many words. He won’t be drawn on where he thinks Sudan is heading. He weighs his words carefully, and speaks like the seasoned politician he is.
Suave and charismatic, Al-Mahdi cuts a dashing figure. An Oxford graduate, his impeccable English and refined manners do not clash with his traditional role as leader of the Ansar Al- Mahdi sect, the largest sufi order in Sudan. The Ansar provide the backbone of the Umma Party, the country’s largest political party with a large following in western, central and northern Sudan. In 1986, when the last Sudanese democratic general elections took place, the Umma Party won 34 of the 39 constituencies in Sudan’s far- western province of Darfur. The Umma Party also has a strong presence in the neighbouring province of Kordofan.
“I am a product of my history and my culture,” he says.
Speaking about the February 1989 coup that toppled his government and brought to an end the short-lived multi-party democratic experiment in Sudan he leans forward: “The military officers who staged the coup had power but I had legitimacy and political credibility,” he says, his eyes twinkling.
Born in Omdurman, the cultural capital of Sudan, on Christmas Day 1935, Al-Mahdi sees himself as a Sudanese saviour of sorts. If multi- party democracy returns to Sudan one of the biggest question marks will be over the political future of Umma Party leader Sadig Al-Mahdi, the last democratically-elected prime minister of Sudan. He insists that the party he leads is Sudan’s largest and most politically consequential.
For some critics, of course, any attempt to understand Al-Mahdi amounts to an endorsement of a man caricatured as a sly, conniving civilian more dangerous than the generals and juntas that did away with the democratically-elected government over which he presided. But the military has always spared his life, which may, or may not, reflect his political acumen.
History will be a fair judge, he believes.
He points an accusing finger at the now defunct National Islamic Front (NIF) and its one- time leader Hassan Al-Turabi, who now languishes in the notorious Cooper Prison, Khartoum. The NIF recruited officers sympathetic to their militant Islamist cause. Al-Mahdi’s relationship with Al-Turabi is laced with ambiguity. They are related by marriage — Al-Mahdi’s sister, Wisal, is Al-Turabi’s wife. But Al-Mahdi never saw eye-to-eye with his brother-in-law, and their relationship was often strained.
Al-Mahdi is a democrat as well as a moderate Islamist. He detests the firebrand Islamist militancy of his brother-in-law and believes Al- Turabi and his followers must share the blame with Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al- Beshir for many of the country’s current political and economic calamities.
Al-Mahdi believes they were carried away with a mixture of religious zealotry and political ambition. They revelled in taking the moral high ground, and the people of Sudan paid a terrible price for that particular piece of moral Alpinism — the escalation of a war that cost the lives of two million Sudanese and wreaked havoc on the Sudanese economy, tearing to shreds the social fabric of Sudanese society.
But is Al-Mahdi himself not at least partially to blame? Wasn’t his government battling the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) even before the NIF and Al-Beshir came to power?
Al-Mahdi stresses that he did not start the war with the SPLA but inherited it. Indeed, one of his main disagreements with the NIF regime was that Sudan’s political crisis can only be resolved politically and not by force.
Human rights organisations, though, are especially critical of his second term in office, something that has clearly tarnished his image abroad. The most vicious clampdowns during his premiership are sometimes attributed more to his cousin, Mubarak Al-Fadl Al-Mahdi, who was interior minister during Al-Mahdi’s second premiership and who was “seen as the architect of the militia policy” which “directly led to slavery”, according to the London-based Africa Rights. Mubarak Al-Mahdi subsequently broke ranks with his cousin and defected to the Sudanese government, founding a splinter Umma Party group.
Sadig Al-Mahdi believes that, ideological differences notwithstanding, the NIF was secretly infatuated with the experiment of the Sudanese Communist Party. He believes that the two groups, at opposite ends of the Sudanese political spectrum, adopted similar strategies. The only difference is that the communists initiated the Maoist experiment in Sudan while the NIF simply followed their example. NIF cadres adopted Leninist and Maoist concepts of authoritarian rule and governance, and were also influenced by Iraqi Baathists.
But occasionally something new, something unplanned, comes along and upsets all the pieces on the board. The 1989 coup d’état was one such development. When confronted with a monumental problem like this, Al-Mahdi has a tried and tested emergency procedure. He shakes his head and shrugs.
He weathered detention and put to good use his time under house arrest by writing and clarifying his thoughts.
Al-Mahdi is a man of action, though. He doesn’t appreciate being on the political sidelines. Destined to be a politician, he still has political clout in a largely conservative country.
Al-Mahdi dismisses charges that the Umma Party has failed to find a clear identity in contemporary Sudan. And he argues that anyone who reads his books knows where his politics are heading.
Al-Mahdi’s books include The Southern Question ; What is Mahdism ; The Future of Islam in Sudan ; Legal Punishments in the Islamic Social System ; The Nile: Blessing and Curse ; and Homecoming: From Enlightenment to Success.
He calls one of his assistants to bring in books and pamphlets. A few minutes later a collection of them lie on the table before us. A slim volume, Concurrence and Points of Departure: Similarities and Dissimilarities between the Umma Party and the NIF in Sudan (1958- 1995), attracts my attention .
Al-Mahdi, as a politician, is often put under the microscope. Many Sudanese — both northerners and southerners — distrust him. He is not a populist, but he does have a large constituency and a dedicated following among the Ansar.
His detractors portray Al-Mahdi as a monster and are often unfairly critical of the former Sudanese prime minister. “History,” he is certain, “will judge him kindly.” He refuses to be dragged into debates about his political record. Great figures of state do not stoop to such indignities.
Soft-spoken and articulate, Al-Mahdi is a man of many pauses. I ask him about his assessment of the situation in Darfur and about his fact- finding mission to the war-torn province.
Al-Mahdi rubs the side of his face, crosses his legs and frowns. He speaks about rampant corruption and nepotism in Sudan as a whole and in Darfur in particular during NIF rule. He cited the example of a corruption scandal coming to the fore when the then governor of Darfur unabashedly ordered his subordinates to “cover up the scandal”.
The conversation drifts to Islamic Sharia laws and civil and women’s rights. With the back of his hand he rubs the hennaed stubble sprouting on his face.
“I have written extensively about women’s rights in Islam. I have campaigned for women’s rights in Sudan,” he stresses. Al-Mahdi sees no contradiction between his struggle for the rights of women in Sudan and his marriage to two women, both first cousins.
While all his children are politically-minded and are active card-carrying members of the Umma Party, his sons have opted for military careers. The two youngest, Dr Bushra and Mohamed Ahmed, were members of the Sudanese army. His eldest son, Abdurrahman, is a retired officer. His daughters excelled in the fields of medicine and engineering. His first-born, Dr Mariam, is actively engaged in Umma Party organisation, mobilisation and political decision- making. Drs Randa and Tahira, a pharmacist and a medical doctor respectively, are also involved in politics. Dr Rabah, an engineer by profession, now devotes herself to her father’s office as his chief personal secretary and assistant. He has three daughters and two sons from his senior wife, Hafiya Maamoun Sharif, and two sons and three daughters from his second wife Sarah Al-Fadel Mahmoud. And it was Sarah’s son, Abdurrahman, who orchestrated the secret mission that spirited his father out of Khartoum to the Eritrean capital Asmara in December 1999.
The 12 hour overland journey to Eritrea across the desolate wastes of eastern Sudan’s deserts began early on 9 December, a Monday morning, Al-Mahdi muses. He travelled in a convoy of five cars, with 25 heavily armed guards. The plan was delightfully simple. The Sudanese authorities were so angry that no less than 50 security staff were reported arrested and charged with incompetence.
Initially Al-Mahdi, and his Umma Party, were warmly welcomed by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the umbrella opposition organisation of mainly northern Sudanese parties and the SPLA, headquartered in Asmara. But the honeymoon with rival parties in the NDA soon ended with Al-Mahdi pulling out of the NDA.
Some suspect that the Sudanese public is inured to his pleas for political support. He made grave mistakes in the past and he is aware of his own shortcomings.
Al-Mahdi read economics at the University of Khartoum. After graduating he travelled to England where he enrolled at Oxford University. He obtained an MSc in Economics in 1957 and returned to Sudan.
After a stint with the Ministry of Finance in 1957-58, Al-Mahdi resigned to focus on strengthening and modernising the Umma Party.
With the restoration of democracy in 1964, Al-Mahdi was elected head of the Umma Party. Barely two years later, he had the singular honour of becoming Sudan’s — and Africa’s — youngest elected prime minister at the age of 31. While in this key post Al-Mahdi used his formidable energies to the full. His political career might be flawed, but he remains unrepentant about his political record.
So by what measure do critics condemn Sadig Al-Mahdi? He shrugs apologetically. These are some of his supposed attributes — haughty, elitist, manipulative and capricious. He lets out a sigh.
“We are a people who take the Quran as the explicit measure of its values.” Western civilisation, although highly developed from the standpoint of science and technology, is often stunted in its inner depths by a tendency to exclude religion altogether or at least keep it at safe distance. “I think they are missing the spiritual dimension in their lives,” Al-Mahdi says.
Al-Mahdi is a Western-educated democrat who takes Islam seriously and who understands that his country’s greatest enemies are rampant poverty, economic and social deprivation, illiteracy and underdevelopment. He tried to tackle these problems in a short space of time. “I never lived in the official residence reserved for Sudanese prime ministers. I always slept in my own home. I never received a salary, nor did I drive around in a government vehicle,” Al- Mahdi explains nonchalantly.
“I did not believe that any sane person would want to run the country at this particular historical juncture. The country had been embroiled in civil war, and those who staged the coup inherited the civil war.”
They also inherited the economic woes brought about by the economic mismanagement of the regime of former Sudanese President Jaafar Al-Numeiri. “The war could not be stopped through the actions of a single political group, faction or party. There had to be general agreement. There must be consensus, and not just the perspective of a political grouping.”
He believes in national reconciliation. But, Al- Mahdi’s admirers say, he was not wrong to try and do something about Sudan’s crippling problems, he was just ahead of his time.
Did he have an inkling of a coup? Al-Mahdi nods, his face a little sullen. “Three months before the coup took place the Sudanese armed forces suffered a serious military setback and was forced to withdraw from Liria, southern Sudan. I wanted to know why the army lost the garrison town,” Al-Mahdi muses. “I wanted to know why they did not use the newly purchased weapons. I was curious to know why they performed so poorly on the battlefield.”
Al-Mahdi asked questions none of the top brass could answer convincingly. Those were really tough times. “The writing was on the wall,” Al-Mahdi remembers.
The sweeping military successes of the SPLA under the command of John Garang showed how badly the attempt by the civilian administration of Al-Mahdi to contain the rapidly deteriorating security situation in southern Sudan went awry. It also strengthened the resolve of the army to oust the civilian government.
Al-Mahdi is no man of war, but he argues that one doesn’t necessarily have to be a military strategist to figure out that something untoward was taking place. Apparently the military officers concerned had adopted a defensive rather than an offensive strategy. Senior officers launched a witch-hunt, looking for scapegoats among the middle and lower ranks. “Instead of questioning them about their military performance they quizzed them about their political affiliations.”
Was he not by then aware that a plot had been hatched?
“I told them that they have created a climate in which a coup could take place.”
And surely enough a coup d’état took place shortly after and overnight Sudan was plunged into a reign of terror. Political parties were banned. Emergency laws were enforced and civil liberties curtailed. No change could have been greater.
Al-Mahdi argues that multi-party democracy is an urgent priority for Sudan. But he also notes that poverty alleviation is prerequisite in a country where much of the population desperately struggles to get by.
But are these arguments for democracy and human rights merely symptomatic of Al- Mahdi’s knack, throughout his political career, of moving with the times? “No, I have always been a great believer in multi-party democracy and in strengthening democratic institutions in Sudan,” he explains. “Dictatorship and military intervention in the political arena have been the curse of the country.”
He strongly believes that Sudan must not break up. That would be a tragedy for the Sudanese, both northerners and southerners, he insists, believing the country’s disintegration could tip the continent back into darker times.