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.
``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.''
According to Mahdi, ``there is no condition attached to the degree of autonomy that can be accepted provided it does not make nonsense of the unity of the country.'' But getting the SPLA to the bargaining table will take more than concessions on his part, he says. It will also require Colonel Garang to break ties with Marxist Ethiopia, which Mahdi says has made the SPLA its ``pawns.''
Garang has acknowledged using Ethiopia as a staging area for SPLA troops. But Mahdi, whose view is backed by many US diplomats in the region, says Ethiopia also provides arms to the 12,000-man rebel force, possibly to encourage the eventual formation of a separate Marxist state in the south.
Mahdi says he sees little possibility for negotiations unless Garang ``tears himself away'' away from Ethiopia. In the meantime, the 55,000-man Sudanese People's Army is capable of containing the SPLA indefinitely. ``Our morale is good and our materiel is excellent.''
Under the 16-year rule of the former ruler, Jaafar Nimeiry, Sudan was one of America's staunchest allies in the strategically important region of northeast Africa. Long after Mr. Nimeiry ceased to be popular at home he retained US allegiance because of his support for Egypt following the signing of the 1979 Camp David accords and because of his opposition to Libya.
Mahdi's more independent course in foreign policy concerns US officials. Relations with Egypt have deteriorated while ties with Libya have markedly improved. Sudan has signed a trade pact with Tripoli and has used Libyan aircraft to prosecute the civil war.
Mahdi chafes at US criticism of efforts to remain at peace with Libya. ``The United States,'' he says ``should not expect that our relations with other states will be conducted exclusively in terms of United States' interests. We have eight neighbors. Sudan is as big as India. We cannot police this huge land mass. Security for Sudan therefore lies in trying our level best to have good neighborly relations with all our neighbors, including Libya. That is a geopolitical imperative.''
Anxious US officials worry that any deal with Libya may involve some unwelcome quid pro quo, such as Sudanese backing for Libyan designs on nearby Chad.
But Mahdi insists his rapprochement with Libya has no strings attached. ``So long as we can preserve our freedom in deciding our policies regionally and nationally, we have no reservation in making relations with any of our neighbors,'' says Mahdi.
Another major concern for US and West European officials has been that of getting relief supplies to war-torn southern Sudan.
Until early this week, flights and convoys of emergency food had been suspended since mid-August, when SPLA rebels shot down a Sudan Air C-130 airliner carrying food and supplies to the government-held town of Juba. The Sudanese government has given permission for ``Operation Rainbow,'' an internationally-funded relief effort, to begin servicing government-held areas only with food and medical supplies.
The agencies are not anxious to talk about routes and destinations as the SPLA has threatened to shoot down aircraft and ambush convoys traveling through rebel-held areas. Operation Rainbow, which got under way Monday, will provide some relief, but international agencies are still looking for a food truce that will aid all civilians in southern Sudan.