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Ian Birchall


(Autumn 1971)

From Survey, International Socialism (1st series), No.49, Autumn 1971, pp.4-5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE failure of the left coup in the Sudan at the end of July was more significant than the power struggles that occur regularly in that country. Nimeiry aimed to behead the organised working-class movement by executing Shafia El-Sheikh, General Secretary of the Sudan Workers Trade Union Federation, and Joseph Garang and Abdul Mahgoub, leaders of the Communists Party.

The Sudan has never achieved political stability since independence in 1956. Each successive ruling clique has been faced by three main problems. Firstly, the economy is dominated by one product – ginned cotton; difficulties in finding export markets have a catastrophic effect. Secondly, there has been the problem of relations with the rest of the Arab world, especially Egypt, which has traditionally aimed to dominate the Sudan. And thirdly, the southern territories, much poorer than the north, and, unlike the north, neither Arab nor Muslim, have been in almost permanent rebellion and have faced severe repression.

Such problems are not unique in Africa. But what distinguishes the Sudan from most of its African and Arab neighbours is the existence of a long-standing and well-organised labour movement, despite the fact that 87 per cent of the population are engaged in agriculture. The key sector was the railway workers (who had great strategic strength in a country with virtually no cross-country roads), and following the railway strike of 1947 the Sudan Workers Trade Union Federation was created. Although trade unions were banned following the 1958 military coup, the SWTUF was strong enough to continue to function until the government was forced to accept a scheme of registration of trade unions. A further general strike of workers, university staff, etc., in 1964 led to the establishment of a new civilian government, in which Shafia El-Sheikh played the traditional poacher-turned-gamekeeper role of labour leaders and became Minister of Labour.

The claim that the SWTUF has organised 800,000 workers may be an exaggeration, but there is no doubt that it has represented a very powerful organisation. The SWTUF has been closely linked to the Sudanese Communist Party; though this has been illegal, it is claimed to have 50,000 members with a hard core of 5,000. In the 1965 elections the CP won 11 out of 15 seats in the graduates’ constituency, which implies a sound base in the intelligentsia as well as in the working class.

Nimeiry came to power in a bloodless coup in May 1969. His first 21-man government contained five Communists, and among other politicians holding the rank of Assistant Prime Minister were Al-Atta and Al-Nur, leaders of this summer’s coup. Numeiry proclaimed that the policy of his government would be ‘Sudanese socialism’; the essence of this was a hard line against Israel and state intervention in the economy. In June 1969 Nimeiry announced plans to train Southern Sudanese for eventual positions of responsibility; but these were rejected by the Southern nationalist leaders. A year later he nationalised foreign banks and the principal trading companies.

At the same time Nimeiry was systematically trying to weaken the Communist Party and exclude it from participation in the regime. His aim was to integrate those of its leaders who could be won to his nationalist programme, and smash those who still aimed to maintain an independent political organisation. On the second anniversary of his regime in May Nimeiry denounced the CP for having initially opposed his seizure of power.

The attempted coup by the ‘left’ on July 19 was essentially a defensive move in face of Nimeiry’s consolidation of power. The political programme of the coup’s leaders was, if anything, more timid than Nimeiry’s; one of the few things Colonel Al-Nur had time to announce before being deposed was that no foreign industry would be nationalised.

The role of the CP in the coup is not clear. Certainly Nimeiry was not able to produce any evidence before launching a massive witchhunt against the Communist Party. Over 1,000 militants were detained (Iraqi sources claim 10,000), and the public were urged by television to hunt out Communist leaders. The ‘show-trial’ of Mahgoub, secretary-general of the CP, was noteworthy for its sheer incompetence. The one witness called had no evidence to offer, and the prosecutor was reduced to alleging that Mahgoub had had an affair with his wife. When Mahgoub asked to interrogate the witness the public and press were excluded, and after a secret session he was immediately hanged. Nimeiry is clearly for the moment in a strong position, and has dropped from his government even those two CP members who were expelled from the party for remaining in the government.

The Sudanese CP had put its own head in the noose. Its line had always been to support nationalist politics and to participate in any government it could. In 1956 Mahgoub organised the sending of volunteers to fight in Egypt; and in November 1964 the CP participated in a transitional government of all parties including the Muslim Brotherhood, which prepared the way for a right-wing electoral victory the following year. Perhaps the most scandalous case of the CP offering a left cover for repressive policies was that of Joseph Garang, a popular Southern leader who was Minister of State for Southern Affairs in Nimeiry’s government, and stayed there despite Nimeiry’s break with the CP and the continuing repression in the south. The CP’S only reply to Nimeiry’s attacks on it in February of this year was to accuse him of ‘weakening the regime’.

The role of Libya and Egypt, including the active help of the Egyptian military academy in the Sudan, in helping Nimeiry regain power is well-known. The role of the Soviet Union is equally noteworthy; though it could hardly refrain from some colourful criticisms of the executions, Nimeiry was not named in these. Russia did not attempt any such available sanctions as the withdrawal of technicians. It was Russian-built tanks that were used to hunt CP militants through the streets of Khartoum.

The position of China is even more striking. The Nimeiry regime sets great store by its friendship with China, with whom it has an agreement for 45 million dollars of aid. On August 5 the new Foreign Minister Mansour Khaled expressed gratitude for the fact that at the time of the coup on July 19 the Chinese-Sudan friendship society had organised demonstrations in Peking in support of the Nimeiry regime.

The pattern of a CP preparing the way for its own butchering is the same as that seen in Iraq in 1963 and Indonesia in 1965. The bloodbath appears to have been much smaller, though the full effect of Nimeiry’s declared intention to reorganise the trade union movement on a ‘revolutionary basis’ remains to be seen. Whether the Sudanese CP can survive is as yet unclear. What is more important is whether a section of the battered labour movement will now see the need to organise on independent class lines, instead of tail-ending nationalist politicians. Otherwise the future for the Sudan is bleak.

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Last updated: 12 February 2020