Abdel Salam Hassan Abdel Salam, who died in London this weekend, was a guiding light of Sudan’s human rights movement. He was one of a remarkable generation of Sudanese intellectuals, who grew up and gained a first-rate education in provincial towns (in his case, Wadi Halfa in Sudan’s far north), and who possessed a vivid curiosity about the complexities and paradoxes of their country. His first job was in the customs office, and one of the many oddities of Sudanese life which he explained was the convergence between poetry and customs officials – both vocations drew disproportionately from the Halfawiin. Abdel Salam remained a poet, but studied law.
Abdel Salam was a devout secularist. Among his role models was Farag Foda, and Abdel Salam brought the same quality of straight-thinking intellectual courage to his life and work. He was an unflinching advocate for human rights with a keen sense of the social and political context for making those rights real. He studied Islam deeply and mocked both the excesses of Islamist zealots, and those who were intimidated by them. Analyzing Sudanese jihadism for a chapter we co-wrote on the topic, he turned to the infamous el Obeid fatwa of 1992 and immediately saw that it was, as he said “the rantings of some second-rate provincial ulema.”
I first met Abdel Salam in London in 1990, when he was Chairman of the Sudan Human Rights Organization, re-founded in exile, which was briefly hosted at Africa Watch. He was a formidable intellectual presence. He had the ability to pick out a neglected human rights issue – for example he was keenly attentive to the plight of the Sudanese Copts. We worked closely together for the following fourteen years, notably on the project “human rights in the transition in Sudan.” As early as 1997, Abdel Salam recognized that the Sudanese civil war would surely come to an end, and the human rights community would then face the challenge of ensuring that the promise of the transitional period – peace, democracy and human rights – was not missed. He chaired the committee that organized the first 1999 Kampala conference. Characteristically, he chose to present a paper in that conference on race relations. Many of the southerners present, who did not know Abdel Salam personally, were puzzled, to say the least, when a conspicuously pale-skinned northerner took the podium to speak on this issue, but were won over by his frankness and acuity. He and I co-edited the volume of papers from the conference. For much of the process I served as his ghost writer, intellectually in his debt, and wishing only that he were better able to translate his analyses into the written word.
Abdel Salam coined the term al mashru’ al medani – “the civil project” – as a riposte to the Islamists’ al mashru’ al hadhari or “civilization project.” Following on from the two Kampala conferences (1999 and 2001), this remains the vision for the civil society coalition that Justice Africa pulled together.
Abdel Salam was unfailingly disorganized, but utterly without pretension or ego, and always witty. Once, turning up three hours late for an appointment, the frustrated administrator at African Rights scolded him, ‘do you call this 12 o’clock?’ With a self-deprecating smile Abdel Salam responded, ‘somewhere in the world it is 12 o’clock…’ He longed to return to Sudan, and his work with the Redress Trust from 2007 onwards allowed him to visit Khartoum again, and plan for resuming his vocation at home.
Tragically and shockingly, Abdel Salam was murdered at his small flat in Lewisham, south London, on Saturday. The circumstances of his untimely death are not clear. He was divorced but remained close to his former wife, Wafaa, and leaves an adult daughter, Azza.