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INTERVIEW A conversation with Mansour Khalid ©Atem Yaak Atem

Updated: Mar 12



It began with a telephone conversation. As it was raining heavily the talk was rather inaudible on both sides. Mansour Khalid, a veteran diplomat and politician was in the capital of Southern Sudan, Juba on an official mission from Khartoum. “I am here, bringing a message from the President to the President”, he told the composer of these lines. That was typical Khalid’s style of communication. Some persons in his shoes would have said “…message from the President of the Republic HE Field Marshal Omar Hassan Bashir to the First Vice President of the Republic and the President of the Government of Southern Sudan, HE Lieutenant General Salva Kiir Mayardit.” Nothing is wrong with this last piece of information and the particulars of the mission or titles of the office holders involved. However, to Mansour Khalid the writer, communication should not be a bland and a boring chore; it has to be fun and at times capable of making recipients think for a while. Despite this attitude, the man can be very serious when a situation demands that. Over the years, as a politician, and as an individual or a team leader or member, Mansour Khalid has grappled with grave matters, some of them bordering on life and death for his fellow citizens.

Dr Mansour Khalid is a man with many hats. He trained and briefly practised as a lawyer before he became a diplomat and in later years a politician. Khalid is an accomplished and prolific writer in Arabic and English. He speaks and writes fluent French, the medium he used in writing his doctoral thesis at the University of Paris. (He was quick to dismiss the widely held belief that he studied at the famous Sorbonne by saying that the institution is part of the university that is for the study of the arts.)

The prominent Sudanese public servant is well remembered as a long and popular foreign minister in the 1970s and for his role as member of the Government of Sudan delegation to the talks with the representatives of the former Southern rebel movement, Southern Sudan Liberation Movement, SSLM, and its military component, the Anya Nya. The negotiations that took place in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa in the last part of 1971 ended in the peace accord of March 1972 that bears the name of the venue, the Addis Ababa Agreement or simply Triple A.

The man from Omdurman

“I was born in Omdurman…” he said with a pause before he chuckled to warn “but don’t ask ‘when?’”, a request that was politely accepted. No matter what age he is Dr Mansour Khalid has been around in public view and life for over five decades. Young Mansour received his basic education in Omdurman from where he moved to the neighbouring Wadi Seidna Secondary School, not far from his birth place. This educational institution was one of the first and best in the whole country. It has produced a host of Sudanese young men, some of them who later rose to positions of leadership. Two of these were Jaafar Mohammed Ali Bakheit, Mansour’s senior schoolmate and Abel Alier who had to redo his fourth year there. Khalid proceeded to study law at the University of Khartoum, the only tertiary centre of learning in the whole country at the time. After graduation he briefly served in legal practice.

Since post-graduate studies were not locally available at the time the ambitious lawyer was the first Sudanese to be granted a Fulbright Scholarship that took him to do an MA in law at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.

UN system employee

The attainment of independence by many African countries in the 1960s opened more opportunities for educated Africans. Khalid who had been employed by the United Nations as legal officer was posted to serve as legal assistant to the Resident UNDP Officer in the newly independent Algerian nation. Knowledge of Arabic and French made him get the job easily.

After a stint in Algiers Khalid moved to the office of United Nations Educational and Scientific Organisation or Unesco based in the French capital, Paris. His choice to work with the UN system in Paris, he says was motivated by his desire to do a doctorate in law. At the law school, one of his contemporaries was Hassan Abdalla Turabi, the future leader of Sudan’s Muslim Brotherhood movement. For the rest of their lives in public domain the two men have always not been able to see eye to eye, ideologically speaking. Their chemistry continues not to mix to this day.

Member of Nimeiri’s government

Although Nimeiri’s regime was “a hotchpotch of leftists and pan-Arabists” Khalid who was Minister of Youth and Sports stressed that there were members of the government who were nationalists of whom he was one. Members of this group according to him were interested in changing the political situation in the country for the better. One of their objectives, he reveals was to end the war in the South. Those who shared that approach included Nimeiri himself, Dr Jaafar Ali Bakheit, Ibrahim Moneim Mansour. After years of ideological wrangling, Khalid says they succeeded in reaching an agreement with the SSLM with the grant of regional autonomy to Southern Sudan, embodied in the Triple A.

Before he became Minister for foreign Affairs after 1971 the diplomat turned politician worked to turn the Ministry of Youth an instrument of change since there was, in opinion, an ideological gap between the old and the youth. But things did not go his way, forcing him to take up the job of Sudan permanent representative to the UN

Foreign Ministry with a difference

On becoming Minister for Foreign Affairs Mansour Khalid worked to make the department a vehicle for promotion of national unity. He conceived diplomacy as an agent for development because in his reasoning no meaningful development could take place in the absence of a proactive diplomacy.

Asked whether the pan-Arabists in the May government were opposed to the Triple A, the former foreign minister replied “No. they were not against the end of the war as such”, adding that “their opposition was against the means used to achieve the peace agreement.” He reveals that the opposition was based on the involvement of the Ethiopian monarch, Emperor Haile Selassie, the All Africa Conference of Churches and the World Council of Churches. “They [the pan-Arabists] saw it as a Western plot. But Nimeiri prevailed because he wanted the war to be ended”, attributing Nimeiri’s intention to the fact that the president was a soldier and knew firsthand the problems inherent in war. He also thinks that Nimeiri believed making peace would bring stability to his rule.

Contrary to widely-held view by many Southern Sudanese that Babikr Awadalla, Nimeiri’s first prime minister and who later went to live in voluntary exile in Egypt after the accord did not want the agreement, Mansour Khalid has denied that allegation.

Enter Turabi, Sadiq Mahdi

Mansour Khalid blames the change of attitude by Nimeiri to the pressure exerted on him by both Hassan Turabi and Sadiq Mahdi of the Ummah Party. The two men according to him were against the Triple A and wanted it to be abrogated. Nimeiri, he reasons, made a wrong calculation. Thinking that he had already secured the support of the South went on to make himself an imam to please the Islamists in the North. By making such a move he says that Nimeiri was implying that he personally introduced what the Islamists wanted but that would take him through a long process to achieve. In both cases, concludes the former cabinet minister, Nimeiri was wrong.

With that turn of events the diplomat quit the May regime. But he did not leave quietly. While based abroad the former senior minister published The Revolution of Dis-May, a scathing attack on and shaming of a regime that had become synonymous with the whims of a leader whose behaviour was unpredictable, excessively corrupt and vindictive. “Dis-May” itself says it all: destruction of what the government that came into power through a military coup in May 1969 stood for. The play on the word also explains the resulting shock with which those who had placed their hope in the change of system of governance judged the performance and the attitude of the leader.

Contribution to the South

Although there was no hint of boasting in his voice, Mansour Khalid counted some of his contributions to allow Southern Sudanese have a fair amount of representation in the national government. “By the time I took over Foreign Affairs there was only one diplomat from the South. That was Yithaya Achol de Dut,” he recalls, adding that by the time he left the ministry there were many young diplomats from the South. Most of these whom he rates highly like him were lawyers. He remembers with special respect the late Isaac La and late Achol Deng, among several others. “They were very bright, hard working and efficient people” he says.

Although his decision to take more Southern Sudanese into the foreign affairs ministry was a matter of doing justice for the South which believed was being neglected, he concedes that the young diplomats from the South were qualified for the jobs in their own right. He denies having made special treatment or playing a partonising role in the selection.

While Minister of education for a while Dr Mansour Khalid has revealed that he worked hard to reactivate the resolution of the 1965 Round Table Conference on the South in respect to higher education. Towards that end, the establishment of the University of Juba (and the University of Gezira in the North) was part of his efforts which later bore fruits long after he had left government.

Was he a victim of envious president?

At the time he served as Minister for Foreign Affairs Mansour Khalid was a very popular figure both at home and within the African region. On the social plane, the man was a trend-setter for the youth especially in fashion. Young people from the South admired his style of dress to the point that the broad tie that was in vogue in the 1970s was dubbed “Mansour” after him. Did the President become uneasy with his rising fame and celebrity status? “In such a type of government jealousies are rampant.” He would not further elaborate on the claim.

Personal friends

A congenial personality, Khalid always enjoys company of like-minded people whether inside or outside the establishment. He says some of his personal friends while in government included Dr Jaafar Bakheit, Dr Francis Mading Deng, Ibrahim Moneim Mansour, Dr Bashir Abadi, Major Abul Gasim Mohammed Ibrahim, General Baghir Ahmed, the two soldiers who each held the post of First Vice President of the Republic at different times. Late Hilary Logali who served in the South as Minister of Finance and Economic Planning under Abel Alier was also Khalid’s good friend.

Regrets

It is on record that Foreign Minister Khalid and Vice President of the Republic Abel Alier who led the Sudan government delegation to the talks with the SSLM leaders openly rejected the demand by the rebels that regional self-rule should be extended to other areas of Sudan (West, East and far north). Khartoum told the SSLM delegation that they should confine themselves to issues pertaining to their own region since they did not have the mandate to speak for others other than the South. Khartoum carried the day. “I regret that. If we had done that [accepted the SSLM’s proposal that regional rule should be extended to other parts of the country in the North] we would have solved the problems of the peripheries”, says a remorseful veteran politician.

With the benefit of the hindsight he thinks that creation of four autonomous regions in Sudan would have reduced the powers of the centre in the interest of the regions in terms of share of power and resources. He also believes that with all the areas of the country running their local affairs Nimeiri would have feared antagonsing all the Sudanese by tampering with the regional set up as all would be fighting to preserve the self-rule arrangement.

These views are contained in two of his important books, The Government They Deserve, The Tales of Two Countries and in the forth coming book on the CPA whose final title is yet to be decided. This publication is a lucid factual account, full of supporting references, of the difficult and meandering peace process. The author thinks the achievement of peace was made possible due partly to the patience on the part of the negotiators, mediators from the Igad Secretariat and the international partners and the consistency by the SPLM under the late John Garang at Naivasha and Salva Kiir at the early stages at Machakos. The book is due out before the close of this year.

Memories of pre-independence period

At the time when Sudan was preparing for independence Mansour Khalid was at his final year as law student. He admits as he had no political role at the time he was just an observer. He notes “It was a hectic time, full of excitement and expectations. Khartoum was a hub and beehive of activities and jubilation over the evacuation [of foreign troops from the country] and celebration for approaching independence. But few people were thinking about issues concerning the creation of sustainable unity and stability ahead”, he recalls.

He fondly remembers knowing politicians from the South he thinks were men of unquestioned integrity whom he admired. One of these was Stanislaw Paysama Abdalla who hailed from Western Bahr el Ghazal. Mansour Khalid tells a story to support his belief that those personalities were honest public servants. He remembers Benjamin Lwoki from Equatoria who was a government minister going to Prime Minister Abdalla Bey Khalil to return a briefcase. The stunned head of government asked the outgoing minister why he was taking the attaché to him. Lwoki replied “Sir, this belongs to the government”. Were all the leaders from the South decent and public spirited persons?

“No. Not all of them, of course. There were some hooligans on both sides [from the South and North]”, was his retort amidst sniggering.

Problem with Sudan

Most Sudanese prefer to conform by jumping with the crowd when there are issues that divide people. What does Mansour Khalid who often and openly castigates some among his fellow Northern leaders in power think of this allegation?

“I think this is a sheep mentality. The role of a leader is to lead, not to be led, acting as a bandwagon driver at the steering wheel, leading unquestioning crowd. This is shameful” he deplores. He cites the late SPLM Chairman John Garang as an example of a leader who sets an agenda.

“What was great about John Garang was that he always led from the front and that was the reason why people respected him”, explains the man who served as adviser to the former rebel chief and a personal friend. But did that style of leadership not earn him enemies as well?

“Yes, it did”, he admits.

Mansour Khalid knows the price people pay when they speak out their minds on subjects considered by many as taboo or when one supports a cause that might be unpopular at a certain time. One example stands out. During the Koka Dam Conference held in Ethiopia in 1986 to allow nearly all Sudanese political forces to discuss what was called the problem of Sudan (previously known as the Southern Question) Mansour Khalid who had just joined the SPLM was a participant.

On the first session, a delegate representing Ba’ath Party [Country Sudan] rose to demand the expulsion of Mansour Khalid from the gathering. Reason? His membership of the overthrown regime of Jaafar Nimeiri. Stoic as usual, the publicly maligned man continued to occupy his seat, unperturbed, his face almost expressionless. Major Arok Thon Arok, member of the SPLM/A Politico-Military High Command and its spokesman during the conference rose to rebuke the protesters.

“No-one has a right to choose who should be member or not member [of the rebel movement]”. Arok went on to defend Dr Mansour Khalid. The former minister did not only leave the May system when Nimeiri deviated from its objectives; he also wrote an indictment of the system in his book, The Revolution of Dis-May, Arok argued.

The attack on Mansour Khalid was not apparently for his past association with the May regime; it was a pretext. His presence was tacitly resented by some Northern Sudanese participants because of his robust intellectual weight and being a Northerner he had given the movement whose top leadership at the time was wholly from Southern Sudan, the epithet that it desperately craved: national player, not a regional and military force the Northern establishment would like to project it.

On the CPA

“It gives the people of Southern Sudan two options: unity or secession”. Commenting on the notion of unity the veteran politician says “It was unity based on full implementation of the CPA; the creation of institutions and enactment of laws and edicts in the constitution. The decision by the end of the day is in the hands of the people of Southern Sudan. The role of the SPLM is to enable the people make their free choice. It is not for the SPLM leadership to second guess the decision the people of Southern Sudan will make. But it is for them to make people make a correct decision”, he explains.

On writers and writing

“It is sad.” This is his reaction to the kind of writing being carried out these days by some public figures. “If you are a writer who wants to be taken seriously, you have to take your reader seriously. Respect the mind and intelligence of your reader. You are mistaken if you think that they [the readers] can’t distinguish between truths and lies. If you respect yourself and your reader, you must respect facts. Facts are facts, not embellishment,” is his advice to any aspiring Sudanese writer.

“There is a lot of laxity in the way people treat events now; lack of seriousness in analysis, perhaps this is because of the desire [by some writers] to be good to all. You cannot be good to all”, he warns, adding that “The books I have been writing are comments on how the North has denied the legitimate rights of the people of the South. Being nice [in not telling the truth] will never bring respect to you but narrating the facts in the service of the truth will help in correcting things” Mansour Khalid the writer asserts.

Disciplinarian at work

It is rare to have a full time politician who is a regular writer of books or columns in the press. Mansour Khalid is one of few exceptions to the rule. (He once maintained a column in Es Sahafa Arabic daily of which he was chair of board of directors. He later compiled those pieces to produce El Hiwar ma’ es Safuwa or discourse with the elite.)

The veteran politician, writer and diplomat is a member of the SPLM Political Bureau. He frequently visits Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan for scheduled or emergency meetings of the party leadership. He is unofficially an adviser to the leader of the SPLM and head of the Government of Southern Sudan, Salva Kiir. The two men are known to enjoy friendly relationship. On the social level Mansour Khalid gets time to relax and have meals with friends in the evenings when there are no meetings.

At the time of the interview for this profile that took place in his Juba hotel room at 9 pm he had books and typed papers on his desk. It appears he was working on another book project. After an hour after the conversation he would be off for dinner in another hotel with a former SPLA commander now minister in the GoSS. How does a man past the age of 60 manage to have time for public engagements, social interaction and serious writing at the same time? Single word: discipline. People who work closely with Mansour Khalid know the man’s strict observation and proper management of time. It is an open secret that he does not hide his open disapproval of people who are lax with appointments and punctuality. Once a research assistant for a book he was writing (The Government They Deserve) arrived five minutes late for an appointment with him. When he learned that the fellow did not have a watch, Mansour Khalid bought him one on return from an overseas trip. The gift was followed by what sounded like a warning “What excuse will you tell me next time you delay?” he asked rhetorically, surely.

Mansour Khalid is reported to be in the habit of subtracting a couple of hours from his sleep time when he happens to spend time on an unplanned function.

This article was published in The Pioneer weekly newspaper in June 2011 under the title of “Mansour Khalid Remembers Good and Bad Times. The interviewer, Atem Yaak Atem has worked with Dr Mansour Khalid for several years as a research assistant on some of his books including the Government they Deserve: The Role of the Elite in Sudan’s Political Evolution, John Garang Speaks (speeches, editor) and The Paradox of Two Sudans: The CPA and the Road to Partition.

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