Leading Sudanese opposition figure Sadiq al-Mahdi, Sudan's last democratically elected prime minister, holds a news conference at the Umma Party House in Omdurman, Sudan, April 27, 2019.
Leading Sudanese opposition figure Sadiq al-Mahdi, Sudan's last democratically elected prime minister, holds a news conference at the Umma Party House in Omdurman, Sudan, April 27, 2019.

OMDURMAN, SUDAN - Sadiq al-Mahdi's political career is one of the longest in modern Sudanese history, including two stints as prime minister.  But amid an unprecedented upheaval that has seen mass street protests and a military coup, al-Mahdi says he will step away from partisan politics. 

With a people-led revolution still rocking Sudan, former prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi – the country’s last democratically elected leader – might be expected to jump back into the political horse race.

The 83-year-old leader has a reputation as a political survivor, and returned to Sudan in December from a year in self-imposed exile amid massive anti-government protests. But instead he says it's time for him to have a different role.

Not only has his opposition Umma party declined to be part of any transitional government but, al-Mahdi himself says he will not run in any future elections.

"I will have no post in the transition, or in the coming elections.  In fact, I am looking for a different career ... I will stand down in such political, partisan, and executive roles," he said.

A new era for Sudanese politics

The announcement, made in a wide-ranging interview for VOA, marks a new era for politics in Sudan.

Al-Mahdi has played a central role in Sudan’s political life for over a half century.

He was prime minister from 1966 to 1967, and again from 1986 until 1989, when he was ousted by an alliance of Islamists and the military led by former president Omar al-Bashir.

Ousted Sudanese prime minister Sadeq al-Mahdi addr
FILE - Ousted Sudanese prime minister Sadeq al-Mahdi addresses a press conference in Nairobi March 5, 1997.

Bashir ruled for nearly 30 years and was accused of corruption and committing war crimes in Sudan’s Darfur region.

The army ousted him in April after citizens across the country staged months of street protests against his rule.

The mass demonstrations continue today as protesters are demanding the Transitional Military Council hand power to a civilian government.

Sudanese protesters burn tyres and barricade the r
Sudanese protesters burn tires and barricade the road leading to al-Mek Nimir Bridge crossing over Blue Nile; that links Khartoum North and Khartoum, May 13, 2019.

Although al-Mahdi is not taking a leading role in the protests since his return to Sudan, he has nothing but praise for the revolution.

"This last revolutionary movement lasted for four months and this is longer than any period in the past ... Such phenomena is completely new to Sudanese politics.  And also, what's new to it is the role of the youth.  I thought the youth under this regime had their future stolen ... I thought they were a lost generation. In fact, they surprised me by being so dynamic and so patriotic ... It looks and is an expression of the return of the soul of Sudan ... There is a restoration of hope and honor for the country," he said.

The ruling military council has been negotiating with protest leaders on a transitional government to govern until fresh elections.

Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the deputy head of the
Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the deputy head of the military council speaks at a press conference in Khartoum, Sudan, Tuesday, April 30, 2019.

But despite an agreement Monday on the structure of a transitional authority, violence broke out after nightfall.

Several protesters and one military officer were killed, and dozens of civilians wounded in what witnesses said were attacks by security forces on the demonstration.

Speaking before the attacks, al-Mahdi urged the military and civilians to work together to organize quick elections.

"I think the role of the military who took power, the military council is to hold power, but make for an immediate and quick transformation of executive power to a civilian council of ministers ... Civilians could be as autocratic as military, so what we need is a quick general and free elections so that power is really handed over to the people. Of course, we cannot do that before dismantling the power centers of the outgoing regime. This should be agreed and should be implemented as soon as possible," he said.

Sudan’s protesters have since early April refused to leave their sit-in around the Defense Ministry until a civilian government is in place.

수단 하르툼의 국방
Sudanese demonstrators chant slogans as they attend a mass anti-government protest outside Defence Ministry in Khartoum, April 21, 2019.

Most do not trust the military to willingly hand over power and point out the military leaders still include those who supported Bashir and atrocities committed in Sudan’s Darfur region.

Sudan’s attorney general’s office on Monday announced Bashir would face charges for protesters killed in the recent demonstration.  But the military council has rejected the idea of turning Bashir over to the International Criminal Court, where he faces charges of war crimes and genocide.
Al-Mahdi says the people of Darfur should decide whether Bashir is tried at the ICC or at home.

But the elderly politician cautions that putting Bashir on trial in Sudan may prove difficult.

FILE - Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir is seen du
FILE - Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir is seen during a swearing-in ceremony of new officials after he dissolved the central and state governments in Khartoum, Sudan, Feb. 24, 2019.

"The first thing we do is to reform our judicial system so that it can make free and fair trial," he said.

Al-Mahdi says that, after leaving partisan politics, he will write books and attend to other roles he has in various Arab, African, Islamic, and international organizations.

The octogenarian says while the games of politics will be off his schedule, he will stay physically active.

"I also regularly play tennis ... Three times a week.  We go Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday," he said.

Al-Mahdi adds that he is hopeful someone will soon take over his title as Sudan’s last democratically elected leader.

It’s a mantle that he will be happy to pass on.