MU professor Abdullahi Ibrahim is ready to bring democracy to Sudan

A little before noon, on the last day of 2008, Abdullahi Ibrahim pecked at a laptop at the front of a space rented from the University of Khartoum, in the capital of Sudan. A white screen was ready to display images, but Ibrahim couldn’t get his PowerPoint presentation to work. The room was filling with students and academics. Journalists had their notebooks open.

Ibrahim had drawn the audience with a small measure of trickery. A well-known scholar in his native country, he was slated to present a lecture titled, “Is Sudan the Sick Man of Africa?” His actual intent was much different.

When he finally scrapped the computer and took the podium, Ibrahim declared his candidacy for the Sudanese presidential election in early 2010.

A few people clapped. Reporters scratched frantic notes. Ibrahim continued standing as an audience member hurled the first accusation.

“This is duplicity,” the man scolded. “We were expecting a lecture, and now you’re declaring yourself for the presidency. Your first act as a candidate is sheer deception.”

His friends didn’t seem any more pleased. For months, Ibrahim had kept his electoral ambition a secret from everyone. He didn’t tell his wife. He prepared quietly, out of sight.

After his announcement, Ibrahim retreated to a small office to collect his belongings. Already, journalists and professors were huddling. By the time he left the building, Ibrahim heard his name grinding through the rumor mill: “Abdullahi has gone crazy.”

Six months and 7,000 miles removed from that moment, Ibrahim looks like a man about to be engulfed by cardboard, not controversy. Sitting at his computer, scanning an Arabic Web site, he works with his back to a huge tower of boxes that nearly touches the ceiling of his office in Read Hall. For the past 15 years, he has taught African history in this white-brick building on the campus of the University of Missouri-Columbia. Now the evidence of his tenure has been reduced to a few scattered, unpacked papers.

A stack of printouts clutters the left side of his desk in front of an overturned McDonald’s cup, its contents long since dried. The dull, gray metal bookshelves, marked with little green tags that say “Clinical Nursing,” are mostly empty. The books, with titles such as Libertarian Communism and Women and the Politics of Class, are stacked in hasty piles next to an orange that was peeled but forgotten.

“I need the policy, a copy of the policy, as fast as possible,” the professor says quickly into the handset of an old rotary phone, holding it with two fingers of his left hand.

Like many of the students, eager to get past their final exams and on to the summer break, the professor is antsy. He’s ready to go home and start the campaign that he announced so suddenly in Khartoum. He sums up why he kept his candidacy a secret for so many months: “I didn’t want anyone to tell me not to do it.”

There are plenty of reasons not to run. The election could be rigged. The repressive ruling regime could target opposing candidates. The winner of the race will inherit a torn nation on the brink of yet another civil war.

But that’s exactly why Ibrahim decided to run — and why he believes he can win.

Ibrahim doesn’t talk about history like a chain of events played out in textbooks and newspaper headlines. It’s more intimate than that. Sudan’s history is a story that he tells in the first person, a chronology in which he’s a character.

To explain it, he’ll sink into his chair, hands on his bald head, eyes looking through the ceiling as he replays scenes that he witnessed. When the narrative intensifies, he’ll lean forward, elbows on his knees, his gaze unwavering. It’s a story that has become prominent — and pressing — on the world stage.

Located in northeastern Africa, Sudan is among the continent’s largest nations. But its 40 million residents have never tasted the liberties that Ibrahim’s U.S. students take for granted, such as free elections and free speech. Since the country’s independence from the British in 1956, Sudan’s handful of presidents have snatched power by force and held their authority with religious mandates and political repression.

Those leaders have twisted the knife in the country’s religious divide — Muslims in the north, Christians in the south — igniting civil wars that have killed at least 1.5 million. The newest regime — that of Omar al-Bashir, in power for the past 20 years — added to the bloodshed by targeting ethnic tribes in the western region of Darfur. For that, Bashir became the first sitting leader indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes.

But Ibrahim’s history starts long before Bashir. It begins when the British still governed Sudan and Ibrahim’s hometown of Atbarah was a colonial stronghold. He was born in 1942, the third of four children in a middle-class Muslim household. Ibrahim’s father worked for the railway and served as a representative in the first workers’ union. A new union movement was heaving against the British ruling class, and Ibrahim walked to school on streets still hazy with tear gas from labor demonstrations.

Drawn to literature rather than politics, he devoured books and magazines from Egypt, where Marxism was dominant. The ideology rubbed off. When he was 15 years old, he wrote a short story about a worker who lost his fingers in factory machinery. The Sudanese Communist Party published the story in its newsletter, al-Midan.

When he moved to the nation’s capital to attend the University of Khartoum in 1960, the young writer joined the Communist Party. The country was still reeling from a 1958 military coup, which installed an adminstration that forced Islam and Arabic on the largely Christian, southern part of the country. Ibrahim became a key figure in the university’s student union, planning demonstrations that landed him in police custody.

On October 22, 1964, Ibrahim was among the students who arranged a forum focusing on solutions to the full-fledged civil war between northern and southern Sudan. The military police moved in to break up the gathering. The students resisted. The police opened fire. When the confrontation calmed, a student was dead. That sent the country into convulsions of strikes and demonstrations. “One hundred percent, the country shut down,” Ibrahim says. “Thanks to a martyr from our ranks, I saw, with my own eyes, my people topple a military government.”

The new government that came together after the 1964 revolution included representatives from several political groups, but the revolution evaporated into hollow rhetoric. After four years working as a research assistant at the university, Ibrahim left abruptly in 1970 to dedicate all his time to the Communist Party. In 1971, radical members of his party splintered off and staged a coup against the government. The attempt failed. Then President Jaafar Nimeiri outlawed the Communist Party and ordered that its leaders be hanged. Ibrahim went into hiding. When the police found him, quietly reading a Russian novel in his home, they hauled him to prison. He was never tried, but his incarceration lasted two years.

When Ibrahim was released, in 1973, the Communist Party was still illegal, so he went underground. Starting his days at 7 p.m., he read censored materials from outside Sudan, held midnight meetings with other activists and edited al-Midan. After five years, though, his commitment started to wane. He saw Stalinist ideas creeping into the group. He felt alienated from a party that seemed unwilling to evolve. In 1978, unmarried and in his mid-30s, Ibrahim wanted a different life.

“I decided to come out, face the music and chart a new path,” he says.

He knew he’d be viewed derisively by government officials as an “ex-communist.” He also feared his former colleagues would be bitter at his departure. Above all, though, he was anxious to explore the political wilderness as an independent.

The best place to do that was at the University of Khartoum, which accepted him back as a teaching assistant while he pursued his postgraduate studies. In 1981, Ibrahim left Khartoum for the University of Indiana to pursue a doctorate in folklore.

When he returned to Khartoum six years later, his perspective of his Sudanese colleagues had shifted. “I found people completely disillusioned with the democracy they fought hard to maintain,” he says. “I came back with my kind of American education about democracy, about patience, knowing it cannot be achieved in one stroke.”

To air his opinions, he started writing a daily column for the newspaper al-Khartoum in 1988. The next year, current President Omar al-Bashir stormed to power. The new leader dissolved all political parties, dismissed the parliament and instituted Sharia (Islamic law). During the clampdown on civil liberties and freedom of expression, Ibrahim found an out.

In 1991, the Ford Foundation awarded him a grant that helped find a publisher for his first book, about the role of Islam in the Sudanese legal system, and placed him in a two-year fellowship at Northwestern University. But Ibrahim had earned several enemies at his own university.

When his close friend and fellow professor Mohammed Abdu-Hai died and the school kicked Hai’s wife out of university housing, Ibrahim was outraged. His protest of the eviction, he believes, soured his relationship with the administrators, and they denied his leave. To travel, he needed a permit, so he told school administrators that he had to take his mother to Cairo. That he did. Then he boarded a flight to Chicago.

He hoped that the administrators would forgive his insubordination after his term at Northwestern expired.

“They didn’t,” he says. “They fired me.”

His American exile began.

As Ibrahim saunters past the front desk of Ellis Library on the MU campus, he keeps his hands in his pockets and his eyes on the elevator. Even walking between buildings, Ibrahim always seems focused, thinking through some unspoken issue. A casual question or errant remark startles him.

“How’s the campaign going?” a checkout clerk asks brightly in the dead-quiet hallway.

“Well,” Ibrahim says.

He pauses a half-step as if preparing to elaborate, then reconsiders and maintains his trajectory, escaping back into thought.

On the third floor, he darts out of the elevator and heads to the right. He taps each of the teal metal bookcases, noting the section devoted to Africa, pointing out the shelves for each specific country. Around a corner, he digs in his pocket for his keys and opens the door to what looks like a utility closet. He steps into a space so small, he can touch both walls with his outstretched arms.

More than in his office in Read Hall or his modest duplex on Columbia, Missouri’s Broadway Avenue, this tiny hideaway is where he has spent the past 15 years dissecting the history and culture of his country.

In 1994, after the University of Khartoum cut Ibrahim loose, the University of Missouri-Columbia was looking for an African history specialist. The Sudanese scholar got the job but didn’t intend to settle in the Midwest. “I never reconciled to being in exile or an immigrant,” he says. “That’s not for me.” He didn’t seek citizenship. He had to wait six years to bring his wife, Mahasin Awadelkarim, to Columbia.

On foreign soil, Ibrahim was able to dig into his country’s history. Free of government censorship, he had access to a world of opinions and the resources of a research-hungry nation. He used the university library’s loan program to cull texts from all over the country. His goal was broad: “to inventorize my culture.”

“How can you be Muslim and progressive?” he says of his research themes. “In the Sudanese experience after independence, where did nationalism go? What about social justice? Where does Islam fit into the equation?” 

His expertise took him all over the country, talking to academic groups and Sudanese refugee communities. He traveled often to his home country, taking several sabbaticals there. Even from Columbia, he maintained his prominence with his writing in Sudan: a daily column in the newspaper al-Sahafi al-Dawli, a weekly piece for newspaper al-Rayaam. Those pieces remained fiercely independent of any political party or organized platform, says Abdel Ali Bob, a former professor at the University of Juba in Sudan and a former research fellow at the University of California-Berkeley. “Ibrahim is a known and respected political figure and touted journalist in the public eye of Sudan,” he says.

When Ibrahim was under consideration for full tenure last year, Robert Weems, professor of history, was part of the promotion committee that researched Ibrahim’s work. “It became clear that Abdullahi may have been the most famous person in the MU history department,” he says.

Weems says Ibrahim stepped forward after September 11, 2001, as an Arab and Islamic scholar. “The MU campus and the larger Columbia community witnessed a 9/11-related dialogue based on rational discourse rather than hysteria,” Weems says. Ibrahim even created a new class: Islam and the West.

But the Sudanese professor never sugarcoated his culture, which impressed Weems. Even though Ibrahim was from the north, he was sharply critical of the northern forces’ violent campaign in Darfur. Jonathan Sperber, current chairman of the history department, says Ibrahim brought his personal experiences as a political activist into the classroom, giving students a gritty, ground-level view of Sudan’s history. “His realistic descriptions of conditions in Africa could, at times, be disillusioning to some students who had a more romantic vision of the continent,” he says.

Still, Ibrahim was known for his wry sense of humor, Weems says. He taught a senior seminar that examined African history entirely through the lens of its peoples’ love of soccer. Even when he doesn’t correctly use English idioms or metaphors, Ibrahim reaches for sarcasm and irony. And the sound of his laugh is abrupt and full-bellied.

Glimpses of that sense of humor are about as personal as things got between Ibrahim and his co-workers of 15 years, though. He doesn’t boast about his recognition in Sudan and carefully guards his personal life. He rarely relaxes his careful elocution. He won’t bring up the weather or waste time with idle banter.

Fellow teachers are quick to call Ibrahim dedicated and hardworking, but their descriptions don’t scratch the surface of a thick intellectual exterior. He won’t divulge the name of his daughter. People are unkind to the families of radicals, he reasons. He attends Friday prayers at his mosque, but he doesn’t consider himself an active member of the Islamic community. “When things happen, and they need me, I show up,” he says, purposely vague.

It’s hard to understand why a man who relishes secluded hours in a quiet library would seek out the echo chamber of presidential politics. Ibrahim sees it as a responsibility. “It is a rogue government, and it has been opposed by rogue opposition,” he says of his home country’s system. “This is why, early on, I said what we are having in Sudan is not just a bad regime — we’re having a national crisis. That’s why I’ve stayed away from the government and stayed away from the opposition. I’m trying to build a third way.”

To Ibrahim, his time in Missouri and his distance from the contaminated political process make him the only candidate positioned to recognize Western democracy.

When local news stations in Columbia picked up the story that the MU professor had declared his candidacy, Ibrahim got a flood of e-mails from former students wishing him luck. “Taking your class certainly made an impression on me and has had a long-term impact on my life, helping to shape my views about everything from world history to politics to my own system of personal ethics,” one student wrote.

Ibrahim didn’t want a fuss, so the faculty didn’t hold a send-off. Instead, Ibrahim packed up his mountain of boxes. The university now has no specialist in African history. Sperber says the budget-strained university may not be able to hire a replacement.

On a late spring evening, Lual Akoon guides his maroon minivan from his home in a tidy Olathe subdivision to a park in downtown Kansas City. Born in Sudan and the son of a village chief, Akoon is a leader within the local Sudanese community. By his count, there are 3,000 displaced Sudanese in the Kansas City area.

At the park on this mild night, he joins two dozen of them. They’re all drawn by curiosity about this man named Abdullahi Ibrahim, this scholar running for president. Ibrahim speaks for more than an hour, presenting his vision for the nation.

Akoon isn’t impressed.

The two men share a nationality but not a common heritage. Forced into exile in 1987, when northern military forces attacked his village and burned its homes, the young Akoon didn’t know much about the politics of the civil war. Now, as a leader among American refugees, he’s deeply interested in the coming election.

Akoon finds it difficult to trust the promises of a northerner like Ibrahim — especially one who sees no reason to divorce faith from politics.

“Even as a Marxist, as a socialist, I felt religion very deeply,” Ibrahim says. “Religion can be a divisive element in politics, but that is all the tradition we have. We don’t have the Enlightenment. We don’t have the Reformation. We have just Islam, and that is good enough. But it is a contested tradition, and some use it to manipulate politics. You have to be very careful to use it to do politics in a culturally responsible way.”

Abdel Ali Bob forecasts that 16 different parties will field candidates in the election, but there are two heavyweights. Despite the international court’s indictment for war crimes, Bashir will run for re-election on the National Congress Party ticket. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement aims to engage the country’s sizable Christian population.

Ibrahim is a political anomaly — a man with no party.

“I thought, in Sudan, people could use someone totally undefiled,” he says.

His campaign is based on something so simple, it fits into one word that he repeats over and over: citizenship.

“What you see in Sudan is not about anarchy,” he says of the tensions between north and south. “What you see is some very proud people from various parts of the country who feel they have been alienated from the resources and places of authority.”

He envisions a capitalist system free of government corruption and built on strong and widespread labor unions. He believes that the wealth of Sudan is deep enough to satisfy all its citizens. “We have a country with scandalous resources,” he says. “But we’ve not been thinking about them. We’ve been thinking about war.” Instead of spending most of the nation’s money on weapons and soldiers to guard against civil unrest, Ibrahim sees a country that invests in universities and social services.

That simple wish could make Ibrahim appealing to the electorate, says Abdullahi Gallab, now a professor at Arizona State University after years as a newspaper reporter and information counselor for the Sudanese government. “He’s been exposed to outside experiences, which is very important,” he says. “He’s one of the top Sudanese intellectuals, and usually those running are some kind of politician. His character is different. His credibility, dedication, honesty — these are very rare characteristics to find coming together. People of that caliber normally shy away from the fact of politics. Some of them might work as advisers, but normally they don’t take that risk of running in elections.”

To Akoon, Ibrahim represents just one thing: a Muslim who believes there is a place for Islam in government. But Ibrahim insists he represents the forces that have been marginalized for years: the workers, the students, the business owners, the intellectuals. Those are the forces that rose up and toppled a dictator in 1964.

“That is the moment that constituted my politics,” Ibrahim says. “In my vision, I want to see these people coming back. They’ve been lost in the process, completely beaten. I’m trying to use this occasion to remove the militia and military from politics and recall these forces.”

He’s been an activist and an intellectual. He’s approachable but rarely allows breaches in his decorum. Most important, he’s hoping to make history by igniting the imagination of an electorate that feels disconnected from its government. He’s not immune to comparisons with another long-shot presidential candidate.

On the eve of Ibrahim’s departure, Weems told him, “If a black man named Barack Hussein Obama can be elected president of the United States, you definitely have the potential to be elected the president of Sudan.”

On the last Tuesday in May, a giant shipping container sits in the driveway of Ibrahim’s duplex. By midafternoon, movers have hauled dozens of boxes and pieces of furniture into the hull, twisting and turning each item to create another sliver of space. Now they’ve reached capacity.

Ibrahim isn’t just taking his personal belongings with him. It’s not just political paraphernalia filling the container, either, such as the 1,000 gold pins that he ordered for his campaign, emblazoned with the fluttering red, white and green flag of Sudan. Before moving day, Ibrahim contacted the Personal Energy Transportation Project, a humanitarian group in Columbia serving the disabled. It donated 17 wheelchairs, some maintenance kits and half a dozen pairs of crutches.

“There are categories of people who were, in this political climate, forced to be poor and helpless,” he says. “I approach that not just politically but religiously. In these matters, I will not listen to any ministers. They will be my personal responsibility.”

That responsibility, transporting sewing machines and fabric, has meant leaving some of his own possessions on the curb.

Douglas H. Johnson, a St. Louis native and author of The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars, doesn’t think Ibrahim will get the chance to enact a benevolent regime. Johnson, who now lives in England, points out that Bashir’s government has a strong grip on dissent, wielding violence to put down demonstrations from civilians and students. “[Bashir’s] National Congress Party is well organized, well financed, and in control of the media and the state security,” Johnson writes in an e-mail. “No other party has those advantages. A candidate who doesn’t have a national party organization behind him won’t have a chance.”

Johnson isn’t the only observer who cautions that the NCP will simply steal the election by rigging the vote. Akoon says tampering has already begun, with an undercount of the number of potential voters in the southern region. In late June, Akoon joined other Sudanese leaders in Washington, D.C., to press the Obama administration to get involved. “Our position is, we’re asking the American government to do more to make sure the election is carried out successfully and tell them that if there’s no change, it will be civil war again,” he says.

Gallab agrees that the political terrain veers steeply uphill for a newcomer. Though many Sudanese are fed up with the current regime, Ibrahim will have to work hard to inspire their optimism. “There is a kind of apathy in the Sudan,” Gallab says. “People think, These guys are going to stay, so why are we wasting our time? This kind of apathy is even worse within some of the intellectuals there. But if Abdullahi succeeds to energize those people, then I think he will stand a very good chance.”

In a mid-June e-mail from Khartoum, Ibrahim sounds confident. He has built a campaign Web site and is working to establish an election headquarters. He says he just attended the funeral of a respected trade-union leader. With a panel of other scholars, he watched President Obama’s June 4 Cairo address on Islam. Four separate news outlets have interviewed Ibrahim about his platform, and he’s penning regular commentaries for two daily newspapers.

“I took my car to a mechanic today,” he writes. “The engineer recognized me. A customer had a long discussion with me. This happens often nowadays. Cultural activists approach me to talk in their various circles. This is amazing.”

On September 1, Ibrahim will begin drawing retirement from the University of Missouri, making his return to Columbia unlikely if his efforts in Sudan unravel. Regardless of the political outcome, Ibrahim plans to stay in Sudan, to write and work on “cultural projects.” Still, he hopes to maintain ties with the United States.

In fact, Ibrahim’s words suggest a hint of nostalgia for his life as an academic in the American Midwest.

“I am careful to keep my access to the U.S.A. open,” he writes. “I invested 25 years in the country, more than any single town in Sudan.”

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