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Sudan's leader seeks to reconcile divided nation. His aim: accommodate Islamic, African, and Christian identities

By George D. Moffett IIIStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 15, 1986


In the 1880s Mohammed Ahmed -- the Mahdi or ``guided one'' -- became the first modern leader of Sudan, commanding militant Islamic tribes in a holy war against ``unbelievers'' and routing the British from Khartoum. A century later his great grandson, Sudanese Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi, says he faces a different kind of leadership task.

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``My great grandfather's role was to rescue a stagnating culture and to stand up to the conquering forces,'' says Mr. Mahdi, who in April became Sudan's first civilian leader in 18 years. ``I believe the main task I can contribute is that of a reconciliation between the basis of our culture and . . . the requirements of modern society.''

For Mahdi, interviewed by the Monitor during his recent visit to the US to address the UN, matching the success of his legendary ancestor will be no small task. The country he rules is deeply divided between the resurgent political influence of Muslim extremists in the Arab north and the armed insurgency of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in the Christian and animist south.

Trapped in between are an estimated 2 million starving Sudanese cut off from emergency food shipments by the civil war, triggered when a harsh Islamic code was imposed on Sudan in 1983. Experts say the food crisis in southern Sudan is approaching the severity of last year's Ethiopian famine.

Mahdi's government has been accused by Western governments and relief officials of manipulating the food crisis for political ends. Critics say the government, which has vacillated on whether to allow food into rebel-held areas, has let concern over relief supplies falling into rebel hands and relief agencies operating too closely with the rebels outweigh its concern for starving civilians.

Mahdi calls the charge that his government is guilty of playing politics with starvation ``a most mistaken concept.'' It was necessary, he says, to close off relief flights to some cities while airport security was tightened. ``The government has done its level best to open all the different means of communication at the very time the SPLA is doing its very best to sabotage means of communication in an effort to hold the population hostage.''

A dogged pragmatist, Madhi insists there is room for both Muslim and Arab traditions in Sudan, Africa's largest country and three times the size of Texas.

``There's no reason why the revival of modern Islamic identity is incompatible with the African Christian identity,'' says the British trained lawyer and former Sudanese prime minister. ``Rather than speak in terms of one identity suppressing the other, we should recognize the need for them to accomodate each other.''

Col. John Garang, leader of the SPLA which controls most of southern Sudan, says revoking the Islamic code, called ``Sharia,'' is a precondition to peace. Leaders of the National Islamic Front, which comprises a powerful bloc in Mahdi's ruling coalition, want the code to remain. Mahdi says the solution lies in selective application of Sharia. ``Laws of citizenship will be universal for the whole mass of citizens,'' he says. ``Laws that are religious and that may be unacceptable to different denominations will be regionalized.''