AL Sadiq AL Mahdi: An End of a Political Era

Radio Erena: 28 November 2020

The death of the last democratically elected prime minister Assayed AL Sadiq Al Mahdi marks an end of a political era in Sudan. Al Mahdi became the youngest prime minister of Sudan in 1966, he was only 31 years old, that was his graceful entry into the politics of the then largest African country. Though he was a newcomer to the political scene, he came from one of the oldest political African families. His great grandfather is the Imam Mohamed Ahmed Al Mahdi the religious revivalist and the famous anti-colonial revolutionary. His father Sidiq Al Mahdi was the first president of Al Ummah (Nation) party. After the death of his father, the young Oxford graduate, AL Sadiq became the president of the party in 1964.

He was raised under the care of his grandfather Abdulrahman Al Mahdi the original founder of the Party and the leading figure in the independence movement of the country.

Ummah Party and its archrival the Unionist Party (UP) dominated the political scene in Sudan from 1940s until 1998. Whereas Ummah party led the independentist movement, the Unionist Party, led by the rival Al Mirghani family backed the movement which called for the union between Egypt and Sudan. As a result, the two families Al Mahdis and Al Mirghanis have ever since represented the two opposing extremes in the local and regional politics.

Al Sadiq’s first term as a head of government was short; but the democratic rule itself came to an abrupt break with the coup d’état of Jaffar Nimeiry in May 1969.

When the generals took over, AL Mahdi and his counterpart, and later his brother in law, Dr Hassan Turabi and Al Mirghani all took to the exile. In July 1976 with some substantial Libyan support, AL Mahdi, Turabi and AL Hindi, another charismatic figure of Sudan politics plotted a coup d’état against Nimeiry, but the attempt failed. That marked AL Mahdi’s divorce with the politics of violence as means of national change. Opting for peaceful solution with the regime, he made a famous reconciliation agreement with Nimeiry one year later. His activity has always shifted between opposition, imprisonment and exile. With the fall of Nimeiry in 1985, his lot changed with his election as a primer minister for the second time in twenty years. His rule which continued until 1989, was marred by frequent fall of coalition governments, fierce civil war and economic hardships.

Al Mahdi was not only a political figure but also a leader of the Ansar religious Sect, the highly influential socio-political group established by his great grandfather. The Ansar Sect has a great following in central and western Sudan, such traditional constituency had always secured seats for the Ummah Party candidates in the national assembly. Depending on this sweeping popular support, Al Mahdi employed his constituency to wield political power albeit divisions in his traditional Ummah Party.

When his democratically elected government lost power to a military junta in summer 1989, he joined the opposition against his adversary Turabi who sponsored the coup d’état from behind scene. In 1996, he fled to Asmara to Join the late John Grang the leader of the Sudan Popular Liberation Movement, SPLM, and the Democratic Unionist Party leader Al Mirghani to work together in the Democratic Reassembly for the restoration of democracy. In a critical political point, the DR opted for military action against Khartoum government due to the unyielding influence of the Sudan Popular Liberation Army, SPLA, the armed arm of SPLM, and the Eastern Front Organization EF which included the Beja Congress and under immense pressure from the host country Eritrea. Ummah Party had troops which also participated in liberating some military bases in Eastern Sudan, but AL Mahdi’s chemistry has always been in intrinsic dislike to violent revolutionary actions, therefore, he later ditched the opposition camp and returned to Khartoum, a move which was widely interpreted as stab in the back of his political partners.

AL Mahdi’s partners were relatively right, his return had not borne any democratic change, it rather consumed him in barren political marathons which yielded little political gain at the expense of the erosion of his historical political asset. Many have scathingly criticized him for joining hands with the very generals who toppled his democratically elected government.

In 2017, pressed with old age and despair of any democratic change from within, Al Mahdi helped to establish Sudan Call Coalition in Paris to forge democratic transition along with some armed movements.
When the youth had successfully toppled the government of Omar Al Bashir, in the famous December 2019 revolt, the Ummah and the UP and some other traditional political parties had found themselves sidelined in the new political setup.

Throughout fifty years of political carrier in a country marred by political and economic upheavals, the valuation of Al Mahdi’s political legacy needs volumes and plentiful time to study and examine. All the same, there is a prevalent consensus that AL Mahdi’s carrier is controversial in all its ups and downs. From allying with close partners to the downright cooperation with dreadful foes and ditching of essential allies, his fifty-year political odyssey has been the center of debate and many-sided criticism.

His death from Covid-19 complications on the 24 of November one month ahead of his eighty fifth anniversary has put an end to a long controversial political carrier by all measures. One point of view is commonplace among the Sudanese: that AL Mahdi and Turabi could have made two great professors than both being controversial politicians. Actually, the intellectual yield of AL Mahdi is endowed with deep insight, erudition and eloquence, which makes his absence a great loss to academia more than to politics.

By Fathi Osman