SAYED SADIQ EL MAHDI, who became Prime Minister of the Sudan Republic last July at the age of thirty, is the great-grandson of the famous nineteenth-century Sudanese nationalist known to history as “the Mahdi,” the formidable religious and military figure who destroyed Egypt’s white mercenary General Gordon at Khartoum.
Despite the new Prime Minister’s youth, his emergence as chief executive of Africa’s largest state — and the first to achieve independence after World War II — is anything but a surprise. The Umma Party, the largest group in the Sudanese legislature though it lacks a plurality, is a Mahdi family possession. The Umma is based on the Ansar sect, who are the religious followers of the original Mahdi. Sayed Sadiq succeeded his father as president of the party. His youthful uncle Ahmed el Mahdi is its vice president, and an older uncle, El Hadi el Mahdi, is the imam of the sect and spiritual patron of the party. Ahmed cl Mahdi, who now holds the key portfolio of the Interior, is in fact the same age as his nephew, which meant that last year when elections were held, they were both too young to qualify as candidates for Parliament. After they reached thirty last spring, they won special elections in districts where the Mahdis own lands.
In the meantime, since the Umma Party was entitled to nominate the leader of the coalition government made necessary because of the absence of a plurality, the interim prime ministership was given to Mohammed Ahmed Mahgoub, a prominent personality in politics, who did not, however, hold high party office.
Sadiq did not intend to thrust Mahgoub aside when he entered Parliament last spring. “If events force me to become Prime Minister, it will not be in accordance with my plan,” he told an interviewer a year ago. “Frankly, I am too young, and I need more experience. I want to carry on with my present work in organizing the party. There are many more books I want to read and many more countries I want to visit first. Also I have in mind a major theoretical work on political structures for underdeveloped countries.” His hand was forced, partly by the tremendous buildup he had received over the past two years as the only available savior of a country which seemed to be drifting without direction.
Sadiq is an egghead in desert robes. In appearance this tall, handsome, swift-moving man resembles the romantic ideal of a young Arab prince. Yet a conversation with him quickly reflects the fact that he was educated at St. John’s College at Oxford. He prefaces a lucid, tightly reasoned explanation of his plans for creating a national party out of a religious sect with this formulation: “We propose to expand (a) vertically and (b) horizontally. . . .” Taking each subdivision in turn, he documents his case with up-to-date references to the scholarly literature of African politics and growth economics. His style of oratory is not greatly different; he is no demagogue, and he leaves his humbler following impressed and respectful, but puzzled.
Many of Sadiq’s countrymen regard him as the republic’s last hope. In the decade of its independence the Sudan has run through an almost complete political cycle. It started off in bravura style with a unilateral declaration of independence, one which was acquiesced in by the Sudan’s joint masters, Britain and Egypt. As Britain had been the de facto colonial ruler under the AngloEgyptian condominium, British-style parliamentary institutions and British colonial laws were continued under a temporary constitution until a Constituent Assembly could be elected in 1958. A multiparty system — with the three main parties that exist in the Northern Sudan today, the Umma, the National Unionist Party (NUP), and the pro-Egyptian People’s Democratic Party (PDP) — produced a blend of weak government, razor-edge majorities, and incessant intrigue.
In 1958, only a few months after the newly elected Assembly had met to draw up a constitution, the Umma Prime Minister, a retired lieutenant general, invited the army to take over. This it did, sending the Assembly home, banning all political parties, and staffing most of the political and some of the top administrative offices with generals.
The experiment was not a success. In 1963, rebellion broke out in three disaffected southern provinces. The savagery with which the army retaliated in the South, particularly against the small educated class, scandalized opinion all over the Sudan, and in October, 1964, the army regime was overthrown by a civilian rising, led by the Chief Justice, university teachers and students, and leaders of labor and farm unions and the professionals.
A temporary government was formed in a euphoric revolutionary atmosphere in which nonpoliticians had as many ministries as the politicians, and in which a civil servant was Prime Minister. The Southern rebels were invited to lay down their arms in response to an army ceasefire, and various Southern representatives were invited to meet Northerners at a conference to frame the country’s future institutions.
This moment of reconciliation passed rapidly, for two principal reasons. First, the nonpolilical spokesmen of the interest groups in the North turned out on closer inspection to be almost entirely farleftists or Communists. This discovery led two of the three parties —the Umma and the NUP — to move for an early election to rid the Sudan of the new faces and restore regular party government. The result was a loss of momentum in efforts to conciliate the South; the latter, still too unstable to allow elections, opposed the notion of holding elections in the North alone.
North against south
The split is both geographic and racial, for the Sudan straddles two zones of the continent: North Africa, with its predominant Arab culture and Muslim religion, and black Africa south of the Sahara.
The whole country is about the size of the United States east of the Mississippi River and supports a population of some 13 million, a little larger than that of the island of Taiwan. Only 3 percent of the soil is cultivated: the lifeline of the state is the river Nile, which after originating in Lake Victoria in Uganda runs the greater part of its course through the Sudan, picking up the Blue Nile flowing in from Ethiopia at Khartoum, and serving the UAR during the last part of its journey to the Mediterranean.
There was — and indeed, still is — a papyrus curtain between South and North formed by a belt of dense marshland called the sudd, through which the Nile filters. Before modern methods of transport, it formed an almost impassable barrier. During British rule, systematic pacification of the wild, naked, mostly rulerless and unsophisticated tribes was undertaken. But it took thirty years—until 1928 — to extend law and order throughout the Sudan’s international boundaries.
The methods of administration used by the British tended to emphasize the different character of the Negroid South from that of the culturally Arab (though racially mixed) Northern Sudan. Today the Sudan is a member of the Arab League, and Prime Minister Sadiq cl Mahdi seeks to have it proclaimed an Islamic state.
In 1964 Northerners supposed that the Southern insurrection was directed specifically at the army regime, a cause with which they could sympathize, having suffered under it themselves, though to a lesser degree. But, in fact, this particular episode of Southern disaffection long preceded the army regime. In 1955, Southern MP’s voted to make the parliamentary resolution in favor of immediate independence unanimous: it was part of a deal, so they thought, according to which the permanent constitution would be a federation in which their region would be a unit. The actual phrase vised was “full consideration” of a federal system, which Northerners contend entitled them, after such consideration, to reject it. The Southerners retain a bitter sense of having been cheated once independence was obtained. Consequently, when the Anya-Nya (“the poison that spreads”) rebellion broke out, it was in the name of complete independence for the South.
Northern goodwill toward the South swiftly turned to resentment when the cease-fire proclaimed after the removal of the generals failed to end the insurrection. Each side bitterly reproached the other for “breaking the cease-fire.”
The army, in disgrace and with its officer corps being purged of those who had actively identified themselves with the deposed generals’ regime, was in a mutinous mood. The Anya-Nya insurrectionists had for the first time been able to lay their hands on large supplies of modern arms and ammunition. This was because the leftist bias of the new temporary government in the North had caused the country to be opened up as a channel for sending supplies to General Olenga’s simbas fighting Tshombe and the white mercenaries in the Congo. Some of these weapons were looted by the Anya-Nya before they ever got to the Congo; those that arrived came too late to save the day for Olenga. They were brought back across the Sudanese frontier by the demoralized simbas in retreat from the mercenaries and were traded for food and cash to the Sudanese rebels.
Bitterness blocks compromise
The North reacted harshly against these setbacks. Once elections in the North restored the regular party coalition under Mohammed Ahmed Mahgoub’s premiership, the army was again given the go-ahead to crush the rebellion. The familiar pattern of guerrilla attack and counterinsurgency measures produced in the Southern Sudan the same ruinous impact on humble village life as it has elsewhere — from Kurdistan to Vietnam. Tens of thousands of families disappear into the bush, whole villages are burned to the ground, and refugees pour across the frontiers into neighboring states.
The government has been able to assert itself over wide areas of Upper Nile and Bahr el Ghazal provinces. But in Equatoria Province, where there is dense tropical jungle, there is almost a complete standoff. The army has reoccupied the administrative centers, but they have to be supplied by a military airlift which places a heavy burden on the Sudan’s shaky finances. The roads are unsafe from ambush unless supplies are sent in heavily armed convoy; many bridges have been dynamited.
The rebels’ cause is probably a hopeless one insofar as they hold out for a separate state. Wilsonian selfdetermination on an ethnic basis is not the dominant principle in present-day Africa. African states recognize that to challenge any of the artificial boundaries of the former colonies would be to challenge all and that this would open the way to endless conflict.
Kenya, for example, might be expected as an East African state to be sympathetic to Southern Sudanese leaders like Joseph Oduho, Aggrey Jaden, and Father Saturnino Lohure, who claim to belong culturally to East Africa and want freedom from “Arab” colonialism. But Kenya has its own problems with the Somalis in its northeastern province.
The principle adopted by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) has been the building of nations with the artificial boundaries of existing states. Also, since the outset of independence black African governments have made it a point to avoid any racial conflict with Arab governments on the African continent. Rather, the common bonds of all being geographically African and all being against the white colonialists have been emphasized.
Southern rebels with outside contacts have often concluded to their dismay that they are being used by “neocolonialists” as part of a plot to balkanize Africa by encouraging secession from its larger political units. It is mainly for this reason that William Deng, the man with the broadest outlook among the original rebel leaders, is now conducting legitimate political activity from Khartoum and is seeking to negotiate a compromise with the North. He has always reposed high hopes in Sayed Sadiq, and it remains to be seen whether an effective operating alliance can be formed between the two men now that the young Madhist leader has accepted political office.
Deng, however, is repudiated by the intransigent Southerners. Father Saturnino, for example, is given to saying in his melodious but uncompromising tones that if the Northerners want to rule the South, they may in the end rule over the vegetation, but every single man, woman, and child in the region will have first to be buried under the soil.
Nasser’s UAR, which wields tremendous influence in Khartoum, is equally intransigent. Nasser, or any other ruler of Egypt, needs to be able to count on friendly hands controlling the upper reaches of the Nile. Neither Cairo nor Khartoum is prepared to contemplate what they believe would be a weak, nonviable new state on the upper Nile.
They argue that such a state would have to turn to the United States or Israel or some potential enemy of the UAR for massive financial and technical support, and that in return it might allow the Nile to be dammed at a crucial point where the precious water flows into Northern Sudan and Egypt.
Prime Minister Sadiq el Mahdi has determined to build a nation out of the disparate fragments of the Sudan. His courteous, conciliatory style, his intelligence, his celebrated ancestry and name, his freedom from the instinctive prejudice of many people in the North against Southerners are all in his favor. But being a Mahdi, he is a pious Muslim, and being an intellectual, he has convinced himself that a rational explanation of what an Islamic state would be like will someday dispel all objection on the part of educated Southerners.
Unfortunately, it seems inconceivable that the present generation of Southerners could ever see themselves as more than second-class citizens in a state which recognized Islam as an official religion. The Southerners’ fears are real. Northerners are much too optimistic when they suppose that those fears would be dispelled if the South just perceived that Sayed Sadiq el Mahdi is an enlightened man, and that so long as he is the ruler of Sudan, Islam will mean only what he says it means. The country’s split transcends such nuances.