The US Supreme Court recently reinstated parts of President Donald Trump’s travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries. These include Somalia, Iraq, Libya, Iran, Syria, Yemen, and Sudan.
Whereas the situation in countries such as Somalia and Libya has become almost entirely anarchic; Syria, Iraq, and Yemen are in grip of complex wars and insurgencies.
Iran has been severely antagonistic towards the US (and vice versa) ever since the 1979 Revolution there, even though till only recently some major breakthroughs were achieved to stall the always-degenerating relations between the US and Iran by former US President Barack Obama.
So what is Sudan doing on the list? From the 1990s onward it has been declared a pariah state by the US (for ‘supporting terrorism against the US’). The common perception of this country is that of a chaotic land ravaged by crazy dictators nurturing crazier ‘Islamic terrorists.’
Indeed a lot of this was largely true, but Sudan is nothing like what has become of countries such as Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Iraq. As the regional editor of The Economist and author Richard Crockett mentions in his breezy 2010 study of Sudan, Sudan: The Failure & Division of An African State, in the early and mid-2000s, Sudan’s economy was one of the most robust in Africa, exhibiting a growth of almost nine percent. Since the early 2000s, Sudan became Africa’s biggest economy.
The economic growth was almost entirely due to Sudan striking oil in 1999. But then, its government had had a falling out with the US and most European countries and severe economic sanctions were imposed on it. China then stepped in and became the biggest consumer of Sudanese oil and also a major investor in Sudan’s economy.
Crockett mentions that the booming economy saw the emergence of a wealthy upper class and a prosperous urban middle class in Sudan; shopping malls, cinemas and stylishly built office and residential complexes became common in the country’s capital, Khartoum. What’s more, Crockett also suggests that at one point Khartoum was preparing itself to become to Africa what Dubai is to Asia! A powerful economic hub.
Though the economy began to somewhat buckle after the dramatic fall in international oil prices, Sudan remains to be one of Africa’s biggest economies – even bigger than its more prominent Muslim-majority neighbour, Egypt.
Crockett, who has visited Sudan on a number of occasions, mentions that no Europeans and Americans can be found in Sudan. But there are a large number of Chinese who remain to be the country’s biggest economic and trading partners and investors.
Crockett also informs that due to sanctions, European and US currencies are not available in Sudan and major credit card companies do not operate here. All business is done on cash – Sudanese, Chinese, and UAE.
Though Sudan did not plunge into anarchy like Syria, Somalia, Yemen or Iraq, its history of the past 60 years or so is one of the most vivid reflections of how during the Cold War (1949-89), major international powers manoeuvered regimes in various Muslim-majority countries for various economic and strategic gains.
They bolstered those regimes and then turned against them once certain ideological and geopolitical experiments which they had supported began to backfire and became ‘Frankenstein’ in nature.
A look at the rise and fall of perhaps Sudan’s most enigmatic leader, Gafaar Nimeiry, can clearly unfold the complex and highly mutable ideological and geopolitical intricacies which eventually led to the anarchic destruction of so many Muslim countries after the Cold War.
Independence and turmoil
Sudan won independence from the British in 1956. At the time, the country’s two main political parties were the conservative and quasi-Islamic Ummah Party (UP) and the secular Arab nationalist, National Unionist Party (NUP). The NUP advocated a union with Egypt. Sudan also had a large communist party, the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP).
Sudan emerged as a democracy, but intense power games in the parliament and a struggling economy gave the Sudanese army the peg to intervene and impose the country’s first military regime in 1958. The coup was pulled off by officers affiliated with right-wing quasi-Islamic groups, the Ansar and the Khatimiyya (a Sufi order in Sudan).
But the political situation and the economy continued to deteriorate, especially when unrest grew in the Christian-majority southern region of the country (South Sudan) against the Muslim-majority (the ruling elite) in the north.
Though Sudan as a whole was economically weak, the south was its most poverty-stricken region. The military regime reacted by expelling all Christen missionary and charity groups in the south, further compounding the problem.
No major power showed much interest in the affairs of Sudan.
In the north, the communist party led popular protests against the military regime which, in 1964, was finally ousted. Parliamentary democracy was restored.
Enter Nimeiry: The socialist
Though after the fall of the military regime in 1964, democracy returned, Sudan had to go through multiple elections when the voting continuously failed to give any party a majority. Weak coalition governments came and went as the economy continued to slide and resentment in the south grew even further. Sudan stood as an ignored, poor post-colonial African state, on the brink of an economic collapse and civil war. A failed democracy.
In May 1969, a group in the Sudanese military, operating secretly as the Free Officers Movement and led by the 38-year-old colonel, Gafaar Nimeiry, toppled the weak civilian government and declared Sudan’s second Martial Law.
Nimeiry was a great admirer of the charismatic Egyptian nationalist leader, Gamal Abul Nasser. Nasser immediately recognised the new Sudanese regime and this also attracted the interest of the Soviet Union which was aiding Nasser since the 1950s.
This way Nimeiry pulled Sudan into the Cold War. When the Soviets and Egypt began to dish out economic and military aid to Sudan, the US and its allies became concerned about ‘the spread of communism in Africa.’
Nimeiry had used pro-communist factions in the military to launch his coup. He was also helped by the strong labour, trade and student unions controlled by the Sudanese Communist Party.
With Egyptian and Soviet aid, as well as help from the newly installed radical regime of Colonel Qaddafi in Libya, Nimeiry began to implement ‘socialist’ economic policies, nationalising whatever little industry Sudan had. He also struck a peace treaty with the leaders in the restive Christian-majority south.
In 1970, the Ansar rose up against the regime’s ‘secular’ and ‘communist’ policies and launched a militant movement in its stronghold, the Aba Island. The Ansar were supported by the Sudanese faction of the Muslim Brotherhood, a largely Egyptian organisation which was brutally suppressed by Nasser. The Ansar and the Brotherhood were being financed by Saudi Arabia.
The Sudanese military, supported by Egyptian air force, crushed the uprising, bombing the Ansar’s headquarters and vanquishing the party. In 1971, after banning all political parties, Nimeiry formed the Sudan Socialist Union (SSU), turning the country into a single-party ‘socialist’ state. He also began ousting the more radical communists from the government, accusing them of ‘blackmail.’
The communist party activated its supporters in the military and attempted to topple the Nimeiry regime in a coup. But the coup failed and the communist party was driven underground through arrests, executions and exile. It could never revive itself again.
Nimeiry: The liberal
After crushing the Ansar and then the communists, Nimeiry’s ideology began to shift to the centre. He broke away from the Soviet Union (who he accused of facilitating the aborted 1971 communist coup against him). As a consequence, he was immediately approached by the US and oil-rich Arab monarchies.
In 1972 Nimeiry began to reverse his regime’s earlier ‘socialist’ policies by introducing economic liberalism and a nominal return to democracy. The US responded by beginning to shower financial aid on Sudan worth millions of dollars.
Nimeiry also managed to bring peace in the south where he constructed schools, hospitals, roads and bridges. Through a new constitution his government recognised the South’s Christian majority and it became an officially-recognised faith in Sudan along with Islam.
Economic and social liberalism was successful in heralding an unprecedented era of political peace and economic development in Sudan. But by 1975 it became clear that all was not quite well.
Economic growth largely failed to trickle down and the radical Islamic groups, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, vehemently criticised the regime for its lopsided economic policies, its social liberalism and for becoming an unquestioning ally of the United States.
As often happens in developing countries, a centralised and authoritarian government’s policies expand the social and economic influence of the middle-classes which, in turn, begin to ask for greater political power. The same happened in Sudan as well.
Since the communist party now stood crushed, young Sudanese, especially from the expanding middle-classes, and the intelligentsia, began to drift towards Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which seemed more ‘modern’ and ‘revolutionary’ than the more traditional Ansar.
In July 1976, Nimeiry faced a serious coup attempt orchestrated by officers sympathetic to the Ansar. Nimeiry responded by ordering severe crackdown on Islamic groups, killing over 400 members of the Ansar.
Nimeiry: The ‘Islamist’
In 1977 Nimeiry moved to reach reconciliation with the Islamic groups. He agreed to release hundreds of political prisoners and allow the return of opposition groups into mainstream politics, even though Sudan remained a one-party state.
In 1979, Nimeiry also recalled the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood’s main ideologue, Hasan al-Turabi, from exile and made him the Justice Minister. The regime however remained close to the US.
Turabi began to exercise greater influence over Niamey, who donned off his ‘western clothes’ and began to wear traditional Sudanese dress and turban. Corruption became rampant in state and government institutions and even though the US continued to dish out millions of dollars in financial aid, much of this aid landed in the pockets of crooked government and military officials and bureaucrats.
In 1983, as the economy began to decline, creating food shortages and widespread unemployment, protests erupted on the streets. As a reaction and on the advice of Turabi and the growing numbers of Muslim Brotherhood members in the regime, Nimeiry introduced strict ‘Shariah’ laws.
Amputation of limbs for supposed thieves was introduced and such punishments, including floggings and hangings, were televised live on state television. Sale of alcohol was banned and Crockett wrote that in one such exhibition, Nimeiry, who had been a heavy drinker all his life, appeared at an anti-alcohol rally to smash beer bottles against a wall!
The amputations, the floggings and the executions which was all televised live worried Sudan’s allies in the US and Europe. But the aid continued to come in and US President Ronald Reagan actually praised Nimeiry for keeping communism at bay in the region.
In 1985, the economy almost completely collapsed and a severe drought killed thousands of poor Sudanese in the rural areas. The civil war reappeared after the region’s Christian majority saw the introduction of ‘Islamic laws’ as a negation of what the South was promised in the 1970s.
Nimeiry refused to allow aid agencies to distribute food in drought-struck areas. In one meeting he shouted at an official who was requesting him to allow food trucks to reach the victims of the drought. He told him “No! They (the aid organisations) are undermining my revolution!”
In 1985, as protests against the regime grew and became violent, Nimeiry flew out to the US for a meeting with his main supporter, President Reagan. But when he was in the US, General Abdel Salam Swar toppled the regime and imposed the country’s third Martial Law. Sadiq Al-Siddiq of the Ummah Party became Prime Minister.
A series of democratic governments (mostly uneasy and weak coalitions) tried to reverse Nimeiry’s extreme policies and convince the International Monetary Fund to bail Sudan out of its deepening economic quagmire.
In 1989, General Ahmad Bashir toppled the civilian regime in a military coup. Bashir revived the harsh laws imposed by the Nimeiry regime (in the name of Shariah) and went to war against the South.
Under him, Sudan became a pariah state and a hotbed and refuge for radical Islamists. It is believed that by the late 1990s, the situation of the country was such that had oil not been discovered here and the Chinese not stepped in to become main consumers of this oil, Sudan would have descended into complete anarchy just as Somalia had done in the early 1990s.
But with the dramatic fall of international oil prices, old wounds in Sudan opened up again and protests and the civil war in the South became even more intense. In 2010, Bashir was forced to soften his stance against the South and in 2011, the South became an independent country, South Sudan.
Sudan is still on the US list of ‘terrorist states’ and hate crimes against minorities and suspected ‘anti-Islam elements’ are common here. However, China’s large economic involvement in the country has made Bashir try to cultivate a more ‘moderate’ image of himself and his regime.