Saturday, 17 May 2014

Himeidti: the new Sudanese man

Sadiq al-Mahdi, the leader of the National Umma Party (NUP) and patron of the Ansar brotherhood, appeared on Thursday before the prosecutor of crimes against the state in Khartoum for questioning regarding statements he recently made accusing the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) of committing crimes against civilians and including non-Sudanese nationals in its ranks. The National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) responded with a barrage of charges against Sadiq al-Mahdi under Sudan’s criminal code including ‘dissemination of false news’, ‘instigation of unrest among the armed forces’, ‘defamation’ and ‘threatening of public peace’. Sadiq al-Mahdi, in full bravado, told reporters on Tuesday he was ready to go to court as long as a free and fair trial was ensured. A cache of followers accompanied the former prime minister to the prosecutor on Thursday chanting “no dialogue with evil” and a more flat “Sadiq Sadiq the imam”. He was probably pleased to hear both. 
The commanders of the RSF did not sit idle and held their own show at a press conference of the Sudan News Agency on Wednesday. The RSF is for all practical purposes the government’s most recent attempt to reconstitute a fighting force capable of countering the assortment of insurgents in Darfur, South Kordofan and the Blue Nile. Since their inception in August last year the, the RSF under the leadership of Mohamed Hamdan Daglo (Himeidti), a captain of the government’s cheap counter-insurgency campaign in Darfur, have scored a chain of victories where the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) before them had proved a chronic failure apart from notoriously inaccurate bombing campaigns that only succeed in swelling the ranks of the armed movements in the terrains of Sudan’s wars with angry combatants. Obviously, the SAF laid claim to the gains scored by the RSF, the spokesman of the army regularly appearing on state television to read out the names of the villages, khors and wadis captured by Himeidti and his men. Himeidti himself has slowly moved from the obscurity of militia operation to the limelight of national politics. State governors and senior SAF officers in Darfur receive the man as a war hero, and now he is up against Sadiq al-Mahdi, a lord of the establishment. 
“All allegations against us are lies” shouted an angry Himeidti at the press conference on Wednesday. The commander’s predicament was made clear however by the fact that he was denied the uniform which draped his minder, the SAF officer officially in charge of the RSF Abbas Abd al-Aziz. Himeidti appeared in civilian dress a few numbers larger that his size guarded by an associate who made sure his pistol was on display. A few years back, while still in the jellabiya of a Rizeigati militiaman, Himeidti demanded integration into the SAF as he bargained his way back from a spell of sulky unwillingness to cooperate further with the central government bordering on frank insurgency. He had a trademark red cap back then, a favourite among the Fur peasants who were once his hosts. Abbas Abd al-Aziz, the army officer, said the RSF were administered by the NISS but operate under the SAF. “These troops were gathered from different units and from volunteers. We selected people with fighting experience. We chose them very carefully,” he said. The chain of command above Himeidti and his men, it follows, is camouflaged by design to allow the officers at the helm to claim victory when it happens but avoid culpability for the carnage. 
Dismissing Himeidti and his men, six thousand according to the SAF minder, as an edition of the ‘Janjaweed’ overlooks the agency of these take-away fighters who have come to occupy the recesses vacated by an exhausted state or never effectively controlled by its coercive apparatus. Much like the private companies who have taken over the lucrative venture of managing the irrigation system of the vast Gezira Scheme and made fortunes out of the win, Himeidti’s forces are an instance of ‘private-public partnership’ in the military business of counter-insurgency and related matters. The allegory does not end here though. The companies put in charge of irrigating the fields of Gezira, in the rule owned by headmen of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and associates, proved a disaster exposing the region between the Niles to one season of thirst after another. Likewise, Himeidti’s advances might provide immediate relief to the officers of an army unwilling or unable to fight the very communities from which the majority of its soldiers are drawn but conclusively dispel whatever illusions still linger regarding the capacity of the state to act as a neutral arbiter in the bloody disputes of Sudan’s hinterlands. If the Janjaweed operated in a zone of legal immunity, Himeidti’s forces constitute the law. 
The best witness of the privatization of the SAF is arguably the defence minister, Abd al-Raheem Mohamed Hussein. He recently told parliament that the army suffers a severe and threatening shortage of recruits, a situation he attributed to the poor pay of its soldiers and the attraction of artisan gold mining in Sudan’s peripheries. He did not mention the lure of joining any of the assortment of militias in the same regions, pro-government, insurgent or communal. To address this situation, said the minister, the SAF resorted to relying on the pool of ‘regular forces’ under its purview through short-term contracts, the Popular Defence Forces (PDF), the Popular Police, conscripts of the National Military Service, and the military units of the NISS. According to Abbas Abd al-Aziz, the RSF were conceived precisely to plug this gaping deficit in the SAF’s fighting power. Himeidti, a businessman with a successful record in livestock and furniture trade and a major investor in real estate in the capitals of Darfur, had already presented his bid in the battle for Heglig with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) of South Sudan back in March-April 2012 and was in a position to bargain a better deal with the SAF officers than his predecessor Musa Hilal. Unlike Musa, officially a vigilante unmarked by insignia, Himeidti achieved the proud rank of brigadier-general of the NISS. 
Sadiq al-Mahdi’s alarm over the RSF is remarkable in its irony. If the business of counter-insurgency in Sudan has a pioneer it is Sadiq who as prime minister in the late 1980s resorted to arm the Baggara on the southern Sudan frontier, a solid constituency of the NUP, to battle the rebel SPLA. Fadlalla Burma Nasir, Sadiq’s defence minister at the time and today deputy chairman of the NUP, carried out the mission aside the formal structures of the SAF. The National Islamic Front (NIF), the ancestor of the NCP cycling in and out of government coalition with the NUP back then, pressed for the creation of a ‘popular force’ to assist the army, a proposal fiercely opposed by senior officers fearing further dilution of the SAF’s precarious monopoly. A draft law to launch the Popular Defence Forces (PDF) was already ripe for parliamentary approval when the NIF picked power off Khartoum’s streets on 30 June 1989 to paraphrase the memorable words of the late Zain al-Abdin al-Hindi. “Your democracy is but stinking carrion, if a stray dog ran off with it, nobody would give a damn,” he told parliament shortly before the 30 June coup.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

مع قرنق: "الصفوة البيروقراطية المتبرجزة"

حدد المرحوم جون قرنق في المانفستو الأول للحركة الشعبية لتحرير السودان عام 1983، وقبل ذلك في رسالته للدكتوراة عام 1981، محل السلطة السياسية والاجتماعية في السودان بما سماها "الصفوة البيروقراطية المتبرجزة"، يقصد انها صعدت إلى موقعها الطبقي المتميز بفضل سيطرتها على جهاز الدولة البيروقراطي وليس نشاطها الاقتصادي، فهي بذلك ليست برجوازية أصالة، صعودها الاقتصادي والاجتماعي رهين بسلطتها السياسية. ساوى قرنق في تشخيصه هذا الصفوة الشمالية والجنوبية؛ سبقت الأولى الثانية إلى موارد الدولة عبر "السودنة" الشمالية لكن لحقت بها الثانية عبر اتفاق أديس أبابا 1972 الذي سمح لها بتدشين سطوتها "الثانوية" من خلال هياكل الحكم الذاتي الاقليمي في جنوبي السودان.
في أطروحة قرنق صدى لتقدير رتشارد سكلار في مقالته الموسومة "طبيعة الهيمنة الطبقية في افريقيا" (1967) أن  العلاقات الطبقية في افريقيا "تتحدد في قاعدتها بعلاقات القوة وليس الإنتاج". عند سكلار، صعود الطبقات الاجتماعية المهيمنة في افريقيا دالة لنشأة الحزب السياسي، الآلة التي تمكنت عبرها من السيطرة على جهاز الدولة ومن ثم الاستئثار بمواردها. عاد إلى هذه الفكرة مؤخرا كلمنس بينو في مجلة شؤون افريقية لشرح الصعود الطبقي لصفوة الحركة الشعبية العسكرية-السياسية في جنوب السودان. تتبع بينو كيف انتفعت هذه الصفوة من الدورة الثانية لحرب التحرير في جنوبي السودان (1983 – 2005)، عبر سلب موارد المجتمعات المحلية بخاصة غير الموالية للجيش الشعبي خارج مناطق تجنيده الرئيسية وفرض الضرائب العينية والنقدية على السكان حيث استقرت سيطرة الجيش الشعبي والتجارة في الماشية والسلاح. بذلك تحقق لصفوة الحركة الشعبية تشكيل نفسها كطبقة "ارستقراطية عسكرية" في مقابل غمار السكان في جنوبي السودان حتى نالت الدولة، وعبرها فيض الموارد الذي أتاح لها تجذير نفوذها وتوسيعه، بالدرجة الأولى دخل البترول والقروض والمنح الأجنبية. نقل بينو في مقالته تقدير منظمة قلوبال وتنس أن صفوة الحكم الجنوبية نهبت فيما بينها، بمنهج "الفساد التضامني"، ما لا يقل عن أربعة بلايين دولار منذ تشكيل حكومة جنوب السودان شبه المستقلة عام 2005.
انتهى بينو إلى أن صفوة الحركة الشعبية شكلت من نفسها ارستقراطية جديدة من خلال اقتصاد الحرب ثم عززت نفوذها بالغرف المباشر من خزائن الدولة عبر محاباة شبكة الأقارب والموالين التي رعت من حولها وإتاحة المجال للأعداء السابقين أن ينهلوا كذلك ما استطاعوا تحت خيمة الرئيس كير الكبيرة. يعضد الفساد في تقدير بينو الهيمنة الطبقية والسياسية لصفوة الحركة الشعبية على المدى القصير لكن يهدد بقاء الدولة بما يثير من صراعات سياسية وإثنية. بذلك، يرى بينو أن الصراع الجاري في جنوب السودان يعود في جانب كبير منه إلى البون الشاسع بين ارستقراطية الحكم الجديدة وفئاتها الدنيا من قادة ميدانيين ومحليين وجمهور الناس. لكن، ألا يمكن بتمرين عقلي سهل تبديل جنوب بشمال والوصول إلى ذات الخلاصات. إن كان فساد "الصفوة البيروقراطية المتبرجزة" تسارع حادا في جنوب السودان حتى الانفجار الحربي في ديسمبر الماضي فسيرة قرينتها الشمالية مزمنة لا غير ربما، يميزها فيما مضى نجاح الانقلاب كخطة للاستيلاء على السلطة المركزية كلما اشتدت أزماتها. 

Friday, 4 April 2014

Mahjoub Sharif: a secular prophet

Mahjoub Sharif (1948 - 2014)
Mahjoub Sharif had his way with words. Throughout decades of poetic passion he managed to refashion the colloquial Arabic of the Sudanese town and chant it back at its speakers enriched with emancipatory themes. Mahjoub wrote poems for freedom, crisp, pregnant with music, witty, agitating, but always didactic. He proverbially breathed poems, till his very last breath at his Omdurman home on Wednesday 2 April at the age of sixty six. Thousands accompanied the ‘poet of the people’ as he was known to his last resting place in a mass act of baraka that not even the most pious of sheikhs can claim. 
A school teacher by training, this secular prophet spoke truth to power in a creative language that readily transformed into powerful memes, and as a consequence landed him habitually in the detention cells of Sudan’s military rulers. He was incarcerated repeatedly during the reign of Jaafar Nimayri and then under Omer al-Bashir. It would be no exaggeration to say that the long spells of jail in Cooper prison set the stage for the lung ailment that ended his life. Like scores of Communist Party members he was dismissed from government employment during the extensive purges of the civil service in the 1990s. No prison however could blunt the sharp blade of Mahjoub’s poetry. His joyful compositions cut through the fallacious fat of official propaganda to bare the bone of daily existence as experienced by the nas, the toiling women and men who came out to honour him on Wednesday. 
Beyond exposing power’s sins, Mahjoub had the extraordinary capacity to imagine another future in feather-light lines, suitable even for the playful entertainment of children. He nursed dreams of emancipation on behalf of the country and its people. What sounded hollow and barren in the tedious declarations of Sudan’s politicians, Mahjoub could articulate in immediately accessible promises of a tomorrow waiting to be made. He had the will to dream, so much so that Sudan’s chattering opposition occasionally employed his words as an ersatz for action. Mahjoub Sharif wrote and Mohamed Wardi sang; the perfect duo produced songs that became over time part of the politically erotic repertoire of opposition congregation whenever opportunity allowed. High on these valiant chants many overlooked their subversive root: the taxing commitment of an exemplary counter-effendi. That said, Mahjoub survives not in the gushes of individual eulogy but in the indecipherable hum of the masses who carried him to his grave. His legacy is indeed talking out the mind of the collective.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

ده الحوار الدايرنو ليك

نعى غازي صلاح الدين العتباني، قطب المؤتمر الوطني السابق، وقائد حركة الإصلاح الآن، في كلمة "قنعانة" مؤخرا الحوار الوطني الذي دعى إليه الرئيس البشير في خطاب "الوثبة" باعتباره سلة مهملات سياسية مصيره "التلجين"، وعدد في هذا المعنى مراحل اندهاشه المتكرر من وعود الرئيس التي لا بر لها. لغازي كل الحق في إحباطه إذ أمل أن يجرى على يد الرئيس شفاء لداء الوطن واستعد بالعزم لذلك، سعى إلى قادة الأحزاب يعرف بحركته الجديدة وأرخ لكل اجتماع ببيان وصورة إرشيفية، ثم طمت بطنه مما شهد في صحراء السياسة بغير مظلة الحكم.
ليس غازي وحيدا في أمله، فالأمل كذلك قوي عند حسن الترابي وحزبه وعند الصادق المهدي وحزبه، بل جر الأمل الاتحادي الديمقراطي إلى حوش الحكومة "تووش" قبل أن تنبس شفة الرئيس بوعد الوثبة، لا حوار ولا محركة، وما الداعي إذا كانت مقاعد الوزارة لين فرشها لمن والى، قام عنها وزارء الحركة الشعبية فاستقبلت وزارء الاتحادي الديمقراطي، شركاء الحكومة العريضة. الرئيس، الذي يتهافت على مجلسه المتهافتون، أعلن في بورتسودان بدغرية صاحب الملك، أن الحوار الذي في باله حكومة أعرض وكفى، لا انتقالية ولا قومية، بل عريضة بفيونكات.
واقع الأمر أن الرئيس يطلب بحواره تجديد شبابه السياسي، فكأنه يعرض مقاعد الوزارة في عطاء لمن رغب، حدد شروطه وأحكمها، وعلى المتقدمين استيفاء الشروط وإرفاق ما يلزم من مستندات، بما في ذلك خلو طرف من خدمة الوطن على الحقيقة والتعهد بخدمة السلطة على بلاطة الولاء. باعتباره صاحب العلامة التجارية المهيمنة في سوق السياسة استعد الرئيس لعطاءه بإفراغ دست الحكم ممن طال بهم العهد، علي ونافع وعوض وآخرين، من ظنهم الناس أسيادا أصحاب تنظيم وشوكة، وهم في واقع الأمر حاشية مدنية لسلطة عسكرية تقوم وتقعد بشورى المشير ورفاقه الضباط.
لا غرابة إذن أن هرول المؤتمر الشعبي لمجلس الرئيس يعرض عطاءه، أزال قادة الحزب عن أنفسهم غبار المعارضة، حريات وما إلى ذلك، بتيمم سريع في أديم القصر، حجتهم كما ورد على لسان كمال عمر أنهم تابوا إلى الوثبة مع الرئيس بوازع التدين، فالمؤتمر الوطني كما قال "قدم تنازلات كبيرة وكافية من أجل الحوار". تشنقل كمال عمر في منطقه كل الشنقله فشبه الأمر لمحدثه فتح الرحمن شبارقة في مقابلة نشرتها الرأي العام (الأحد، 23 مارس) بتحول سيدنا عمر بن الخطاب من الجاهلية إلى الإسلام، متسائلا "هل يمكن أن أحاكم سيدنا عمر بكفره قبل الإسلام؟" عبأ المحبوب عبد السلام تحول المؤتمر الشعبي في كلمة طويلة تنشرها الرأي العام في حلقات عمادها القول أن تكاثر الخطوب يتطلب الحوار وإلا فويل لكم وويل، وهو قول صحيح، لكنه ليس حوار الرئيس الذي فر منه غازي، بل حوار بين القوى الاجتماعية الخارجة على النادي السياسي المخاتل حتى تستعد لنزع شوكة ضباط القصر وحاشيتهم، مقامرين ومقاولين، وتجعل محلها سلطة لغمار الناس يتحرون بها مصالحهم ويحققونها.  

Friday, 21 March 2014

The sheikh and the officer: a tale

Omar al-Bashir stood outside the presidential guest house on 14 March to receive Hassan al-Turabi, the two men offered the camera wide grins as they shook hands, and proceeded through the door with guards on their sides to a wide hall where they were joined by loyal captains, other men in jellabiyas with a common history and shared memories. From President Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) there were Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, Nafie Ali Nafie, Ibrahim Ghandoor, and the President’s new deputy Bakri Hassan Salih, in addition to Ibrahim Ahmed Omer, Awad al-Jaz and Mustafa Osman Ismail. Turabi was accompanied by his deputy Abdalla Hassan Ahmed and his long-term companion and trusted aide Ibrahim al-Sanosi, behind them a younger crew of Turabists including Bashir Adam Rahama, Kamal Omer and Mohamed al-Amin Khalifa. 
The ‘get together’ was by all means an anti-climax, closer to a mujamala (courtesy) drop by than a meeting of political giants as popularised by the NCP’s media machine, partially because the real meetings, where the hard bargaining reportedly took place, had already happened in the dark of night, much like the distraught prayers of repenting sinners. On that assumption, the 14 March encounter was an event for the cameras where the attendants simply played themselves. Suitable armchairs were placed in a row at one end of the hall for the men of calibre to occupy. The footage on Sudan TV showed Omer al-Bashir sitting in the middle of the schoolboys’ row, to his right Hassan al-Turabi and then Abdalla Hassan Ahmed and to his left Bakri Hassan Salih followed by Ibrahim Ghandoor. The five men were positioned at the head of two arcs of armchairs where the delegates of the two parties sat facing each other in the President’s divan. Thanks to the presence of two women, Samya Ahmed Mohamed from the NCP and Thuraya Omer from the PCP, dirty jokes were out of question I suppose. The delegates chatted the time away with the help of refreshing drinks served by impeccably dressed catering staff, a good hour or so, before spokesmen announced an agreement to agree on a timeline and agenda for ‘national dialogue’, the current buzzword in Sudan’s political club. 
The Bashir-Turabi meeting, conveniently held on a Friday, the Muslim day of rest, was reported live on Sudan TV’s evening news bulletin and subsequently made the headlines of every printed newspaper in the country on Saturday, but with almost no content to accompany the announcement. Editors had only the past to fill the white of their pages, profiles of the two men, the sheikh and the officer, and summary re-runs of their dramatic divorce fifteen years ago. The notion that a cordial encounter between competing lords would open a new chapter in political life has deep roots in the imaginary of the ruling elite. Indeed, commentators wishing to implant life into the Bashir-Turabi mujamala drew a comparison with the historic ‘meeting of the two sayeds’, the patron of the Khatmiyya Ali Mirghani and the patron of the Ansar Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi, on 3 December 1955 in the run up to the declaration of Sudan’s independence on 1 January 1956. 
At the time, Sudan was poised for a self-determination referendum to ascertain its political future, choice being between association with Egypt, the declared objective of the National Unionist Party (NUP) affiliated with the Khatmiyya, or complete independence, the rallying cry of the Ansar’s Umma Party. The self-rule elections of 1953 had delivered government to the NUP with Ismail al-Azhari as prime minister. By August 1955 discussions were underway about a self-determination referendum under the supervision of an international committee joining representatives of seven countries chosen by parliament. The opposition Umma Party and the independent press called for a ‘national government’ to lead the country through self-determination but Azhari, the Prime Minister, balked arguing the democratic credentials of his government. Azhari’s position however did not find favour with Ali al-Mirghani, who nursed suspicions of Azhari’s popularity and autonomous machinations. Division between Ali al-Mirghani, the sheikh, and his officer Ismail al-Azhari led to the collapse of the government. Under instructions of the sheikh, a handful of NUP members of parliament joined the opposition in voting down the government’s budget proposal on 10 November 1955. A majority of NUP parliamentarians, mostly Azhari loyalists, declared on 11 November their objection to the formation of a ‘national government’. On the next day, 12 November, delegates of Ali al-Mirghani met with Azhari in Omdurman to negotiate a settlement. The Khatmiyya’s newspaper, Sawt al-Sudan, published on 14 November a statement issued by Ali al-Mirghani advising all political forces in the county to eschew partisan rivalry and commit to ‘national’ interests, phrasing that translated into support for formation of a national government. Azhari and his captains met with Ali al-Mirghani on 14 November to sort out the situation. According to the reporting of al-Ray al-Aam, Ali al-Mirghani said he did not specifically want a ‘national government’ but a government of a national character. Accordingly, Ali al-Mirghani instructed parliamentarians under his authority to vote Azhari back as prime minister and indeed Azhari won confidence of the house on 15 November with a margin of two votes. Hassan al-Tahir Zaroug, the single communist member of parliament representing the Anti-Imperialist Front, abstained. 
Ali Mirghani still had a card to play against the stubborn Azhari though. The Khatmiyya patron met on 3 December with his arch-rival, Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi of the Ansar. A joint statement issued by the two sayeds said they had reconciled and agreed to work together for the good of the nation, and expressed their hope that the political parties under their influence, the NUP and the Umma Party, would agree to form a ‘national government’. The message obviously targeted Azhari’s ambitions. Under pressure, Azhari’s cabinet announced on 6 December 1955 an invitation to the political parties to negotiations on formation of a ‘national government’. The talks between the ruling NUP and the Umma Party, while they did take place, proved a futile exercise, since Azhari refused to surrender the premiership to a consensual candidate. Faced with the impending possibility of a Khatmiyya-Ansar alliance that would undercut his parliamentary support and almost inevitably cost him his office, Azhari’s stroke of genius was a motion to parliament on 19 December to declare Sudan a sovereign independent country. Nobody in the house could vote against him. To discipline Azhari, Ali al-Mirghani had to form his own party, the People’s Democratic Party and capture government in alliance with the Umma Party against Azhari’s NUP. When all space for manoeuvring was consumed, the two sayeds, Ali and Abd al-Rahman, agreed to invite the army leadership to take over on 17 November 1958. 
Now, Bashir and Turabi might imagine themselves two sayeds doing business, but their prayers, unlike those of the baraka-laden Ali and Abd al-Rahman, do not echo far beyond the presidential divan. In the really existing ‘New Sudan’, even a Rizeigati chief like Musa Hilal has a separate sheikhdom, protected by the steel baraka of guns mounted on hijacked vehicles.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

“New” Sudan: back to the future

The sight of Hassan al-Turabi in his impeccably white jellabiya, socks and shoes, seated in the front row next to Sadiq al-Mahdi and Ghazi al-Attabani, awaiting President Bashir to ascend the podium and deliver his ‘surprise speech’ on 27 January, was sufficient to signal to Khartoum’s political pundits that a grand bargain was underway in the capital’s saloons. Seated in the comfortable Chinese-built hall were essentially all the President’s love victims: Sadiq al-Mahdi the prime minister deposed in the 1989 coup; Hassan al-Turabi, the veteran sheikh evicted from power in the 1998/1999 showdown; Ghazi al-Attabani, the aspiring Islamist moderniser disciplined out of the NCP last November into the wilderness of an abortive sectarian split; Ali Osman Mohamed Taha and Nafie Ali Nafie, the sacrificial lambs of the NCP’s reform agenda, effectively purged out of government in the company of allies last December, in addition of course to the honourable Mahdi and Mirghani juniors, Sadiq al-Mahdi’s oldest Abd al-Rahman and Mohamed Osman al-Mirghani’s youngest Jaafar al-Sadiq, training on the job as assistants to the President. Order prevailed in the first and second rows, but from the third backward hierarchy was hard to ascertain, the scene closer to male congregations in a Sudanese bika (mourning house) than the audience of a state sovereign. Indeed, the event only took off when the President finished speaking and the guests could mingle at will, the well-ironed jellabiyas swooshing in tandem in the glow of the neon lamps. 
The seventy years old President strained to read what his cooks had prepared, a speech written in the artificial Arabic of the muthagafattiya, a dismissive term used to refer to pretentious intellectuals obsessed with convoluted form, and peppered with words dug out of a medieval dictionary as a measure of Islamic ornamentation. Had the President been in the class of an Arabic teacher of an old mould he would have surely failed ‘reading’, the vexing sentence structures and demanding grammar had him almost prostrating were it not for the intensive air-conditioning. Turabi, grimly composed, could not hide his disregard for the dyslexic officer seated above at presidential distance, grimacing in his distinctive manner in response to the embarrassing flow of errors. The backbenchers just chatted the time away undeterred by the passage of the cameras. The press had primed the public for a ‘surprise’, speculations founded on a remark by the former US president Jimmy Carter during his visit to Khartoum a week before and actively nourished by the NCP’s high priests. Carter told reporters after meeting President Bashir that the President would soon make “important” decisions. Predictions were that the President would resign and pass the baton to his new deputy Bakri Hassan Salih as head of a ‘transitional’ all-parties government. Apart from the injunction to place national interests above petty partisan concerns, ripped out of the pages of the ‘patriotic education’ curriculum that Sudanese pupils had to endure under Nimayri’s reign, the President offered the political club gathered under his watch an abstract invitation to dialogue with the ruling party on reform of the political system through the drafting of a new constitution and multi-party elections scheduled for 2015, peaceful resolution of armed conflicts in the country, economic reform, and closure on the contentious issue of Sudanese identity. 
The President’s speech brought “nothing new”, lacked a diagnosis of the country’s problems and offered no fundamental solutions, Turabi told the press afterwards, comments that were notably carried by the official Sudan News Agency (SUNA). NCP enthusiasts hailed the speech an “intellectual breakthrough” and the declaration of a new regime of peace and prosperity. The NCP’s deputy chairman, Ibrahim Ghandoor, who sat next to the reading President offering corrections, said President Bashir would deliver a follow-up talk to the less equipped masses to explain the first intended for a superior political audience once he returns from the African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa, but retracted the statement a day later. The best argument however was made by Amin Hassan Omer who said President Bashir did not wish to dictate dialogue mechanisms or outcomes on the political parties with the conviction that concrete propositions should be allowed to emerge from the very process of dialogue. Since the ‘surprise speech’ the chatter of the political class in Khartoum has been conducted predominantly in ‘dialogese’. Ghazi al-Attabani accompanied by trusted captains in his newly formed NCP-breakoff, aptly named the ‘Reform Now Movement’, trotted from one meeting to another as if on commission, first Hassan al-Turabi and his Popular Congress Party (PCP); then Sadiq al-Mahdi and his National Umma Party (NUP); leaders of the Unionist Movement, a runaway faction of Mirghani’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that refused alliance in government with the NCP; the sheikhs of the pre-Turabi Muslim Brotherhood, and a new umbrella organisation christened the ‘National Movement for Change’ led by the presidential uncle Tayeb Mustafa. Attabani’s propagandists made sure that each meeting produced an official statement of consensus and a stylised photograph of the ‘leaders’ posing standing and seated in two neat rows in good old effendiya fashion. 
The surprise, if any, came with the PCP’s declaration that it accepts unconditional dialogue with the NCP in line with the President’s reform agenda. Kamal Omer, the party’s political secretary and spokesman of the opposition alliance, the National Consensus Forces (NCF), slipped as if on a banana peel from the antics of ‘overthrowing the regime’ to slick ‘dialogese’. Kamal accused the allies of yesterday, primarily the Communist Party and fractured remnants of the Nasserite and Baathist parties, of unwarranted recalcitrance and wished for a reunion of the parties of the historic Islamic Movement, the NCP and the PCP, in a heavenly gush of Islamic accord. Turabi’s deputy, Abdalla Hassan Ahmed, went further stressing that the PCP holds no grudges against the fellow ikhwan ([Muslim] brothers) of the NCP, not even against Taha and Nafie. Reporters close to the PCP ‘leaked’ stories of reconciliation bids between the eighty two years old Turabi and his most capable disciple, the seventy years old Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, the latest victim of the dyslexic officer, followed by reports that preparations for a meeting between Turabi and President Bashir were diligently pursued by keen mediators. NCP jellabiyas sought Turabi’s counsel in the dark of night but made sure to leave Manshiyya (the Khartoum neighbourhood where Turabi resides) before the break of light, it was claimed. 
President Bashir did eventually deliver a follow-up speech in free style but to the NCP’s Shura (Consultative) Council in the humbler ‘Martyr Zubeir Hall’ where he reiterated commitment to dialogue with the political parties and the armed opposition. The NCP instructed its coalition partners, an assortment of breakoff factions from almost the entire political spectrum, on the requirements of the new era; and a few days ago President Bashir received Sadiq al-Mahdi and a high-level delegation of his party joining the opposition-hardened Sara Nugdalla, chairwoman of the party’s politburo and a favourite of the gender-sensitised activists crowd, in the presidential guesthouse. The two sides agreed to deliberate on a mechanism and agenda for dialogue, said a statement after the meeting. The seventy eight years old Sadiq al-Mahdi, on his part, boasted to European Union (EU) ambassadors in Khartoum of taming the aging regime into democracy, and in similar fervour dismissed calls to step down from leadership of the NUP, a throne that he jealously occupies since the 1960s, as the fantasies of “spiteful and corrupt detractors”. 
The NCP’s calculation, it seems, is to entice the ‘Islamic’ opposition, primarily the PCP, the Reform Now Movement of Ghazi al-Attabani and the NUP, in addition to its minor Islamist allies in the cabinet, the pre-Turabi Muslim Brothers and Ansar al-Sunnah, into a broad alliance that would eventually determine the terms of a new constitution and form a safe majority in the upcoming elections. With this approach, the NCP in all likelihood wishes to proceed with a managed democracy, i.e. consensually partitioned constituencies in the upcoming elections, which would satisfy international beholders without running the risk of surrendering power. Such an arrangement of forces would confront the insurgent Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement in North Sudan (SPLA/M-N) and the holdout Darfur armed movements with a consolidated mainstream political class committed to some form of sharia rule and resistant to any substantive transformation of power, but would nevertheless allow the government to claim the desired fruits of ‘democratisation’, namely relief of Sudan’s international debt, lift of sanctions and definitive rapprochement with Western countries, primarily the US. The SPLA/M-N, in talks with the government in Addis Ababa, responded with a similar rationale inviting disenchanted stars of the opposition parties and armed movements as ‘experts’ irrespective of the position of their home organisations in a bid to stretch its national mantle and forge a counter-bloc to the NCP and its mainstream dialogue partners. Expectedly, the government announced that it is not in Addis Ababa to negotiate with ‘experts’ but with the SPLA/M-N proper over South Kordofan and the Blue Nile and tabled an offer that fell short of admitting a national mandate for the SPLA/M-N pushing the aspirant contender of central power to the local squabbles against NCP-allies in the two areas. 
If the SPLA/M-N’s perspective is to wind back to the six years relay of the CPA where it had the opportunity to invent the politics of the ‘New Sudan’ but failed, the NCP’s fantasy is to resurrect a political order that it has aggressively dismembered through the long years of its reign. A bloc joining the historic Islamic Movement and the NUP with Sadiq al-Mahdi and Hassan al-Turabi as bedfellows guarded by a president of military stock, whether Bashir or Bakri, seems an echo of Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi’s third and fourth coalition cabinets (May 1988 – February 1989) between the NUP and the National Islamic Front (NIF) under Hassan al-Turabi and his able deputy Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, the NCP’s immediate ancestor. The coalition that flouted the opportunity to engage the SPLA/M under John Garang in negotiations with a constitutional process as their favoured channel preferring instead tactical rounds of sharia blackmailing. This time around, if such an alliance does materialise, Sadiq al-Mahdi enters the calculation as the junior partner and the SAF command preserves a presidential veto over its products. 
In fact, the SPLA/M-N in the long run might prove the ‘tamed’ partner that the NCP and its allies should actively welcome into the political club when compared to the more than real armies of the Sudanese hinterlands. As the President and his guests were exchanging niceties after the ‘surprise speech’ militia forces hired by the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) to fight against the SPLA/M-N in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile had camped outside al-Obeid, the capital of North Kordofan State, seeking recuperation and reward. The state governor, Ahmed Haroun, organised on 12 January a welcome celebration for the gallant fighters, rebranded the Rapid Response Forces, to showcase their victories. SUNA identified the commander of the fighters as Brigadier-General Mohamed Hamdan Dalgo, better known as Himeidti, the lean commoner who announced himself back in 2010 a war chief of the Rizeigat of North Darfur. When asked how he ended up fighting the government’s counter-insurgency war in Darfur Himeidti said his herds had been rustled and his kin taken hostage by rebels while en route to Libya. I traded between Sudan, Chad, Libya and Egypt, and as far as Nigeria, he said at the time, the standard itinerary of the adventurous smuggler in Sudan’s western realms. By 2013 Himeidti had established himself as commander of the Darfur ‘Border Guards’, furniture businessman and prominent real estate owner in Nyala. He served as security advisor to three consecutive governors in South Darfur, Ali Mahmoud Abd al-Rasoul, Abd al-Hameed Musa Kasha and Hammad Ismail until his dismissal under the latter, a decision that Hammad was to regret considering the havoc Himeidti allegedly unleashed in Nyala forcing the central government to intervene and replace the besieged governor with the military officer Adam Mahmoud Jar al-Nabi. 
Himeidti’s Rapid Response Forces, five thousands according to conservative estimates, had troubles managing anger as they waited for pay, rather bored in al-Obeid’s dry environs. Gangs of militia fighters attacked their host villages in the first February week, looted a local market, and managed to kill at least four people, including a shopkeeper who refused to hand over the cash-starved fighters the money they demanded by the gun. Ahmed Haroun, rather struck by the fiasco, offered the people of North Kordofan an apology announcing that the Rapid Response Forces were not regular troops but a rogue militia of “herders” resistant to discipline, recruited by the NISS operations department. President Bashir, while still in Addis Ababa, reportedly had to communicate his displeasure to Himeidti and offer a satisfactory price for restraint. Accordingly, Haroun announced to the aggrieved kin of the slain shopkeeper, who carried the body of the deceased to the government’s headquarters in al-Obeid in protest, that the Rapid Response Forces would withdraw from North Kordofan within seventy two hours. Government media reported nervously that the the Rapid Response Forces are about to withdraw, have started withdrawing, are in the process of withdrawing, but never where to, until the deputy governor of South Darfur Mahdi Bosh declared on 12 February that the government in Nyala had completed preparations to receive the militia, news that signalled coming disaster for the crime-stricken city. If precedent is any measure, South Darfur is likely to witness a surge of ‘tribal’ battles, considering Himeidti’s main complaint. We don’t have land, he told an interviewer in 2013. In South Darfur, we are hosted by the Fur chief Abbakar Issa, whom we protect with our gunfire. I wonder whether Himeidti and his men, come the 2015 elections, would surrender to the authority of a NUP envoy to South Darfur, or rather carve an own autonomous space with their Fur ally and continue the business of selling their fighting power at the best price available. 
The political class in Khartoum might succeed in forging a future of mutual accommodation under a SAF sovereign, plagiarised from its past endeavours, but it is by all means a brittle one, much like time travel, precarious and full of surprises, Himeidti’s land hunger aside, the government, no less eager to appropriate land for its own rent purposes, declared recently a plan to form a national land authority with the power to acquire 'unregistered' land, trade it off to investors, and adjudicate on land disputes between locals claimants and foreign investors supported by a separate prosecutor office and police force. The last time the government attempted to grab worthwhile land, namely the Jebel Amir gold mines in North Darfur, it precipitated a months-long war that eventually had even Musa Hilal, Himeidti’s cousin and role-model, calling for ‘reform’.
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This work by Magdi El Gizouli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.