A departmental head at Sudan’s Ministry of Culture issued a letter dated 29 January to the Sudanese Writers Union revoking its licence for unidentified violations of procedure. Effectively a ban, the decision was communicated to the union in a Kafkaesque statement of three lines devoid of a specific accusation or a reference clause of regulations, the type of statement that is the naked language of power.
In a sense, this second ban of the Sudanese Writers Union brackets a history, the first ban was in 1989 when President Bashir and his fellow officers assumed power. Like other independent trade unions and professional associations, the union was prohibited, its property confiscated and its headquarters at the mugran (confluence) of the Niles in Khartoum handed over to the General Union of Sudanese Students, a mobilisation agency of the new government.
Disbanded, the union remained a network of relationships and a staple of documents in the office of its secretary general, the lawyer and poet Kamal al-Gizouli, for sixteen years. Only after the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) was it feasible to reconstitute the union and regain its legal status, an effort that I had the opportunity to contribute to in 2006. Kamal chose the term ‘second birth’ to celebrate the undertaking, and it certainly was.
Kamal invested a chunk of his poetic soul in the Writers Union but the project expanded beyond his old network and soon grew out of his mantle contrary to the expectations of many critics. The Writers Union is an association of largely urbanite and Khartoumite intellectuals and has thus been famously criticized by ‘New Sudan’ advocates as a union of’ Arab Muslim’ Sudanese writers. Considering the voracious appetite for democratic procedure at the time of its ‘rebirth’, elections for the leadership of the union were hotly contested, its mandate subject to excruciating scrutiny and its activities closely monitored by detractors and sympathisers alike.
For many of its members, the union was a replacement political party. It was expected to issue position statements on current affairs and mobilise for political struggle. The union, however, continued to operate on known ground. It organised and hosted cultural events peaking in an annual themed conference and reissued its irregular journal. Over time, it developed a certain routine, established new headquarters after a period of nomadic operation and settled to a limited bureaucracy and an elected executive. In the process, it entered into a ‘partnership’ with business and its events featured advertisements of the telecommunications giant Zain (Sudan) for a year or so.
The radical bend the Writers Union had in its beginnings, when it was densely inhabited by leftist intellectuals, has been greatly ‘straightened’ in recent years, whether in consequence of the general fatigue of the left or the implications of Sudan’s neo-liberal transformation. Today, it is largely an association of liberally minded intellectuals, but that is already too much for the caretakers of power. The explanation, I presume, is that it continues to cherish a threatening principle. It is a free association accessible to all willing Sudanese writers without religious, ethnic, sectarian or gender restriction, and beyond that it successfully funds itself without need for government largesse and it organises!
The threat of this simple principle continues to enrage the security authorities each time they are reminded of the existence of the Communist Party. Tijani Tayeb, the late veteran leader of the party, probably had this principle in mind in a brief speech he made to a celebration in Cairo exile back in 1996 marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Communist Party. “The early communists stormed an unknown to them and to the Sudanese society by establishing a party of a new kind without prior experience,” he stated. The authorities might ban the Sudanese Writers Union but this principle, a living legacy of the Communist Party which it once vigorously transplanted into the trade union movement, it can never ban. Hence, long live the struggle of the Sudanese Writers Union.