By Magdi El Gizouli
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 approbate the ‘Islamic’ trademark and popularise it under his sultanic authority, a strategy that his 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, theChronicle 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.
The author is a fellow of the Rift Valley Institute. He publishes regular opinion articles and analyses at his blog Still Sudan. He can be reached at email@example.com