Home | Comment & Analysis    Friday 6 April 2018

The sultanic politics of an ageing Bashir

By Magdi El Gizouli

A jubilant President Bashir addressed crowds in the White Nile’s Aba Island on Wednesday 4 April. The ageing president appeared unconcerned by the severe fuel shortage around the country and skyrocketing prices of basic commodities. His host, the governor of the White Nile State, Abd al-Hameed Musa Kasha, went to great lengths to secure the good mood of the president. The only factor that appeared beyond control was the scorching sun, to which President Bashir responded with his habitual grimace and pinched eyes. Kasha put together a live show for the president. Soldiers of the Sudan Armed Forces’ 18th infantry brigade stationed in nearby Kosti attempted to replay a scene from Sudan’s Mahdist history for entertainment.

The soldiers split into two groups, Mahdist forces dressed in jibbas and armed with wooden spears and swords and Turkkiya troops in military uniforms with bayonets at hand. The brief spectacle that unfolded before an amused President Bashir was supposed to enact the battle of Aba, the first encounter between the insurgent Mohamed Ahmed al-Mahdi and his loyal followers (Ansar) at Aba Island and a small disciplinary force dispatched by the Turkiyya colonial government in Khartoum on 12 August 1881. In actual fact, the force led by Abu al-Saoud al-Aggad was overwhelmed by the Mahdists as soon as the soldiers descended from their steamer. The force commander who had not joined the battle escaped back to Khartoum with few survivors to inform his superiors that the fakir of Aba Island was not to be frightened back to his senses with 200 soldiers. In the replay, the force commander is seen on the battlefield for dramatic effect and the Mahdi himself appears at the closure of the scene to celebrate victory with his Ansar.

Sadig al-Hadi al-Mahdi, cabinet minister and descendant of the Mahdi himself, accompanied President Bashir on the visit as a surrogate Ansar imam. In his speech, he reminded the crowds that Aba Island was the scene of a second violent episode in recent history. Sadiq’s father, al-Hadi, was the imam of the Ansar when Jaafar Nimayri jumped to power in a Nasser-style putsch in 1969. The imam vowed to resist and withdrew to Aba with loyal followers and militant Islamists eager for a showdown. The situation deteriorated further when the Ansar urged by their imam sabotaged a visit by the young president to the area and Nimayri responded with firepower. Troops of the Sudanese army stormed the island after rounds of aerial bombardment and a battle ensued with the armed Ansar and Islamists. Unlike 1881, the Ansar were defeated and al-Hadi the imam was forced to flee towards Ethiopia where government forces caught up with him close to the border and killed him.

The Ansar Imamate, however, did not pass to al-Hadi’s son but his star nephew, the famed al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, who had by then already broken ranks with the uncle and established himself as a moderniser of the Ansar and the Umma Party. Sadiq al-Hadi al-Mahdi has Bashir to thank for his political career. He has recycled in junior ministerial positions since 2000 when he joined the government together with his more prominent cousin and current investment minister, Mubarak al-Fadil al-Mahdi. Unlike Mubarak who ventured back into the wasteland of the opposition for several years before seeking the corridors of power again through President Bashir’s national dialogue, Sadiq al-Hadi al-Mahdi demonstrated an admirable perseverance in insignificance.

In Aba, al-Hadi’s son discovered his faculties as an amateur historian. Sadiq al-Hadi framed the 1970 confrontation on the island between the Ansar and the army as a battle between ‘Islam’ and ‘atheism’. He then made the impressive claim that Bashir as president and commander of the same army that routed the Ansar in Aba carried on the project of the slain al-Hadi the imam while atheism was defeated in a replay of 1881! The thousands upon thousands of civilian lives lost and wasted, in President Bashir’s wars have no place in Sadiq al-Hadi’s historical legend. What he preferred to ignore is the common theme of state violence directed at opponents of central power. The Ansar killed in Aba were victims of state power, he is a minor beneficiary.

Sadiq al-Hadi is no historian; he was just playing second fiddle to Bashir the lifelong president on what is, by all means, an early election campaign rally. Kasha, the governor of the White Nile State, calculated that his interests might be better served by vacating the stage as soon as possible for the president. Instead of delivering a speech he was content or sly enough to introduce Bashir and withdraw. The president took an energetic Obama-step from his seat to the stage; he spoke for ten minutes repeating promises he has made before, development and more development! Bashir’s final note, however, is worth considering. He told an amused crowd: “When I come back here next time I want to find the roads in Aba paved in asphalt. If not, I will cut Kasha’s head off.” The highlight was the concluding dance. Insaf Medani, the queen of dalooka who catered for the concluding entertainment sang: “His name is Omer and al-Hassan is his father, say well, get up and elect him”, and Omer spared no dance move.

From Aba Bashir and his entourage flew to Kenana where the president inaugurated a new military airbase. He then departed to Rabak, the capital of White Nile State, where the governor Kasha had prepared an evening speaking event for the president in the town’s stadium. Bashir made a point of stressing his seriousness in combating corruption. Days earlier, the security forces had arrested the managing director of Kenana Sugar Company on undisclosed grounds. Abd al-Raouf Mirghani joins several prominent businessmen and financiers in detention including the directors of Faisal Islamic Bank and its associate Islamic Insurance Company. In Rabak, President Bashir upped the ante further claiming that he was acting to enforce a sharia-informed vision of social justice in line with the Quranic injunction to prevent the monopoly of wealth and power. The populist twist is interesting as an electoral gimmick but threatening as a political manoeuvre. The president, self-assured as he is, seems to be striking at a key component of his power base or in the fashion of racketeers engaged in a round of extortion in these times of state financial distress.

True to tradition, President Bashir could not do without poking from afar at a foreign enemy. Without naming her, he accused Dame Rosalind Marsden, the former British ambassador to Sudan (2007-2010) and former EU special representative for Sudan and South Sudan (2010-2013) of masterminding the recent meeting of the Sudan Call allies in Paris. When leaving her post as ambassador, he said, she came to me and instead of saying how wonderful the Sudanese people are, like her peers, she started giving me instructions. I could not take it and gave her a piece of my mind, he boasted, adding I made her regret the day she was born. I can well imagine Omer nodding in confused embarrassment with the trademark grimace on his face in response to whatever Dame Marsden might have told him.

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 m.elgizouli@gmail.com