Rewriting Sudan with verve and passion
Rebel and maverick
photo: Al-Ahram Archives
War and Prospects of Peace in Sudan, is certainly not about how to steer a course between secularism and religious fundamentalism. For its author, former Sudanese Foreign Minister Mansour Khalid, it's more a question of to be or not to be. This work, which I first read in manuscript, makes good opening gambits for Sudanese academic gatherings overseas. Like many of his previous publications, it focusses on Sudan, its people and politics.
Click to view caption
Khalid as Sudanese foreign minister shakes Sadat's hand while Numeiri looks cheerily on
Olympian and unpretentiously sagacious, the work is typical of Khalid and stands testament to his meticulous background research. In its pages, he spans not just the entire modern history of Sudan, from the eruption of the Mahdist Revolution in 1881 to the usurpation of power of the National Islamic Front (NIF) in 1989, but also proposes a brighter future.
As I leaf through the pages of his works piled up high on his cluttered desk in his study in Heliopolis, it becomes abundantly clear that he is deeply concerned about his country's predicament. "The Sudanese have more to grieve than to sing paeans for," states Khalid quite categorically.
So how did a distinguished academic and former northern and Muslim Sudanese political establishment man end up being chief political adviser to John Garang, the leader of the southern-based opposition Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA)? Khalid's career draws us into a story even more intriguing than this personal puzzle.
Khalid's very first encounter with Garang was in April 1986 at Koka Dam. "I asked him point blank how he felt about Sudanese national unity. He replied that he was all for unity. Then I asked if he was opposed to Islam and Arabism, and his answer was no, provided they are elements of unification and not instruments of division," Khalid recalled. "He said we need to go back to the drawing board."
It is the deeply disturbing presence of war that has bedeviled Africa's largest country since independence from Britain in 1956. "Sudan's war is no different from wars elsewhere. It is an entangled political, cultural and social weave with equally intricate international ramifications," Khalid says.
Khalid is an invaluable adjutant who balks at the idea of leading the parade. But if Khalid's political ambition has dried up, his thirst for political debate animates many a discussion. He is prodigiously clever and learned, and makes an excellent conversationalist. Khalid's quick intellect and verbal agility are given free rein in the international political circles he frequents.
When does he have time to write? "Mainly in- flight," he answers.
Khalid has held several important ministerial posts in the past, and today maintains close working relationships with several African leaders. Yet the pleasure he undoubtedly took in his political status sits uneasily with his dislike of everything repressive about institutional authority.
His latest work, a book about Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, entitled Africa Through the Eyes of a Patriot, promises to attract just as much attention in African circles as War and Prospects of Peace in Sudan. Both are published by Keagan Paul. So why Obasanjo? "He has a forward looking vision for Africa. Not only did Obasanjo establish the Africa Leadership Forum to create an alternative leadership, but he was the first military ruler in Africa to voluntarily give up power. Obasanjo ran as a civilian the second time he held office. He is the only African leader I know of who is actually looking forward to his retirement. 'Ken, there is life beyond the State House,' he once told former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda." Obasanjo is currently working out a peace initiative between the Sudanese government and opposition forces that will draw on Nigeria's own tortuous experience of national unity. Nigeria, like Sudan, is divided into Muslim north and Christian and animist south.
Sudan's war, Africa's longest running conflict is a subject that provokes strong passions and even stranger paradoxes. Khalid regrets the ill- motivated religiosity that intentionally inflicts harm on others. His early education was Islamic, but he decided early on in life not to be a prisoner to his history and traditions.
Khalid was born in Omdurman, Sudan's spiritual and cultural capital. His upbringing was solidly religious, not exactly privileged but not quite plebeian either. His family owned a mosque and a madrassa, in Omdurman. His maternal grandfather, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Sawi Abdul-Maged, belonged to the Khatemiya Sufi Order and enjoyed close connections with the traditional leaders of the sect -- the Al-Mirghani family, while his paternal grandfather Sheikh Mohamed Abdul- Maged was a follower of the rival Al-Shadhiliya Sufi Order. They were blood brothers.
One of his uncles, named after Abdul-Aziz Al- Dabbagh of Al-Ibriz fame, was a religious scholar in his own right. Like his more famous namesake, Khalid's uncle was a devout Sufi and poet, whose life is documented in one of Khalid's books. A friend and close associate of Sheikh Mustafa Al- Maraghi, who served as Grand Qadi of Sudan, Khalid's uncle championed a third Sufi sect, the Tijaniya Sufi Order. Khalid's uncle Abdul-Aziz Al-Dabbagh had a very wide network of relationships in countries as far afield as Egypt and Albania, Arabia and Morocco, where the head of the Tijaniya was based. And it was in honour of these devout forefathers that Khalid wrote the Al- Magediya Trilogy, a study in the three mens' respective philosophies and poetry, which tackles such ethereal Sufi subjects as "divine inspiration", "ecstatic expressions" and "sacred diffusion".
"Al-Dabbagh's thought was both eclectic and synthetic," muses Khalid, who says that the influence of his Sufi family profoundly influenced him in his formative years. But while Sufi Islam left an indelible mark on Sudan, the political roots of Islam in the country go back much further. Barely 13 years after the ousting of Muslims from Spain in 1492, the Muslim Sultanate of Funj sprang up in the heart of Africa on the banks of the Nile. With its capital at Sennar on the Blue Nile, 500 kilometres south of Khartoum, Islam was dealt a deadly blow in Europe, only to witness a rebirth in Africa. But while Andalusian Muslims tend to be remembered for the more mundane, albeit sublime flowering of literary, artistic and architectural achievements, the Funj were ethereal in orientation. The royal court at Sennar was transformed into a magnet for Sufis from all over the Muslim world.
Those who insist that the legitimacy of their rule is divine right are pitted against those who counter that their quest for freedom of expression is equally sacred. The challenge, Khalid extrapolates, is that political Islam is no outworn shibboleth, at least not in Sudan. In his now classic The Government They Deserve (1986), Khalid graphically illustrated the difficult path Sudan must tread.
Khalid tells the story of contemporary Sudan with verve and passion. His earlier bombshell, Numeiri and the Revolution of Dis-May (1984), Khalid recounts Sudan's failure to grasp the opportunities presented with the promise of independence.
After first toying with fine arts, Khalid switched to law. Ironically, an Egyptian professor of his, who was soon to become Ambassador Mohamed Abdel-Aziz Ishaq, sparked Khalid's first interest in black Africa. Notwithstanding its location in the heart of the African continent, Sudan was insular and the northern Sudanese perceptions of black Africa at the time was somewhat distorted, rather vague and clouded by the poetry of Al- Mutanabbi, the tales of Al-Massaudi, and the travels of Ibn Battuta.
"Ishaq was the first person to introduce me to secular thought. Ishaq was an admirer of Egypt's celebrated writer Abbas El-Aqqad, and had translated Buree's Freedom of Thought, from the original French into Arabic. It was Ishaq who met with Major Salah Salem in Khartoum and proposed the establishment of the University of Cairo in Khartoum."
Politics were interesting on the eve of self- government in Sudan. Campus politics consisted of a tug-of-war between two rival groups, the communists and the Muslim Brothers, both of whom had their origins in the Egyptian political scene, and maintained links with their respective Egyptian forerunners. Khalid and a small group of students opted for a third way: he was a founder of Al-Mustaquileen, the Independents.
It was during his student days that he developed an interest in journalism. He worked as a freelancer for a number of Sudanese papers including Garidat Al-Nil, which belonged to the Ansar Al- Mahdi sect, whose editor was Abdul-Rahim Al- Amin, one of Khalid's university lecturers. Another, Al-Mustaqbal (The Future) was owned by Al-Sharif Al-Hindi. Khalid soon became the Khartoum correspondent of Agence France Presse AFP, and took up the study of French at the French Cultural Centre in Khartoum. There he met Jacques Berg who was later to prove instrumental in arranging for Khalid to achieve a scholarship to study French in France.
France opened up new horizons. In Paris his interests seem to have diversified remarkably. He discovered a whole new dimension of African culture working closely with the Paris-based magazine Présence Africaine. His circle of friends widened constantly and considerably.
In Paris, Khalid met Hassan Al-Turabi who was working on a PhD in Constitutional Law. "We were very close friends," Khalid confesses. "Even after I left Paris for Algeria we used to correspond regularly. In one of those letters I told him that I was a secularist. He replied that he had chosen 'the right path'."
Khalid's political ideas were evidently formed early in his career, and changed little thereafter. It would be wrong, however, to imply that Khalid's thought was entirely static. He has persistently declined to be drawn into any ideological school of thought and sees himself essentially as a principled pragmatist. His academic and political careers reinforced his reasoning and convictions.
After graduation in 1956, Khalid went straight into legal practice but after a couple of years he successfully applied for a scholarship to study economic theory at the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Among his colleagues at the time were Nabil Shaath, currently the Palestinian Authority's minister of international co-operation.
One of his professors at Wharton used to be adviser to the United Nations, and recommended him for a job at the UN as officer in the legal department. Those were tumultuous times. The Congo crisis was in full swing and was soon to claim the life of the UN's Swedish secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjöld. Khalid was the first and only African to join the UN's legal department in those days, quite naturally he was given the task of doing legal work on Congo.
But Khalid was not as thorough as he should have been in scrutinising every word and detail. He prepared a report to be used as background information for a speech to be presented by U Thant, the late Burmese UN secretary-general who succeeded Hammarskjöld. U Thant soon discovered the discrepancies in Khalid's report. "I take credit for the good work you do, but I also take the blame for your mistakes. You make mistakes, but my mistakes are blunders," a furious U Thant admonished.
Newly independent Algeria gave Khalid the opportunity to polish his rusty French. Algeria was then at the epicentre of the African liberation movement. He left the country shortly after the late Algerian President Houari Boummedienne ousted President Ahmed Ben Bella. "I was privileged to make close and lasting friendships in Algiers. Those were some of the most rewarding years of my life. My time in Algeria was very special." Khalid struck immediate friendships with then Foreign Minister Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika, now Algerian president, and such veteran Algerian diplomats as Mohamed Sahnoun and Lakhdar Brahimi, currently the UN secretary- general's special envoy to Afghanistan.
After Algeria, Khalid returned to Paris to work on his doctoral thesis. Paris was at the time a meeting place for Arab intellectuals, and Khalid wasted no time making new friends and consolidating old friendships. Among those he became especially close to was the late Lutfi El- Kholi, former Arab League secretary-general, Esmat Abdel-Meguid, and Ahmed Bahaaeddin. "Paris was intellectually enriching." He was also seconded to UNESCO while working on his doctoral thesis. Having obtained a PhD, Khalid left France, crossed the Atlantic for the United States and accepted a job at the University of Colorado, where he taught a course in the law of international institutions.
The 1967 Arab-Israeli War took place while Khalid was in Boulder, Colorado. In the US, Khalid experienced the influence of Zionism first hand. "The entire experience was an eye-opener," he says. "A few weeks before the Six Day War erupted, one of my colleagues quietly asked me to relieve one of my students from sitting the exams. I was curious and asked the girl if she was ill or unwell. She said that she was fine, but that she would like to go to Israel. 'Why do you want to go to Israel?' I asked her, my curiosity heightened. 'I'm going to replace someone who's going to the front,' she said. 'Replace him as what,' I pressed. It transpired that she was replacing a teacher who taught in a school for North African immigrants in Israel."
Even though Khalid's student was American, she was fluent in French, the language of instruction for the North African immigrants. It was then that Khalid realised how organised the Israelis were and how efficient their networks were. At the height of their war preparations, they were not only thinking seriously about their school system and how to re-organise it during the war period, but more importantly making the necessary preparations utilising an international network of dedicated people. Khalid's realisation didn't soften the blow of defeat when it came, but went some way to explain the depth of the defeat. "It was time for me to re-think some of the givens," he explains.
After an invaluable year in Colorado, which broadened his horizons, Khalid returned to Paris and UNESCO. It was there that he first met and later developed a lasting friendship with Dr Mustafa Kamal Tolba, at the time Egypt's minister of scientific research, who was also a member of the UNESCO board. Khalid was to meet him time and again in Paris, Nairobi, New York and indeed Cairo.
A politician of firm convictions and a liberal, Khalid distanced himself from Sudanese politicians who used religious bigotry as a political weapon. He became an outspoken critic of his old friend Hassan Al-Turabi who had returned to Sudan to head the Islamic Charter Front. They had long since parted ways and their paths had diverged considerably. In Paris, he had written a series of provocative articles in Al-Ayyam, the Sudanese daily, in which he unleashed a torrent of scathing criticism on the vicious anti-communist campaign spearheaded by Sadig Al-Mahdi and Al-Turabi, who had at the time joined hands to promulgate an Islamic Constitution. The two politico-religious leaders and their supporters had declared open war on secularism and apostasy, a thinly-veiled euphemism for communism. "Any undesirable individual or political opponent can be dismissed and badgered if branded an apostate," Khalid argued.
With the blessing of the then Prime Minister Sadig Al-Mahdi, the Sudanese Parliament voted to make it possible for an apostate MP to be unceremoniously thrown out of parliament. They amended the Constitution and introduced a clause to that effect. The Supreme Court promptly ruled that Parliament's decision was unconstitutional. The Sudanese government refused to abide by that ruling. "In one stroke it abrogated two pillars of democracy: the independence of the judiciary and circumventing the will of the people."
It was in this context that Khalid accepted the offer to join the government of Jaafar Al-Numeiri which toppled the elected government of Sadig Al-Mahdi in May 1969. "It was a decision that I lived to regret," Khalid muses. He was offered the post of adviser to the Revolutionary Command Council. Khalid, however, opted for the cabinet position of minister of youth and social affairs. Fired with enthusiasm after the Paris student riots of 1968, Khalid was brimming with new ideas. He had first-hand experience of the Paris riots and was obsessed with the concept of the "crisis of generations". UNESCO itself was embroiled in working out solutions to the problem and he saw his new post as a golden opportunity to put his ideas into practice. Khalid adopted a "functional approach". He closely collaborated with his Egyptian counterpart Safieddin Abul-Ezz. It was at this time that he had an "interesting and memorable" meeting with the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser in Ma'amoura, Alexandria. Hassan Sabri Al-Kholi was in attendance. Nasser asked Khalid what the problems facing Sudan's youth were. "The communists want to control the regime and the Muslim Brothers want to overthrow it," Khalid replied. Nasser nodded in agreement. "We suffer from this very problem over here," he said in sympathy with Khalid.
Khalid met Nasser as a cabinet minister of former Sudanese President Jafaar Al-Numeiri's government. He was to hold other more senior posts in Numeiri's successive governments. But Khalid fell out with Numeiri when the latter instituted the now infamous September Laws which prompted the April 1985 popular uprisings that eventually led to Numeiri's fall. Numeiri claimed to institute Shari'a Law, but Sudan is a multi- religious and multi-cultural country, Khalid explains. With the coming to power of the NIF, a jihad was declared obligatory on all Muslim males. "Thus while Muslims who did not subscribe to the NIF vision of Islam became second class citizens in their own country, non-Muslim southern Sudanese were reduced to an engendered sub- species. Needless to say, the NIF philosophy does not sit well with the southern Sudanese.
"Following the NIF's military coup, Mohamed Osman Al-Mirghani (Democratic Unionist Party leader), and Mohamed Ibrahim Nugud (secretary-general of the Sudanese Communist Party), found themselves together in Bashir's jail. Days later they were joined by Sadig Al-Mahdi, the ousted premier and Umma Party leader). Walled in with them was an improbable inmate, Hassan Al-Turabi, leader of the NIF. As it turned out later, the new regime sought to conceal the identity of the coup by locking in the NIF leader. Also, they might have thought that during his confinement, Al-Turabi would be able to win over the two religious leaders," Khalid explains. They were to be sorely disappointed. "Rather than falling prey to NIF wiles, the two religious leaders, Mahdi and Al- Mirghani, together with their leftist partner, Nugud, drew a draft charter of what was to become the gospel of the umbrella opposition grouping, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA)." In an ironic twist of fate, even Al- Turabi, who is now under house arrest in Khartoum after his Popular Congress Party signed a memorandum of understanding with the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), has signalled his readiness to sign the Asmara Resolution of 1995.
The ideological and political issues Sudan is currently grappling with has repercussions in both the African and Muslim world.