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The Untold Story of Gaafar al-Nimeiry, the Sudanese Leader Who Survived 22 Coup Plots in the 1970s

Noticeably from his teenage years, Gaafar Muhammad al-Nimeiry was rebellious. His biography states that when Britain delayed granting Sudan self-determination, he led a strike that kept his secondary school closed for about seven months.

He would, in subsequent years, lead a group of young army officers to seize power in Sudan in 1969. For the next 16 years, he ruled the North African country with an iron fist, critics say.

He also embraced contradictory roles; he shifted from Arab nationalism to socialism, abandoned his friendly relations with the Soviet Union and became a key ally of the United States.

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Gaafar Muhammad al-Nimeiry. Pic credit: GlobalSecurity.org

Seen as one of the more moderate Arab leaders, critics say his violent crackdowns and alleged execution of political opponents got him many enemies. Though he survived repeated coup attempts and invasions – 22 coup attempts in all – it was his failure to fix Sudan’s economic challenges that eventually that led to his downfall.

Nimeiry was born January 1, 1930, in Omdurman, near Khartoum on the banks of the Nile. He had his education at Koranic and state schools and graduated from Khartoum military college in 1952.

During the 1950s and 1960s, he was arrested on several occasions for subversion. He trained in Cyprus, Libya, West Germany and Egypt, before taking a military course at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas (1964-66).

An ardent nationalist whose hero was Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Nimeiry took over power in a coup on May 25, 1969, with his small group that called itself the Free Officers.

Their cause was Arab nationalism and revolutionary socialism patterned after the ideology of President Nasser of Egypt, according to The New York Times.

After taking over power, Nimeiry dissolved parliament, banned all political parties and headed a revolutionary command council. He subsequently named himself commander-in-chief and defence minister, and crushed an emergent Ansar rebellion, killing thousands near Aba island on the Nile, according to The Guardian.

The Ansar is a Sufi religious movement in the Sudan whose followers are disciples of Muhammad Ahmad, the self-proclaimed Mahdi.

Alex de Waal, a commentator would later describe Nimeiry as “vigorous and idealistic”, one who persuaded “ordinary Sudanese that they could build their nation anew”.

The New York Times says that at the time of Nimeiry’s coup, the southern region of Sudan, that is home to black Christians and animists who were burdened by the Muslim-dominated government, had been afflicted by rebellion for 14 years.

Nimeiry tried during his first eight years in power to bring together the various elements in his country, that is, the Christians and animists from the south, and the Muslims and communists. But he failed due to extremism from both elements.

In 1971, after announcing that he would crush communism in Sudan, communist officers stormed his palace and imprisoned him for three days. With the help of loyalist forces, Nimeiry escaped by jumping out a window and he survived the coup.

The coup leaders were executed, and at a poll in September 1971, Nimeiry was elected as Sudan’s first president, with 98 per cent of the vote.

Six months later, he signed a peace agreement with the rebels in the south, ending the protracted civil war in the south. The move, which was hailed by many, including the West, granted regional autonomy to the southern provinces. The peace agreement also assured the south that Islam would not become Sudan’s state religion, reports The Telegraph.

Around this period, Nimiery had moved Sudan away from Soviet influence towards an alliance with conservative Arab governments including Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

His government had also become friendlier with the United States, and by 1976, Sudan was receiving aid and armaments from America.

By then, the United States viewed Nimeiry as a “counterweight to the Marxist government in Ethiopia, on Sudan’s eastern border, and to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s hostile government in Libya, to the northwest,” reports The New York Times.

In 1978, Nimeiry was the only Arab leader to support the Egyptian President Sadat after he signed the Camp David peace accords with Israel.

Nimeiry may have been loved by the West, but at home, his continued crackdown on opponents brought him many foes, who made at least four attempts to remove him from office in the late 1970s.

In 1976, during a Libyan-backed coup attempt, Nimeiry evaded capture when his plane arriving from Europe landed ahead of schedule because of a tailwind. About 98 people implicated in the plot were executed, according to sources.

Having survived the many coups, Nimeiry, in 1977, was re-elected to the presidency. When parliamentary elections in February 1978 saw the opposition making headway, The Telegraph reports that he responded by locking up many of his detractors and, in 1982, purging the military.

The following year, he imposed Sharia law across Sudan, in violation of the 1972 peace accord with the rebels. The move dissolved the southern regional government, and this renewed the civil war in the south and associated conflicts that would continue till recent years.

According to The Guardian, the sharia law brought back “outmoded punishments” such as amputating the hands of thieves and fornicators and the ceremonial emptying of liquor worth $5m into the Nile.

In the meantime, food and fuel prices were rising, coupled with the influx of refugees from conflicts in neighbouring Ethiopia and Uganda, and high foreign debt.

Mass demonstrations and a general strike in 1985 caused Sudan’s military to depose Nimeiry while he was on an official visit to America in April 1985. Sources said that after surviving 22 coup attempts, this particular takeover which was led by his close friend and Defense Minister, Gen. Abdel Swareddahab, was successful.

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Former Sudanese President Gaafar Nimeiry. Pic credit: reuters.com

Nimeiry lived in exile in Egypt until 1999, when he was allowed to return to Sudan by President Omar al-Bashir, who had come to power a decade earlier with the support of Islamist groups.

Nimeiry would no longer command any huge support and on May 30, 2009, he passed away at the age of 79. His early career was equated to Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, as in 1969, they both rose from young colonels to become leaders in an instant.

Even with his deficiencies during his tenure, Nimeiry’s state funeral reportedly drew a lot of people. Perhaps, scores of Sudanese tended to ignore his failings, analysts said.

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