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al-Sadiq al-Mahdi

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Al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, head of the Umma Party (REUTERS PICTURES)

Full Name: al-Sadiq al-Mahdi

Current Position: Head of the National Umma Party.

Date of Birth: December 25, 1935

Born: Al-Abasya, Omdurman, Khartoum State, Sudan.

Family: Grandson of Sayyid Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi, founder of the Umma party; Great-grandson of Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi; Paternal uncle of Sudanese-British actor Alexander Siddig.

Education: BA & MA from Oxford University, UK.

Career: Prime Minister of Sudan, 1966-1967; Official Imam of the Ansar, 1970-Present; Prime Minister of Sudan, 6 May 1986-30 June 1989.

Political Affiliations: National Umma Party.


Although he is the great-grandson of Sudan’s most famous political leader, Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi, and the foremost heir of the Mahdist tradition, al-Sadiq al-Mahdi has flattered to deceive throughout his political career. After he received a BA and later an MA in Oxford, his advocates in both Africa and the West began to argue that he possessed exactly the right blend of ‘traditional’ Islamic prestige and modern Western values that might enable him to make democracy in a country like Sudan work.

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FILE - National Umma Party leader al-Sadiq al-Mahdi

Indeed, al-Mahdi was initially quite precocious in his rise to political prominence. During the October Revolution of 1964, he led the prayers for the famous political martyr Ahmad al-Qurayshi during the funeral procession that would trigger the collapse of the first military regime. In the democratic period that followed, he ascended to the post of prime minister in July 1966 at the youthful age of 31 as the head of the Umma party.

Al-Mahdi has always maintained a willingness to engage with democratic principles, although cynics might argue that this is because the Mahdist Ansar provide him with an extensive rural support base in western Sudan and along the Blue and White Niles that has enabled his party to outvote opponents relying on more sophisticated urban constituents in purely democratic elections. His one year period in office, like his second term in the 1980s, was marked by both political inertia and persistent conflict in the south of the country.

After the second parliamentary period was brought to a close by Jafa’ar Nimeiri’s military coup of 1969, al-Sadiq al-Mahdi was excluded from the government. However, he became the official Imam of the Ansar when his uncle and former political competitor the Imam al-Hadi al-Mahdi was killed following a clash with Nimeiri in 1970.

OPPOSITION 1969-1985

Meanwhile, he briefly pursued a postgraduate career at Oxford in an attempt to further his reputation as a darling of the West. At the same time, he courted a somewhat more radical ally, Muammar Gaddafi, whose military support enabled the Umma, in alliance with other right parties, to attempt to overthrow Nimeiri by force in 1976. In spite of the failure of this putsch, al-Mahdi reconciled briefly Nimeiri in 1977 and even briefly allowed the Umma to be incorporated into the dictator’s one-party system, although he soon left it in protest at Nimeiri’s lack of commitment to democracy.

Al-Mahdi later claimed that Nimeiri tried to have him liquidated on three separate occasions – although it is unclear whether any of these ‘assassination attempts’ even got past the planning stage. Ali Nimeiri, one of the dictator’s top security men, refused outright to play any role in having al-Mahdi killed because of his sympathy with the political and religious lineage from which he hailed.

It is probably this factor, rather than any genuine political skill, that has guaranteed al-Mahdi’s continuing political prominence. His family heritage ensures that military dictators, intelligence chiefs and radical Islamists alike have been unwilling to touch him so long as he does not attempt to use physical force against the government. This in turn has given him enough lee-way to make the kind of public criticisms other politicians would never get away with.


After Nimeiri launched his ‘Islamization’ programme in 1983, al-Mahdi delivered sermons to hundreds of thousands of people in Omdurman condemning the dictator’s new laws as a distortion of shari’a and of Islam. He co-ordinated with the ‘National Alliance’ that overthrew Nimeiri in 1985, and was returned to power in the 1986 elections with the help of financial assistance from his old ally, Gaddafi.
Al-Mahdi’s second period in power was a failure on many levels.

The most controversial decision he made was to sanction the arming of Baggara militias in south Kordofan and south Darfur in 1987. When these militia slaughtered over 1,000 Dinka civilians at al-Da’ein in 1987, al-Mahdi’s government attempted to cover up the killings. He was also criticized for his vacillation over the removal the ‘September Laws’, the arbitrary legislation that Nimeiri had introduced in the name of Islam and which he had criticised vehemently at the time.

However, he defends these failings by observing that it was National Islamic Front and Democratic Unionist Party opposition to the cancellation of the laws that forced his hands. It should also be acknowledged that he was on the verge of signing a peace deal with the southern rebel leader John Garang based on the full cancellation of the September laws when the NIF and its allies in the military launched the coup that overthrew him in 1989.

After being deposed by Omar al-Bashir’s coup, al-Mahdi remained in prison, and then under house arrest, for nearly seven years. At one point he was reportedly subjected to a mock execution by senior members of the military. However, in 1996 he managed to stage a spectacular escape to Eritrea, where he joined the National Democratic Alliance, the coalition of political parties opposed to al-Bashir’s regime. He only remained in the NDA for four years, abandoning it and reconciling with the government in 2000 after protesting at the SPLA’s intransigence towards the 1999 Egyptian-Libyan peace initiative.


Since this point he has gradually grown to be less effectual as a political leader. He played no part in the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Although he acknowledged that the secession of South Sudan was inevitable, he complained that the agreement was ‘like Swiss cheese’ and failed to empower the northern opposition parties.

His politics have become more conservative since 2005 and some have even accused him of siding with Omar al-Bashir. al-Mahdi has openly spoken out against the ICC arrest warrant issued against al-Bashir. He has also criticised the new rebel alliances emerging in Darfur and Kordofan, accusing them of trying to divide Sudan and even claiming that rebel success could lead to the Rwandan Genocide repeating itself in Sudan.

His resentment of the rebel movements in western Sudan is a reflection of their success in eating away at his party’s traditional support base – although the Umma still maintains a considerable following in this region. Although his party boycotted the 2010 elections, he has failed to mount a significant challenge to the government since, repeatedly vacillating over whether or not to join a coalition with the government alongside the DUP. Such is the frustration at al-Mahdi’s indecisiveness within his own party that the Umma youth movement recently issued a demand that he take a firm stance against the government or step down.

Sadiq al-Mahdi Links

Wikipedia - Sadiq al-Mahdi

Sadiq al-Mahdi Videos

November 12, 2011 - al Sadiq al-Mahdi speaks at a meeting in Washington DC

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