The Coup in Sudan

John Ryle

In Africa the fall of a tyrant does not always presage better times. Worse things have happened in Uganda since the overthrow of Idi Amin – even worse than happened under his regime. Imperial autocracy in Ethiopia was succeeded by a military dictatorship which has proved equally repressive and a great deal bloodier. In countries where political life has been stifled, traditional leadership undermined and educated people wiped out or driven into exile, there may not be the wherewithal to establish representative government of any kind. This is not the case in the Sudan. There are all too many people waiting to form a government. President Nimeiri’s 16 years in power were characterised more by political confusion and economic mismanagement than by outright repression. The executions and amputations of the last two years were the last stratagem of a demented Machiavel who thought, perhaps, that he could safeguard both his soul and his worldly power by playing the Islamic card.

If Nimeiri thought he could conjure popular support by this means, he was wrong. Sudan is not Iran. Though many of its inhabitants are Muslims, they like to drink. The religion of the Book is permeated by the tribal cosmologies that preceded it. Leaders of Islamic factions resented Nimeiri’s arrogation of religious authority to himself. Those professionals for whom Islam is not a matter of passionate conviction were appalled at his attempt to divert attention from the country’s economic and political crisis. Former supporters of Nimeiri began to voice their opposition. In eloquent books published in Britain and the United States[*] his former Foreign Minister, Mansour Khalid, and Minister of Culture and Information, Bona Malwal, declared their outrage at Nimeiri’s spiral into religiosity and repression.

The crowds who took to the streets to celebrate his fall, dancing in ecstasy where a few days before they had been tear-gassed by security police, reviled Nimeiri, calling for his execution and shouting ‘Return October!’ – a reference to the coup in October 1964 that ousted Sudan’s last dictator, General Abboud, and ushered in a brief period of civilian rule. They showered policemen with bougainvillea petals and tore up banknotes with the image of the former president on them.

There is no doubt it was a popular coup. The inhabitants of greater Khartoum came in from the New Extension to join the demonstrations, from Omdurman, across the Nile bridges, and from the low mud houses that proliferate on the outskirts of the city, where the desert begins. On Radio Omdurman, the commander-in-chief of the Army announced that he had seized power in the name of the people. He would return it to them, he said, within six months. On another waveband Nimeiri’s old enemy Colonel Gaddafi, who has aspired frequently, but without success, to intervene in his neighbour’s affairs, harangued the citizens of the Sudan from Tripoli:

The hour of salvation has struck. Bandage your wounds. When you triumph, a new dawn will emerge over Sudan and the Arab nation. Darkness will descend on the capitals of the enemies. Tomorrow when you triumph we will turn Sudan into a wheat farm ... Tomorrow we will turn the waters of the Nile into gold ...

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[*] Nimeiri and the Revolution of Dis-May by Mansour Khalid (Kegan Paul International, 409 pp., £15, 25 February, 0 7103 0111 1); The Sudan: Second Challenge to Nationhood by Bona Malwal (Thornton Books, 42 pp., $3.90, February, 0 936508 13 2).