Instead of Sadiq al-Mahdi, the imam of the Ansar, it was Abd al-Mahmoud Abbo, the Secretary General of the Ansar Welfare Association, who led the prayer last Friday in Sayed Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi mosque in Wad Nubawi, Omdurman. For a few weeks the mosque became a refuge for the Girifna/ChangeNow crowd in their surge against the National Congress Party (NCP), an occupation that the National Umma Party (NUP) leadership tolerated but did not necessarily welcome, particularly when banners of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in North Sudan (SPLM-N) were hoisted above the heads of the protestors. Speaking from the pulpit Abbo distanced his flock from the agitation of the “alleged revolutionaries” as he called them and made it clear that the mosque was a site of worship and not a political platform. Bluntly phrased he told the protesters to camp elsewhere.
ChangeNow had announced an arrangement with the NUP to organise a prayer for those killed in the Nyala demonstrations, eight people in the official count and twelve according to activists’ reports. Abbo denied any such coordination. ChangeNow responded with an angry statement blasting the NUP for failing to abide by the commitment to host the prayer attributed to a member of the party’s politburo, most probably its fiery chairwoman Sara Nugdalla, the daughter of the long bedridden Nugdalla, a veteran NUP figure with a hero’s record of resistance to the regime of President Bashir in the less confusing times of the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
The criticism hurled against Abbo - online pieces ridiculed the man as a NCP stooge and a mere voice machine for Sadiq al-Mahdi - did not pass unchecked. The Ansar headman responded with a scathing criticism of the protest movement while acknowledging the patriotism and dedication of the sector of youth who continue to suffer under the NCP regime and had the courage to revolt against its rule. Cigarette stubs and snuff (tumbak) had been found in the mosque, he said. The two items are strictly prohibited in the teachings of the Mahdi, Sudan’s 19th century revolutionary, and are almost as haram as alcohol in the Ansar’s belief system, but belong to the standard effendi armour of Khartoum’s political class, old and new. From that premise Abbo defended the Ansar’s ‘revolutionary’ record. Revolt against injustice runs in our blood and is a constituent of our belief but the Ansar will not be told how and when to mobilise; the Ansar are fully aware of their national responsibility but will not participate in “immature acts” that could actually be in the benefit of the regime, he stated. In his piece Abbo introduced the category “thieves of revolutions”; people, he said, who “found pleasure in the news of fallen martyrs and were out to cash in on the sufferings of torture victims”. “A true revolutionary does not sit before a keyboard and mobilise from his house; a revolutionary does not insulate himself and enjoy the news of the revolution; we will not accept to be told when and how to revolt; we have witnessed these alleged revolutionaries and some of them probably entered a mosque for the first time in their life, instead of ending the prayer with the call for peace they shouted ‘the people want to overthrow the regime’, others slipped away and left the true revolutionaries to face their fate”, stated Abbo in a long pedagogic piece that finished with the line: “I have a moral responsibility towards those I represent, and I will do my best to achieve their goals and protect them from exploitation and oppression. We say to those who believe the Ansar can be led to sacrifice so that opportunists can climb over their corpses to power they will have to wait long. The nation is for all, all have to move, and we will join them until victory is achieved”.
Abbo’s rant can easily be dismissed as an escapist attempt to cloth the NUP’s zigzag politics with a token of credibility. In doing so however his critics are doomed to miss the grain of truth inherent in his argument, namely the rift between the petit bourgeoisie effendi of Khartoum or the diaspora for that matter, ever endowed with a self-satisfied drive for leadership, and the nas (people) supposed to be led, depicted in the standard reading borrowed from the colonial dictionary as ‘backward’, ‘passive’, ‘complacent’, or stunned by false consciousness in a more recent development of the same outlook. Sudan’s British rulers developed a fantasy of the Ansar as jihad fanatics ever ready for battle, a fantasy that has survived in the mental world of the contemporary effendis sustained by the imagery of several Ansar incursions into Khartoum at the behest of the Mahdis, in 1954 to protest against the visit of Egypt’s Mohamed Najib, in 1965 to back the call for the prohibition of the Communist Party, and in 1976 as part of the armed attempt to topple Nimayri’s government. To this category belongs, of course, the Ansar’s post-colonial Karari moment, the deadly confrontation with Nimayri’s ‘revolutionary’ regime in Wad Nubawi and Abba Island in 1970. On all mentioned occasions Ansar blood soaked the political carpet. The collective agency of the Ansar is both revered, considering its supposed mass, and feared on the premise that an untamed religious bigotry forms its essential trigger.
The contention however is that both the Mahdis and the opposition activists wishing to borrow their constituency and their mosque share in this reification of the Ansar as a remote-controllable undifferentiated crowd of believers, ever on standby to brandish their weapons and storm unconcerned into battle as they did against the troops of the Anglo-Egyptian conquest on the plains of Karari outside Omdurman on 2 September 1898. In the Sudanese nationalist narrative Karari is identified as a victory in the form of a defeat, but in the memory of my late grandmother for instance it is recorded as a katla, a term that translates best into ‘mass killing’. At least ten thousand Ansar were machine-gunned to death that morning. To dispel this false consciousness of the elite it is sufficient to consider the fashion in which the alleged organic formations of Darfur, a supposedly all-Ansar arena, continue to unfold and clash in a whirlwind of political adventures far divorced from the NUP’s agenda.
In the 1940’s Sayed Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi invited effendis of an Ansar background to his alliance and launched the Umma Party, a political vehicle for dynastic purposes. The convenience arrangement offered the ambitious effendis a short-cut to power in the form of a guaranteed sectarian vote. The notion became an operational feature of Khartoum politics including the fascination with the ‘marginalised’ of the peripheries, the ethnic resource which if properly tapped could provide the Khartoum elite displaced by the NCP with the mass force to contest power. The algorithm has changed however; the nas are speaking for themselves, Abd al-Mahmoud Abbo as well.