On Friday, Yasir Said Arman was nominated as the presidential candidate to lead the SPLM to April’s elections. The profile has been modified to fit current events. It was conducted on August 15, 2007 while Arman was in the United States of America.
(Victoria, BC NSV) - Just from what angle does one begin to narrate the story of an audacious freedom fighter whose prime preoccupation has been a better Sudan for all without understating or overstating? The story of Yasir Said Arman is characterized by altruistic human values, freedom and dignity for all irrespective of race, religion or culture. At the period when Sudan was undergoing political hardships and upheavals in the 70's and early 80's—at the time when the relative optimism ushered in by the 12 years of Adis Ababa was slowly being dusted by the ominous Shariah decrees of Jaafer Nimeri—Yasir Arman was a student nearing graduation. A son of a primary school teacher who loved taking the young Arman to different places in the north, Arman developed an avid interest in literature and children's books. At the heydays of his youth, he was a consumer of leftist literature –focusing primarily on identity, ethnicity and ideology.
Specifically, he was an admirer of the African National Congress (ANC) and its approach to the diversity question in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-racial country like South Africa at the time when the ANC was deemed a terrorist organization by the apartheid government. Perhaps Arman had Sudan in mind and was glancing outside to reconcile the internal policies and the approaches of subsequent Khartoum governments with the diversity question and settle for the best.
While Arman struggled to understand the myriad realities besetting harmony of Sudan from the South African experience, he not only turned internally to seek for answers but also to provide answers like a field researcher after years of field work.
Arman used to have regular intense political discussions with fellow students and colleagues concerning the political makeup and realities of Sudan. One of those was Macur Thon Arok, whom he speaks highly about, having partially been instrumental in inspiring Arman to rock the boat of the People's Movement, SPLM/SPLA. Aside from Macur, the SPLM Manifesto, SPLM Radio and Dr. John Garang's vision of New Sudan stirred Arman to the SPLM's direction.
"[Dr. Garang's call for] a Sudan that belongs to all its people struck me very much and I became interested in the political discourse of the SPLM," he says.
Previously, Arman has been a student activist where he met those he calls "interesting personalities" at school. He and colleagues were absorbed by the “Southern question” and the first civil war that raged on from 1965 until the signing of the Adis Ababa Agreement between the Anya Nya and the government of Jaafer Nimeri in 1972.
Arman has reasons to subscribe to the vision of New Sudan. As a student he had witnessed firsthand rifts between student movements of divergent political persuasions, religions and ethnic groups. He developed very strong links with southern students both at the intermediate and the university levels. Of the southern students that he befriended in intermediate school were Macur Thon Arok, Chol Biar, Ador Deng Ador, David Bulen Alier, Jacob Bulen Alier and Santino Lado.
Macur, whom Arman says approached the “southern question” with caution and with whom he exchanged views on southern Sudan went on to become a captain in the Sudanese army. Sadly, as Arman explains, "Macur was killed in cold blood in 1992..."
Chol Biar and Ador Deng are now senior SPLM commanders, Arman says, while he gives no mention of David Bulen Alier and Jacob Bulen Alier. Santino went on to become an artist but Arman doesn't know his whereabouts.
In university, his political activism sparked the ire of the authoritarian regime of Jaafer Nimeri. He was detained and locked up in jail together with Southern students he says helped shape his political worldview: Hoth Gor and John Luk of Anya Nya Two Movement and David da Kok.
Undeterred, Arman and the three were defiant and unanimously condemned Nimeri's heavy-handed approach to the “southern question” and called for a democratic resolution of the civil war while in prison from 1984 to 1985. Out of prison, he says, "came the great call of the SPLM of Diktoor John Garang de Mabior for the New Sudan."
A Sudan of equality and tolerance that didn't discriminate its citizens based on religion and race was an attractive idea for Arman.
Born in 1961 in Jezeera, about 180 kilometers from Khartoum, he traces his roots to diverse backgrounds and tribes in Sudan. His great, great parents migrated before the Mahdist revolution from Damael state near Shendi to Jezeera and Khartoum. A graduate of law, Arman studied at the Cairo University branch of Khartoum and joined the SPLM in the same year, 1986.
Although the SPLM embraces religion and diversity in its manifesto, as a new arrival in 1986, some individuals in the SPLM were ambivalent about him. He says he experienced subtle religious prejudice. Some thought he might have been sent by Khartoum to infiltrate and destabilize the Movement from within. In northern Sudan, he was portrayed as a betrayer and a disgrace to his people.
Arman was not the only high-profile Muslim in the SPLM. There were many influential SPLM officers like the late Yousif Kuwo Mekki, who believed in the Islamic faith who might have faced religious intolerance at the initial phase.
"As time went on, we managed to overcome those [barriers]. We managed to build confidence with people with whom we were working in the SPLM and we became part of the SPLM hardcore," he says.
"We were building a new society to overcome religion. That helped to overcome whatever happened."
A Sufi Muslim, Arman calls his faith traditional Islam integrated with African cultures and traditions as opposed to a militant and political Islam. During the war, it was not lost on Arman that to be a liberator comes with a price tag.
Unlike in other marginalized peripheries where Arman was extolled as a hero, some of his immediate family members looked at him from lenses filtered through the eyes of Khartoum and was to those, a villain. However, he enjoyed wide backing from most of his lineage members, he says. "All my family were very supportive to me. They were proud of what I did and am proud of that too."
Meanwhile, the National Islamic Front would routinely round up and interrogate Arman's brothers to discourage him from his conviction and belief that Sudan must be new and inclusive. However, Arman and family didn’t capitulate to the oppressive regime and stayed true to the cause up to the end of the war. "It's part of the struggle," he says.
"This has nothing to do with politics," he says about his marriage to Awuor Deng Kuol. The future husband and wife first run into each other in Adis Ababa when Arman used to work for SPLM information secretariat in 1989.
"We liked each other from that time and now and for the time in the future to come," he declares. A man of principles, Arman has pursued an inspirational revolutionary path. He is an independent thinker. He follows his heart and ideals as his participation in the SPLM demonstrates and his marriage to a Ngok Dinka – an apparent break with tradition for love -- all a revolution and a worthy one, he says.
"For me it wasn't a difficult decision to like my wife and to decide to marry her. That was a decision any person reaches at a time when he decides it's the right time to marry."
He gives his marriage a clean bill of health but cautions, "There are always people here and there who will see it positively or negatively. But the most important thing is; it's me and my wife."
A father of two, their marriage is blessed with two daughters, Shanaa 18, born in December 1992, and Wafaa (honesty), 13, born in January 1997.
Arman says he is indebted to his wife and lauds her bold efforts for taking care of the young girls as Arman was often away for the SPLA war of liberation. He commends the sacrifices of Awuor Deng Kuol, who gave up school, family and education for the SPLM. A member of the famous Katipa Banaat (Girls Battalion), Awuor, like Arman aspired for a better life for all regardless of differences in humans. The couple saw SPLM as the rightful channel for achieving equity and just peace.
"I am indebted to [my wife] who shared the strength, and herself she is a freedom fighter," he says. "She really contributed a lot in encouraging me and we stood with each other throughout the last fifteen years."
Understanding equals love. The marriage of Arman to Awuor was exemplary. Both traditional African ceremonies and Muslim rituals were honoured and observed. They tied their knot in the historical town of Torit, notwithstanding the threats of bombs and guns emanating from Kor Ingiliiz when the NIF regime was trying vainly to make a comeback.
The marriage might have been cross-cultural to many but to Arman, "It was a basic human being wedding."
"Things will never be changed in Juba, this is the experience of the SPLM. Without changing things in Khartoum you cannot even reach the self-determination," he reechoes the prophetic words of Dr. John Garang that a fish rots from the head and not from the tail. Traditionally, Khartoum has been the head and Arman argues there will not be a quick rear door entrance to south's independence before there is any democratic restructuring of power in Khartoum.
"The self-determination and separation of south Sudan is theoretically in the books, it's a long way to go," he says.
His observations are familiar. Khartoum has abrogated several agreements in the past and there is no reason to doubt history may repeat itself as CPA is largely on the verge of collapse. By far the obvious way forward and with many southerners' eyes fixed on separation, he says he has nothing against south Sudan if it opts for secession and warns celebrating separation now is premature.
"To reach the separation of south Sudan, you need the unity of the SPLM. You need those who fought the war with you. People from the Nuba Mountains and South Blue Nile and all over Sudan. Dr. Garang's vision is a great vision which can bring unity on a new basis or separation," he says.
Even when south Sudan does separate and form its own independent state, he goes on, New Sudan Vision will still be relevant whether in Darfur or anywhere else.
"The vision of New Sudan is important even if south Sudan separated. How do you rule south Sudan because it is also diverse? There are different tribes, cultures and religions.
"So you need the vision of New Sudan to bring these commonalities together,” he says.
Arman urges south Sudanese to rally behind SPLM, saying it's the only organized, diverse and inclusive party in Sudan. "Southern Sudanese, themselves, until the end of Anya Anya didn't have real organizations. There was Anya Nya of Bhar el Ghazal, the Anya Nya of Upper Nile and the Anya Nya of Equatoria.'"
Says Arman: "The SPLM for me is not a political party or political movement or political institution; the SPLM for me is more. It's part of the national building and formation because in the SPLM you get people from different nationalities, ethnic and religious backgrounds together."
As a leading figure in SPLM Nothern Sector (now SPLM national presidential candidate), he engaged in rallies in 49 cities in the west, east and the center in post-CPA period. He says he found thousands who uphold the vision of New Sudan. This compels him to say, "I believe the vision of Dr. Garang is very much alive more than any time before.
"The New Sudan Vision cannot die because if you're talking about it dying with Garang that means Dr. Garang is really dead but Dr. Garang is not dead and as a result his vision is alive."
Arman says his proudest moment in life was not when he was carried on the shoulders upon returning to Khartoum with SPLM delegation for the first time in more than 20 years. His proudest day was "When Dr. Garang was received by millions in Khartoum. That was a clear message from all over the Sudanese society that the Sudanese people appreciate the vision and the leadership of the SPLM," he says.
Garang's triumphant return to Khartoum, Arman reasons, suggests the "people in the north and in the center in particular appreciate what we did and they see the reality of the situation and that our involvement with the SPLM is important for the national building and liberation of societies from all prejudices and building a new society to overcome [religious differences]."
He says that by the end of the day, "I believe in the capabilities of our people, whether they are from the north, the south or the west or the east or the center."
Arman's relationship with the late Dr. John Garang was that of “comradeship.” He touts Garang as "the best politician Sudan has ever had in more than 100 years." In the 19th century, Arman says, the Mahdist revolution’s front man, Mohamed Ahmed Al Mahdi was the other colorful politician matchable only by Garang's charisma.
“The real question”
At any rate, Arman is an altruistic freedom fighter. His unselfish toils for a new Sudan, he once told Iowa State Newspaper, "Not the Sudan of today, a Sudan of misery and wars and human rights violations. My dream is of a new Sudan, which respects human rights, in which every citizen feels he belongs to that country."
If the question itches you too—don't' worry it's not the real one. What happens to Yasir Arman and Mansour Khalid to name but a few when south Sudan separates? “It's not the real question,” he says.
The real question—he says with the vigour in which he took up arms 20 years ago—"The real question is the fate of Sudan, not the fate of individual.
"I never ask myself this question because am not going to live forever but Sudan will live forever. It is the fate of the south Sudan, the fate of the west, the fate of the north, and the fate of central Sudan that's the one concerning me. It's not about the individual because the individual can die or relocate."
After more than 21 years of bush life and the struggle that is ongoing with the challenges facing the CPA, Arman maintains, "I think that it [joining the SPLM] was one of the greatest decisions in my life. I am proud that I made that decision and I thank all the people and everybody who contributed to what I did 21 years ago.
"I am touched by the hundreds of people whom I knew very well. Our martyrs who lost their lives are the ones who made the SPLM: those who are not there."
As it emerges that the SPLM has nominated Arman to be its presidential candidate, it remains to be seen whether this great freedom fighter will be the next president of the Republic of Sudan in April’s elections.