Africa Confidential, April 1985SUDANToo many Generals
The final format of the transitional government will take several weeks to emerge. The announcement today of a 15-man all-military council can be construed partly as a tough response to yesterday's statement by the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) commander, Col. John Garang, that the guerrilla war in the south would continue if power was not handed over to civilians within seven days. The exclusion of civilians from the council appears to be a tactical error. Garang's ultimatum was also unrealistic. But with Jaffar Nimeiri's ousting, the pandora's box is opened: politically nothing can be excluded in the immediate future.Print this special report
From the Africa Confidential archives
AC Vol 26 No 8 | 10 April 1985
The final format of the transitional government will take several weeks to emerge. The announcement today of a 15-man all-military council can be construed partly as a tough response to yesterday's statement by the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) commander, Col. John Garang, that the guerrilla war in the south would continue if power was not handed over to civilians within seven days. The exclusion of civilians from the council appears to be a tactical error. Garang's ultimatum was also unrealistic. But with Jaffar Nimeiri's ousting, the pandora's box is opened: politically nothing can be excluded in the immediate future.
Though a coup was planned for some time, the emergence of Gen. Abdel Rahman Sowar el Dahab as its leader was not foreseen until three days before the coup's announcement. It appears that Dahab and the top army command – notably the Lieutenant-Generals in charge of operations, logistics and administration – made arrangements in advance with Egypt, and possibly the United States, in order to preempt moves by middle-rank officers and civilians.
Popular euphoria over Nimeiri's demise will wear off fast if civilians are not given prominent roles within the next few days. For it is clear that the present military rulers are almost without exception officers who were over-promoted by Nimeiri in his efforts to dismiss officers of higher calibre who would have posed a threat to his rule. Dahab himself is an uncontroversial, unassuming and unoriginal career army officer, well-liked and moderately respected. It is doubtful that he can maintain executive control for long: he has neither the experience nor the personality required.
Born in 1935 into a well-known religious family of the Khatmiya sect and subsequently related by marriage to Hamsa Mirghani, the leading Khatmiya figure who worked for the World Bank before becoming Finance Minister in 1966, Dahab has always been a devout Muslim. He joined the army intelligence corps in 1957 and had an uneventful career until 1967 when he went on an infantry course in the US. In 1968 he was posted in Kampala as military attache, quite an important post at the time because Uganda was closely involved in the southern Sudanese civil war which only ended in 1972. While holding this post, he appears to have had a serious disagreement with his superiors after refusing to provide alcohol to his guests. His name disappeared from the army list until 1972 when Nimeiri reinstated him as a full colonel. Thereafter his rise through the ranks was without hitch.
In 1975 he was promoted to Brigadier and given command of the southern staff command in Juba. Two years later, as Major-General, he took command of the 2nd Division. In January 1982, following the sacking of Chief of Staff Gen. Abdel Magid and the simultaneous retirement of 22 senior officers, he became commander of operations under Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Ezzel Din Ali Malik, whom he duly replaced in 1983 after being promoted to full General the previous October. Last month he nominally became commander-in-chief of the armed forces after Nimeiri had created for himself the new title of supreme commander.
Obviously Dahab and the military council are under great pressure to hand over the decision-making power to civilians. We understand that immediately prior to the coup the military proposed a twelve-man council, to be made up of nine officers and three civilians At that stage – by the middle of last week – the professionals (the doctors, engineers, academics and others who have played the key role in organising the general strike) and the traditional parties (the Umma and Unionist parties) reckoned that the idea of a twelve-man council with only three civilians should be turned down in the hope of forcing the military to hand over much more power. For this reason it appears that neither the Umma nor the Unionist party took part significantly in the final demonstrations prior to the coup announcement.
The SPLA ultimatum, whatever the arguments over its tactical worth, is understandable. For 18 months the SPLA has fought against government troops commanded by those officers who have themselves now usurped Nimeiri. Many of the senior officers in Khartoum, while fully aware that there is no military solution to the civil war, regard the SPLA and Garang as revolutionary socialists in the pocket of Ethiopia. For public consumption Garang is certainly left-wing. In the circumstances, which include heavy reliance on Ethiopia, he has little option but to espouse socialism. In private he is a pragmatic nationalist and appears to have enough authority to control the more ideologically-inclined “socialist” wing of the SPLA.
Contact has been made by northerners with Garang (AC Vol 26, No 6), but not apparently by any members of the ruling 15-man council. The latter might reckon that their SPLA, which is composed largely of Dinka and Nuer trisbesmen, is not a real threat so long as the people of Equatoria provinces remain aloof from it – a view that was evidently taken by Nimieri. But Sudan cannot afford a war. It is vital that negotiations with the SPLA take place, perhaps in Addis Ababa without preconditions.
Various prominent Sudanese could play an important intermediary role here. Mansour Khalid, the former Foreign Minister who is still in London, is an obvious candidate. Two retired Lieutenant-Generals, Mohammed El Baghir Ahmed (the first Vice-President in the early 1970s) and Yousuf Ahmed Yousuf, who was retired in 1983 together with the charismatic Lieutenant-General Abu Kodok, partly because they disagreed with Nimeiri's decision to redivide the south, might also play a wider intermediary role. While Nimeiri was in Washington they discussed at length with civilians the possibilities of a post-Nimeiri government. Last year, in the wake of the doctors' strike, El Baghir was involved in discussions with Gizouli Dafallah, the President of the doctor's association. The two southerners on the 15-man council – Major General James Loro (a Bari from Equatoria) and Major General Fabian Agam Long (a Dinka from Gogrial in Bahr el Ghazal) – are unlikely to be of consequence in negotiations with the SPLA.
Much will depend on the outcome of today's meeting between the military council and the civilians. A first meeting between the two sides was held on Monday. Representing the Ansar leader, Sadiq el Mahdi, was his right-hand man, Omar Nuredine; the Umma Party (Ansar) was represented by Salaam Abdel Salaam, and the Unionist Party by Haj Medawi and Mubarak Shadad. Also represented was the Communist Party, the Baathist Party, the Islamic Socialist Party and the professionals. Until now the traditional parties have been unable to reach any workable agreement among themselves. The professionals have has a working relationship with the Communists rather than the Umma or the Unionists. In 1966, the doomed government under Sadiq El Mahdi was based on a manifestly unsettled alliance. Somehow a workable alliance has to be put together this time.
The military has said it envisages a six-month period of transitional rule before holding multi-party elections. However, it is increasingly unlikely that elections could be held within a year, let alone six months. Eighteen months to three years is widely canvassed as a realistic interregnum. If, as it seems, the latter option has to be chosen, the interim government which would take over from the military council, will have to be formed with added care since its terms of office for practical purposes will be indefinite.
The economy requires all the foreign help it can get. By the end of the year the numbers dying of starvation in Sudan might well have exceeded those of Ethiopia. It is therefore vital that the interim government is not preoccupied with internal arguments, and that the government includes sophisticated ‘technocrats’ capable of overseeing an economic policy which can digest large amounts of emergency assistance.
Dahab has repeatedly said, in public and in private, that he will hand over power to civilians. If he is not to be deterred in this, the civilians will have to present a united front. So far they have nearly succeeded in doing so. But there remains a worry that Nimeiri's high command will merely give nominal control to civilians – a policy adopted with a vengeance by Nimeiri. To repeat the latter's example would risk a counter-coup.
While Dahab himself is not much of a materialist, many of his associates are. During the past few years, the senior ranks of the army have benefitted enormously from perks provided not least by the Military Economic Commission, a glorified import-export house which in the past has had few restraints placed on its entrepreneurial inclinations. Some senior officers, therefore, might try to retain their involvement in non-military activity for as long as possible – at the expense of a speedy introduction of an interim civilian government.
There is little information about the form an interim civilian government might take. In theory, it could entail a governing council made up of representatives from all the parties, the professional groups and the army. They could just be fitted into a 15-man council provided the army had no more than three representatives. Beneath the council, there would have to be a conventional ministerial structure. Perhaps in local and regional governments there could be a diarchy of military and civilian administrators. We understand that unionists have been asked to propose delegates nationwide for a union federation, which presumably would be linked to the government in at least a consultative way.
In a country as large, divided and bankrupt as Sudan, it is inevitable that there should be protracted arguments about who should do what. The danger is that Dahab's and his colleagues' credibility with most Sudanese is thin. In the few days since the coup, the State Security Organisation (the secret police) has been disbanded, most political prisoners, including Muslim Brotherhood members, have been released, and a few of Nimeiri’s close associates have been detained. But there has not been anything approaching the puirge which the public is clamouring for. The suggestion that Nimeiri sent a congratulatory cable to Dahab is greeted with dismay in Khartoum, especially in the University Staff Club.
No matter how sincere Dahab is, unless the military makes a clean break with Nimeiri's regime, the country will turn against him. In the absence of a quick initiative with the SPLA, the southern guerrillas will build up yet more momentum against Khartoum. On 1 April the SPLA took the eastern Equatoria town of Boma, a strategic base with an airstrip. If there is a stalemate with Khartoum, the SPLA HQ could well be moved from Ethiopia to Boma, a development that would bring an upsurge of fighting in Equatoria and a prolonging of the war.
The party was formed in the 1950s as an independent group. Its leader, Nabiker Karrar, died five years ago having lived for some time in Libya.