Former president Jaafar Mohammed Nimeiri died this week, forty years after his historic “May Revolution” in which, as a young army colonel in the model of Gamal Abdel Nasser, he seized power and promised “everything must change.” For sixteen dramatic years he led Sudan on an extraordinary political dance which reached every corner of the political spectrum, from close alignment with the Communists, to aggressive secular developmentalism, peace with the south, embrace of the conservative sectarian parties he had deposed, an eccentric version of radical Islamism, and—in his final days in power—the hints of yet another twist. In his time in power, first espousing Nasserite revolution, Nimeiri savagely crushed the Ansar and Muslim Brothers, then turned on his former Communist allies, and survived repeated coup attempts and invasions. He switched sides in the Cold War, and tore up his greatest achievement—peace in the south and what appeared to be a durable solution to the challenge of national identity—with a return to war. In his early vigour and idealism, Nimeiri was a breath of fresh air, a stimulus to the confidence of ordinary Sudanese that they could build their nation anew. The disillusion that came later was all the more bitter.
If nothing else, Nimeiri made Sudanese politics interesting. He began his rule as a modest, even austere colonel, driving his own car and shunning the pomp of the palace. But under his rule, Sudan borrowed massively and indiscriminately from whoever would lend the country money—even the Ministry of Finance didn’t know what debts had been incurred when the IMF was finally called in to bail out Sudan—and he ended up as a semi-recluse, surrounded by fabulous corruption, reportedly taking instructions from his dreams, cutting clandestine deals with the CIA and Israel, with starving people from Kordofan and Darfur trekking to Omdurman while their president denied that there was any shortage of food.
The slogan of radical change came to naught. On Nimeiri’s downfall, in the peaceful 1985 Popular Uprising, Sudanese politics reverted to precisely where it had been at the time of his coup: a sectarian-led parliamentary regime, fatally divided over the question of Islam, fighting an unwinnable war in the south, grappling with an unmanageable economic crisis, fated to fall in a military coup. The sectarians were the Bourbons to Nimeiri’s Napoleon, learning nothing and forgetting nothing.
As with his presidency, Nimeiri’s subsequent life embodied the contradictions of Sudanese political life. Nimeiri escaped prosecution for his corruption and abuses because he was in exile (several of his lieutenants were not so lucky) and years later he negotiated an amnesty with Pres. Bashir and returned home in 1999. He contested the 2000 presidential elections and—extraordinarily—won 7% of the vote. For the last decade, Sudan has had three former heads of state or government living peaceably in its capital—Gen. Abdel Rahman Suwar al Dahab, Sadiq al Mahdi, and Nimeiri. (A fourth, Hassan al Turabi, de facto head of government from 1989 to 1999, lives in Khartoum, though not exactly peaceably.)
Did the Sudanese people forgive Nimeiri for his years of misrule? It’s hard to say. Memories of the bloodshed of 1970 and 1971, the southerners’ sense of bitter betrayal in 1981-83, the westerners’ hunger of 1984, and horror at the execution of Ustaz Mahmoud Mohammed Taha in 1985, will not easily be eradicated. But as the years have passed and Nimeiri’s successors have done no better in governing their unruly nation, many Sudanese I have spoken with have become more understanding, perhaps more fatalistic, about what to expect from their rulers. Even Nimeiri’s fiercest critics often speak of him with a hint of affection. And in characteristic magnanimity, Sudanese are now giving Nimeiri’s achievements equal standing with his failures.