Jaafar Nimeiri, a Sudanese president who halted one of Africa’s most brutal civil wars in the 1970s but restarted it a decade later by imposing Islamic law, has died in Khartoum after a long illness at the age of 79.
Nimeiri came to power in a coup in 1969 and was overthrown after 16 years in power, a turbulent period shaped by divisions that persist to this day about radical Islam, Khartoum’s stranglehold on power and control of oil resources.
A young army colonel when he seized power, Nimeiri swung between ideologies during his time in office, survived multiple coup attempts and invasions, yet won the support of the US as a bulwark against its cold war enemies.
In common with his predecessors and successors, he presided over an ethnically diverse country riven by inequality and injustice, and had no qualms about using brute force against a shifting cast of opponents.
His greatest achievement, however, was to make peace in south Sudan with bush fighters struggling to win power, wealth and respect for their marginalised, mainly Christian region.
He struck an accord with them that held for 11 years but his greatest failure was then to throw it away, reigniting the civil war that became Africa’s longest.
It is a pattern some fear could be repeated with a second north-south peace deal signed in 2005, now that Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s president, deals with war crimes charges filed against him at the International Criminal Court.
When Nimeiri came to power he presented himself as a force for change and crushed Islam-based political groups in 1970-71. Once his grip was consolidated he turned to the south, which had been at war with Khartoum since 1955, one year before independence. He rejected previous regimes’ default use of repression and pushed for a political settlement – signed in 1972 – that gave the south partial autonomy. In 1973, he changed the constitution to make Sudan a secular state.
But the peace deal eventually came under strain, with southern leaders accusing Khartoum of reneging on their promises. When oil was found in the south, they were further enraged by Khartoum’s attempts grab it.
The seeds of the peace deal’s final destruction, however, were planted when Nimeiri sought a rapprochement with Islamists in the late 1970s in an effort to broaden his support base.
He welcomed Islamist leaders into his regime, including the charismatic Hassan al-Turabi, who turned up the pressure for an Islamic state. Nimeiri absorbed their fervour and in 1983 declared an Islamic revolution and imposed sharia law.
For the southerners, that move killed off any residual hope vested in the 1972 accord and triggered the creation of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army and a period of ruthless violence.
Nimeiri oversaw fewer than two more years of war – he was ousted in 1985 and fled to Egypt amid discontent in the north over famine, unemployment and corruption. In the years up to 2005, some 2m people died in the conflict he restarted.