Mariam Al Mahdi: Revolutionary ‘Kandake’ as Sudan’s Top Diplomat

Sudan's Minister of Foreign Affairs Mariam Al Mahdi

Mariam Al Mahdi is only the second woman to be appointed as Foreign Minister in Sudan’s history. A doctor and a politician, she represents the aspiration of the Sudanese people for better government and future. She is considered one of the most prominent opposition female figures during the term of the toppled President Omar Hassan al- Bashir.

Her appointment comes at a complicated time, where the country is facing a number of crises on both the economic and security fronts, with security challenges along the Sudanese-Ethiopian border and the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam and its repercussions on Sudan’s water security. In addition, she bears the responsibility of integrating Sudan within the international order after the fraying rule of Al-Bashir. One of the most significant issues in her portfolio is the signing of the Sudan-Israel normalization agreement, due to her party’s reservations on the decision. She stated that removing Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism is of the utmost importance to her country. However, she refused to link it to the agreement.

Dr Al Mahdi was appointed by Sudanese Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok as new foreign minister in a Cabinet comprising 25 members. She is the second woman to hold the position of foreign affairs minister in the history of Sudan, following Asma Muhammad Abdullah who was appointed in late 2019, as part of Sudan’s 18-member transitional council.

Born in Omdurman in 1965, she is the daughter of Sadiq Al-Mahdi, the late opposition leader and former prime minister of Sudan, and the leader and founder of the National Umma Party. She was very close to her father, who used to call her “Mariam, the victorious”.

Her father was overthrown by a military coup that brought former president Omar Al Bashir to power in 1989. After spending some years in exile, Al-Mahdi returned to Sudan and ran in a failed presidential bid in 2010. He supported the 2019 protests that ousted al-Bashir, and eventually died due to Covid-19 complications in November 2020.

Although a bright and passionate medical student who earned her first degree in general medicine and surgery from the University of Jordan in 1991 and then went on to qualify in tropical pediatric medicine from Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in 1995, Mariam  only practiced medicine as a general practitioner in Sudan’s children’s hospitals for six years in the mid-1990s.

Adding to her political upbringing, Dr Al Mahdi received a higher diploma in development and gender issues from Ahfad University for Girls in Omdurman in 2006, and a Bachelor of Law from Neelain University in Sudan in 2013. Her political journey spans almost three decades and she threw herself into the struggle to free her country from the Muslim Brotherhood, assuming various roles in the National Umma Party, until she became its deputy head.

Joining the fighters in Asmara, she held the Sudanese military title of Major. She participated in the Juba alliance which comprised most prominent opposition forces following The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (known as the Naivasha Agreement) with the Sudanese regime at the time.

Supporting an end to Al-Bashir’s three-decade rule, Dr. Mariam Al-Mahdi joined the 2019 protests which eventually ousted him. Due to her political activism, the Sudanese “Kandake” (a historical word which refers to ancient kings’ wives, and became used during the Sudanese protests to describe a woman’s determination, resistance and capability) was detained several times by security forces, last of which was in January 2019 as anti-government protests spread to Khartoum university.

As Sudan seeks to find its place in the African sun, this revolutionary minister will have her diplomatic work cut out for her!