Tuesday 31 December 2013

Suad Ibrahim Ahmed: “I am fighting”

Death robbed me of another ‘teacher’ this Sunday. Suad Ibrahim Ahmed, a veteran Sudanese communist, passed away in a Khartoum hospital in the early hours of 29 December at the age of 78. Born into a family of prestige and wealth, Suad chose the perilous path of the counter-effendi the moment she awoke to political consciousness as one of a few female students in Khartoum University in the late 1950s. Her father, Ibrahim Ahmed, was a distinguished politician of the Umma Party of a liberal mould and minister of finance in Abdalla Khalil’s cabinet. The daughter was raised in the shell of Khartoum’s grand and great, one she broke out of with the tool of mind. 
Suad Ibrahim Ahmed (1935 - 2013)
 photo credits Isam Hafeez
Talal Afifi, the man behind the Sudan Film Factory, introduced me to Suad. We visited her in her Khartoum (2) house, a history book by itself, for a video interview as part of a project to document the experiences of those distinguished Sudanese communists who lived through the 1971 purges and came out alive. Talal chose the title “We survived” for the series but it never saw completion, partially because of the stubborn resistance of many to speak about events they felt were still very much contemporary. It was in Suad’s house that the last meeting between the commanding officer of the 1971 communist coup Hashim al-Atta and the party chief Abd al-Khalig Mahjoub took place. Both men did not survive. Hashim was executed by firing squad in al-Shajara military base south of Khartoum and Abd al-Khalig died on the gallows of Cooper Prison in Khartoum North. Suad did survive, one of four women elected to the thirty three members Central Committee in the Communist Party’s historic 1967 general convention, next to Mahasin Abd al-Aal, Naima Babiker al-Rayah and Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim. I asked her how she landed in the communist bosom considering her background and education. She answered in the sharp tones of a militant: ‘The Origin of the Family’ referring to Engels’ book ‘The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’. For many a feminist in Sudan, Suad was the woman to look up to, assertive, defiant and incorrigibly political. Alas, many of her admirers in recent years overlooked her politics in favour of her symbol. 
In her study, Suad had a desktop PC that she commanded with fingers severely disfigured by rheumatoid arthritis, one of several diseases she had to suffer in her later years. She was persistently in pain but brushed off sympathetic questions about her health with the answer: “I am fighting,” and a fighter she was. She was fired from government service in the statistics bureau in the early 1960s for opposing the flooding of Halfa and the eviction of its residents to make way for the construction of the Higher Dam in Egypt. The government of Ibrahim Abboud probably regretted the move, since it prompted Suad to become a full time journalist for the ‘The Voice of Women’, the surgically subversive publication of the Sudanese Women Union at the time. A Nubian herself, Suad continued to champion the cause of her people in the face of dams and displacement till her last breath, a legacy that won her the name “Mother of the Nubians”. 
Unlike many fellow Sudanese communists, Suad had the indispensable skill of making and managing money judiciously, capacities that she possibly acquired from her father, and also her husband, the late Hamid al-Ansari, one of a handful of Sudanese businessmen who associated with the Communist Party and probably funded it in its heydays. Hamid is remembered for his brave refusal to testify against Abd al-Khalig Mahjoub in the military tribunals set up by the revenge-thirsty Nimeiry following the defeat of the 1971 coup as bullets burst through the bodies of the accused officers within hearing distance. Suad spent money on the causes she believed in, a lot of it. She set up a centre to teach threatened Nubian languages in Cairo in the 1990s and continued to support initiatives and individuals in Sudan whenever need arose. Suad the Nubian will be missed by many; others will miss the feminist; some the communist. I will miss that invincible spirit, the emaciated white-haired woman seated in her study, her twisted swollen aching fingers defiantly tipping messages of solidarity letter by letter, each typo requiring excruciatingly painful repetition.

Thursday 19 December 2013

Bahnas died

Mohamed Bahnas, a dear friend, talented painter, poet and musician, froze to death this week on Cairo's streets, homeless, and isolated but from the clutter of contradictions that kept his mind ever alert. Born in Omdurman in 1972, Bahnas found refuge in artistic expression from an early age. The profession he sought most though was life itself. He chased it in the 'araki' quarters of Khartoum, the mosques of Omdurman, the conversations of the tired intellectuals of the capital, the glare of Paris and Berlin, in the company of friends and the faces of strangers. 
In the meantime, he painted profusely, wrote fresh poetry in a language made from the chatter of the streets turned into eloquent verse with a purpose, he cursed, made friends and enemies, disgusted many, and broke a few hearts. A 'malamati' of his age, Bahnas cycled restlessly between beliefs, convictions and fragmentary philosophical notions without ever finding a mental home as it were.
The last time I saw Bahnas was in December 2012. He sat at a distance from the loud crowd of the Goethe Institut's cafeteria in Khartoum drawing a self-portrait. We exchanged the usual greetings and then drifted into a full-blown discussion of 'Islamic' morality. He had just returned from a lengthy 'khalwa' committed to a form of mystical belief that he could not well explain. He corrected his sentences as he spoke unsatisfied with the shadows cast by his words, dropping one for a close synonym as he explored clarity in vain. Failing to reach consensus we exhanged jokes, laughed and drank the habitual teas of Khartoum's evenings as old friends just do. All the while he added a line and another to his drawing. 
The self-portrait I did not see completed, but I suppose he has just delivered his last drawing to the world, his own body flung on a Cairo street, resting forever in the cold of night. I have only words to mourn you ya my friends, farwell.

Monday 16 December 2013

Sudan’s NCP: reshuffle and recharge

After months of wrangling within the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), the government declared its greatest ‘makeover’ since the split with Hassan al-Turabi in 1998/1999. Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, the long-serving First Vice President, in office since 1998 with an interlude as Vice President during the period of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), 2005 – 2011, was replaced by President Bashir’s confidante Bakri Hassan Salih, the only remaining member of the cohort of officers who led the 1989 coup in the circle of power. Hasabu Mohamed Abd al-Rahman, a native of South Darfur who served as commissioner of the Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC) during the height of the Darfur conflict and lately as Minister of Federal Rule, took over as Vice President from al-Haj Adam Yusif. Nafie Ali Nafie, the NCP strongman and assistant of President Bashir, lost his post to Ibrahim Ghandoor, and a majority of cabinet ministers including NCP stalwarts who had long recycled in the cabinet like Awad al-Jaz, Abd al-Haleem Ismail al-Mutaafi and Amin Hassan Omer were replaced by second-tier officials mostly promoted from administrative positions in the same ministries or called in from the states. Notably, the last remaining negotiators of the CPA and cooperation agreements with South Sudan, Idris Mohamed Abd al-Gadir and Mohamed Mukhtar Hussein, both state ministers, vacated their positions for new appointees. Likewise, the relatively younger al-Fatih Izz al-Din assumed the position of speaker of parliament instead of Ahmed Ibrahim al-Tahir who had held the post since 2001. Issa Bushra, the departing Minister of Science and Education was named as deputy speaker instead of Hajo Gasm al-Seed. Three prominent ministers though maintained their posts, Abd al-Raheem Mohamed Hussein in defense, Ali Karti in foreign affairs, and Mohamed Bushara Dousa in justice. Hussein has long been a target of severe criticism even within the NCP and in the officer corps of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) but continues to enjoy President Bashir’s confidence comparably only to the new First Vice President Bakri Hassan Salih. Hussein, like the President is indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes committed in Darfur.
The perception that the reshuffle marked the strengthening of the grip of the military over power at the expense of the civilian faction of the regime seems overrated since the two military figures in the inner circle of power, Bakri Hassan Salih and Abd al-Raheem Mohamed Hussein, never lacked influence over decision-making, and certainly always had the trust of the President. Rather, the reshuffle, particularly when considering appointments at the level of state ministers, is suggestive of a shift from the ‘old guard’ of the historic Islamic Movement to cadres groomed under the reign of the NCP, a demand that has been repeatedly voiced within the party. Nevertheless, the promotion of Bakri Hassan Salih to First Vice President, preceded by his recent appointment in the leadership council of the NCP and the higher leadership of the NCP-loyal Islamic Movement lends credence to the idea that he might be picked as President Bashir’s successor. Such a transfer of power, although only a speculation, would secure an exit for President Bashir without the risk of delivery to the ICC. 
While the opposition including Ghazi al-Attabani’s new ‘Reform Now Movement’ dismissed the reshuffle as a cosmetic measure and reiterated the demand of a ‘transitional government’ and the resignation of President Bashir himself, the government overhaul is likely to be welcomed by the rank of file of the NCP, particularly that it stresses the possibility of upward mobility for home-grown loyal cadres who do not compare in prestige and standing with the ‘old guard’, distinguished by their foreign doctorates and international exposure. This regenerative ability, limited as it might be, challenges the opposition parties on a level that the parties would probably wish to ignore, namely the long reign of their own leaders. That said, the response of the mainstream opposition was generally one of bewilderment, much like the reaction to the coup in 1989 mythologised by Tayeb Salih’s question in an Op-Ed published in the Saudi magazine al-Majalla in the early nineties “Where did they come from?” 
The opposition simply had no idea who these new ministers were. In the press, only al-Intibaha’s al-Sadiq al-Rizeigy offered biographical profiles of the new statesmen. Rizeigy hit a nail on the head with the remark that the calculus of rule in Sudan had changed from the domination of the urban ‘effendiya’ proper, the types picked by the late Nimeiry over the main evening news bulletin from the power-spoiled Khartoum University staff, to the ambitious elites of rural Sudan. In the style of the Justice and Equality Movement’s Black Book, Rizeigy noted the increased share of Darfur, Kordofan, eastern Sudan and Gezira in the central government at the expense of the ‘traditional’ excess allotted to the River Nile and the Northern region. Salah Wansi, Rizeigy explains, lived most of his life in Kadugli and other towns of Kordofan. Simeih, the Minister of Industry, hails from South Darfur. The new Minister of Interior, Abd al-Wahid Yusif, comes from tiny Ghibeish in West Kordofan, Yasir Yusif, the new State Minister of Media, is a Gedaref lad and Farah Mustafa, the new Minister of Federal Rule, calls the eastern Jebel Marra home. From Darfur also are the state ministers Fadul Abdalla Fadul and al-Sadiq Mohamed Ali, the first at the Presidency and the second at the Ministry of Labour. Mutaz Musa, the new Minister of Electricity and Water Resources who displaced Osama Abdalla, considered a favourite of President Bashir, and Ahmed Mohamed Sadiq al-Karuri who replaced Kamal Abd al-Latif as Minister of Mining, both served under Osama Abdalla in the Dams Implementation Unit. 
The NCP, expectedly, celebrated the reshuffle as an unprecedented and bold undertaking with no comparison in the Middle East and Africa, undeterred by the obvious fact that the overhaul also demonstrated the centralisation of power in the hands of President Bashir and the military officers at his side with the exit of all potential competitors from the scene. It must be noted that Taha, Nafie, al-Jaz and other prominent NCP seniors continue to hold seats in parliament as well as positions in the leadership council of the NCP. The new deputy chairman of the NCP, Ibrahim Ghandoor, spoke optimistically of a new era of dialogue with the opposition, stressing the government’s readiness to resume negotiations with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement in North Sudan (SPLA/M-N), a new push for peace talks with the Darfur armed movements, and the NCP’s willingness to settle for a consensual elections law to govern the 2015 vote. Commentary in the Sudanese media focused on the ability of the new cabinet to tackle the country’s economic crisis as a condition for the success of the change agenda. In any case, the last time the government underwent such a makeover, following Turabi’s ouster, the CPA followed. It remains to be seen what concessions President Bashir and the officers at his side are ready to make this time to secure the reign of a regime that has arguably just undergone its third major mutation, the first being Turabi’s breakaway and the second the CPA and the secession of South Sudan. Nafie Ali Nafie expressed the ambitions at play in a speech to the NCP lawyers bloc bracing for elections of the bar association with Ibrahim Ghandoor, the man who just assumed his positions, at his side. Ingaz (the Salvation regime) has just reset its mileage to zero and started a new cycle, and will do so repeatedly till Azrael (the Archangel of Death) calls for the Apocalypse, he boasted. Nafie’s florid language could not dispel the ‘fatigue’ that has eclipsed over an Ingaz that has surrendered its ideological grit and organisational advantage, born of the experiences of the Islamist vanguard, to rely solely on the secular calculations of patronage and accommodation tied obviously to the promise of ‘developmental’ reward. Nafie’s script, it seems, was copied from the learning materials of the Communist Party of China, the NCP’s main interlocutor and model in party organisation. Unlike the Chinese rulers though, the NCP is yet to invent a retirement scheme for the Bringi (the number one), decorated with his ICC diploma. President Bashir who has effectively outmanoeuvred both Turabi and Taha, the sheikh and his captain, is the indispensable liability of the regime, Azrael indeed!

Sunday 8 December 2013

President Bashir: an historian at large

A confident President Bashir addressed a jovial crowd on Saturday in Garri, just north of Khartoum to celebrate what state media described as the 500th anniversary of Sudan’s first Islamic state, by all means an invented date marking invented statehood. Going back five hundred years brings the calendar to 1513, well into the legends of the pre-colonial Sudan. According to the President though, five hundred years ago, Abdalla al-Quraynati al-Qasimi, better known a Abdalla Jamma’, i.e. the Gatherer, managed to unite the ‘Arab’ tribes of central Sudan and forged a peaceful alliance with Ammara Dunqus, Makk (Lord) of the ‘African’ Funj. The alliance according to President Bashir the historian delivered the first Islamic state on the banks of the Nile in the homeland of the Abdullab around Garri. 
Jalal Yusif al-Digeir, the President’s aide and head of the ‘registered’ Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a breakoff from the Khatmiyya-based mainstream DUP that draws largely from the Hindiyya religious order, the Khatmiyya’s historical minor ally, prepared the ground for the President’s pronouncements in fine effendi style. Digeir announced Abdalla “the first to lay the foundation of Sudan’s modern civilisation,” and “a pioneer who contributed greatly to the consolidation of the Arab-Islamic identity in Sudan, allayed tribal and local allegiances and united the Sudanese under a singular banner.” Whatever Digeir had in mind, his creativity is certainly remarkable, sufficient to astonish Abdalla himself. 
The rhetoric served a purpose though. Confirming a lively rumour, the President told the crowd that his deputy, the First Vice President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, had indeed resigned his post “to make way for the younger generation”. Taha’s resignation is a foretaste of the government ‘makeover’ expected to be announced on Sunday, a process in the making for several months that has provided continuous fodder for speculations and fantasies in the Khartoum press. Whether Taha gave up office willingly or was forced to resign is guesswork. President Bashir in any case denied any strife within the leadership of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) stating further that Taha is in fact the engineer of the entire operation to refashion the NCP and its government for the future, in Taha’s own words the ‘second republic’, the political order of the rump (north) Sudan born out of the secession of South Sudan. 
Why invoke Abdalla the Gatherer then? Once Hassan al-Turabi’s deputy, Taha assumed authority over the Islamic Movement after he managed to mastermind the eviction of his mentor from its political party, the NCP, in 1999. Taha was named First Vice President in 1998 against the will of Turabi who favoured Ali al-Haj, today a German citizen residing in Bonn, for the position. The arrangements of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement gave Taha’s position to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement’s (SPLM) late chairman John Garang and his successor Salva Kiir. Taha became the Second Vice President until the expiry of the CPA in 2011 when he bounced back to his former post. With Taha’s resignation not a single ‘veteran’ Islamist of standing remains in the khalwa of power, at least none who has earned the title of ‘sheikh’. Neither Nafie Ali Nafie, Deputy Chairman of the NCP and President Bashir’s senior assistant, nor Bakri Hassan Salih, the Minister of Presidential Affairs, the two men rumoured as candidates to replace Taha, have the material of a sheikh, the first a foulmouthed bully and the second a military officer on silent mode with no record of marketable ‘piety’ to speak of apart possibly from an alleged passion for ‘bango’ (weed). 
Taha’s resignation arguably implies the final exit of the Islamic Movement proper from power, a process heralded by Turabi’s ouster, and its full replacement by the NCP mass. Rather than surrender the Islamic cloak to the likes of Ghazi al-Attabani and the other ‘loud’ intellectuals of the Islamic Movement seeking a future apart from the NCP, the President’s gamble is to appropriate the ‘Islamic’ trademark and popularise it under his sultanic authority, a strategy that has hitherto freed his power from the eclectic ‘internationalism’ of Hassan al-Turabi and the machinations of his lesser heirs. The investment in an appropriately Sovietised biography of Abdalla the Gatherer as a model statesman of the Islamic periphery serves precisely that purpose. 
The President dismissed the available historical record of Abdalla the Gatherer as “Orientalist” garbage, and promised the crowd in Garri government-led efforts to correctively rewrite Sudanese history, then announced the establishment of an Islamic centre in Garri carrying the name of Ajeeb al-Manjuluk with the aim of countering the vices of drugs, illicit sexual behaviour, Westernisation and the internet. 
The Funj Chronicle, arguably the only surviving ‘Sudanese’ primary document from the age of Abdalla the Gatherer, credits Ammara Dunqus, Makk of the Funj, with establishment of Sennar, a city-state that expanded to become a Moslem kingdom, after crushing the Christian rule of Alawa around the year 1505. Ammara Dunqus sought the services of Abdalla to fight the Anaj who competed with the Funj for the grazing grounds of Gezira in the vacuum of authority that followed the collapse of Alawa. In reward, Ammara Dunqus appointed Abdalla chief in Garri, the Chronicle says. The Funj maintained capital in Sennar, while the Abdullab, the descendants of Abdalla the Gatherer, transferred their royal residence to Halfaya, a dynasty consolidated by Abdalla’s son Ajeeb al-Kafuta, known by his Funj title as Ajeeb al-Manjuluk. Ajeeb was appointed viceroy in the north upon his father’s death by Amara II of Sennar. 
In Abdullab legend, Ajeeb is celebrated as an ‘Islamising ruler’ who appointed sharia judges in his territory and made land grants to holy men. Ajeeb’s ambitions extended to the Funj throne. In 1606 he led an army against Sennar forcing Abd al-Qadir II to flee to Chelga on the route between Sennar and Ethiopia’s Gondar where he found protection by the Ethiopian emperor. Abd al-Qadir’s brother and successor, Adlan I, rescued the throne after defeating and killing Ajeeb at the battle of Karkuj around 1612. Ajeeb’s heirs fled to Dongola. Reconciliation between the two sides was mediated by Sheikh Idris Mohamed al-Arbab whose tomb and mosque still stand in A’ilafoon, east of Khartoum. Two years ago, a bunch of Salafi enthusiasts set Sheikh al-Arbab’s tomb ablaze and dug up the grave of the holy man. President Bashir is doing the same with history, digging up ‘Arabs’ and ‘Africans’ from a fragmentary record of warriors, adventurers, kings and holy men.
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This work by Magdi El Gizouli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.