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 ...

Bougainvillea is a very tough shrub, bright and profuse. It needs little water to blossom. This is just as well, for it is the height of the dry season in the Northern Sudan and the country is experiencing its most severe drought for decades. The waters of the Nile are too valuable to be turned into gold, unless it is the gold of granaries. In the western province of Darfur, towards Chad, famine is driving pastoralists southwards, to the grazing lands of the Dinka, the largest of the tribes of the Southern region, much of which has been in revolt against the government in Khartoum for the last two years. In the north-east the famine which has decimated Eritrea and Tigre is spreading, exacerbated by refugees fleeing from their homes in Ethiopia.

Sudan has a harsh climate at the best of times. Its civic life has flowered with little encouragement from nature. The charm and dignity of ordinary Sudanese is a triumph over adversity. But the present crisis is the greatest they have faced since independence. Tearing up banknotes may seem a wanton gesture, but Sudanese currency has already been vandalised. Prices of basic commodities have escalated to the point where in parts of the country a sack of durra, the staple cereal, costs four hundred pounds. All the money in the country could hardly pay the interest on its nine billion dollar foreign debt. Sudan is virtually bankrupt, its economic institutions in chaos, its populace demoralised and close to starvation. If the spectre of destitution could be banished by destroying paper money it would be a cheap price to pay.

Nimeiri came to embody Sudan’s malaise in the same way as many another autocrat. By identifying with, then discrediting, one faction or interest group after another for 16 years, he was left, finally, with no one to blame. In 1969 he took power in a Communist-backed military coup from the governing Umma Party, political arm of the Ansar, second largest of the Northern tribal-religious groupings, which had ruled the Sudan in the 1890s under the Mahdi. In 1970 the Ansar withdrew their support from Nimeiri’s coalition and were attacked at their shrine on Aba island in the Nile. In 1971 Nimeiri turned on the Communists. In 1972 he obtained the support of the Southerners with the Addis Ababa Agreement, which ended the civil war and gave the South some regional autonomy. In 1975 a coup attempt supported both by the Ansar and by some elements of Khatmiyya, Sudan’s other main traditional political formation, was defeated. In 1976, a Libyan-backed insurrection narrowly failed to seize power in Khartoum. In 1977 Nimeiri announced a National Reconciliation with Saddiq-el-Mahdi, the Ansar leader. By 1980 this had broken down. In the 1980s Nimeiri moved towards the Muslim Brothers, a small grouping of hard-line Islamic fundamentalists. In 1982, pursuing a divide-and-rule policy, he dissolved the Southern Regional Assembly and abrogated the Addis Ababa Agreement, precipitating a renewal of armed resistance in the South. In 1983 he announced the imposition of sharia law, which alienated the non-Muslim Southerners, previously Nimeiri’s staunchest supporters, still further; and by the following year half the South was outside government control. In 1985 Nimeiri turned on the Muslim Brothers; they were accused of plotting a coup and their leaders imprisoned. His last move was to rehabilitate the original members of the Revolutionary Council that had been established in 1969. But by now even the Army, which brought him to power, had turned against him and the threat of mutiny forced General Sowar el Dahab, appointed Defence Minister only a few weeks before, on the eve of Nimeiri’s visit to the United States, to take over.

Soldiers who announce an imminent return to democracy are not to be trusted. But it does seem probable that some form of civilian government will be installed in Khartoum in the near future. The question is, what kind? What kind of government can cope with the terrible problems of this great tract of land? Nimeiri’s legacy of political confusion will make it hard for any administration to vest itself with sufficient authority to effect the draconian measures required to put the country’s economy in order. If the people of the Sudan – or Khartoum – really want a return to the 1960s, they are misguided. In the brief period of democracy between 1965 and 1969, when Nimeiri took power, political life was characterised by endless squabbling between the Northern parties, a repressive attitude towards the non-Muslim South, and a consequent intensification of the North-South civil war that began soon after independence in 1956. There is a real danger that the same thing will happen again. The country is at war with itself once more. The political parties, banned by Nimeiri, have little more experience of government than they did twenty years ago. The problems of governing are greater. The enormous distances, the ethnic diversity, the lack of proper roads, functioning railways or passable waterways are a severe handicap to central government. It is a case of administration without communication.

Sudan is a graveyard of development projects: the Gezira, established under the colonial administration, where cotton production has been declining year by year; the Kenana Sugar Project, Lonrho’s big rock candy mountain, initiated in 1970, never completed; the Jonglei Canal, a controversial irrigation scheme that was to cut through the Southern swamps providing water for irrigation and an all-weather road linking North and South – halted by the civil war. The Sudan needs such things, not just to lift itself out of penury, but to give it a sense of nationhood. Not that nationalism is lacking, but it is that of factions, tribal, religious or military.

The squabbling of the Northern factions is one thing. The profound divide between North and South is another. This is not simply a religious and tribal difference, as in Nigeria. It is a legacy of the slave trade. Northerners tend to blame the colonial administration, which kept the Arabs out of the South, and made few efforts to promote economic development there. But the Northern record in the Southern region since independence has consisted almost entirely of economic exploitation by Arab merchants, central government being represented by an intermittently oppressive military presence. There is profound racial animosity between Southerners and Northerners, rooted in historical experience, and the present rebellion is fuelled by this as much as by political grievances.

Just as hatred of Nimeiri was able to unite the interests of Northern and Southern Sudanese, it is distrust of the North which keeps the South together. In ethnographic literature this phenomenon is known as segmentary opposition: brothers may fight but they unite to feud with their cousins. Clans feud with clans, but fight together against other tribes. Ill-feeling between the main ethnic blocs in the South, the Nilotic cattle herders of the savannah belt and the sedentary agriculturalists of the equatorial region, was exploited by Nimeiri after 1982 to divide Southerners as he had divided the Northerners. It did not work for long; they soon identified the common enemy. Nevertheless the rebel group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, is a predominantly Nilotic movement and it is in the areas occupied by Nilotes – Dinka and Nuer – that it has prevailed. This territorial base, a band across the middle of the South, has enabled it to cut internal communications with Khartoum, but limits its supply lines to Ethiopia – not the best foreign ally for a rebel movement.

Perhaps for this reason, perhaps from sincerely held political conviction, the SPLA, unlike its equivalent in the first civil war, has never been a separatist movement. Its leader, John Garang, an American-educated Bor Dinka, is a soldier, but his stated aim has always been the installation of constitutional democracy in the Sudan as a whole. Once again it seems that all military men really want is democracy. The SPLA can take some credit for the demoralisation of the Northern Army and the consequent removal of Nimeiri. The South, indeed, can always make Sudan ungovernable: it has contributed to the demise of every government since independence. It can topple regimes in Khartoum and, on occasion, maintain them in power. But it cannot install a government. Any accord the SPLA makes with the new rulers of Sudan will require firm guarantees of Southern autonomy. Men of good will in the North know this: they also know that most Northerners do not know about Southern aspirations to civic equality.

It is possible that Northern politicians are banking on an accord with the regime in Addis that would end Ethiopian support for the Southern rebels. This would not end the fighting. There must be enough guns in the South to turn it into Chad or Uganda overnight. In the absence of a clearly identifiable enemy, support among Southerners for the SPLA could become a matter of tribal loyalty, though this would be in contrast to the first civil war, where segmentary opposition prevailed and Zande and Dinka, Nuer and Shilluk fought side by side against Arabs. Certainly, now that Nimeiri has gone the SPLA has less leverage in Khartoum. And as he showed, the policy of divide and rule can be pitted against the principle of segmentary opposition. In the worst event a Northern administration might be able to live with mayhem in the South. It has happened before, after all. But this is to reckon without oil.

Most of Sudan’s recently-discovered oil is in the Southern swamps. The rigs have lain rusting since the SPLA attacked them two years ago, along with the gigantic earthmover that was used to construct the Jonglei Canal. Oil cannot solve a nation’s economic problems – this is something we know all too well – but the promise of wealth is political capital: something Nimeiri knew, to the extent of attempting to redraw the boundaries of the Southern region to relocate the oilfields in the North. The fertile South, once seen by the North as a milch cow, is now its petrol pump. Or could be, if the fighting stopped.

Although a Northern government might survive without making peace with the Southerners, the South remains the key to development, without which any Northern government will be permanently unstable. It is not just oil: the South has water too. The Jonglei scheme, which envisaged a 300-kilometre-long canal cutting through the swamps, increasing the flow of the Nile to the North by 50 per cent, was designed primarily, not for the sake of communications in the South, nor even irrigation schemes in the North, but to slake the thirst of Egypt, whose dependence on the Nile waters has led it to keep a jealous eye on the land beyond the cataracts ever since antiquity.

Such geopolitical and hydropolitical considerations will determine the future history of the Sudan. What the country needs now is a government composed of men who can use these constraints as opportunities – opportunities to balance the traditional hostilities between ethnic groups, and establish a political system where interest groups are fairly represented without recourse to armed opposition. It is a tall order, but the Sudan is not without resources of good will among its own people, nor in the outside world. It is not Chad, where ignorant armies clash in the tropical night; nor Ethiopia, whose traditions of byzantine intrigue and political murder militate fatally against good government. With help the Sudan could make it. Let us hope it will.

[*] 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).