The long-awaited return of Al Sadiq Al-Mahdi passed without the expected euphoria partly because of the death of his brother the night before. Descending from a plane at Khartoum International Airport onto a red carpet the veteran politician was greeted by his son Abdurrahman, the advisor to President Omar Al-Bashir, and senior members of his National Ummah party. The timing of his return was no accident for 19 December marks the day in 1955 when the Sudanese Parliament unilaterally and unanimously declared Sudan's independence.
Al-Mahdi is hoping that his return will galvanise popular support against the ruling party and begin a new chapter in the political and economic fortunes of Sudan and establish what he calls "a new social contract". Already there are reports of up to eight people killed in street demonstrations in various Sudanese towns, unconnected to his return, but suggesting a change of gear in the resistance movement against the rule of the National Reconciliation Government led by Omar Hasan Al-Bashir.
I met the ex-prime minister in a hotel foyer in North London last month where he told me that at least ten prominent figures from the ruling National Congress Party had asked him to return to Sudan. He did not provide me with any names. At 83, Al-Mahdi is the oldest and best known political and cultural icon in Sudan.
In April this year, in his absence, Sudan's State Prosecutor issued charges against Al-Mahdi accusing him of joining armed groups seeking to violently overthrown the government. It is a charge that Al-Mahdi denies, but he is philosophical about the dangers of returning to Sudan, "it's not a matter of geography, you could be in danger wherever you are on the planet, if I wanted to remove the threats against my safety that means I would have to give up all political activity and activism, something that, for now, I am not prepared to do."
Al-Mahdi has been in self-imposed exile for almost a year and despite the outstanding charges against him he is free to come and go as he pleases. His return appears to be a vindication of his stance to disengage with Khartoum and take his message to an international audience where he feels he has been able to put the opposition case to foreign entities and organisations interested in supporting his call for a new Sudan. Al-Mahdi has twice been Sudan's prime minister and has had at least three bouts of political exile as well as spending more than eight and half years in prison for his opposition to what he describes as "dictatorial governments".
Perhaps surprisingly, Al-Mahdi is not bitter but says: "Prison can sometimes be a blessing, it gave me valuable time to collect my thoughts; I have written more than 100 or so books on Islam, political movements and the Ansar Al-Mahdi religious group, during my time in incarceration."
I began to understand why prison could be a peaceful place as we sat in the hotel lobby while scores of people approached and hovered around our interview. Others, dressed in their finest, passed us to join the gospel church choir on the lower floor singing choruses of "Hallelujah" which only served to raise the noise in the foyer and all but drowned out Al-Mahdi's frail unassuming voice.
Most of Al-Mahdi's work outside Sudan has been as the head of the umbrella group "Sudan Call" – a broad alliance of opposition group including armed militias that have been recognised by the African Union and continues to negotiate under a high-level implementation Panel (AUHIP) to establish political dialogue and end the protected armed-conflicts in three parts of the Sudan Earlier this month, talks stalled when the panel, seemingly under the direction of the Sudanese government, refused to allow a number of groups to take part in roadmap talks.
Al-Mahdi has come under sharp criticism from members of the Sudan Call and others for his stance that President Al-Bashir should not be tried by the International Criminal Court (ICC) but should rather face a court of law inside Sudan. "Honestly, there are some rather weak-minded people who feel I as trying to find a way out for Al-Bashir – but I am not. Under Article 16 of the Rome Statute there is an opportunity for restorative justice, having a truth and reconciliation commission similar to post-apartheid South African experience. That's what I advocate," Al-Mahdi said.
By contrast, Al-Mahdi wants the enquiry into the ruling government to be far more wide ranging, "The ICC only relates to resolution 1593 for crimes carried out in Darfur, but the coup d'etat itself in 1989 was a crime and other crimes that have been committed outside the ICC jurisdiction, I am saying that all these crimes of the regime should be taken into account."
Ironically, in the coming days, it is clear that Al-Mahdi's strategy will be to get his voice heard, much in the same way he struggled to do so in the hotel foyer during our interview. "My message is quite simple: this regime has to go, but not through violence. We think that this is not only possible, it is necessary, we have to come up with an ingenious plan that reflects the diversity of Sudan," he said.
Whether or not Al-Mahdi will succeed in making a difference on the political landscape in Sudan largely depends on whether his National Ummah Party (NUP) can be seen as a viable political alternative to the 29-year rule of the National Congress Party (NCP) and whether or not he can galvanise enough support domestically and internationally. However, amid growing civil unrest and the deepening economic crisis, Sudan's future direction continues to remain uncertain.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.