Sadiq al-Mahdi, leader of the National Umma Party (NUP) and patron of the Ansar brotherhood, held a brief round of talks earlier this month in Paris with leaders of the rebel Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), the umbrella organisation whose main members are the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement-North (SPLA/M-N), the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the two factions of the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M). The talks concluded with the signing of political statement by the two sides on 8 August which they chose to name the “˜Paris Declaration‘.
From the French capital, Sadiq al-Mahdi flew to Cairo where he hopes to market his new document to an international audience, while the SRF figures, Yasir Arman, secretary general of the SPLA/M-N, and al-Tom Hajo, a former functionary of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), jetted to London to win the favour of Mohamed Osman al-Mirghani, the chief of the DUP and patron of the Khatmiyya brotherhood, resident in the British capital since the bloody protests against the downscaling of fuel subsidies in Khartoum in September 2013. A statement released in Khartoum said al-Mirghani only talked about his health to his visitors.
Sadiq al-Mahdi’s daughter and newly declared deputy, Miriam, made the journey to Khartoum where she was apprehended by the security authorities upon arrival and now awaits presidential clemency or prosecution, depending on the political temperature, in the women’s prison in Omdurman. Her brother, Abd al-Rahman, who serves as President Bashir’s assistant, reportedly advised Miriam to stay put in Paris, and has not even made the gesture of interrupting his duties in the republican palace on the Nile. Rather, he has been busy discussing “˜national dialogue’ with Hassan al-Turabi, his uncle-in-law (husband of his paternal aunt) and chief of the Popular Congress Party (PCP).
The itinerary of its signatories aside, the four-page Paris declaration is the latest incarnation of a trail of documents that brought together the ancestor SPLM and representatives of Khartoum’s political class dating back to the 1980s, with the promise of delivering an agenda and platform for the transformative management of Sudan’s crises. The first of these documents is the March 1986 declaration signed by the SPLA/M and delegates of the National Alliance for National Salvation (NANS) in Ethiopia’s Koka Dam. The NANS joined the political forces that came together to topple the regime of Jaafar Nimayri in the 1985 intifada.
Idris al-Banna represented Sadiq al-Mahdi’s NUP in the NANS delegation, which was dominated by leaders of professional associations and academics. But the NUP backtracked from the deal under immense pressure from the Islamic Movement under Hassan al-Turabi, at the time politically operative as the National Islamic Front (NIF), when the two pages of the document were made public in Khartoum. The NUP eventually found no need for the Koka Dam declaration once it won the largest share of parliamentary seats in the April 1986 elections and Sadiq al-Mahdi’s premiership was guaranteed.
The Koka Dam declaration called for a “˜national constitutional conference’ to debate Sudan’s governance crisis, predated by a series of measures to ensure an adequate political environment, notably the repeal of sharia laws, adoption of the 1956 constitution as amended in 1964, and efforts to sign a ceasefire with the SPLA/M in southern Sudan. The document demanded as a condition for the “˜national constitutional conference’ the dissolution of the government of the day, the chronically rotating cabinet premiered by Sadiq al-Mahdi, and its replacement by an “˜interim government of national unity’ representing all the political forces in the country, including the SPLA/M and the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF).
Whether by design or destiny, the Paris Declaration of Sadiq al-Mahdi and the SRF rehashed the basic tenets of its Koka Dam predecessor: the call for the convention of a constitutional conference under the authority of an interim all-parties government that accommodates the political leaders of an insurgency. Koka Dam it must be said was a touch more ambitious and boldly promised to inaugurate the “˜New Sudan’, a term that the SPLA/M-N and its allies in the SRF consciously dropped in their Paris document for understandable reasons. They opted instead for the blanket reference to “˜forces of change’. While the signatories of the Koka Dam declaration, Khartoumian intellectuals of a liberal bent, could easily claim the credentials of the “˜New Sudanese Man’ (at the time gender sensibilities were not particularly sharp), buoyantly democratic and human rights conscious, Sadiq al-Mahdi, an establishment heavyweight, can hardly claim to represent anything “˜new’ in the Sudanese polity.
Earlier this year, the NCP launched its National Dialogue initiative in close coordination with the NUP chairman Sadiq al-Mahdi and the PCP chief Hassan al-Turabi. The two men, along with Ghazi Salah al-Din al-Attabani, newly evolved into an opposition figure after an outstanding record of service in the successive governments of President Bashir, listened intently to the President’s “˜leap speech’ on 27 January this year, and were involved in the initial deliberations to form the 7+7 steering committee, composed of an equal number of representatives of government and opposition parties.
Sadiq al-Mahdi, however, soon opted out, for the same reason that he had before parted with the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) to sign the Djibouti accord with President Bashir in November 1999 and more recently walked out of the opposition National Consensus Forces (NCF), when his plans for restructuring the alliance were rejected. The former premier identified his core grievance in a proposal he voiced in July after the suspension of his party’s involvement in President Bashir’s National Dialogue a few weeks earlier. A frustrated Sadiq called for the National Dialogue process to be restricted to the “six historical parties” and the rebel movements – excluding the smaller organisations and break-off factions that confound the NUP’s claim to be the largest political party in the country, a claim based on the results of the 1986 elections, twenty-eight long years ago!
The big six in Sadiq al-Mahdi’s count are his NUP, Mohamed Osman al-Mirghani’s DUP, the two wings of the Islamic Movement, the ruling NCP and Hassan al-Turabi’s PCP, in addition to the SPLA/M, in the really existing “˜New Sudan’ the SPLA/M-N of Malik Agar, Abd al-Aziz al-Hilu and Yasir Arman, and the Sudanese Communist Party. According to Sadiq al-Mahdi’s calculus, newcomers would have to prove their political weight through demonstration of a country-wide network and a record of activity in order to secure access to the comprehensive national dialogue he envisions. Sadiq’s July proposal had the bulky title: “The Nation-Building Charter – Unified Diversity”. When asked about the activity of his own party, Sadiq, the keen accountant, usually cites the numbers of workshops, press conferences and political declarations with an NUP tag.
Sadiq al-Mahdi’s concern for representation stems from his stubborn resistance to acknowledge the mutations of the political terrain he attempted and disastrously failed to charter as premier between 1986 and 1989, a time when he failed to live up to his billing as “Sadiq… hope of the nation”. Darfur and southern Kordofan were once regions of a secure NUP vote, so much so that the party had more trouble managing factional disputes over candidacy than defeating competitors. Since then, the violent convulsions in those areas have generated patterns of political consciousness, easily dismissed as “˜tribal’, that preclude a NUP sweep without further qualification.
To access the electoral benevolence of his core constituencies once again, Sadiq al-Mahdi would have to bargain hard and long with skilful Baggara politicians, who now command local and state governments and standing militias, and brag about cabinet quotas in the central government. In the White Nile, the other historical safe haven of the NUP, socio-economic transformations, including the massive expansion of higher education under the NCP and mass labour emigration, are likely to sap away at the NUP vote just as the urbanisation wave of the 1970’s reduced the DUP’s dominance in the three towns of the capital Khartoum to a mere remnant in the 1986 elections, to the good fortune of Hassan al-Turabi’s NIF.
The NUP as a party suffered this inconvenient history as a series of splits which Sadiq al-Mahdi prefers to blame squarely on the NCP, the most dramatic being the decision of Sadiq’s cousin and former NUP secretary general, Mubarak al-Fadil al-Mahdi, to run away with almost half of the party organisation straight to the presidential palace in 2002. Mubarak’s tenure as assistant to President Bashir ended in 2004, but the party he summoned out of the NUP remained in government bondage, albeit splintered in yet another bout of factional dispute. Sadiq al-Mahdi has since effectively barred Mubarak’s return to the NUP homestead despite multiple attempts at reconciliation; the most recent mediated by the estranged Mahdi elder and Sadiq’s uncle, Ahmed al-Mahdi, on the occasion of Sadiq’s release from brief imprisonment in July.
It is then conceivable that Sadiq al-Mahdi found no entertainment in the NDA leadership structure before his departure in 1999. His rival Mohamed Osman al-Mirghani, chief of the DUP, maintained a permanent chairmanship thanks to an unwritten understanding with the late John Garang. Sadiq al-Mahdi also had to suffer formal equality in decision making processes with exiled trade union leaders and army officers. Likewise, Sadiq al-Mahdi could secure no advantage of political history and stature in the NCF where his NUP had to bear the same voting rights as the Communist Party, factions of the Baath Party, the miniscule New Democratic Forces Movement (Haq), itself a faction of a faction that jumped off the Communist Party in 1995, and the opposition Sudanese Congress Party of Ibrahim al-Sheikh among others.
President Bashir’s National Dialogue, where Sadiq al-Mahdi had hoped to receive the accommodation due to a former prime minister, proved no exception. Not only was the process largely dominated by Hassan al-Turabi, whose party in effect turned the page on its dispute with the NCP; but Sadiq al-Mahdi was asked to share the table with figures who had departed his NUP and formed their own mini-Ummas on the government side as leaders of political parties that had an equal say in the process as he did. Others at the table included two splinters of the ruling NCP, Ghazi al-Attabani’s Reform Now Movement (RNM) and Tayeb Mustafa’s Just Peace Forum (JPF), on the opposition side, next to a range of exotic newcomers and a tragicomic association of Nimayri fans who miraculously resurrected the long dead Sudan Socialist Union – the Alliance of the People’s Workforces but corrupted the name with the adjunct “˜democratic’.
According to President Bashir’s count, the national dialogue heralded by the leap speech brought together eighty four political parties, equal as the teeth of a comb to paraphrase a tradition of the Prophet Mohamed. In this crowd, managed by the NCP and the PCP, Sadiq al-Mahdi and his big NUP had one vote. Compared to this political bazaar, members of the SRF were at least a countable bunch.
In signing the Paris Declaration with the SRF after an extensive and eventful flirt with the NCP that included a short spell in the Cooper prison in Khartoum, Sadiq al-Mahdi was apparently enacting a political tactic employed against him during the last year of his premiership back in 1988 by his less glamourous rival, Mohamed Osman al-Mirghani. At the time, the DUP was partnered with the NUP in one of Sadiq al-Mahdi’s wobbly cabinets. Mirghani flew to Addis Ababa where he negotiated the principles of a peaceful settlement for the civil war in the country with the SPLA/M leader John Garang. It has since been hailed as Sudan’s wasted peace opportunity.
The November 1988 Sudanese peace agreement as it came to be known was a shorter version of the Koka Dam declaration, which the DUP and the NIF had boycotted. It featured Koka Dam’s basic tenets apart from dissolution of the government of the day, namely the call for a national constitutional conference to be held on 31 December 1988 on condition of the repeal of the Sharia laws, the implementation of an immediate ceasefire and the lifting of the state of emergency in southern Sudan. Mohamed Osman al-Mirghani received a hero’s welcome in Khartoum upon his return from Addis Ababa, but the NIF launched an aggressive campaign against the deal focused on the blasphemy of suspending the holy laws. Sadiq al-Mahdi was intimidated into rejecting the Garang-Mirghani accord, the DUP walked out of the cabinet and the NIF stepped in instead.
The SPLA/M-N today can hardly claim the military stature of the parent SPLA/M under Garang in the 1980s, wired to the plugs of the cold war and sufficiently serviced by the Ethiopian Derg, hence the declaration was signed in Paris and not a neighbouring capital. If Sadiq al-Mahdi sought to borrow the SRF’s regime change agenda in pursuit of a more favourable bargain with Khartoum’s rulers, the SRF wants from Sadiq al-Mahdi, the Imam, the stamp and signature of the Sudanese establishment, the very old Sudan it wishes to dispense with in “˜revolutionary’ fashion. Each side is fully aware of the tactical motives of the other but simply have no better politics to offer than the exhausted plagiarisation of past exercises.
Even the pernicious Tayeb Mustafa, leader of the JPF, could not resist the tempting opportunism of the Paris Declaration. The dedicated enemy of the SRF announced his support for the document, saying he tried but could not find fault with it. Instead of its original objective of “˜overthrowing’ the regime, the SRF had adopted Sadiq al-Mahdi’s line of “˜changing’ it, he argued in a flash of semantic insight. Next to the PCP, the NCP’s main partner in the National Dialogue, the JPF is but a footnote, and Tayeb Mustafa, the politician, is apparently a fast learner.
The SPLA/M-N ventured beyond the routines of déjí vu last July when its senior commander in South Kordofan, Jagoud Mikwar Murada, talked politics with Ismail al-Aghbash, representing Musa Hilal’s newly launched Sudanese Awakening Council. Hilal is best known as a Janjaweed leader, but his relationship with Khartoum is now stormy. Murada and al-Aghbash signed a nameless joint statement promising future cooperation to abort the politics of divide and rule in the war-ravaged peripheries of the country and establish a state based on good governance and citizenship through a “comprehensive constitutional process conducive to change”. The encounter set sirens off among the “˜liberals’ of Khartoum, devoted hitchhikers of the SPLA/M-N bandwagon and perennial advocates of “˜change’. They cried génocidaire at Musa Hilal but could not comprehend the prospect of autonomous politics flowing out of the settlements of the Mahameed in North Darfur, unmediated by a sectarian jellabiya from the capital.
Intimidated by the backlash, the SPLA/M-N leadership buried the statement in silence, preferring instead the Parisian high notes of Sadiq al-Mahdi. Hilal aside, the shoulder taps between al-Aghbash and Murada signal a potential of inventing a politics of struggle for the nas (commoners) across the racial divide of the Sudanese hinterlands, an avenue for the “˜New Sudan’ that the SPLA/M-N in its infatuation with the declaration politics of the “˜old Sudan’ is very likely to stray away from.
Magdi el Gizouli is an academic and a fellow of the Rift Valley Institute. He writes on Sudanese affairs at http://stillsudan.blogspot.