Asharq Al Awsat – In this extended interview, Asharq Al-Awsat talks to the former Sudanese Prime Minister Sadiq al Mahdi who currently heads the Ummah Party in Sudan.
Q) Why were individuals from Darfur angered by the agreement you signed with President Omar Al Bashirand your condemnation of the attack on Omdurman and Khartoum?
A) It was unjustified emotionalism. Concerning the attack on Omdurman, we are the only party that signed an agreement with the Justice and Equality Movement [JEM], in January 2005, in the Eritrean capital, Asmara. In that agreement, we stated that the Darfur crisis is based on a real cause and that Darfur’s demands are legitimate but that we differ on the means. We believe that the ideal way to attain these objectives is what we call civil struggle, meaning renunciation of violence and adopting other means to attain these objectives. They support our endeavor, but they are free to choose other means in the event that we are unable to accomplish the objectives through civil struggle. After that, we resorted to all methods to attain these objectives, including demonstrations, sit-ins, speeches, mobilization and entering elections against the National Congress Party [NCP, headed by Omar al Bashir].
There were various reasons for the NCP’s response to what we believed would fulfill the national agenda that we have always advocated. This agenda calls for liberties, solving the Darfur issue away from the existing agreements, rectifying the inaccurate parts of the peace agreement with the south, holding free and monitored general elections, and the convention of a universal conference from which none are excluded. We informed the leadership of the Justice and Equality Movement [JEM] and its leader Khalil Ibrahim about what we were able to accomplish. In fact we were in direct contact with them to get a response from these armed Darfurian elements. We went to Chad and informed President Idriss Deby and the representatives of all Darfur’s militant movements but instead of getting an answer we were surprised by the attack on Omdurman. Naturally, we condemned the attack and this angered them. For any political group to adopt any other position would have been a surprise. In fact, all parties condemned it except the Popular National Congress Party [PNC] but even within that party there were individuals who condemned it. This was a patriotic position that had to be adopted.
Q) Is it likely that the attack on Omdurman was planned in Chad?
A) There was more of a foreign than national element to the attack. We know the means that were used. It was just an attack to seize power without any clarification of what alternatives it wanted to impose on Sudan.
Q) What about the National Accord you signed with the NCP?
A) I do not know why there is so much fuss about this. Before the National Accord, we promoted a list of principles we called ‘The National and Religious Invariables’ three years ago. These are well known and comprise of 20 articles. We agreed on them with the opposition forces by forging alliances to ensure liberties and solve the Darfur crisis, etc. What we did in the National Accord agreement was to adopt the essence of these invariables and endorse the convening of a universal conference. We said that all the people of Sudan are invited to join this Accord but that this agreement was not mandatory.
Q) Do you believe that people were angered by your comment that the National Accord was like Noah’s Ark in that those not on board would drown?
A) This is a misinterpretation. I said that the National Accord in general, not our agreement with al Bashir, was like Noah’s Ark. Our agreement is part of the comprehensive National Accord otherwise, why would we call for a universal conference?
Q) Does the Accord include JEM, considering that al Bashir declared recently that dialogue with this party had ended?
A) Al Bashir makes his statements and we make our statements. We are not one party. I believe that his was a position of a statesman whose country had been attacked and his immediate reaction was to sever relations with Chad and embark upon a political confrontation with JEM.
We saw that it was necessary to change the postulates so we agreed with Al Bashir on the importance of there being no campaign against a political party, tribe, or individuals. In this regard, we discussed the arrest of [Hassan] Al-Turabi [former leader of the National Islamic Front] and the question was whether he was arrested because he had committed a criminal offense or whether it was a precautionary measure. We said that if it was a precautionary measure then he should be released immediately and he was in fact released.
Q) Does this mean that Al-Turabi was released as a result of your intervention?
A) Whatever the case may have been, he was released immediately after we talked. There is no doubt that it was a direct result [of the talks].
Q) You said that the PNC was the only party that did not condemn the attack on Omdurman. Are you implying that it was implicated in the attack?
A) I cannot comment…until after the results of the investigations are revealed. They based their accusations against al Turabi on circumstantial evidence: firstly, that he was outside Khartoum when the invasion took place; secondly, that he was not quick to condemn it; thirdly, that this is his manner, “You go to the palace and I go to jail,” [Al Turabi said to Al Bashir during the June 1989 coup]. In my opinion, they decided to arrest him for these reasons based on circumstantial evidence however this evidence is insufficient as it lacks any real evidence.
A) Is there a real organizational relationship between the Justice and Equality Movement and the Popular National Congress Party as claimed by the National Congress Party?
Q) There is a relationship without doubt. A number of commanders in JEM were members of the PNC and worked with the NCP in all the repressive measures that Sudan has witnessed the 1989 coup. There is no doubt that a relationship does exist. [Deputy Secretary General of the PNC] Dr Ali al-Hajj is close to them. However, without evidence, one cannot comment on the extent to which this relationship is organizational and could lead to joint action.
Q) But what about the issue of dialogue with JEM?
A) JEM must first admit that what it did [in reference to the attack on Omdurman] was a mistake that could further complicate the Darfur issue, add new dimensions to it in terms of conflict amongst neighbors, and lead to a lost cause. We must identify those who we want to join the national agenda and help them. But if they insist on imposing an agenda then my view is that all nationalist forces should adopt a stance on this.
Q) Are you implying that you might assume a mediating role?
A) For every event there are discussions. I have said this during many speeches and on numerous public occasions. Therefore I expect that there will be interaction. This is what we want in order to unify the ranks without exception.
Q) Do you mean that they should disarm, for instance?
A) Disarmament does not have to happen before a political agreement is reached. But a ceasefire must be accomplished in order to enter negotiations to reach the required political solution. In our view, there is a readiness to respond to Darfur’s legitimate demands.
Q) You have signed agreements in the past with former President Jaafar Nimeiri as well as the 1999 Djibouti Call of the Homeland with President al Bashir etc but there are claims that you are continuously being stung. What is your response to this?
A) That it not the case. At first we agreed with Nimeiri on national reconciliation. It is true that Nimeiri did not honor what was agreed upon but we were able to return to Sudan. The reconciliation also created an atmosphere that paved the way for the April uprising. Other advantages to the agreement included the general amnesty and the release of imprisoned politicians, as well as the margin of liberties through which we were able to be active and lead the change that led to the uprising.
The positive points of the Djibouti Call of the Homeland with al Bashir in December 1999 were that we returned to Sudan and achieved a lot in that period. We organized a party and we explained our proposals. Many positive ideas materialized as a result, including the expansion of the margin of liberties and the emergence of pluralism.
Our party regained its presence in the Sudanese arena and in the world. Furthermore, the Call of the Homeland served as a nucleus for the present national reconciliation, which, in turn, has achieved the objectives of civil struggle because it will bring liberties, solve the Darfur crisis and bring free elections, which ensure a peaceful alternation in power. A universal conference will be held, even though it was rejected in the past.
Q) Would it be fair to say that Mubarak al Fadil [head of the Ummah Reform and Renewal Party] was more insightful since he signed an agreement with al Bashir many years before you did?
A) The case of Mubarak was different because he agreed with the NCP based on its own terms whereas we agreed with it according to the terms of the National Agenda.
Q) There are claims that through the agreement with al Bashir the Ummah Party sought to exploit the capabilities of the NCP to enter the elections, while the NCP sought to benefit from the Ummah Party’s following to deal with other blocs that could emerge? What is your response to this?
A) We have different views on many issues, such as JEM and Chad. We are two different parties, even though we agree on a single agenda. Furthermore, our agreement with al Bashir is not bilateral but is open to everybody. People who make such claims are deluded. The surprising factor is that those who criticize this agreement are part of the regime whether on the executive or legislative level, or were once part of the regime and are now being hounded by it. People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
Q) How is the Ummah Party preparing for elections?
A) During the discussions with the NCP we stated that we wanted real elections. We demanded the creation of an electoral commission made up of elements accepted by all rival parties that would have enough power to run the elections uninfluenced by executive bodies.
We requested the required funds to enable the commission to register voters and to ensure that the counting is carried out in a fair and impartial manner. We requested internal monitoring by all parties to ensure that ballot boxes are not tampered with as well as international monitoring to ensure the elections would be fair and that any violations would be detected. After that, we are ready.
Q) You have lost many votes in Darfur and there has been an internal split (Ummah Reform). To what extent do you expect your party to lead in the elections as it has done over recent decades?
A) The split that took place was simple and did not affect the party. All subsequent divisions did not take place within our party but in the splinter parties. Our performance in the past period shows that the split has not affected the party.
As for Darfur, the majority of the people of Darfur are appreciative of the following: when we were in power, the people of Darfur were represented at all levels, at the presidential level and within the executive and legislative bodies. With regards to the development budget we considered efforts to bridge the developmental gap and the deterioration of services in Darfur. There are more Darfurians in the Ummah Party and its leadership than in any other party.
Darfur does have a cause but we do not approve of carrying arms. We seek to achieve the objectives in a national and civil manner. This crisis will end and the people of Darfur will rule, and they will know which party is the one that fulfills their demands therefore we are not worried.
Q) But your position on Darfur does not meet the expectations of many Darfurians.
A) This is not true. We adopted a faultless stance when the conflict broke out in Darfur. We brought the people of Darfur together in 2002 and told them that Darfur was heading towards a very serious problem and that we have to unite as part of a national program for Darfur. Unfortunately, the NCP rejected our proposals and a polarization developed between the NCP and the armed movements. We are still asking the NCP to respond to Darfur’s demands and we have condemned the erroneous policies of the NCP and we hold it responsible.
Q) Some of the past leaders of the Ummah Party are just for show. The youth did not attend the signing of the agreement with al Bashir, which was held at your house instead of on party premises. Is this a consecration of the role of your family in the party?
A) There is no deliberate consecration of the family’s role within the party and there is no tyranny within the party’s leadership by any of the families. As for the national reconciliation meeting, all the executive meetings held over a period of three months took place at the premises of the Ummah Party or the NCP and not at my house. But we decided that the last stage of the dialogue process should be distinguished. This is why it was held at our house.
As for my family’s role in the party, my sons and daughters take part in public work but none of them are given higher positions. They are all elected and are all qualified unlike some individuals in other parties. It is valid that sons work in the same domain as their fathers. Do people want my children to live like the children of affluent families who do not care about public work? I am able to offer Sudan qualified children; should I be rewarded or held accountable for it?
Q) What about the rest of the Sudanese and the Ummah Party; do they not deserve your attention?
A) They qualify not because they are my sons but as part of the Ummah Party. There are over 20 cadres in the party and Al Ansar some of whom are my sons. They are qualified. It is my duty to qualify them. We are using training methods with strategic institutions to increase the number to 100,000 qualified cadres. There are now more than 20 cadres qualified to assume leadership.
Q) Who is the most prominent among them?
A) I do not want to comment on this because I do not want to affect the actions of the party but as I said there are 20 including four of my sons. As for those who are selected for leadership that is the party’s business. My sole duty is to create effective institutions within the party and Al Ansar. I have done this and Al Ansar has transformed into a participatory and responsible entity.
Q) What is your opinion on the bequeathal of public positions?
A) In the field of public work this is wrong. If my son or Bush’s or Kennedy’s children were elected then there is no harm in that but it would be wrong if they were appointed by somebody or imposed.
Q) Is it possible that one of your sons would be elected to lead the party soon?
A) That does not matter; what matters to me is that a number of leaders are qualified to assume the leadership position.
Q) There are predictions that the National Reconciliation process will result in your daughter, Mariam, being assigned to a ministerial position?
A) We do not assume any ministerial position or any position unless elected. People say this because for them the person who signs an agreement does so in order to gain some kind of ministerial position. This does not apply to us.
Q) Is it true that you are preparing her to become the “Sudanese Benazir Bhutto”?
A) Mariam has got to her position herself. She came to us at a time when people were running away, even our own people out of fear that they might be accused of something. She saw sick people and chose to treat them. She decided to do this herself, no one asked her to. If she had consulted me, I would have refused. I do not get involved in such matters. But now she is qualified for the roles she undertakes, whether a manager, cabinet minister, or housewife.
Q) When you were younger, you carried out a coup in the party against former leaders. Do you still believe that what you did was important?
A) It was not a coup. Imam Abdul Rahman [the party’s founder] in 1950 wrote in a leaflet that he was the backbone of the Ummah Party, “I do not have the right of veto…to impose people by appointment.” It was a revolutionary document and what I did was to struggle for its legitimacy. Imam al Siddiq did the same thing when he issued an order saying that the Imam of Al Ansar should be elected. It was a revolutionary decision and I struggled to make it a reality. In both cases, I implemented two decisions drawing their legitimacy from Imam Abdul-Rahman and Al Siddiq. Being revolutionary is not linked to a certain age. Imam Abdul Rahman acted in a revolutionary but calm manner. He amended many of the practices of Mahdism to suit the modern era. What I did was accomplish legitimacy. Now there is legitimacy.
Q) Your son is employed at the Sudanese security and intelligence agency. Do you approve of his work in intelligence?
A) I do not approve of the actions of the intelligence agency in Sudan. We have demanded and continue to demand a law for intelligence and security that meets the specifications of democracy. What happened is that my son, Bishri, and others asked to join the Armed Forces and were assigned to the security authority instead. This mistake has been rectified.
Q) Do you believe that the major parties in Sudan – the Ummah Party, the Democratic Unionist Party and the Communist Party – need revitalization?
A) We have a large presence in the arena. The fact that we are not in power does not mean that we are detached from public work. The Ummah Party has held seven general conferences and over 30 workshops. Every month we hold a press conference where we cover our position on developments. We are always touring the provinces. We have relations with international and regional political powers, and we have undertaken initiatives on many issues. It is unfair to equate us with those that are dormant.
Q) The large parties are lacking in democracy. Some leaders have been in power for 35 years. Is it not odd that these parties call for democracy yet democracy is absent from their own structures?
A) First, we must ask whether these leaderships have been elected and whether their election is renewed periodically. We should ask whether these leaderships are vibrant. I was last elected in 2002. We have to establish criteria. We in the leadership of the Ummah Party will resign at the upcoming conference to enable the establishment to select the most suitable.
Q) Will there be a rapprochement between the Ummah Party and the DUP in the upcoming elections?
A) No, this will not happen. There are many developments that will take place. The outlines of the alliances will be different.
Q) What is your opinion of former President Ahmed al Mirghani’s initiative for reconciliation?
A) It does not differ from national reconciliation and it does not differ from the memoranda of al Turabi and others. These are all overlapping and with the grace of God, they will all lead to national reconciliation.
Q) In your opinion, which will dominate between investments and war in Sudan?
A) There are big opportunities for peace in Sudan if the present defects in the peace agreements are rectified. This is a proposal we presented to the UN Security Council delegation that visited Sudan recently. If these defects are removed Sudan’s future will be promising.
Q) What would you say have been your mistakes?
A) Everybody makes mistakes. My biggest mistake was that I believed that liberal democracy in its present form could succeed in Sudan. It was a big mistake that created very big problems for our country. If I could go back in time, I would have talked about democracy in a way that is different from the liberal kind and I would have talked about the necessity of equilibrium, social justice, and [indigenous] roots.
Democracy in its present form – without adapting it – will not succeed with us. Another mistake was that we assumed that the Armed Forces would act like their counterparts in other democratic countries. This was a mistake. They needed to be reformulated and redirected so that their allegiance would be to democratic legitimacy and would close the door in the face of adventure. A third mistake was that when we assumed power during the Third Democracy in 1986 there were veteran national newspapers [Al-Sahafa and Al-Ayyam] that were published by the state and they were nationalized. Because of liberal ideologies, I held the view that they should be returned immediately to their owners, and I agreed with them that they should begin publication. But they did not publish. This created a vacuum that was filled by a press that played a major role in destroying democracy. It would have been more appropriate to make sure that there was an alternative to fill the vacuum before canceling them. I also believe we did not take into sufficient consideration the need to put an end to the civil war in the south. It is true that we exerted efforts, but these efforts were fruitless. We did not realize that this problem could lead to gross damage and be exploited by foreign parties.
Q) What accomplishments are you most proud of?
A) The most important achievement for me was to produce a genuine and modern Islamic mentality. Secondly, I restructured Mahdism in a way that established a basis for its role as one of the principal Islamic trends, instead of being an isolated current. I took Sudanese politics out of its old cast and placed it in the modern world. During both difficult and good times, I insisted on following a set of principles that I have not changed and I have paid the price for it.
Q) It has been said that you have a passion for power. What is your comment in this regard?
A) I have a passion for Sudan.
Q) Is it true that you do not stand firm in face of opposition and so you hasten to make initiatives and reforms?
A) The truth is quite the opposite. I have spent most of my life as part of the opposition. I am the person who was jailed the most. How can I love power? Do I love prisons? The amazing thing is that all those who ruled Sudan offered me a role to take part and I refused. I always told them that the important thing was not who rules Sudan but how Sudan is ruled. If I loved power, I would have worked with Numeiro, al Bashir and others.
Q) Will you run for president in the upcoming elections or serve as prime minister in the coming government?
A) I am not going to talk about the future. We shall wait and see who will be chosen.