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Sudan-Role in Government

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Sudan Index

On four occasions since independence, the Sudanese armed forces have stepped in to overthrow civilian political institutions and impose a period of military rule. In some instances, the military leadership introduced a measure of stability and renewal. The military enjoyed an advantage because they were accepted by the people as a balancing element against domination by one of the major social, political, or religious groupings that contested for civilian political power. The view of the military as an institution free from specific ethnic or religious identification raised expectations that the armed forces could achieve what civilian politicians could not. Almost invariably, however, the military leaders found themselves unskilled in dealing with the country's chronic economic problems and the chaotic conditions caused by civil war. Accustomed to wielding authority, the military regimes tended to become increasingly authoritarian. Major government initiatives foundered because they were imposed inflexibly with little regard for practical possibilities and the interests affected.

The military's first intervention in Sudanese politics occurred in November 1958, nearly three years after independence. Civilian politicians appeared unable to cope with economic distress and the insurrection in the south. Major General Ibrahim Abbud, the armed forces commander, led the coup. Although the action was apparently planned in concert with leading politicians who envisaged a short military rule, Abbud remained in power until 1964. Initially popular in comparison to the fractious, stalemated rivalry of the first civilian governments, Abbud was forced to step down when antiregime demonstrations rocked Khartoum. In spite of increasingly dictatorial methods, Abbud had been unable to impose economic order or bring an end to the fighting in the south. The army remained a pillar of support for the civilian regime that followed, and senior military officers continued to serve in political appointments (see Return to Civilian Rule, 1964-69 , ch. 1). A number of field-grade officers, however, some of whom had been linked to Abbud's ouster, had little loyalty to the political system and were impatient with the consensus-oriented civilian government. Disgruntled over the stalemate in the civil war, the intractable economic situation, and official repression of leftist and pan-Arab organizations, a small group calling itself the Free Officers' Movement took control in 1969. At its head was Jafaar an Nimeiri, then a colonel.

From 1969 until 1971, a military government--the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), composed of nine young officers and one civilian--exercised authority over a largely civilian cabinet. The RCC represented only a faction within the military establishment. Initially, it followed radical policies in cooperation with the Sudanese communists, carrying out nationalizations, escalating the war in the south, violently repressing the Ansar politico-religious sect, and suppressing democratic institutions. More than 300 high-ranking officers who had been influential in previous governments were arrested or removed from the army when they refused to support the policies of Nimeiri and the RCC. Only one general officer was retained. Later, differences within the RCC between those officers with nationalist sympathies and leftist-oriented officers guided by the well-organized Sudanese Communist Party precipitated a communist-led coup attempt in 1971. Officers heading loyal units resisted the leftist takeover, enabling Nimeiri to survive and regain control (see Revolutionary Command Council , ch. 1).

After the RCC was dissolved in late 1971, the country was technically no longer ruled by a military government. Nimeiri's mounting prestige forged him a broader base of support than he had achieved during the RCC years. Over the next decade, the military establishment remained Nimeiri's major constituency and source of power and was, accordingly, well represented in the government. Military men were appointed to head important ministries, to undertake major domestic and international missions, and to assist in the founding and staffing of the country's sole political party, the Sudan Socialist Union (SSU). Defense ministers (who were general officers) served concurrently as secretaries general of the SSU. The National Security Council, whose members were generally military officers, served as an important arena for framing political and economic policies. Eighteen seats in the largely powerless People's Assembly were reserved for armed forces personnel. Nimeiri justified the predominance of military personnel in the upper echelons of government by pointing out that they represented the most disciplined organization in Sudan and that, in a country riven by partisanship, the military as an institution was motivated by nationalist convictions.

Although military officers remained prominent in the government, by the early 1980s Nimeiri increasingly acted as if the armed forces were an instrument of his personal political dictates rather than the source of his political power. The armed forces gave the support necessary for Nimeiri to survive numerous coup attempts (some by dissatisfied military elements), but the special relationship between Nimeiri and his high command seriously eroded. In an extraordinary move in 1982, Nimeiri retired General Abd al Majid Hamid Khalil--vice president, minister of defense, commander in chief of the armed forces, secretary general of the SSU, and generally regarded as the heir apparent--along with twenty-two other top-ranking officers.

Following the purge, Nimeiri assumed personal command of the armed forces and for a time held the defense portfolio in the cabinet. In 1983 large numbers of southern troops mutinied, and civil war broke out again after Nimeiri's centralist and Islamist policies had increased southern alienation. Nimeiri's increasingly arbitrary actions also drove away his traditional sources of support, and the armed forces were of little help as resistance to his policies mounted in the form of massive demonstrations and strikes.

While Nimeiri was en route home from a visit to Washington in 1985, he was deposed in a bloodless coup led by Minister of Defense Lieutenant General Abd ar Rahman Siwar adh Dhahab. The new leadership formed a Transitional Military Council of fifteen officers to govern the country for a one-year period until civil authority could be restored. The council fulfilled its purpose when elections were held in April 1986 and a civilian government took office.

Coalition governments in the established pattern of Sudanese politics ruled from 1986 to 1989 under Prime Minister Sadiq al Mahdi. The government forces were unable to bring the southern insurrection under control, and Sadiq al Mahdi's relations with the military were often stormy. In September 1986, the commander in chief of the armed forces and the chief of the general staff were forcibly retired along with about twenty other officers. In February 1989, the army leadership presented Sadiq al Mahdi with an ultimatum, demanding that he make the coalition government more representative and that he bring the civil war to an end. In June 1989, Sadiq al Mahdi's government was overthrown in a coup led by Colonel Umar Hassan Ahmad al Bashir, a paratroop officer stationed in the south. Bashir headed a ruling Revolutionary Command Council for National Salvation (RCC-NS) of fifteen officers, mostly of middle rank (see Revolutionary Command Council for National Salvation , ch. 4). The RCC-NS justified its action by citing the neglect of the armed forces by the Sadiq al Mahdi government and its failure to reverse the deteriorating economic situation and reestablish security in the south. Bashir was head of state, prime minister, commander in chief of the armed forces, and minister of defense. The vice chairman of the RCC-NS, a major general, was named deputy prime minister. Other officers held the key domestic security portfolios of minister of interior, minister of justice, and attorney general.

Like preceding military regimes, Bashir's government was initially welcomed as bringing an end to a period of political turbulence and paralysis of action. It was soon revealed, however, to be linked to the more orthodox Muslim elements of the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Islamic Front (NIF) political party. Its violent suppression of political expression and cruel treatment of suspected opponents had a disillusioning effect. It dismissed or retired the army commander and 27 other generals composing the senior leadership, and up to 500 other officers. In April 1990, the RCC-NS executed twenty-eight officers, including senior officers removed by the junta, to put down a threatened coup against the regime. The RCC-NS's ruthless action had the effect of intimidating potential opposition.

The harshness displayed by the Bashir military government and its incompetence in dealing with Sudan's economic difficulties had by the close of 1990 alienated nearly all governments to which it could turn for help. The Bashir junta justified its intervention as the only alternative to civilian mismanagement. Unlike other military governments, however, it followed policies that were highly partisan, bearing the distinct ideological imprint of the NIF and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Data as of June 1991

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