Daughter of ousted PM looks to a new future in Sudan
Mariam al-Sadeq al-Mahdi has become a leading figure in the Irhal
campaign to boycott Sudan's general elections.
11 Apr 2015 09:05 GMT
Khartoum, Sudan - June 30, 1989, is a day Mariam al-Sadeq al-Mahdi
will never forget. She was in her family home in Omdurman, Khartoum,
when National Islamic Front (NIF) intelligence forces came to arrest
her father, then the prime minister of Sudan.
She recalls how she recited the Quran to stay calm as the men tried to
break down the door.
"While I was waiting for them to barge in, I regretted not having
military training," Mariam told Al Jazeera in an interview at the
National Umma Party headquarters in Omdurman. Leaning back in her big
chair and clutching her hands together as she looked at the ceiling,
Mariam recalled the memories of that day.
"I wanted a rifle so I could protect my father," she said. "I was 23 years old."
As the NIF forces entered the house, screams and chaos erupted. "They
were searching frantically while shouting at me, 'Where is your
hey did not find her father, Sadeq al-Mahdi, on that day, as he
managed to escape through a back door. But two weeks later, they
tracked him down. He was in prison, and then under house arrest, for
nearly seven years.
During this time, coup leader Omar al-Bashir cemented his grip on
power. He dissolved the parliament, banned political parties and
strictly controlled the press. In March 1991, Islamic law was
Bashir was confirmed as president by an election held in 1996. The
same year, Mariam's father escaped to neighbouring Eritrea. She was
devastated by his fate and said getting on with life afterwards was a
Sudan elections activists afraid to speak out
"Many nights I could not sleep. I was in agony and despair," she said.
Still, Mariam managed to finish her medical studies, graduating as a
paediatrician. By her side was her husband, of whom she speaks fondly,
describing their marriage as not traditional, but born from love and
Meanwhile, in a bid to restore his power, her father, Sadeq,
established the Umma party's military wing with his son, Abdulrahman,
in Eritrea. Along the eastern border of Sudan, they fought the
Sudanese government. Devastated by events in her country, Mariam
decided to join her father's military force in 1997.
Her daughter, then just over a year old, stayed with her in the
military camp for a year until Mariam sent her to Egypt to be with her
"She would sleep in the front of the truck while I would train to
clean and load my weapon," she recalled, adding that the little girl
also used to play with "friendly snakes" kept in the weapon storage
rooms to keep mice away.
Conditions in the military camp were harsh, but Mariam said the
experience taught her a lot. "When you are in the field, death is so
imminent. One moment we were having coffee in a cafe and the next, one
of our convoys was blown up," she recalled. "So you learn how to be
transparent and direct, because any minute you can die. Transparency
saves a lot of time."
Mariam joined the military as a medical corporal, and after learning
how to fight, she became the second in command on the eastern border.
After two years of bloody battles, Sadeq struck a peace accord with
the government, and Mariam turned to fighting the government through
political means rather than arms. She is now a deputy leader of the
National Umma Party, led by her father - one of Sudan's main
When you are in the field, death is so imminent. One moment we were
having coffee in a cafe and the next, one of our convoys was blown up.
So you learn how to be transparent and direct, because any minute you
Mariam al-Sadeq al-Mahdi, deputy leader, National Umma Party
While Mariam followed in her father's footsteps, her brother chose a
drastically different political track: He became an adviser to Bashir,
the man who toppled their father. Visibly uneasy, Mariam explained her
dismay with her brother's choice. "It is his decision. I can't defend
what he did. But he is my brother and I know he is a good person."
She went on to explain how at times she found it difficult to deal
with him, especially following the 2013 protests that killed more than
170 people, mainly students, in the streets of Khartoum.
Having her brother in the corridors in of power has in no way shielded
Mariam from the hardships facing the opposition in Sudan, and she has
been arrested several times. The most recent time, in August 2014, she
was detained before even leaving the plane in Khartoum on her return
from Paris, where she had attended a meeting between the Umma party
and the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), a coalition of armed
"I stayed in a dirty place. The light was on the whole time. I was not
allowed to talk, know the time, or even read," she said about her
28-day detention. "I was never tortured physically, only
psychologically by being held in inhumane conditions and total
isolation. When I would ask for my right to visits, they would tell me
that no one had asked about me."
An unexpected visitor to her cell became her companion. "There was a
mouse," she said, laughing. "I used to talk to it about what I felt
But detention and intimidation have not deterred Mariam from calling
for change. She is part of the Irhal campaign, which urges a boycott
of Sudan's April 13-15 general elections.
Arguing that Sudan urgently needs a change in leadership, she said she
fears the path the current government is on could eventually lead to
the break-up of Sudan - with more regions following the example of
South Sudan, which seceded from the north after a 2011 referendum.
Despite her military background, Mariam is calling for a peaceful
transition of power. She and her party have been involved in a
national dialogue process that is now in disarray.
Umma and other opposition groups want a transitional government to be
established, including parties from across Sudan, to govern the
country for two to four years before new elections are held.
"We believe in dialogue, but we also believe this government should
go," Mariam said. "Change must happen. It must happen via civil ways
rather than violent ways, because [otherwise] it would make all of
Source: Al Jazeera
Received on Sat Apr 11 2015 - 17:58:23 EDT