On Saturday Mr Sadiq al-Mahdi, the chief of the Umma Party, the head of the Ansar brotherhood, the former prime minister, and the prominent figure of the Khartoum opposition alliance – the National Consensus Forces (NCF) – met President Bashir in the presidential guesthouse in response to an invitation by the latter to discuss Sadiq’s reform proposals, named now the ‘national agenda’.
Mr al-Mahdi had previously declared 26 January his moment of decision between relinquishing political activity and declaring frontal opposition to President Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP). In a recent speech to his supporters in the historical Ansar stronghold, al-Jazeera Abba, Sadiq al-Mahdi flanked by his daughter, Miriam, and his newly reconciled cousin, Mr Mubarak al-Mahdi, made the point that his departure from politics would rob the NCP of a potential negotiation partner in the opposition, and thus the ruling party is advised to defuse further polarization through extending a hand to the man occupying the wise middle ground compared to the ‘hawks’ of the opposition.
Addressing the press following the meeting the NCP’s deputy chairman, Nafie Ali Nafie, announced the formation of a bilateral NCP-Umma committee to formalise discussions between the two parties and forward the outcomes to the leadership. Similar but of lesser flare is the NCP’s offer to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of three central ministerial posts and a presidential advisor within President Bashir’s post-secession broad-based government.
The NCP, albeit with hesitancy, is approaching the two sectarian parties, the Umma and the DUP, committed to leave the NCF’s radicals, the Communists and Turabi’s Popular Congress Party (PCP), in the blaze of Khartoum’s political heat. The fantasy the NCP is now entertaining out of pragmatism is in essence a strategic bid of the Islamic Movement since Turabi’s days of hegemony, namely to play the role of vanguard in an ‘Islamic’ front together with the two sectarian parties in juxtaposition to the ‘secular’ trends in the country. Today this fantasy has replaced some of its Islamic zeal with a chauvinist notion of Northern Sudanese nationalism. While the NCP does not intend to surrender power, President Bashir at least seems ready to save it through sharing it with the least demanding of his rivals.
Mr Sadiq al-Mahdi on the other hand had twice before tried President Bashir’s good faith, with minor gains each time. In November 1999, coincident with Turabi’s fall from grace, Sadiq inked with Bashir the ‘Djibouti Agreement’ that allowed him the return from exile to semi-open political activity in Khartoum at the price of a breakaway faction led by his cousin Mubarak al-Fadil who at the time preferred participation in government to Sadiq’s supposedly subtle calculus. Again in May 2008 Sadiq signed the ‘National Conciliation Agreement’ with President Bashir in the aftermath of the attack on Khartoum by the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and Turabi’s consequent detention, the third at the behest of Bashir’s security apparatus since the split in the Islamic Movement. This second agreement eased the Umma Party’s dire financial situation and allowed the flow of NCP funds, albeit meagre, to the starved Umma treasury. As a token of cordial relationships Sadiq al-Mahdi’s eldest son, Abdel-Rahman, was invited back to service in the officer corps, and his youngest, Bushra, was recruited into the state security apparatus, the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS).
This current flirt with Bashir coincides with Turabi’s sixth imprisonment on the background of ‘new’ evidence linking the Islamist chief of mischief to the rebel JEM. This time, however, Sadiq al-Mahdi, is presumably eyeing a bigger prize, and Bashir ever more so for that matter.