Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 September 2004
Issue No. 707
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Al-Tijani Al-Tayeb

Al-Tijani Al-Tayeb: A revolutionary path

Despite more than two decades in gaol and on the run, Al-Tijani Al-Tayeb still believes that history has a meaning for the people of Sudan

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"Nothing prepares you for the actual moment you step into jail!"

Al-Tijani Al-Tayeb, leader of the Sudanese Communist Party, cocks an ear towards the kitchen of his Nasr City apartment, as his wife, Fatheya, emerges bearing cups of delicious Kenyan tea.

A shy and retiring woman of few words, Fatheya has stood by her husband through thick and thin. She has borne the brunt of the family's checkered history in private. She raised their only daughter, Azza, practically single-handed. Still to this day, she is actively involved with the women's wing of the Sudanese Communist Party.

Married in 1954, the couple have endured long periods of angst and separation. During Al-Tijani's extended stays in prison, it was left to Fatheya to hold the fort.

"The first time I was jailed, it was very difficult for Fatheya," her husband remembers. "But as it became a more frequent occurrence, she eventually got used to it..."

Locked up with one's demons, grappling alone with serious moral questions, prison is never an easy experience. Al-Tijani spent a total of 12 years in prison. But even worse than that were the 10 years he spent underground, as a fugitive from Sudanese justice, a runaway revolutionary. To be the object of a manhunt by the State was the most testing experience of his life, yet also deeply illuminating. He learned a great deal about his country and its long-suffering people during his years on the run.

Al-Tijani leans forward a fraction, and with what in his case passes for a grin, crowns his thought with a long drawn-out sigh of affirmation: "Yeah!"

"It was a painful period," he adds. In this, as in everything, his manner is direct and unaffected.

Though Al-Tijani was underground for 10 years, he managed to remain in Khartoum throughout that time, moving from one safe house to another.

Though in hiding, he still managed to see his mother, father, brothers and sisters every month or two. He also saw his wife and daughter whenever conditions were not unreasonably dangerous. He exchanged letters with them on a regular basis, and everything was arranged in the utmost secrecy. "One never knew in advance where the secret meetings would be scheduled, one never knew when one was going to see them next -- but there always was a next time," he explains. As always, he seems to be choosing his words carefully. In more ways than one, Al-Tijani's manners epitomise the suavity that is characteristic of a certain class of cultured Sudanese.

He then proceeds to recite a list of do's and don'ts for political runaways. "You must never forget that you are wanted -- not for one second. Don't walk for long distances, and change the direction of your path regularly. Don't raise your voice in conversation. Don't laugh loudly. Don't look out of the window. Shut windows. The most important survival strategy for fugitives is to become invisible: not to the people, but to the authorities."

Al-Tijani stresses how kind and generous ordinary people were to him. But he also warns that even the people's goodwill and compassion cannot be taken for granted. In this connection, he has an illuminating story to tell.

"In November 1980, I was underground, staying in a 'safe house', when the security forces came to arrest someone in that house."

Little did they realise that there was an even bigger fish hiding there alongside the object of their quest.

"They caught the man they wanted, and as they were leaving they spotted some Communist literature. So they decided to search the entire house more thoroughly." He giggles, as if in hindsight the whole incident appeared as just a game.

That's when the security men stumbled across Al-Tijani. "I didn't have the necessary papers, and the security men didn't recognise me, so they took me to the police station for questioning. I gave them a false name, but the following day one of the police officers recognised me. I was summarily tried and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment."

Living the life of a fugitive is hard enough, but a prison sentence is no picnic either. Yet Al-Tijani is quick to add that he was able to do a great deal of political work in gaol.

As he points out, the political platform of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), Sudan's umbrella opposition grouping, was itself conceived and drafted in Khartoum's notorious Cooper Prison.

The Sudanese Communist Party was a founding member of the NDA, an organisation that Al-Tijani considers to be the most regionally representative in Sudanese politics.

Indeed, Al-Tijani, who has been living in Egypt since 1990 as a political exile, sees the NDA's agenda as Sudan's best hope of political salvation, thanks to a platform which stresses democracy, human rights and radical political reform. It is this platform which has brought together parties from right across the political spectrum, with differing ideological orientations and widely varied regional power bases -- from the east, west, south and north of the country. "All working together for the good of Sudan and of all Sudanese."

As Al-Tijani also points out, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) headed by John Garang was not a founding member of the NDA. "Garang was not imprisoned in Cooper jail, like the leaders of the other founding parties, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the Communist Party and the Umma Party," he explains. Not having been admitted to this exclusive "club", the SPLA only negotiated its admission to the NDA in Cairo in March 1990. Imprisonment can therefore sometimes prove conducive to constructive political action.

Al-Tijani also insists that he was never physically tortured while in gaol.

Ironically, Al-Tijani's first taste of prison was not in Sudan, but in Egypt. He won his spurs many years ago at the time of the first Arab-Israeli war in Hike-step, a concentration camp on the Cairo-Suez highway, that housed suspected Communists, along with other political dissenters who were perceived as posing a security risk to the Egyptian monarchy and the British colonial forces. There he spent the year 1948-49, before being deported to Sudan.

At this point, the conversation veers away from personal trials, to focus instead on the unspeakable poverty and degradation of Al-Tijani's people. "The Sudanese are angry and frustrated," he insists. "Some 90-95 per cent of them live below the poverty line."

Unfortunately, those in power in Khartoum prefer to evade this issue, using nationalist frustrations and humiliations to resist the demand for change.

"Sudan has always been a poor country. I myself was born into abject poverty," Al-Tijani adds, nonchalantly.

But despite the fact that he, his family and his entire village lived pretty much on the breadline, he retains a deep emotional attachment to his home village. He is fiercely proud of his roots.

Al-Tijani was born deep in the rural backwaters of northern Sudan, in the village of Al-Shaghalwa, three kilometres from Shendi, itself a sleepy provincial town 170 kilometres north of the Sudanese capital Khartoum.

"I remember the destitution, the lack of amenities," he recalls. "There was no fresh meat: most villagers could not afford to slaughter their animals." Only on major feasts and celebrations, such as weddings and the Eid Al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice), did the wealthier villagers indulge in the traditional Islamic ritual.

Al-Tijani's neighbours were Jaialiyin, and considered themselves Arabs, unlike their Nubian neighbours. They even claimed descent from Al-Abbas, the Prophet Mohamed's paternal uncle.

Traditionally, they would shun fish, though it is an important source of animal protein. Al-Tijani's father was perhaps the only man in the village who encouraged his family to eat fish. His mother, Batool, hated cleaning and cooking fish. She did not understand why of all the village's women she was forced to cook the "stinking stuff", as she contemptuously called it.

As children, Al-Tijani and his 11 siblings were forbidden to drink water from the well in the village. The water was brackish, and the father insisted, much to the consternation of the women of the household, on using distilled and purified Nile water instead.

Al-Tijani's mother was a distant relative of his father. She came from Serdiya, a small island in the middle of the river in the vicinity of Shendi. Today, Al-Tijani remembers Serdiya as a rural idyll. "After the flood waters receded, we would go there to spend the winter. It was a season of plenty. Corn was plentiful, the livestock fattened and healthy, and the grass so green," he reminisces.

Talk of Al-Shaghalwa evoke nostalgic images of groves of date palms; but it also brings back painful memories.

Al-Tijani's father, who was born in Omdurman, emigrated from Khartoum to Shendi in the aftermath of the 1924 Revolution and the rise of the so-called White Flag League. His father participated in the 1924 Revolution and his children were well aware of political activism.

His father, Al-Tayeb, "was an enlightened man for his time. But despite that, he still had three wives: one in Omdurman, who died giving birth to a sister; Al-Tijani's mother; and another younger and more beautiful woman."

One of Al-Tijani's most deeply etched memories is of his mother and his step-mother constantly bickering over trivia. His step-mother only bore her husband daughters; as a result, she found herself unceremoniously divorced, and had to leave Shendi.

With his easy sense of self-deprecation and casual wit, Al-Tijani speaks at length and without hesitation about his humble origins. The passion in his voice is palpable. But such story-telling is not enough: he also needs to show how the deprivations of his people can be explained in terms of historical materialism.

Al-Shaghalwa was not simply blissful and idyllic. Poverty, disease and death were painful reminders of the terrible underdevelopment that afflicted Khartoum's immense hinterlands.

"And I remember the deaths." Al-Tijani suddenly seems to jolt out of his reverie. "The deaths of many, many children. I remember the numerous little graves in the village cementry. Hundreds of tiny graves. Rows and rows of them."

"Children then were susceptible to all kinds of disease. Medical care was very limited, if not completely unavailable. There were no clinics or hospitals. Children who ran a fever died within days, sometimes hours. Measles, chicken pox, meningitis and cholera were fatal diseases in those days. They still are," he laments, "but the scale then was horrendous in its magnitude, and the repercussions heart-wrenching."

Winter was the season of elimination: "If children survived their fourth year, then the hopes that they would survive into manhood, or womanhood, were greatly enhanced."

Al-Tijani left Al-Shaghalwa when he was eight to attend school in Khartoum, and the entire family moved with him. But he remembers his native village vividly, and he still has a few friends there. "Those that are still alive," he chuckles.

"Our generation is a unique one," he muses. "We were witness to the worst atrocities and repression of the colonial administration. We witnessed how our country was milked dry by the colonial authorities."

Al-Tijani recounts how the Sudan Plantations Syndicate, the British company that monopolised Sudan's sugar trade, creamed off the country's wealth. "In 1953, after 54 years of British rule, Sudan only had 3,000 secondary school graduates," he points out. "There were no secondary schools in the whole of southern Sudan. Neither was there a single secondary school in Darfur. In the far north of Sudan, north of Khartoum, there was only one secondary school."

Al-Tijani is none too enthusiastic about the colonial legacy in Sudan, but he still gives credit where credit is due. For he learnt his Marxism essentially from British Marxist teachers in Sudan and Egypt.

The Sudanese Communist Party itself was a spin-off from the British Communist Party and from the main Egyptian Communist groups of the 1940s, such as the Democratic Movement for National Liberation.

Strangely enough, when the Sudanese Communist Party was established, there was no Egyptian Communist party as such. But many Sudanese, like Al-Tijani, were members of Egyptian Communist groups. And when they returned to Sudan, they propagated Marxist ideas and modes of political organisation. "Even non-Communist groups in Sudan, including the National Islamic Front (NIF), were organised along Leninist lines. We started the ball rolling!" Al-Tijani proclaims, with a gleeful laugh.

"We organised the students and workers, including farm workers, and women. We started the professional associations, too."

A number of factors account for the spread of Marxist ideology among Sudan's educated elite. Some, like Al-Tijani, were all the more acutely aware of the deplorable conditions of their people, as they themselves hailed from impoverished backgrounds. Most were indignant about the injustice committed against their people by the colonial authorities. They therefore called for the evacuation of British forces from both Egypt and Sudan, and insisted on the right for national self-determination for Sudan.

The culmination of the Sudanese intelligentsia's attempts at organisation came with the founding in 1938 of the Graduates' Congress, which succeeded the Omdurman Graduates Club, established in 1919. Through its agitation, the colonial authorities were obliged to grant limited civic freedoms to the educated Sudanese in the hope of curtailing the rapid rise in the popularity and influence of the traditional religious orders -- the Khatimiya and the Ansar Al-Mahdi.

Yet the tide of nationalism soon cut across all religious and political affiliations.

Sudanese troops had fought for the British during World War II, and for the first time their horizons expanded to encompass distant realms far beyond Sudan's borders. New ideas began to circulate among the Sudanese intelligentsia.

Egypt wanted Sudan and Egypt to be united as one country under the Egyptian crown. Britain, however, in line with its policy of divide-and-rule, insisted that Sudan should remain a separate political entity.

In January 1954, the country's first parliament was thus inaugurated, and Ismail Al-Azhari was elected as Sudan's first prime minister. Full independence from Britain followed in 1956.

Yet the promise of independence was soon to be dashed. Over the following years, the Sudanese people would be bitterly disappointed and let down.

"Out of 48 years of Sudanese independence, we have spent 36 under military dictatorship," says Al-Tijani. "We only had 12 years of shaky multi-party democracy. Worse, under British colonial rule detainees could only be held for 72 hours, after which they had to stand trial. Today, people are detained indefinitely without trial."

There is no bitterness in his voice, but his pupils dilate as he speaks. "Our generation did not live life to the full," he says. "Our youth was dashed. We were in and out of prison."

On 25 May 1969, a bloodless coup was staged by a group of junior officers led by Colonel Jaafar Al-Numeiri. The rightist forces combined efforts to malign and undermine the Communists. At that time, the right included the Umma Party, the Democratic Unionist Party, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Numeiri and his Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) turned on the Communists. Thousands were imprisoned. Three leading Communists were summarily executed: Abdel-Khaleq Mahjoub, a close personal friend of Al-Tijani; Al-Shafie Ahmed Al-Sheikh; and Joseph Garang. Mahjoub had been secretary-general of the party, while Al-Shafie was deputy president of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), and Garang was the leading Communist figure in the South.

Numeiri promulgated the Islamic Shariaa laws in September 1983. He then removed food subsidies, sparking off a series of bread riots, and executed the septuagenarian Ustaz Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, leader of the Republic Brothers, for heresy in January 1985. Communists were rounded up and Al-Tijani languished in jail, including a long period of solitary confinement.

Then on 6 April 1985, a popular uprising erupted and Numeiri's repressive rule came to an abrupt and violent end. In this moment, it was the ordinary Sudanese people who proved themselves the heroes of their own liberation.

Al-Tijani was released from prison by the demonstrators, "who literally carried us home on their shoulders!" It was an exhilarating moment. "It was thrilling, quite unlike anything I'd ever experienced in my life."

But Al-Tijani's moment of triumph was short-lived. Soon the country was to fall once again under military dictatorship. In 1989, General Omar Hassan Al-Beshir seized power in a military coup. The Communists were once again thrown into prison. The cycle of kangaroo courts, incarcerations and executions returned with a vengeance. Al-Beshir aligned himself with the National Islamic Front (NIF) led by Hassan Al-Turabi. Al-Tijani's judgement on the Islamist regime is uncompromising. "They systematically dismantled our work, and we have never fully recovered from the blow."

Sudan was now caught up in a downward spiral that was to drag it into economic bankruptcy.

Yet for any Sudanese, plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. "The Numeiri regime detained 40,000 Communists and Communist sympathisers in 1971, on the pretext of a Communist plot to topple his military junta," Al-Tijani recalls. "But the NIF regime has butchered many more. I personally know of at least 20 Communists who were tortured to death under the NIF."

Al-Tijani looks me straight in the eye, just as he looks straight into the eyes of history.

"The people of Sudan deserve better."

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