The educated Sudanese used to take a certain pride in their passion for political debate. Whether at afternoon meal, funerals, weddings or the nightly binges of old Khartoum political prowess was a marker of prestige. The effendi idol of the early post-colony was a political animal with a voracious appetite for press, cigarettes and the labels. Once abroad, the preoccupation with al-balad (the country) became a calling and an investment, considering that a PhD of whatever discipline was sufficient until the late 1960’s to place its bearer at the top of a government department with a good chance of entering the cabinet. Under the early Nimayri, i.e. from 1969 until the 1977 ‘national reconciliation’ between the rayes (president) and the allies of the opposition National Front, the effendiya had their day so to speak. Men with distinguished post-graduate degrees recycled through Nimayri’s cabinets almost in an orgiastic fashion. The rise and fall of ministers and ambassadors became a highlight of Radio Omdurman much like the results of football matches. Colonel Jaafar Nimayri, with the power of the military, freed the effendiya from their hostage status in the dominant sectarian parties, the Umma of the Ansar and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of the Khatimyya. Two patrons out of tune with the ‘modern’ times were replaced by one who shared the lifestyle, tastes and inclinations of his educated flock with ‘development’ as their uniting faith. The lazy villas of Amarat are the pyramids of that bygone age, today inhabited mostly by Khartoum’s expatriate community of diplomats and humanitarians, while the rent flows to family members dispersed across the planet. Fatima Babiker Mahmoud offers the interested reader a glimpse into the economy of these displaced elite in her seminal work titled ‘The Sudanese Bourgeoisie: Vanguard of Development?’ (1984).
Over time, the hallways of power in Khartoum became much harder to access. Today, the minimum requirement for a wannabe minister foreign to the ruling establishment of the National Congress Party (NCP) and its allies is a break-off faction from a political party of standing, or in the case of the more ambitious a peace agreement, and it follows a ‘movement’ and a record of combat. The historical trend, without doubt, is towards the fragmentation of authority concomitant with the deterioration of the monopoly of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) over firepower. With the benefit of hindsight, the good old coups of Khartoum appear today as orderly ‘peaceful’ exercises in the transition of authority between factions of a narrow ruling class. One reason why the November 2012 coup attempt could not succeed is the dilution of material power outside the reserve of the SAF to paramilitary formations with ambiguous relations to the central chain of command at best, and secondarily to almost autonomous communal fighting bands. Today, it can be argued, the SAF is more a dispenser of arms, one among competitors for that matter, than a fighting force. Even if a ‘command council’ of putschists managed to occupy the high-rise SAF headquarters in Khartoum and secure the allegiance of the troops on the formal payroll it is an open question what such a recycling of authority between commanding officers, ‘bad’ ones in power and ‘good’ ones pushing them aside, would mean in Sudan’s rowdy hinterlands.
An examination of recent micro-level conflicts in Darfur and South Kordofan is sufficient, I presume, to demonstrate the definitive ebb of Khartoum’s authority in areas unvisited by frank insurgency and with it, it follows, the diminution of al-balad proper, i.e. the domain of law and order however precarious and arbitrary. In South Kordofan, the government’s intervention in the episodic war between the two Misseriya communities, Awald Saror and Awlad Heiban, dating back to 2011 was essentially limited to appeals for an end to fighting. Nafie Ali Nafie, the NCP’s strongman, lectured the two warring parties at length in a reconciliation conference held in al-Dien, the capital of East Darfur State, on the dangers facing the country and pleaded them to hold their fire. The Vice President al-Haj Adam Yusif promised the restoration of West Kordofan State and generous compensation for communal land lost to the oil industry. A settlement was eventually signed on 1 March between the two sides with the SAF commander in South, Kordofan Kamal Abd al-Marouf, as guarantor so to speak. Judging by the arsenal at their disposal, howitzers, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and DShK machineguns mounted on four-wheel drives, the warring militias are as much a challenge to the SAF as the insurgents of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement in North Sudan (SPLA/M-N), only the Misseriya militias do not have a South Sudan to fall back on.
In North Darfur, the northern Rizeigat and their ‘cousins’ the Bani Hussein resorted to firepower to contest control over Jebel Amir, the largest mining site in the state. Musa Hilal, the alleged chief of the Janjaweed militias and leading figure of the northern Rizeigat, told a Khartoum newspaper that government meddling in the allocation of mining plots to teams of artisan miners was the main cause for the eruption of violence. He demanded an ‘egalitarian’ and individual approach to the distribution of plots, according to the principle first come first serve, instead of the biases of communal access to land. To understand what is at stake one has to consider the names given by the miners to their pits, for example “Siwesra”, Arabic for Switzerland, and “al-dawam li-Allah”, a phrase of condolence that translates into only Allah is immortal. When asked about the ‘New Dawn Charter’ of the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) and its proposed antidote the ‘Islamic Dawn Charter’ launched by the Just Peace Forum (JPF) of al-Tayeb Mustafa and his allies in the Islamic Constitution Front (ICF), Hilal delivered the verdict of the disillusioned observer. Both are “political bluff” and will not resolve Sudan’s crises, he said. In a conflict that has until now claimed more than five hundred lives and displaced thousands of families the SAF was always taken by surprise, arriving in the rule on the morning after. As a side note, international Sudan pundits do not seem to recognise ‘victims’ in a conflict where the ‘villains’ of Darfur face each other.
In South Darfur, a militia of the Bani Halba attacked villages of the neighbouring Gimir in the past weeks in an attempt to evict the latter from areas that the Bani Halba claimed were part of their territory. The deputy governor of South Darfur Abd al-Karim Musa spoke of a border war between the two communities, the frontline being the border between Id al-Fursan locality dominated by the Bani Halba and Kateela locality of the Gimir. Rogue elements hijacked the mandate of state institutions in drawing out administrative boundaries, said the official, a depiction that hides little. The state government deployed a force of four hundred to guard the disputed border area, it was reported, and a mediation mechanism is making efforts to bring the two parties to negotiate a settlement. Doesn’t that sound familiar?
To infer meaning from these experiences of bloodshed it is worthwhile to recall the fate of the SAF’s civilian twin, the Graduates’ Congress. The Congress was established in 1938 as a vehicle for the political ambitions of the alumni of Gordon Memorial College. By the mid-1940s it was already irrelevant as an organisation, reduced by virtue of the factional disputes of its members into a theatre for competition between Ali al-Mirghani, patron of the Khatmiyya brotherhood, and Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi, patron of the Ansar. The Gordonians nevertheless dominated the Sudanese nationalist movement and effectively monopolized the immediate fruits of its struggle for liberation from colonial rule. The graduates had only the state to live on and they inherited the colonial administration intact, “without a crack or a break” to use Ismail al-Azhari’s description, however as delegated benefactors of the two patrons. In a nutshell, “the Congress was the bandwagon of the powerless elite: fragmented, polarised, incoherent, and without ideological roots”, wrote Mahjoub Abd al-Malik Babiker in his ‘Press and Politics in the Sudan 1920 – 1945’, published by the good old University of Khartoum in 1985. The Congress vegetated on as a jealously guarded domain of the Ashigaa who then coalesced with other minor pro-Egyptian groups to form the National Unionist Party (NUP) led by Ismail al-Azhari and carried by Ali al-Mirghani. The NUP won an overwhelming victory in the 1953 elections and Azhari became the first Sudanese prime minister in 1954. The Khatmiyya broke away with an own party from Azhari’s NUP in 1956. The two blocs partnered again in 1966 as the DUP thanks to the friendly intervention of King Faisal bin Abd al-Aziz of Saudi Arabia.
The Gordonians of Congress ascribed to no recognizable ‘ism’ but they surely entertained an ideology, one that informed Babiker Awad Allah’s dismissal of demands for ‘equal pay for equal work’ between northern and southern Sudanese and between women and men as irrelevant to discussions of constitution. Babiker, a distinguished Gordonian, was the speaker of the first Sudanese parliament. He went on to become chief justice in 1964 and Colonel Nimayri’s first prime minister in 1969 earning the nickname ‘abu al-sultat al-thalath’, which translates into proprietor of the three authorities To these concerns, raised on the eve of independence by Hassan al-Tahir Zaroug, the only communist member of the house and a pioneering counter-effendi, he responded: “Can the honourable member explain to us the relationship between southerners’ wages and this constitution.”
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Graduates’ Congress. Bickering factions of the DUP agreed to celebrate the occasion together in the Graduates’ Club in Omdurman, where 1180 graduates had assembled on 12 February 1938 to establish the Congress. The event featured the established routines of effendiya politics, poems extolling the brilliance of the ‘founders’ and the struggles of the compatriots, long speeches, and the standard delays in the ‘programme’, but alas without a sufficient audience to do the cheering and clapping. Osman Omer al-Sharif and Ahmed Saad Omer, two DUP ministers in President Bashir’s cabinet, joined the celebration wishing to leave an impression and they sure did. Osman rose to the stand to deliver a speech and as soon as he opened his mouth younger dissidents of the party opposed to ‘participation’, the term used to describe the DUP’s coalition with the NCP, booed him to silence. “la wifaq maa al-nifaq”, they chanted, Arabic for no accord with hypocrisy. Osman attempted to resist accusing his young critics of disrespecting their elders, and recounting his record of political detention under President Bashir’s regime. “Where were you when the true fighters were in jail?” he asked missing only Qaddafi’s “Who are you?” With a composite smile/frown of humiliation on his face Osman was forced to leave the premises accompanied by Ahmed Saad Omer and a small entourage of loyal sympathizers. The ‘radicals’ who slated Osman as a feckless sell-out, it must be said, would not dare do the same to the participator proper, his lord Mohamed Osman al-Mirghani, the party chairman and Khatmiyya patron.
The SAF as a vehicle of power is today very much a placeholder, quite like the shell of the Graduates’ Congress. Once a breeding ground for competing political factions, putschists of all sorts, the officer corps of the SAF has exhausted its capital and relies today on ‘mediation’ to maintain a semblance of authority over territories where militias strive to re-structure relations of power. In that regard, the 1989 coup of Brigadier-general Omer al-Bashir and associates might well be the last in the succession of relatively blood-free Khartoum putsches that frame Sudan’s post-colonial history. The involvement of civilians in the coup, students and fresh graduates equipped with uniforms and arms aside from the command structure of the SAF, was a sign from the times to come, a beckoning of the future anterior. Hassan al-Turabi, it is believed, imagined the paramilitary Popular Defence Forces (PDF), drilled as guards of the Islamist project, as a counter-force to the political stamina of the colonial-bred SAF. Well, things did turn out so but with an added irony. The recruits of the PDF and the National Military Service are fighting their own wars today as vigilantes of the soil. The audience is on the theatre.