Missouri professor eyes Sudan presidency

Saturday, May 2, 2009

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- The rolls of packing tape and boxes scattered on his office floor suggest a man in a hurry.

For those who don't know Abdullahi Ali Ibrahim, the University of Missouri history professor could be just another obscure academic preparing for an overseas sabbatical.

Only in Ibrahim's case, his departure could culminate in a new role as president of Sudan, an African nation wracked by civil wars since its 1956 independence and ruled by a military dictator the past 20 years.

"I believe our country is coming together. It is bleeding, hurt, scathed. This is sorrowful. But it is the burdensome and costly price of building a worthy nation," he said.

Ibrahim, 67, spent four years teaching at Khartoum University while Sudan President Omar al-Bashir rose to power, but otherwise has not lived in the northeastern African nation in nearly three decades.

He came to the U.S. as a doctoral student in folklore and anthropology at Indiana University, later teaching at Northwestern University and the University of South Carolina before joining the University of Missouri faculty in 1994.

His scholarly duties have not kept Ibrahim from maintaining a public profile back home. He is a political columnist for a leading newspaper in the capital city of Khartoum and contributes to several other newspapers and magazines.

"I have been working in the ivory tower, but not confined to it," he said.

Ibrahim grew up in Atbara, a northern railway center near the Nile River. He was active in radical student politics and a Communist Party member in the early 1970s.

Sudan is known to the rest of the world for the crisis in Darfur, the western region where the United Nations says 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million been displaced in a six-year-old conflict between government troops and Arab militias on one side and ethnic African rebels on the other.

February 2010 election

The International Criminal Court has accused al-Bashir of genocide and charged him with war crimes -- outside sanctions that Ibrahim hopes will lead to Sudan's first fair elections since the dictator toppled a democratically elected government in 1989.

The next election is scheduled for February 2010, one year before a referendum on independence for southern Sudan.

In addition to al-Bashir, who represents the National Congress party, Ibrahim can expect to face several other candidates aligned with the country's other political groups, including the Democratic Unionists and the Umma party, which held power before the 1989 coup.

Richard Lobban, a retired Rhode Island College professor, has studied Sudanese politics for 40 years. He considers Ibrahim a viable candidate, despite his recent absence from his homeland.

"This is a time where al-Bashir himself is politically vulnerable," said Lobban, executive director of the Sudan Studies Association, a group of American scholars. "He's been in power since 1989. Most single-ruler military governments don't last that long. It may be near the end. He's running out of political steam."

Al-Bashir has said he welcomes the challenge from the Missouri professor.

"There is nothing to prevent any qualified person who meets the criteria ... from entering the presidential elections," al-Bashir said in a January interview with Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, a London-based daily newspaper covering the Arab world. "The masses have the right of choice."

Ibrahim plans to leave Missouri later this month. He spent last week in the Washington, D.C., area, building support for his independent candidacy among the large Sudanese exile community there.

The historian compares his country's struggles to those of the early United States, a nation also forged by revolution and defined by a Civil War that threatened its existence. He dismisses skeptics who doubt that Africa's largest country can return to democratic rule.

"This is the inevitable process of nation building, just like all former colonies," Ibrahim said. "This election is too precious to be wasted."

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