Professor faces challenges in run for president of Sudan

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Abdullahi Ali Ibrahim, professor of history at MU and his wife, Mahasin Awadelkarim, sit at the dining room table of their duplex in central Columbia. ¦ SETH PUTNAM/Missourian
COLUMBIA — Even before Abdullahi Ali Ibrahim packed up the books that once lined the shelves of his office on MU’s campus, his workspace was undecorated and had a feeling of impermanence.

So does the duplex where he lives with his wife in central Columbia. Frameless pictures are attached to the walls with thumbtacks, and there are few furnishings but again, many books.

Ibrahim has taught history with an emphasis in sub-Saharan culture at MU since 1994. But he admits he never quite “consigned” himself to the U.S., instead imagining a role for himself someday back in Sudan.

Ibrahim, who favors white socks with black shoes and oversize glasses that emphasize his bookishness, has decided what that role should be: president of Sudan.

On New Year's Eve, which is also the eve of Sudan's Independence Day, Ibrahim returned to his hometown of Atbara, Sudan, and announced his candidacy for the country's highest office. Until now, Ibrahim has kept his plans quiet in the United States, worried about whether he’d be released from his teaching duties and what people would think about his plan.

"I knew people would be kind to me and try to restrain me," he said, smiling.

But he said he feels he owes his country a service.

"I am offering a vision for my country,” Ibrahim said. “I am telling my people that they are worth fighting for."

Tired of war

Ibrahim sees a proper election as a way to unify the Sudanese people and lift his country out of the mud and blood of the sporadic civil war they have endured since their independence in 1956. As part of the Naivasha Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005,  Sudan agreed to hold democratic elections by July 2009. That date has now been pushed back to February 2010, but Ibrahim doesn’t see that as a troubling sign that elections won’t be held.

After more than 53 years of civil wars, tight military control and several  million deaths and displacements, Ibrahim said he thinks the people of Sudan are fatigued enough to begin a brighter chapter in their country's history.

"Enough is enough," he said. " We have seen it all, so we are tired. We have to have our eyes on the ball – the election. This is a way out."

Professor Russ Zguta, whose office is next to Ibrahim's, said there’s precedent for an academic or a historian running for office. He noted that President Woodrow Wilson earned his doctorate in history and served for a time as president of the American Historical Association. But having a friend and colleague who aspires to such a goal Zguta described as “thought-provoking.”

“It inspires a feeling of pride, a strong desire for him succeed, a keen awareness of the potential challenges he will face if elected,” Zguta said.

A few hurdles stand between Ibrahim and the presidency.

The least of them may be that he hasn't yet been released from his contract with MU. Ibrahim spent the last year on leave, splitting his time between Sudan and the United States while he did research. The sabbatical agreement states that, upon returning from a leave of absence, a professor must spend the next year teaching.

Generally, this is to keep professors from taking advantage of the option of a paid research year and then retiring immediately afterward. But Ibrahim has requested that he be released from his contract and hopes that UM System President Gary Forsee will take into account the unique nature of his request.

That’s why Jonathan Sperber, chair of MU's history department, expects Ibrahim to be released without a problem.

"We all know that he is a long-term political activist in Sudan," Sperber said. "It's a very unusual circumstance. It's not every day that an MU professor runs for the presidency of any country. I hope that President Forsee will see his way clear to waiving the usual requirement."

A ‘new humanist’

Ibrahim was born in 1942, 14 years before the country's independence, to a working-class family in Atbara, Sudan.

"I come out of the culture of the trade union, which cuts across tribes and religious fraternities," he said. "I'm a product of kind of a new humanism in Sudan that overlaps with nationalism."

He first attended a Catholic school and later went to government-run public schools before earning his degree in 1965 from the University of Khartoum, the country's only institution of higher education at the time. After his graduation, he became involved in various radical communist student groups.

"Those were the years of the military," he said. "We had a kind of euphoria about independence, and then the military came in."

From 1969 to 1978 he devoted himself to full-time radical work. After a failed military coup in Sudan in 1971, he was detained for two years and spent some of that time in Darfur, away from his political contacts.

"I call it the first term of my service to my country," he said, "and I have always been working toward a second term."

He eventually left the Communist Party because he felt that it had become too isolationist and vindictive.

"(Party members) started to be very survivalist, and that prevented them from really engaging in society," he said. "I'm for trying to do things with your culture, with your people, so that is where we parted ways."

After earning his doctorate in 1987 from Indiana University, he taught at Khartoum University and later became a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study and Research in the African Humanities, a program at Northwestern University. For the last 15 years, he's been specializing in sub-Saharan Africa at MU.

In addition to spending most of the last year doing fieldwork in Sudan, he keeps up his name recognition by publishing columns in two Khartoum-based newspapers.

A watchful world

It may all be in vain in the face of the biggest hurdle of all for Ibrahim, and that is the uncertainty of Sudan's upcoming elections. Douglas Johnson, who has written extensively about Sudan  and served on the Abyei Boundary Commission  in 2005, said it's a near certainty that there won’t lawful elections in Sudan.

“(Ibrahim) stands no chance of winning, and no, the elections won’t be free and fair,” he said via email.

Johnson said that President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s  National Congress Party has a firm grip on national elections and their outcomes, and it’s been that way for two decades.

“The (National Congress Party) has been in charge of running cosmetic elections since they seized power in 1989,” he said. “They will be running these elections.”

Though al-Bashir later dissolved the military junta through which he seized power, he secured an uncommonly high majority of the votes in subsequent elections.

To Ibrahim, Johnson is simply another negative thinker who is writing off Sudan’s ability to hold legitimate elections based on past precedents.

“This is the same apathy I see in Sudan – that nothing is going to happen,” he said. "The election that brought Bashir last time – this was not an election. This was completely controlled by the government. This was a one-man show."

This time, Ibrahim is sure things will be different. Because the Naivasha Agreement was an internationally brokered peace deal, he expects that the involvement of foreign governments will ensure that the 2010 election will be run fairly and provide a new direction for the country's ailing political system.

"The election is going to be the way to establish democracy and to see to the implementation of these nation-forming charters [of the Naivasha Agreement]," he said.  “If (the National Congress Party) would rig it, we would fight it.”

Other questions have been raised about Ibrahim's safety in light of Sudan's rampant political violence.

"Professor Ibrahim's personal safety is a matter of concern to all of us," his department chair at MU, Sperber, said. "They play for keeps in Sudanese politics. He's informed me that he thinks his personal safety is not in danger, and I hope he's right."

Ibrahim isn't worried about his safety, and he sees the elections as the only way to eradicate the tradition of violence.

"I think these militias and these military people would like to go," he said. "They are tired. There is a fatigue in the country. People seem to be doing things because they woke up in the morning, and they don't know what else to do."

Johnson agreed that Ibrahim will likely go unharmed, though for a different reason.

“It depends on whether he is seen to be any credible threat to the president’s position,” Johnson said. “If he is not seen as a threat, he will probably be left pretty much alone.”

The professor has a campaign strategy. He said he will rely on donations and volunteers to propel him as a viable candidate. He is trying to make T-shirts and pins, and he hopes to get a Web site up and running soon. This week he is traveling to Washington D.C. to solicit financial backing from Sudanese communities there.

To Ibrahim, the choice is clear between himself and al-Bashir, who is likely to seek re-election.

"This president came with no curriculum vitae," he said. "This was a military coup. He has not been scrutinized. He's not known to have a vision other than administrating and running the show. And the show wasn't popular; the show wasn't good."

What’s more, the International Criminal Court issued a warrant in March for al-Bashir’s arrest for his alleged crimes against humanity. If elected, Ibrahim said that al-Bashir will be held accountable for his actions as president and be made to issue an apology if one is in order.

In addition to incumbent al-Bashir, Ibrahim will likely face Salva Kiir, one of the current national vice presidents and a founding member of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, as well as candidates fronted by Sudan's other major political groups.

He hopes to provide his people with a vision for improvement.

"My idea is to lift a social movement with my advocacy," he said. "It's a two-fold goal: To be a president and to bring the vibrancy of the civil society... This society has been dormant or marginalized or sidelined by the militias, whether it is our army or the militias opposed to it."

But for now, all he can do is wait for President Forsee's decision.

He is preparing. Collapsible cardboard boxes wait for the rest of his books. His wife and his daughter, a medical student at Johns Hopkins University, are signed on to the plan, he says.

He knows that people will hear the news and think that he’s crazy or maybe even try to convince him not to run. But he has a proverb for that:  "An African leader called Sankara said: To save Africa, you need to be somewhat crazy."


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