A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Ja‘far Numeiri, 1930-2009

Ja‘far Numeiri (Numayri), Prime Minister of the Sudan 1969-1971 and President of the Sudan from 1971 to 1985, died on Saturday and was buried Sunday. A major figure in Arab politics at one time, he was — if I'm not mistaken — the longest serving Sudanese head of state since independence until the present incumbent, ‘Umar al-Bashir, in power since 1989, exceeded his tenure. He may be remembered by few after nearly a quarter century out of power, but he was once a major player. From 1985 to 1999 he lived in Cairo, but in the latter year returned to his native land by permission of the present government. (The photo is from Wikipedia and his Wikipedia entry is here.)

Numeiri is a hard figure to judge exactly, a conundrum for historians. He is both the man who brought a peace agreement with the rebellious South and, a decade later, scrapped it. He imposed shari‘a law on Sudan, which has a significant non-Muslim population, but he also shook hands with Israeli leaders at Anwar Sadat's funeral. (And when the Arab League expelled Egypt and moved from Cairo over the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, Sudan was the rare Arab state to maintain full relations with Egypt, though of course the two countries share the Nile and thus cannot really be completely estranged.) Not only was he close to Egypt because of the Nile, but he owed Anwar Sadat for restoring him to power when a Communist coup in 1971 deposed him briefly. The Egyptian Air Force flew Sudanese military officers studying in Egypt to Khartoum and restored him. He repaid the loyalty in the years when Egypt was in the Arab wilderness. I saw him once, opening a conference in Cairo alongside Husni Mubarak in the early 1980s, but never met him personally.

He deserves to be remembered for the Addis Ababa Agreement of 1972, which made peace after over a decade of fighting with the secessionist south by granting autonomy. But history will also remember that after 11 years he himself was responsible for the renewal of Sudan's bloody civil war. In 1977 he had created a national reconciliation with the main civilian political movements in the Arab north, particularly with Sadiq al-Mahdi; as the 1980s dawned he became more and more influenced by Islamist ideas, in part from Hasan Turabi and the Muslim Brotherhood, but also by various Sufi movements. In 1983 he imposed shari‘a on the whole country, and the southern rebellion was rekindled. So his legacy will always be somewhat ambiguous: the peacemaker who broke the peace he himself had made. In his later years he seems to have been influenced by a small clique of Islamists and, oddly, Sufis as well (the two groups don't usually play well together), and finally in 1985 he was overthrown.

Many of the Western obituaries I've seen lead with the statement that he's the President who first imposed Islamic law on the Sudan, so that may be the way he is remembered, at least in the West. The peacemaker has, perhaps justly, been replaced by the man who broke the peace, and it is the later Numeiri who will be remembered, not the earlier peacemaker. Sudan is a complex country and I don't pretend to know it; but of all the puzzles the country holds, I have always felt that Ja‘far Numeiri was close to the top of the list.

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