In the heart of the Sudanese capital’s Omdurman Wad Nubawi district sits Sarah Abdullah Abdurrahman Nugallah, one of the most powerful women in Sudanese politics. Nugallah is Secretary General of the National Umma Party (NUP), arguably the only real credible alternative to the incumbent 29-year-old Sudanese government ruled by the National Congress Party (NCP).
In a house with no front door, on the specific instructions of her late father Abdullah to facilitate visitors at any time, we sit in a large guest room littered with pictures depicting the inseparable historical presence of the Al-Mahdi family in the modern history of Sudan. The pictures displayed on walls and in glass cabinets include Nugallah’s father, a former Sudanese Foreign Minister, her cousin Saddiq Al-Mahdi, the former Prime Minister and Imam Abdullah the successor of her three times removed grandfather Mohammed Ahmad Abdullah. In 1881 Abdullah was declared the Mahdi and years later in 1885 changed the course of the world and Sudanese history when his forces defeated the colonial British rulers famously beheading General Gordon in the Battle of Khartoum.
Today, Nugallah tells me she is gearing up for another battle. The party is planning to hold conferences and workshops to map out solutions to Sudan’s current economic and political problems in preparation for government. The battle is a systematic peaceful one that Nugallah says will bring about real change. She speaks with great confidence about a glorious Sudanese past when civil servants, government institutions and the military establishments were in her words – breaking from her softly spoken Arabic – “very perfect”.
But despite her nostalgic reflections of the past and apparent optimism about the future Nugallah dismisses participation in the upcoming elections: “No, the Umma party will not take part in the 2020 elections, which will be neither transparent, free or fair.” Sarah jokes about some of the inconsistencies that forced her party to withdraw at the last moment from elections in 2010: “I recall a member of the Popular National Party who was prepared to accept that his wife and none of his family had cast a vote in his favour but he could not understand why his vote tally was zero, despite voting for himself.”
Nugallah says she joined the Umma party whilst in University and has held various positions. However, in 2014 she made history as the first woman in Sudanese politics to hold high office in a political party. The membership of the National Umma Party is arguably as high as, if not higher than, the ruling NCP and therefore Nugallah speaks with a hint of pride that the quota system introduced puts women’s participation at 30 per cent of the party. Nugallah says the party is focusing on the young to shift popular opinion in the “right direction” and create a true alternative government in waiting.
Outside Sudan, Nugallah revealed to me that the Party was preparing for the return of its leader Saddiq Al-Mahdi currently in London. “Saddiq may well return this October. He’s been working on some important work on our international relations and helping to galvanise the opposition under the ‘Sudan Call’ alliance.”
The former Prime Minister, Saddiq Al-Mahdi, and leader of the National Umma party appears to be undeterred by charges filed in April of this year by Sudan’s state prosecutors against Al Mahdi, “for dealing and coordinating with rebel armed movements to overthrow the regime”. It follows meetings with the Sudan Call alliance and a call, from the group, for a “popular uprising” against the NCP government. Umma’s Secretary General Nugallah dismisses the accusations: “Anyone taking the trouble to read the declaration of Sudan Call alliance will clearly see the Alliance is clearly committed to finding solutions to Sudan’s problems through dialogue and negotiations.”
The former Prime Minister has been embroiled in talks designed to unite the opposition currently outside the main “National Dialogue” peace process instigated by the ruling National Congress Party (NCP). The problems of Darfur, Blue Nile and Juba Mountain continue to be the main issues of contention with the government. However, the group has established links with the African Union and has signed the Higher-Level Implementation Panel’s (AUHIP) proposal with the Sudanese government to establish a Roadmap agreement including steps towards the group’s participation in the national constitutional process.
However, even within the Sudan Call movement, Al-Mahdi has come under sharp criticism for his unwillingness to support the indictment of the Sudanese President, Omer Al-Bashir, by the International Criminal Court. The former Prime Minister has suggested Al-Bashir should be tried by a special court set up in Sudan. Nugallah says Al-Mahdi’s vision of this issue stems from his patriotism and respect for Sudanese institutions.
Nugallah’s patriotism also appears to be the driving force for preparing a document which will provide policies for a better alternative and, in another momentary break from speaking Arabic, she referred to those policies as “very comprehensive,” predicting her party would be prepared to implement sweeping changes whenever the opportunity for government finally arrives.