Sadiq Al Mahdi, Sudan’s last elected prime minister who died on Thursday, was an elder statesman of Sudan who fostered democracy to the end.
At 84, his death brings to an end an era of turbulent Sudanese politics in which the Oxford-educated scion of a historical family played a key role.
He will be buried on Friday in Umm Durman, Khartoum’s twin city and a stronghold of his supporters, known as the Al Ansar.
“He spent his entire adult life in politics and died a martyr of that epidemic,” said Salah Talha, a Sudanese university professor close to the Al Mahdi family. “He was a moderate Islamist who leaned in favour of democracy and centrist ideas.”
Al Mahdi’s political career spanned more than 50 years, its milestones and details often mirroring the tempestuous, post-independence history of Sudan, from military coups, democratic rule and economic woes to popular uprisings, civil wars and famines.
Imprisonment, hiding and exile in many ways defined his political life. In other ways, they serve as something of a manual for the art of political survival in a country that often looked like it was about to come unglued or implode and where every democratic experiment won international accolades but was later abruptly ended by military coups.
Known to his supporters as simply the Imam, Al Mahdi will not be remembered only for his political career. He has left behind a wealth of writings on Islamic jurisprudence and on modernising Islam’s teachings to fit in with the complexities and contradictions of the present time.
Al Mahdi, critics contend, spent much of his political career addressing himself to Sudan’s political establishment and intellectual elite in near total seclusion from the rest of the country, while also striving to maintain his standing and relevance as a traditional religious leader to the hundreds of thousands of loyal supporters who treated him with deep reverence and saw him as a spiritual guide.
“The pain that comes with ailment is the best time to take stock of one’s personal, moral and social track record,” Al Mahdi, forever the philosopher, wrote after he was diagnosed with Covid-19 last month. “Self-criticism is one of the most important tools for personal betterment and satisfaction.”
In his two spells as prime minister, Al Mahdi led dysfunctional governments that miserably failed to resolve any of the country’s major problems, from civil wars, an economy that’s in disarray and the ethnic and religious fault lines that divided the country.
In some ways, his critics say, his ineffectiveness played a part in tempting the military to seize power in 1969 and 1989, with the generals convinced that they could easily do a better job running the country than civilians.
In his later years, Al Mahdi capably took on the role of statesman, offering counsel to the young men and women who led months of violent street protests against the 29-year regime of Omar Al Bashir until the generals stepped in and removed him last year.
In the aftermath, Al Mahdi helped in no insignificant way to eke out compromises between young protest leaders and generals on the future of Sudan.
His effort bore fruit in August 2019, when the two sides signed a landmark power-sharing agreement that has since served as a transitional constitution for Sudan until a new one is adopted and free elections are held.
Ameen Makki, a prominent figure in the anti-Al Bashir uprising, recalled Al Mahdi’s role in the early days of the uprising. He and others in the pro-democracy movement sought the counsel of elderly statesmen like Al Mahdi as the regime’s security forces grew more brutal in dealing with the protesters.
“The Imam carried more weight, was the wiser and more rational among them. He contributed to the halt of bloodletting,” he said.
“It’s for people like him that the flags are lowered, a state of mourning is declared and official funerals are held.”
In some ways, Al Mahdi’s role in the 2018-19 uprising was a surprise to some of the young opposition activists, who saw him as a political relic from a bygone era who was out of touch with the mood, aspirations and rebellious traits of Sudan’s contemporary youth.
To them, Al Mahdi was the quintessential symbol of the traditional and religious forces that dominated but achieved little during spells of democratic rule in the 1950s, 1960s and 1980s. These forces, they argued, have been displaced by a new strain of political activism that is mostly liberal, left-leaning and fearless in the face of brutal force.
Their argument may not be entirely without merit, although Al Mahdi dismissed it as untrue and argued that he and his Umma party, Sudan’s largest, were at the heart of the uprising.
He was also just as dismissive of the notion held by some activists that with his impeccable English, aristocratic manners and Oxford degree, he presided over an elitist political system.
However, a significant part of Al Mahdi’s relevance in the “new Sudan” came from the voting power of his supporters, which has for decades kept his Umma party as a political powerhouse.
Al Mahdi served twice as prime minister, the first time when he was barely 30 in 1966. His second term as prime minister came in 1986, a year after the military seized power in a bloodless and popularly-supported coup amid nationwide street protests against the 16-year rule of military dictator Jaafar Al Nimeiri.
His democratically elected government was toppled in a 1989 coup led by Al Bashir, an Islamist whose time in office handed Sudan its worst chapter since independence in 1956.
Al Bashir is now in prison following his conviction of corruption and is facing additional trials for the shooting deaths of protesters in 2018 and 2019 and for violating the constitution when he plotted and led the Islamist-backed 1989 coup.
But Al Mahdi betrayed no glee when he spoke about what it meant for him to see Al Bashir appear before a criminal court last year charged with corruption.
"The wrong must eventually be vanquished, the righteous state must come back," Al Mahdi told The National in an interview last year at his Umm Durman residence.