The people’s intellectual
MU professor plans to take over Sudan
Newly retired from his job as a professor in MU's Department of History, Abdullahi Ibrahim is running for president of Sudan.
After a long and multifaceted academic career, generating more than a dozen books, spanning two continents and culminating in a 15-year stint in Mizzou’s Department of History, Professor Abdullahi Ibrahim has retired from university life. But don’t expect to see him on the golf course.
Ibrahim has unfinished business. He has returned to his native Sudan to help lead the troubled, war-torn nation toward reconciliation. He envisions full citizenship for marginalized people. He seeks to curtail oppression, violence and dependence on foreign resources. He is embarking on the sort of political rabble-rousing that revolutions are made of.
His method? Run for president.
Ibrahim, 67, is no stranger to politics. A prominent activist, for years he has penned political columns for Arabic-language newspapers in Africa and engaged in fieldwork informing his political and scholarly undertakings. Though a Muslim man and Northerner, he has fought for the rights of Southerners, Christians, women, the working class and other groups historically oppressed in post-Colonial Sudan. In the 1970s he served two years in prison for his later-abandoned affiliation with Sudan’s outlawed Communist party. In the 1990s his protest of a friend’s mistreatment at the University of Khartoum led to dismissal from his job and exile in the United States.
But it’s the role Ibrahim played, while a student, in Sudan’s 1964 populist uprising — protests and strikes leading to the overthrow of military dictator Lt. Gen. Ibrahim Abboud — that inspires his current quest. In his bid for office, he takes on Sudan’s current military leader and likely incumbent presidential candidate, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, whom the International Criminal Court has indicted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.
Ibrahim believes the spirit that drove the revolution decades ago can bring change to Sudan now.
“We fought as students, all of us, and lo and behold, the dictator fell. That wasn’t just a political change; that uprising was an indicator of serious social change. We weren’t just replacing a dictator with a democracy; we were having people getting citizenship,” Ibrahim says. “I’m running to represent the forces that brought this change and the principles of this change. You cannot convince me that change is not going to happen. I was there. I made it. I saw it happen. I was part of it, and it worked.”
Working with students at Mizzou, generations and continents removed from that movement, Ibrahim has taken seriously his role as a purveyor of unfamiliar ideas.
“I come from a different world — a world I know my American students don’t know anything about,” he says. “I’m not like an American professor who [regards] his students as kids growing up. They are soldiers in my view. They do things in the world. They can fight for a great country. They can go and distribute aid. They can help monitor elections. I see them as adults.”
Before pushing his pupils out of their comfort zones, Ibrahim has sought common ground with them. When soccer began to gain popularity in the United States, he created a course called “Africa and World Soccer” that explored how the continent was shaped by imperialism. In response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he designed a course about Islam and the West to foster understanding of the tragedy’s context. When the Darfur conflict erupted in 2003, he dedicated several weeks of his survey courses to presenting “Darfur as a predicament of post-colonial Africa – not just a Sudanese headache.”
As a historian, Ibrahim has amassed a body of knowledge richer in cultural insights than in dates and esoteric facts. A folklorist and anthropologist, he holds a Ph.D. in folklore from Indiana University, as well as bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Khartoum, and was a fellow at Northwestern University’s Institute for Advanced Study and Research in the African Humanities.
He considers himself a public intellectual — someone whose academic knowledge serves practical purposes.
“A lot of times scholars are engaged in certain activities, but there tends to be a disconnect with the larger society,” says Professor Robert Weems, Ibrahim’s colleague in the Department of History and a member of his promotion committee. “But what Ibrahim was doing was very much in tune with Sudanese society. It was very impressive.”
It’s this brand of intellectualism, Ibrahim says, that makes him an effective leader.
“I don’t take my Sudaneseness lightly or for granted,” Ibrahim says. “I’m not just a Sudanese or a politician. I’m a student, an avid student, of this country.”
Ibrahim says his work as a folklorist, anthropologist, historian and activist has prepared him to lead his home country in a new direction. The presidential election, in which he faces military leader Omar Hassan al-Bashir, is scheduled for April 2010.
For all of his political zeal and bookwormish seriousness, Ibrahim maintains a sense of humor about his chances of winning the presidential election, scheduled to take place in April 2010. Like many other African nations, Sudan has seen its share of political corruption, coups and rigged polls. Ibrahim has no affiliation with any of Sudan’s political parties. His ties to the United States could work against him, if voters perceive him as a Westernized outsider, or for him, if voters see foreign-policy potential. Sudan’s current ruling regime heavily wields military might and financial support.
Asked what he’ll do if he wins, Ibrahim quips, “Ah, that is a real problem.” In the absence of a more qualified, like-minded candidate, though, Ibrahim takes up the cause.
“I am committed to this,” he says. “I am committed to facts and truth, and I think I am needed. I think the situation needs someone like me.”
The historian might have picked the right time for his quest. Political change is in the air worldwide. As a result of elections in June, a pro-Western coalition gained majority control of Lebanon’s parliament and Iranian people united in protest against voting irregularities in the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. African leadership has shifted to historically oppressed groups in recent elections as well, with a pro-democracy woman becoming president of Liberia and women now outnumbering men in Rwanda’s parliament. And the United States, of course, has elected the nation’s first black president.
Weems, who doesn’t hesitate to compare his friend to Barack Obama, holds out hope for the long shot.
“He wants to make a point. He wants to generate support,” Weems says of Ibrahim’s candidacy. “But this wouldn’t be the first or last time a campaign that may have had modest expectations could mushroom into something bigger than anybody expected.”
Whatever the election’s outcome, Ibrahim and his wife, Mahasin Awadelkarim, are committed to retiring in their home country.
If he’s not running Sudan, Ibrahim says, he will educate Sudan. The plans he’s considering include writing even more extensively, starting a non-governmental organization, establishing a Sudanese National History Day and founding an educational institute that will re-train citizens for humanitarianism and national self-sufficiency.
“I’m trying to really create a constituency of change and create good minds that will take care of themselves and take care of their country and take care of their people,” Ibrahim says. “I’m planning this model of an institute that will at least raise the issue that we need a different education.”
MU colleagues such as Weems say they’re ready to help.
“I’m really very grateful to this university,” Ibrahim says. “The environment is fantastic. The research funds, the library, teaching in an almost prejudice-free environment, the help and the interest and the accommodation of someone who is different — sometimes wild. I would do it again.”