Sudan's religious general

Haitham Nouri , Friday 26 Oct 2018

Sudan has turned a complicated chapter in its history with the death of former president Abdel-Rahman Suwar Al-Dahab

Swar Al-Dahab
Former Sudanese President Abdel Rahman Swar Al-Dahab

Sudan has turned a complicated chapter in its history with the death of former president Abdel-Rahman Suwar Al-Field Marshal Suwar Al-Dahab, as he was amicably called by his supporters, exemplified a state governed by traditional feudalism, religious households and tribal leadership.

His rule stood in opposition to Sudan’s modern powers, from the Graduates’ General Congress, Arab and African Nasserist nationalists, the communists, all the way through to the Muslim Brotherhood group, that governs Sudan to this day.

Suwar Al-Dahab was born in 1935 in Al-Obeid, west Sudan’s biggest city, which decades later became a turning point in the field marshal’s life.

He was raised in a religious household loyal to the Khatimiya, a Sufi order led by Al-Sayed Ali Al-Mirghani, who was close to the kingdom and republic of Egypt. Suwar Al-Dahab was taught in Omdurman, the national capital – Khartoum was then regarded as “the capital inhabited by the colonialists”.

Eventually, he sought his education at the military school, graduating in 1956, the year Sudan gained its independence from the UK.

Suwar Al-Dahab’s younger life was very much like Sudan’s history at the time: he grew up in a conservative, religious society, yet he graduated in a colonial, semi-secular school.

He led a quiet life. He was promoted in his job but he was not interested in politics, in which hundreds of his fellow officers were immersed.

Those officers were so immersed in this or that coup d’etat, whether of the right or left, that they became a stratum in and of themselves known as the “proletariat military”.

In 1970, Suwar Al-Dahab moved back to Al-Obeid as a military leader, a year after Colonel Gaafar Al-Numeiri staged a coup supported by leftist, nationalist and communist officers in May 1969.

Although Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser was not involved in the coup, he rushed to support it and visit its leaders in the capital Khartoum.

In August 1970, however, a month before his sudden death, he was implicated in taking Al-Numeiri and his party’s side in their conflict with the strongest traditional household, that of Al-Ansar, led by late imam Al-Hadi Al-Mahdi, former prime minister Al-Sadik Al-Mahdi’s uncle.

A year after Al-Numeiri and his group came out victorious in their White Nile fights against Al-Ansar, disagreements began to surface among the former group when communist officers staged a coup on 19 July 1971.

The coup lasted for three days, but those were enough to show Suwar Al-Dahab for what he really was. During the coup, his fellow commander of the communist coup, Major Hashem Atta, asked Suwar Al-Dahab to hand over Al-Obeid to the “new revolutionary authority”. Suwar Al-Dahab refused, preparing to engage in a battle, though without need, thanks to Al-Numeiri’s support that was made possible with the help of the anti-communist late Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat.

He thought the authorities were going to reward him for standing his ground, staying loyal to the military oath and his anti-communist, religious upbringing.

It is yet unknown why Atta came out of Al-Obeid with a promotion and why Al-Numeiri ignored the matter.

Suwar Al-Dahab was dispatched to Qatar as a military adviser to the new emir Sheikh Khalifa Al-Thani, grandfather of current emir of Doha, Tamim Al-Thani. In Qatar, the field marshal separated the army and the police, so that the two institutions could grow without tasks intertwining.

After the “dispatch/expulsion”, Suwar Al-Dahab returned to Khartoum, climbing up the ladder of military cadres, and sticking to his Sufism outside of work.

During the first half of the 1980s, with 25 years of experience, Suwar Al-Dahab became chief of staff. A year later, in 1983, he was promoted to minister of defence. But Sudan was not to enjoy a mood of calm for long. On the 14th anniversary of Al-Numeiri’s coup, May 1983, the spark of civil war was ignited.

The army descended into a two-decade war with the south, led by Colonel John Garang. Sudan sought the help of Egypt, the Gulf and the West against the leftist Sudan People’s Liberation Army, supported by the Derg, the military junta that governed Ethiopia, and its chairman Mengistu Haile Mariam, and later on by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

The war took the path of no return when Al-Numeiri announced the application of Sharia Law, dubbed by the Sudanese as the “September laws”.

The power of the Muslim Brotherhood, led by Hassan Al-Turabi, reached its zenith in September 1983, driven by national reconciliation initiated between Al-Numeiri and his opponents in 1977.

Suwar Al-Dahab didn’t display any objections at the time, although most of the religious Sudanese people disapproved of the September laws which were not in line with the fundamentalist regulations of Islamic jurisprudence.

Not long after, Al-Numeiri sentenced to death leader of the Republican Party Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, an anti-Muslim Brotherhood intellectual, in a trial that was legally flawed and illegitimate.

Sudan’s conditions became more complicated with the wave of drought and desertification that swept the country in the early 1980s. Only in the past decade did Sudan start to recover from famine. Throughout this time Sudan was enduring difficult economic conditions.

Then people revolted. Syndicates led what was then called the “Ramadan Intifada” or the “April Intifada”, ousting Al-Numeiri after 16 years at the helm.

The military council stepped up to rule, promising a one-year transitional period after which would be held elections to form an assembly tasked with drafting the constitution.

And so it was. Suwar Al-Dahab stepped down in April 1986. He went on to become chairman of the board of trustees at the Islamic Dawa Organisation, founded by members of the Muslim Brotherhood from various Arab countries, for two decades.

The organisation faced accusations of implication in forced Islamisation, and trading in slavery in the south. Suwar Al-Dahab vehemently denied the accusations that were accompanied with little evidence.

Suwar Al-Dahab’s life was crowned with the International King Faisal Award for “serving Islam” for his efforts in developing Africa. He was also chosen Person of the Year by the International Dubai Award for Quran.

The Islamic Dawa Organisation’s work spread in a number of African countries, building schools, digging wells and jump-starting projects that provided many job opportunities.

The field marshal was a supporter of the regime of Omar Al-Bashir, both when it was pro and against Iran and when Khartoum joined the Gulf camp. The latter stance was severely criticised by his opponents.

In all cases, nonetheless, Suwar Al-Dahab remained true to his conservative beliefs upon which he was brought up. These were his guiding compass, despite the disintegration of Sudan. He became an image of a country many Muslim Arabs sought after – a country of their own.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The religious general

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