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’.