Thursday, 11 April 2013

The NCP: clamour and glamour of dissent

Divisions in Sudan's ruling National Congress Party (NCP) evolved into open conflict on the background of President Bashir’s declaration that he intends to step down at the end of his current term in 2015. Ghazi Salah al-Din al-Attabani, the head of the party’s parliamentary bloc, raised the stakes when he stated that the interim constitution bars President Bashir from running for a third term in office. Attabani took the opportunity to voice a wider criticism of the performance of the government and the ruling party and declared openly his support for the reform initiatives of the younger Saihoon dissidents, the rather loose association of committed Islamists and former Popular Defense Forces (PDF) combatants who wished to elect him as secretary general of the Islamic Movement last year. He demanded that the government abide by the constitution and take concrete measures to lift restrictions on political freedoms if it was sincere in starting political dialogue with the opposition. 
Attabani’s statements followed the announcement by First Vice President Taha of the government’s willingness to engage all political forces including the armed opposition in a national ‘constitutional dialogue’. Taha invited Malik Agar and Abd al-Aziz al-Hilu of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement in North Sudan (SPLA/M-N) to take part the process stressing that partial deals have failed to resolve Sudan’s problems and that it was time for a comprehensive approach to Sudan’s multiple conflicts. The government, he said, was ready to discuss issues of national scope with the SPLA/M-N but only as part of wider multilateral process. The SPLA/M-N dismissed the government’s offer of a national dialogue as lacking in credibility but suggested instead a similar process mediated by the African Union High Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP). It was not clear though how the SPLA/M-N’s own negotiations with the government would relate to this higher order process 
The meeting between Taha and the deputy secretary general of the Popular Congress Party (PCP) Ali al-Haj was presented by the former as a first step towards the proposed dialogue. Taha commended Ali al-Haj for his readiness to gloss over the grievances of the past and expressed optimism about possible reconciliation between the NCP and the PCP offering even to meet the PCP chief Hassan al-Turabi. Vice President al-Haj Adam Yusif did meet Turabi and press reports claimed that efforts were being made to pave the way for a meeting between President Bashir and PCP chief. Turabi, nevertheless, continues to overvalue his worth. A captain of his party said the sheikh was only ready to discuss an ‘interim’ constitution not a ‘permanent’ one. 
President Bashir on his part renewed the pledge to hold a national dialogue with all political forces in the country in a speech to the National Assembly. As a gesture of goodwill, the President ordered the release of all political prisoners in the country. Actually released until now were a limited number of politicians arrested for signing the New Dawn Charter, an activist in the protest movement ChangeNow, and according to one report two security operatives associated with the former spy chief Salah Gosh who were detained in relation to the November 2012 coup plot. The presidential pardon has not reached far. Detainees held for links to the SPLA/M-N and the Darfur rebel movements remain in custody as do the military and security officers of the November 2012 coup plot. The in-house rebels of the coup plot reportedly waived their right to appeal and raised a petition to the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) high command asking for clemency under the blanket of President Bashir’s pardon after a military court sentenced the army officers to dismissal from service and between two to five years in prison. The confrontation presented as a David and Goliath challenge between bold jihad veterans and an ossified military bureaucracy cooled off to a rather drab negotiation dressed as a court procedure. 
The NCP’s leadership bureau responded to Attabani’s pronouncements with a decision relieving him of his position as head of the party’s parliamentary caucus, effectively the entire house. At the same meeting chaired by President Bashir, Nafie Ali Nafie, the deputy chairman of the NCP, was named official spokesman, a step that the party’s deputy spokesman said was meant to discipline the NCP high priests into line. Nafie busied himself the next day with a visiting delegation of the Chinese Communist Party. The coincidental chuckle of history passed unnoticed. Attabani issued a statement to the press challenging the decision with the argument that he was elected by fellow parliamentarians and could only be removed through a vote by the caucus. The allegedly enraged parliamentarians formed a committee of five to discuss the matter with Nafie, the same man they approached several times in the past months to pay their lofty car loans. The calculating Nafie sent them back with the instruction to prepare a “feasibility study”. Mohamed al-Hassan al-Amin, chairperson of the parliament’s defense and security committee and one of the brave five set the limits of their adventure with the statement: “The parliamentarians will abide by the party’s decision whether they are convinced or not.” 
It would be misleading to speak of a confrontation between hardliners led by Nafie who would prefer to see President Bashir in power for another term and reformers represented by Attabani whose initiatives are hampered by President Bashir’s continued hold on power. Rather, it seems competing camps in the regime are pursuing divergent calculations. Nafie and allies consider President Bashir an asset, a guarantor of their influence unlikely to accept a political arrangement that would threaten the grip of the NCP over the state institutions, let alone expose the security establishment to closer scrutiny or drop the blanket immunities that protect its members. Ghazi Salah al-Din al-Attabani and supporters have come to see President Bashir as a liability and his continuation in office a threat to the power of the NCP in the short term and the political chances of the Islamic Movement in any future dispensation. President Bashir in this calculation is framed as a scapegoat with the bargain that his elimination would redeem the suppressed reformers inside the ruling party and the Islamic Movement of the baggage of the NCP’s long reign. In their pursuits, contenders in the NCP are reaching out to the opposition, primarily the PCP and the SPLA/M-N, with offers of dialogue and reconciliation that effectively copy often repeated calls for a ‘national constitutional conference’, the mantra of the opposition, with the outlook of buttressing their inside positions with an external ally. President Bashir and associates believe they retain considerable headway however, thanks to the slowly materializing rapprochement with South Sudan, the pledges of the Darfur donors’ conference and attempts at sealing a strong partnership with the new Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood. If and when the government’s coffers begin to fill up it would be hard to see why the NCP’s middle ranks outside the Khartoum preserve should opt to back al-Attabani’s reform agenda rather than stick it out with the Bashir they know. Indeed, the NCP in Sennar and the While Nile published paid advertisements in the Khartoum press pleading President Bashir to reconsider his fateful decision. Come the presidential elections, I would vote for Insaf Medani and Ayman al-Rubo as running mate. 

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Sudan: the quest for the emancipatory subject

Talk delivered to the Otto Suhr Institute (OSI) Club at the Free University Berlin, 29 January 2013

I would like to begin this talk with the narration of a conversation I had back in 2010 with an old gentleman in al-Jineina close to the Sudanese-Chadian border. I landed in the town seconded by Ahfad University for Women in Omdurman on commission of the World Health Organization (WHO) to assess the efficacy of a WHO-funded project to rehabilitate a string of hospitals in the then three states of Darfur. Naturally, I was granted lodging in the WHO Guest House wherever there was one. The guard of the guest house in al-Jineina was a native Fur of my father’s age. He welcomed me with the respect due to a dignitary, and then asked the evident question of all encounters. Where do you come from? I said from Omdurman, he replied, Omdurman, then you know how to speak, over here we fight instead. We then drifted into a discussion about the war and the impossibility of speech. From this gentleman I learned that the war in Darfur was understood locally as a second Um Kwakiya, a period of mayhem, chaos, blood-letting and general deterioration of authority (1). The first Um Kwakiya extended from 1874 to 1916, between the collapse of the Fur state under the severe blows of al-Zubeir Pasha Rahama and his army of slaves/mercenaries encroaching from Bahr al-Ghazal and its tenuous inclusion into the Sudan under Ottoman rule until the defeat of Darfur’s self-instated Sultan Ali Dinar and the incorporation of the region into the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. My interlocutor and I shared Sudan as a geographical space but not as a nation. We came from different worlds.   
When indulging a foreigner in Sudan we say ‘welcome to your second home’. The really existing New Sudan, which also doubles as Sudan, the old Sudan, or North Sudan, is in a sense a second home for a large number of its inhabitants, with the decisive difference that they do not have a first one, unlike the audience here. The displaced populations of Darfur, South Kordofan, the Blue Nile, as well as the thousands straddling the elusive 1956 border experience Sudan, i.e. the state apparatus and the armed actors who function in that name, as a violent injunction into their life-world, a force that seeks to civilize, modernize transform or liberate, whatever flavour you prefer. It is as if becoming Sudanese was contingent on a baptising passage though violence. Indeed, a Fur peasant forced to flee his village to the doubtful sanctuary of the displacement camps around the region’s urban centres attains his Sudaneseness as it were with this coerced departure. Hurled into a new world governed by monetary exchange and devoid of the cushion of communal access to land this ‘Sudanese to be’ is forced to probe the harsh domain of the lone citizen as opposed to the subject dwelling in alleged Unmündigkeit. Incidentally, the colloquial Arabic of the Sudanese cosmopolitans provides an adequate translation of Kant’s enlightenment pejorative, namely zol sakit, a worthless person, or a person incapable of proper speech; the attribute is also used to dismiss unqualified or rather powerless speech as kalam sakit, silent/worthless speech, or nonsense. 
Is this violent emergence into Sudaneseness however not a permanent theme of state-making in Sudan? Noteworthy in this regard is the detail that the term Sudanese was initially used to refer to emancipated slaves or slave descendants identified by the colonial authorities as ‘detribalised’ negroes, in the rule individuals whose families originated in one of the communities of southern Sudan or the Nuba Mountains, and who had been absorbed into the Muslim Arabic-speaking cultures of Sudan or Egypt through domestic slavery and military service. These erz-Sudanese were continually policed and probed for signs of subversion and corruption, particularly in light of the dash 1924 insurgency, as opposed to the ‘Arabs’ of the heartland, who once subdued by the ‘fire and sword’ of British imperial power, were amenable to partition into tribal units under admirably complacent but notoriously inefficient yet respectable clients of the condominium government, the sheikhs, nazirs and omdas of native administration. It was the effendis of the colonial state, ‘detribalized’ and taught to speak the language of the master in the dormitories and corridors of Gordon College, who approbated the term in the aftermath of the 1924 defeat and infused it with the strain of nationalism that came to define post-colonial Sudan, first in literary circles and later on in the Graduates’ Congress and the political parties of the Sudanese establishment, the Umma Party and the Ashigga. While the ‘detribalized’ negroes of 1924, Ali Abd al-Latif and Abd al-Fadil al-Maz, had nothing but there Sudaneseness to fall back to and therefore could do little to escape fidelity to the emancipatory cause, their higher order effendi allies had their fathers, the trusted sheikhs of the administration, to plead their excuse as mischievous juveniles before the authorities. The discrepancy between the fate of Ali Abd al-Latif, imprisoned and exiled until his death in 1948, and Ibrahim Bedri, the son of Sheikh Babiker Badri, who became a Sub-Mamur i.e. junior administrator in southern Sudan and was appointed in 1946 Assistant District Commissioner, could be regarded as the formative sin of the effendi elite. What was initially a betrayal became a political strategy as the effendiya short-cut nationalist agitation to forge their alliance with the patrons of Sudan’s major religious-business networks, the Ansar and the Khatmiyya, thereby cementing what was initially a colonial project of rule as a fixture of the post-colonial political landscape. 
To these two modes of becoming Sudanese, violent extraction but not necessarily inclusion, and disciplinary education, one should add a third, the stream of rural to urban labour migration. The first generations of these labour migrants, the Atbara railway workers, experienced this transformation as an act of ‘shurad’ (escape) from the village or ‘tashish’, losing one’s way or straying, a recognition of the diabolic dimension of the city as compared to the perception of the village as the ultimate anchor (2). These working Sudanese, in the rule landless peasants from farming communities where land ownership constituted the definition of employment and descendants of emancipated slaves, broke the ranks of the supposedly self-contained organic units of riverine Sudan to mould a modernity of their own, one that led many of them straight into the ranks of the Communist Party of Sudan. 
These three modes of becoming Sudanese are not exclusive alternatives. Rather they constitute channels that open into each other, and it is through the lateral passages between them that Sudan’s political dissidents have emerged to ‘speak’ against the political order inherited from the colonial state, the alliance of convenience between the effendi benefactors of Sudanisation, the entrepreneur patron families of the religious tariqas, and the notables of native administration. The first to feature on the political scene was the Anti-Imperialist Front, arguably the most successful political vehicle ever devised by Sudan’s communists. In its heyday, the Front groomed a cohort of counter-effendis, individuals who despite their education, the rite of passage to state-delivered comfort, flouted government employment and subservience to the establishment, to invest the trade unionism of the Sudanese working class, the railway workers in particular but also the tenants of the Gezira scheme and the Nuba Mountains and the labour force of the Nzara scheme in Equatoria, with a political dimension of emancipation. In retrospect, the efforts of these pioneers could be read as an attempt to undo the shame of the 1924 betrayal. It is no coincidence that the first fully fledged leader of the Sudanese Movement for National Liberation (SMNL), the nucleus of the Anti-Imperialist Front, was the Egyptian trained medical doctor Abd al-Wahhab Zain al-Abdin Abd al-Tam whose father was a veteran of the White Flag League, a comrade in arms of Ali Abd al-Latif and like other military officers of the League a ‘detribalized’ negro, i.e. of slave descent. 
The Sudanese Um Kwakiyas are many though. Today, subsistence-geared peasant communities in Darfur are being transformed into a reserve army of cheap labour fit for the requirements of commercial agriculture and extractive industry, gold mining for instance, in a rather delayed fit of primitive accumulation. In the 1820 – 1880’s it was the peasant communities of the Nile Valley who had to endure the violent catapult into modernity as it were, i.e. integration into the world system of resources extraction, production, and trade, better known as capitalism. The forces of shock modernization came from the north on horseback. In 1821 the army of Mohamed Ali Pasha, the Ottoman Khedive of Egypt, invaded the lands up the Nile in an act of regional imperialism that created the modern Sudans we know today. Mohamed Ali Pasha took it upon himself to ‘modernize’ Egypt, an objective he thought to achieve through the expropriation of Sudan’s perceived wealth: gold for his treasury and slave soldiers for his army. The Sudan did not meet expectations on both counts, it must be said. In the process of maintaining a standing army and administration in the country as well as the phantasy of an imperial Egypt that shares in the burden of the white man the Turkiyya, as the period of Ottoman colonial rule is known to the Sudanese, forced commercial cash-crop agriculture on the peasant communities of the Nile Valley, the riverine Sudanese identified in the political jargon of centre-periphery as the ‘villains’ of contemporary Sudan, and introduced canonical sharia as an ideology of the state. The links between these two decisively modern innovations, commercial agriculture with slave/forced labour as its engine and the superstructure of canonical sharia constitute an enduring theme of Sudanese history-making since. 
Sharia as a canon of law was not foreign to pre-colonial Sudan of course, but co-existed and competed with more popular ‘nativised’ readings of Islam in tune with customary practices and local habit: the soft sharia of the Sufi brotherhoods and sheikhs. In the courts of the Sennar Sultanate (ca 1505 – 1821) canonical sharia, as can be derived from the rare books of Islamic jurisprudence available, was an exhibit if you like to demonstrate ‘civilisation’, ‘progress’ and attachment to the greater Arab peninsula just like Arab genealogies were adopted by various Sudanese communities, the Arabized Nubian peasants of the Nile Valley and the nomads of Kordofan and Darfur, to prove the worth of these mulatto communities on the margins of the Moslem world. 
The tension between these two variants of sharia, an orthodox textual sharia and the popular-moulded sharia of inspiration and admittedly convenience, is best demonstrated in a magical realist encounter between a Sufi Sheikh and a sharia judge that took place sometime during the reign of the Sennar sultans, before the assault of Mohamed Ali Pasha’s armies on Sudan, a narrative immortalized in the bewildering chronicle of Sufi sheikhs and saints preserved in writing by the oldest known Sudanese historian Mohamed al-Nour wad Daifalla wad Mohamed wad Daifalla al-Jaali al-Fadli (1727 – 1810), a man about whom very little is known but who provides us today with a rare primary source of the history of the era. 
Kitab al-Tabagat fi khusous al-Awlia wa al-Saliheen wa al-Ulmaa wa al-Shuraa fi al-Sudan – A genealogy of saints, holymen, scholars and poets in the Sudan – or shortly the Tabagat (the genealogy) – incidentally, tabaga, plural tabagat is also the word for class in modern Arabic - tells the story of the confrontation between Sheikh Mohamed al-Hamim and the sharia judge Dashein in Arabaji, once a large trade centre in Gezira and today a minor town. Wad al-Hamim was known as a malamati, i.e. a Sufi who appeals to God’s benevolence through indulgence of sin. Under the spell of holy inspiration Wad al-Hamim exceeded four in marriage, orthodox sharia allows for four wives simultaneously with no limits on successive marriages, and went beyond that in marrying two sisters, a sharia prohibition. He married the two beautiful daughters of Abu Nadoda in Rufaa, and the two daughters of the revered Sheikh Banaga al-Dareer, Kalthoum and Khadmalla. Enraged by this flagrant disregard of sharia marital discipline the judge Dashein annulled Mohamed al-Hamim’s marriages. Dashein intercepted Wad al-Hamim as he left the mosque in Arbaji after the Friday prayers. “You married five and six and seven… and over and above you combined between two sisters in wedlock”. Mohamed al-Hamim responded, and what is that to you? The judge replied: “I hereby annul your marriages since they contravene the Holy Book of Allah and the traditions of his prophet.” To this argument Wad al-Hamim reacted with the invocation of holy sanction. The prophet permitted me to do so, he said, and Sheikh Idris, standing by, knows that. Idris from his side told the judge: “leave him to his own affairs and his Lord’s judgement.” Dashein fired back with the standard self-empowerment of the modern day Salafi: “I won’t ignore his case, and I announce his marriages revoked”. To this uninvited intervention Mohamed al-Hamim replied sure of his cosmic power: “May Allah tear apart your skin”, the word in Arabic, faskh, is identical for both the break-up of a contract and the tearing apart of skin. Dashein is said to have fallen with severe illness, his skin flaked apart like the dry soil of the Gezira until he died. Dashein never repealed his judgement against Mohamed al-Hamim the malamati and for that he is known as the Judge of Justice, tells us Wad Daifalla (3). 
Another famed poet of the Turkiyya provides us with further insight into the increasing influence of canonical sharia on the daily life of the nas, the common Sudanese. Haj al-Mahi (1789 – 1871) implores the holy saints of the Nile valley and their superiors in the centres of Moslem scholarship to race to the aid of his people in hunting down a crocodile that plagued the villages around Kassinger, his hometown. Haj al-Mahi’s crocodile could also be interpreted as a stand in for the reviled Turkiyya administrator which would make the poet an early agent of anti-colonial agitation particularly that he explicitly chides the consortium of sheikhs for failing to counter the menace of the crocodile in a timely fashion, telling them that their reputation was at stake. Towards the end of the popular poem Haj al-Mahi asks the sheikhs to do something about the roaming Wahhabis, followers of the 19th century reformer of the Hijaz, who tell people that praising the prophet in verse and song, his vocation, was a religious violation. By the way, Haj al-Mahi’s tunes, mild and passionate swings, sustain contemporary Sudanese music to this day, and are the original resource of the Hagiba, the explosion of semi-repetitive musical patterns in Omdurman of the 1920-1950s. 
Canonical sharia might have been resisted by the likes of Wad al-Hamim and Haj al-Mahi, organic intellectuals intent on preserving a communal way of life and belief system under threat by greater powers with a global traction but it constituted the ‘ideology’ of the emergent mercantile class, first as a common grammar of trade with the markets of the Orient during the Sennar era, and under the Turkiyya as a tool of primitive accumulation. Sharia’s rules of inheritance are strongly biased towards milk ‘freehold’, i.e. individual land ownership, and generally toward private property, and tend to fragment land over generations as opposed to the ‘common use’ principle of customary law that provided the basis of the complex system of land tenure in riverine Sudan before the advent of the Turkiyya. According to customary practice, only shares in the produce of the land were inherited but not the land itself. Sharia served the interests of capital in bestowing the fragmentation of land between heirs and its subsequent entry into the market sphere with a legal framework. Under pressure communities in the Nile Valley reverted to roka (communal) cultivation as individual plots became successively too small for rational individual utilization, and ultimately voted with their feet, fleeing the Nile in mass to the diaspora of the hinterlands, a process that created the ‘itinerate traders’ of the Sudan and beyond, the jellaba. Today the word has become almost an insult as it entered the discourse of racial dichotomy pitting the ‘Arab’ communities of the Nile valley, the Jaaliyeen, Shaygiyya and Danagla from which the jellaba were mostly drawn, against the ‘African’ populations of the hinterlands. 
The colonial authorities of the Turkiyya started producing documents of individual land ownership, freehold certificates, some of which survive in the preserve of landowning families along the Nile today and are still in use to argue rights against the state. The Turkiyya state was determinately autocratic and overtly ambitious, but chronically weak, and, it follows, notoriously aggressive, characteristics that define the Sudanese state until today, only with the benefit of experience (4). A Sudanese saying from the era, probably originating from the Jaaliyeen peasants of the Nile Valley captures most succinctly the relationship between the Turkiyya state in Sudan and its subjects. ‘Ashara rus fi turba wala riyal fi tulba’ – better ten heads in the grave than a dollar in tax, goes the saying, a testimony to the well documented extractive taxation policy of the Turkiyya. Taxation constituted a heavy burden on the capacity of the riverine subsistence economy, the sagiya (waterwheel) system of agricultural production along the Nile. Eventually, the colonial hunger not only undermined the peasant livelihoods of the Nile valley, providing the major push factor for the widespread expansion of the riverine peasants through contemporary Sudan as itinerant traders, adventurers, slave traders, and preachers, but ultimately sounded the death knell of the Turkiyya state, which literally dug its own grave. 
The reign of the Turkiyya came to a bloody end on 26 January 1885 with the death of Charles Gordon on the stairs of the Governor General’s Palace in Khartoum, the victorious peak of the Mahdist revolution in Sudan. Mohamed Ahmed (the Mahdi) was a man of modest origins. His father was a boat builder in Labab Island close to Dongola, which places the family on the lower rungs of the social hierarchy, superior only to slaves. He accompanied his brothers to Karari close to Omdurman and then to al-Jazeera Abba in the White Nile but did not pick up the trade. Instead, he went sheikh-seeking to become an itinerant scholar of religious disciplines, a Taliban of his time and age as it were, travels that exposed him to the full treacheries of Turkiyya rule. 
The Mahdi harnessed the liberatory edge of sharia, its promise of freedom, equality and fraternity between believers, to raise an army of the dispossessed. His call for struggle against the Turkiyya resonated across the Sudanese heartland and beyond; the ranks of the Ansar swelled with the landless peasants of the Nile, the nomads of Kordofan and Darfur, and the slave-soldiers of the Turkiyya. The Mahdi’s religious innovations and military tactics have received considerable attention in Sudanese scholarship but little has his political acumen been discussed. The stability of the Turkiyya relied on an alliance between the implanted state machinery, the emergent Sudanese merchant class and sharia scholars like Dashein. The Mahdi raised an army against the coercive powers of the first, negotiated with the second and attacked the third with venom. 
The ideological premise of a puritan Islam accessible to all believers and free of the mediation of Sufi authorities was a threat to established social hierarchy as it was a challenge to dominant religious doctrines. In that sense, the Mahdi earned the enmity of both the Dasheins and the Hamims, the proponents of the hard sharia of the canon and the soft sharia of inspiration. Employing what in contemporary terms is the standard fundamentalist twist the Mahdi efficiently tapped the resources of popular sharia as he laid claim to the authority of its canon. He ridiculed the Dasheins as puppets of the colonial regime and the Hamims as agents of degeneration. In that light, the millenarian message of the Mahdi could be read as a synthesis of the two, the local appeal of the Hamims and the pan-Islamic/universal legitimacy of the Dasheins. This productive contradiction at the heart of Mahdism proved to be the Achilles heel of the movement once it transformed into a state. As an ideology of protest however the formula was a resounding success. 
Considering Sudan’s wealth of agricultural land beyond the Nile it was the availability of labour rather than the resistance of tenure systems that constituted the primary limiting factor to commercial agriculture under the Turkiyya. Slave labour was the economic answer to this dilemma, and it was through the sanction, support and organisation of slavery that the Turkiyya state drew into its alliance the most successful among the itinerant traders of the Nile, the jellaba, who served it well in that regard. The career of al-Zubeir Pasha Rahama provides ample illustration of the rise and fall of a crown-jellabi in Ottoman duty. The New York Times had this to say when he died in January 1913: “One of the most picturesque characters in Africa is dead. He was Zubeir Pasha, at one time an immensely wealthy slave trader, and virtually a King in the Sudan. Gen. Gordon selected him as the only man capable of holding the territory, and there is little doubt that had Gordon’s advice been followed the tragedy of Khartoum would not have occurred.” Zubeir delivered Darfur to the authority of the Turkiyya in 1874 with a mighty slave army. Three years later, the Khedive Ismail appointed General Gordon governor general of the Sudan with the mandate to suppress the slave trade. Zubeir travelled to Cairo in 1878 in an attempt to negotiate his commercial and political survival. He was detained by the Egyptian government and eventually banished to Gibraltar in 1885 as a prisoner of the British government. 
Other less ambitious crown-jellaba drew the right conclusion from the calamities that befell Zubeir and after him his son Suleiman, executed on Gordon’s orders in 1879, and opted for alliance with the Mahdi. This shift in the balance of power granted the Mahdi the decisive edge he needed over the ailing Turkiyya state. The jellaba networks provided the Mahdi with the political infrastructure for revolution. Elias Pasha Um Bareir’s ‘insider’ assistance was instrumental in the Mahdi’s takeover of al-Obeid and Mohamed Khaled Zuqal’s role was pivotal in delivering at least Darfur’s administrative centres to the Mahdi’s authority, to name only two key examples. Both men had achieved visibility in the Turkiyya hierarchy. Elias was the senior merchant in al-Obeid, an importer, slave trader and landowner who served for a brief spell as governor of Kordofan under Gordon. Zuqal, a cousin of the Mahdi and a wealthy merchant, administered Dara in Darfur under the governorship of Rudolph Slatin. He was dispatched by Slatin to the Mahdi in Kordofan to negotiate a peaceful transfer of power but returned to capture Dara and al-Fasher at the head of an army of Ansar as the first Mahdist governor of the region. 
The internal dynamics of the Mahdist state made a clash between these cross-over representatives of the ancien régime and the emergent elite of battle-hardened Ansar warriors around the Mahdi’s successor, the Khalifa Abdullahi, inevitable. The revolution was ready to devour its sons. The Mahdiyya’s show trials as it were began with accusations of embezzlement against Ahmed Suleiman, the Mahdi’s treasurer. He was thrown into prison and his property confiscated. The Khalifa summoned Zuqal and his army from al-Fasher to Omdurman, but dispatched his trusted captain Hamdan Abu Anja, mocked by the riverine jellaba for his slave origins, at the lead of a mightier force to intercept Zuqal in Kordofan. Zuqal’s army was annihilated close to Bara and the Mahdi’s cousin sent in shackles to al-Obeid and eventually to imprisonment in Omdurman and then exile in the Rajaf garrison in Equatoria. In al-Obeid, Abu Anja found opportunity to settle old scores with the Rizeigat chief Madibu Ali, a veteran of the revolution who swore allegiance to the Mahdi in Gadeer as early as 1882 and the man credited for the Mahdist breakthrough in Darfur. Abu Anja executed the Rizeigat chief and sent his head to the Khalifa in Omdurman. Elias Um Barier was lured to Omdurman, imprisoned and his property confiscated. Whatever wealth remained in the possession of his son, Omer, was also seized. Similar fate awaited the top brass of the Mahdiyya. In the morning of 23 November 1891 the Khalifa’s gendarmerie rounded up the Mahdi’s designated third successor and cousin the Khalifa Mohamed Sharif Hamid, the Danagla notables Salih wad Siwar al-Dahab, Saeed Mohamed Farah, Ahmed Mohamed Khair and Ahmed al-Nour among others to face executive justice. All but Sharif who was imprisoned in Omdurman were eventually exiled to the garrison in Fashoda under al-Zaki Tamal and then clubbed to death on the Khalifa’s orders. The Mahdi’s sons, al-Fadil, Mohamed and Bushra were placed under house arrest, and his physician Abd al-Gadir Satti arrested and then exiled to Fashoda. A secondary purge caught up with Tamal himself despite his loyalty to the Khalifa. He was brought in chains to Omdurman, incarcerated and starved to death. 
What does all the above tell us about contemporary struggles in Sudan? The Mahdist revolution constituted the single instance in Sudan’s modern history when a mass revolt from the hinterlands beyond the Nile managed to subdue the centre of power in Khartoum. The temporary union of the dervishes as the British preferred to call the Mahdi’s Ansar was the product of a political economy of state-driven expropriation. To translate barren grievance into mass political action the revolution offered its supporters the vision of a Mahdist new man, an ascetic warrior ready to trade this life for heavenly immortality, and more importantly the opportunity to strike at the existing social hierarchy and reshape relations of power. The Mahdi’s insight into the ideology and functioning of the Turkiyya state and the alliance that sustained it guided his almost surgical sabotage of its operative and coercive capacity. With that in mind, it is probably worthwhile to think the envisaged ‘revolution’ in Sudan as multiple and conflicting agents rush to execute it. Ultimately, it is the nas who revolt, the self-declared revolutionaries negotiate. 

Notes and sources

(1) Professor Adam El Zein of Khartoum University introduced the term into discussions of what he identified as “Sudan’s crisis in Darfur”; ‘From the current Um Kwakiya to good governance in Darfur: a future perspective’ in Arabic, paper presented to forum organised by the Communist Party of Sudan in Khartoum in October 2008 ahead of its fifth general conference held in January 2009. 

(2) Ibrahim, A.A. (1996). Trojan Duck: Migration and Modernity in Sudan. The Journal of the International Institute. Available online:;view=fulltext 

(3) I am indebted to Edward Thomas for drawing attention to Wad al-Hamim’s story in his lectures at the Sudan Course of the Rift Valley Institute (RVI). 

(4) I borrow this depiction from Justin Willis’ lectures at the RVI Sudan Course. 

Bjørkelo, A. (2003). Prelude to the Mahdiyya: Peasants and Traders in the Shendi Region, 1821-1885. Cambridge University Press. 

Holt, P.M. (1970). The Mahdist State in the Sudan, 1881-1898. Oxford University Press. 

Henri Riad Sikla’s Arabic translation from Russian of chapters two, three and five of S.R. Smirnov’s ‘History of the Sudan, 1821 – 1956’ (1968), published in 1994 as ‘The Mahdist state from the perspective of a Soviet historian’. 

Daly, M.W. (2007). Darfur’s Sorrow: A History of Destruction and Genocide. Cambridge University Press. 

Shuqayr, N. (1967). ‘Geography and History of the Sudan’. Beirut. (Arabic). 

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