When he was asked to become Foreign Minister (after the success of the bloodless coup on 30/6/1989) Ambassador Omer Bridou,
whose Islamist credentials were not a secret, indicated his readiness to serve; but suggested that the man who was Undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Ali Salhoul) would be a better choice because of his experience and networks. He added: “If he declined the offer, I’ll be quite prepared to take over”. Ali Salhoul (who was not an Islamist) was on holiday in Cairo. He accepted the ministerial job. Omer Bridou did eventually become Undersecretary of the Ministry. This is one of the delightful gems in his memoirs just published in Khartoum under the Arabic title: “A Villager in the field of Diplomacy” Qarawi Fi Balat Ad Diblumasiyya”. The word “villager” in the title signifies the difference between the Sudan and some neighbouring countries. A retired Egyptian Doctor of Medicine once told me that Nasser’s gravest blunder was the introduction of free education. That enabled the sons of villagers, of plumbers and electricians to become engineers and civil servants (unspoken: and disturbed the entrenched stratification). Such a mindset never existed in the egalitarian Sudan (and I hope market forces won’t introduce it). Those who complain about the establishment of tens of universities and lament the uneven academic standards forget that the new institutions enable us to tap talent among “villagers” all over the country and avoid the waste of creativity that could enrich all walks of life. Standards will surely improve.
Ambassador Bridou’s village values were packed in his luggage when we met at the University of Khartoum (he was two years my junior). We on the left at that time considered him to be a religious fanatic. Diplomatic training and exposure to other cultures and different opinions have clearly had a remoulding impact on him. So much so that he devotes several pages to the women in his life. A full page photograph of his mother and a record of her sacrifices and dedication in order to raise up her orphaned children. He dwells upon the role and background of his two wives (he remarried after the sad death of his first wife). He showed no resentment of the fact that his second wife Kalthoum AlUbaid had established a name and positive national public image outstepping that of a mere trailer to the ambassador.
His diplomatic finesse is displayed in the manner in which he cited Sudan’s catastrophic deteriorating relations with the West in the 1990s. He side-stepped the embarrassment by merely quoting lines from the memoirs of a former Foreign Minister (who was not famous for his patience) Dr. H. Abu Saleh who wrote: “I found myself walking along a minefield because of the intense tension between the Sudan and many countries. Tunisia had severed diplomatic relations with us, Algeria withdrew its ambassador and voted against the Sudan. Eritrea asked our ambassador to leave. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States stopped supporting the Organisation of Islamic Mission and African International University. The long list of Sudan’s provocative and unwise actions included abolishing entry visas for dissident Arabs, and supporting Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. The British Ambassador was asked to leave Khartoum in 1993. The Arab-Islamic Popular Conference was established by Dr. Turabi (the defacto ruler and leader of the one-party system) as a vehicle of confrontation in order to defeat the US.
Ambassador Bridou too walked through the minefield. That took him to represent the Sudan at the UN and to become an expert at the Republican Palace.
Our paths crossed once more after University (where we never even spoke to each other). When he became ambassador to London in 1995, I was one of the “writers of the opposition” living as an exile in the UK. I never visited the embassy and was never invited there.
The minefield described by former Foreign Minister H. Abu Saleh and quoted in Ambassador Bridou’s memoirs continued until the year 2000 when the disciples of Dr. Turabi led by President Bashir ousted him and took pragmatic steps that led to the 05 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. An interim constitution that enshrines diversity, pluralism and democratic transformation was adopted. The SPLM/A laid down their arms and returned to take up ministerial and other jobs. Leading communists returned as members of the National Assembly. Unlike both groups, I never negotiated “terms of return” or resettlement after years of exile. I just returned to my teaching job.
What this memoir underlines is, what most Sudan watchers do not seem to understand, namely that the Islamists in the Sudan are not only driven by religion: They are also patriots, a factor that underpins the cooperation of their moderates with other patriots and provides a wide support base.
Some NGOs (especially in the US) insist on the false wishful analysis that what happened in 2000 was irrelevant and that the coup of 1989 that brought the Islamists to power, is still exactly the same. Some Sudanese who preferred not to end their exile after 2005 still insist that the 05 CPA was a “theatrical manoeuvre” by the Islamists. They do not acknowledge that the one-party system came to an end and in 2010 elections were held to which international observers were invited.
The political irony is that some Islamists who supported the government 100% in the early nineties and defended the one-party system and its policies that led to the “minefield” of isolation have now (at a time in which the post-Turabi era saw the end of one-party) become vocal in criticism and even opposition to the government.
During a recent Next Century Foundation discussion, a Sudanese participant said that the West should invade the Sudan the way Mali was “sorted out”. What he forgot is that the extremists of Mali, Nigeria and Arab countries quote the way the moderate and pragmatic Sudanese National Congress Party (NCP) is treated by the West. They argue that moderation is “rewarded” with sanctions and suffocation as is the case of Sudan. In this sense the West actually breeds the jihadists it fears.
Other examples of village values that shine in the book include Ambassador Bridou’s fairness in referring to ideological adversaries. He dismissed as “rumours” the allegations that Mahjoub Osman (a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party) embezzled the Embassy’s funds when he was ambassador to Uganda and praised the man’s integrity and honesty.
One of the main indicators of ambassador Omer Bridou’s career is that Islamists are not “fixed sums”. Those who are exposed to public office and official responsibilities in government adapt and change. There is a clear difference (until today unnoticed by most of the expert Khawajat) between Islamists who had to negotiate with others (nationally and internationally) and others who hold unrealistic and outlandish views. Some who are not in government still resent songs and music on television and radio or pass (to the embarrassment of government and their senior Judges) verdicts of stoning or similar punishment and want the government to police the dress code of women).
I enjoyed reading ambassador Omer Bridou’s 264 page memoirs which combines light touches and anecdotes with a lot of food for thought.
Khalid Al Mubarak