New developments in Sudan: Alsadig Almahdi
Sudan, Analysis, 1/13/1998
Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi, the strongest spiritual and political leader in Sudan, stunned everybody, including some of his own Umma party members, when he declared, last week that he has accepted the initiative of the Popular Organization for National Dialogue (POND), a Sudanese non-governmental organization, to enter into negotiations with the, National Islamic Front (NIF), backed government aimed at securing a peaceful transformation of the military government into a democratic regime.
Moreover, Al-Mahdi went further to praise the NIF government for succeeding in creating a conducive environment for a political settlement. The former Sudanese Prime Minister indicated to French Press Agency last week that he detected a beginning of change in the position of Khartoum¹s government. "There is a new political atmosphere about national dialogue" Al-Mahdi said, adding "I recognize that the language of the Sudanese government has changed and that change translates into the start of thinking about options other than the monopolization of power". For his part, Al-Mahdi¹s brother-in-law and leader of the NIF Hassan al-Turabi confirmed that contacts were currently being conducted and that some mediators have been engaged in shuttle diplomacy. "The government is committed to carrying out with dialogue", Turabi declared to reporters last week. Some sources said telephone conversations between Al-Mahdi and Turabi took place and a tentative scheduling for a meeting between the two has been discussed.
Many opposition leaders, including Mohammad Othman Almirghani, leader of the Unionist party and head of Alkhatmia, the second largest religious sect in Sudan, were taken by surprise and were infuriated by the new developments. One of Almirghani¹s close advisers speaking to Arabicnews.com on condition of anonymity, said that by engaging in contacts with the government without consulting other political parties Al-Mahdi has violated the charter of the Sudanese opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and betrayed his partners. Nevertheless, Al-Mahdi¹s supporters vehemently denied that their leader has taken anyone by surprise, maintaining that by recognizing the IGADD initiative "peace initiative conducted by East African countries", as a framework for negotiations, that took place in the past between the government and the Sudan's People Liberation Army (SPLA), which is fighting under the NDA umbrella, the NDA has, in fact, accepted peaceful mechanisms as a way of dismantling the NIF military government. They also maintain that the "Asmara Declaration", signed by all opposition political parties in 1994, has not excluded negotiation and peaceful transformation as political tools for resolving the Sudanese political crises. Al-Mahdi¹s supporters reminded their critics that their leader has proposed a peaceful settlement program in an article he wrote last November, and was published in Al-Sharq-Alawsat Arabic daily.
There are several factors that need to be dealt with in any attempt to get to the roots of Al-Mahdi¹s unilateral move to seek a negotiated settlement with the military government. It is important not to loose sight of the fact that Al-Mahdi¹s power base is Alansar sect, the largest religious group in Sudan, and that he has always been very keen to portray himself as a religious leader and an Islamic thinker. Although the Umma party representatives have halfheartedly signed the Asmara Declaration with its secular orientations, many inside and outside Sudan, suspected that the Umma party will never be able to keep its word should the military government be toppled. It is similarly important to note that from an ideological point of view there are more common grounds between the Umma party with its Islamic agenda (the Umma party¹s mission statement is titled: Islamic Awakening Program) and the National Islamic Front, rather than between the Umma and any other Sudanese single party including the Unionist party which though, supported by Alkhatmia religious sect, its ranks is overwhelmingly dominated by middle-class secularists.
Probably, Al-Mahdi,visualizing different possible scenarios for what might happen in case the military government collapses, decided that his best chances resides with a scenario that allows the NIF to politically survive, rather than to be totally crushed, realizing that its almost a forgone conclusion that in any future relationship between him and the NIF, the upper hand will be his. A peaceful transformation with him in the center will definitely guarantee Al-Mahdi more political gains rather than any kind of violent change with a big number of political actors in the forefront.
After fleeing Sudan early last year to take sanctuary in neighboring Eritrea, Al-Mahdi must have explored the possibilities of a Mussevini style or Kabila style armed march towards Khartoum, a scenario which some other opposition groups are still considering, but it is evident that given the vastness of the country in general, and with the Eastern Sudan¹s terrain being what it is ( mostly desert and open areas), chances of such a try to succeed are slim. A reality which is only vindicated by fact that despite 43 years of intermittent guerrilla war in the southern part of the country, the southern rebels were hardly able to achieve a final victory despite the favorite nature of the South ( wholly jungles and bushes) for such kind of war.
One factor, playing into Al-Mahdi¹s strategy, is that despite all the challenges the NIF government had to face during the past 9 years, it was able to survive and endure. International sanctions passed through the United Nations against Sudan in 1996, though harmful, proved ineffective. Besides, the recent changes in the Egyptian government position towards Khartoum has given the NIF military junta more muscles, and has -no doubt- dealt a serious blow to the US which, for a long time, which used to get full support from Egypt as far as the US strategy towards Sudan was concerned.
Also, Al-Mahdi must have taken into account, what many observers now tend to believe, that Washington no longer looks upon him as her favorite leader of Sudan. Last May, few weeks after going into his self imposed exile in Eritrea, Al-Mahdi visited the US soliciting support for the Sudanese opposition. He was received in Washington by George Moose, assistant secretary of state for African affairs and some congressmen. Although the state department spokesman, Nicholas Burns, welcomed his coming to the American capital stating that the US respects him enough to meet with him and to listen to him, and we hope one day Sudan may become a democratic country.
Being well aware of the fact that Washington favors a leadership capable of bringing about stability to Africa¹s largest country, based on a secular constitution, goods that he, as a religious leader committed to Islamic orientation, cannot practically deliver, Al-Mahdi decided to master his own fate. By throwing a life jacket to the deeply troubled NIF government and, advocating a scenario for political change which allows the NIF to stay in the policymaking scene in Sudan, something the US hates to see, Al-Mahdi sent a strong message to Washington, that he refuses to be marginalized and that he is still the leader who is most capable of writing the last page in the book of the Sudanese dilemma.
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