Salah Ben Hammou
Though often overlooked in contemporary research, Sudan’s political development offers a rich landscape for students of coup politics. Major coup datasets such as the Powell and Thyne collection document at least seventeen different coup attempts since the country’s independence in 1956. This places Sudan as one of the world’s most coup-prone states since 1950 - alongside peers like Syria, Bolivia, Argentina, and Thailand. But beyond boasting a high coup count, Sudan’s politics showcase several important dynamics associated with military coups - including the relevance of regional actors. In a similar vein to Powell’s recent post on São Tomé and Príncipe’s 1995 coup, this post revisits Sudan’s 1971 pro-Communist coup against the Nimeiri regime with a focus on regional responses. Although initially appearing to have toppled the government, the coup unraveled when regional actors intervened and thus provided an opening for domestic actors to retake power.
Contextualizing the 1971 Pro-Communist Coup
In the early afternoon of July 19, army tanks deployed into the capital of Khartoum with relative ease and captured strategic points including the radio station, the presidential palace, and other government locations. Jaafar Nimeiri and members of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) were all arrested within hours. Nimeiri would later claim that the coupists arrested him in his pajamas, shortly after his afternoon siesta, and threatened him with weapons during his imprisonment. With little resistance, Khartoum was squarely in the hands of the coupists.
Accounts generally place Major Hashem al-Atta at the apex of the conspiracy, alongside two other pro-Communist officers - Colonel Babiker al-Nur Osman & Major Farouk Hamdullah - who were in London during the coup’s execution. The coup represented the climax of Nimeiri’s conflict with the Communists despite their initial alliance following the May 1969 coup which placed Nimeiri in power. However, Nimeiri’s efforts sought to drive the Communists into a single party organization that he would control invited resistance from the party’s old guard. In response, Nimeiri began purging Communist elements from the government and the armed forces, including removing al-Atta from the RCC and exiling the party leader Abdul Khaled Majoub to Egypt. In the wake of such conflict, a coup was imminent.
Al-Atta announced the putsch’s success on the national radio. The coupist declared that a new Revolutionary Command Council would be formed - headed by himself, Osman, and Hamdullah - and its ultimate objective would be the formation of a democratic umbrella organization, integrating all sectors in society. The announcement also ensured that the regime would work alongside the Communist party, which organized pro-coup demonstrations in Khartoum.
Unraveling the Revolution
Despite the new regime’s insistence that it was in control, efforts to reverse the coup were well underway beyond Sudan’s borders. This was partly due to the fact that Army Chief of Staff Khalid Hassan Abbas was abroad and beyond the coupists’ reach when the power-grab occurred. After being turned away from the Soviet Union - which supported the new regime - Abbas found refuge in Egypt. While in Cairo, Abbas received Sadat’s approval to deploy Sudanese troops stationed around the Suez Canal back to Khartoum. They would be joined by Egyptian forces ordered to support the opposition to the coup. In addition, Abbas traveled to Tripoli and addressed the Sudanese military with the support of Muammar Gaddafi, calling on all forces to resist the coup. Gaddafi himself played a greater role in undermining the regime’s ability to consolidate by ordering fighter jets to force the airplane carrying Osman and Hamdullah to land in Libya, where the would-be leaders were detained. An Iraqi delegation sent to support the coup-born regime crashed while passing through Saudi Arabia, leading to allegations that the Saudi regime shot the plane down to thwart foreign support for the coup.
Such regional responses undermined al-Atta’s ability to hold power and quickly fomented unrest against his fledgling government. Once learning of the situation abroad and heeding Abbas’ words, army units loyal to Nimeiri mobilized in Khartoum alongside anti-coup demonstrations. On July 21, pro-Nimeiri soldiers seized strategic points in Khartoum and carried out a counter-coup, freeing Nimeiri and members of the RCC and arresting al-Atta and pro-Communist soldiers. Nimeiri returned to power on July 22 with near-universal support from other states in the Arab world. This event would mark the end of the Nimeiri-Communist alliance and sparked a period of brutal repression against the party. Its leadership and the leaders of the coup were summarily executed less than a week later.
Lessons for Coup Research
As Powell discussed, approaches to documenting coup have generally relied on a one-week threshold to determine whether a coup ultimately succeeds and fails. He rightfully notes that any threshold is likely to be arbitrary and even highlights that efforts to use longer thresholds (such as CSP’s use of 30 days) do not change a significant number of cases from successes to failures. However, what these thresholds often obscure is our ability to understand how and when initial successes (those that appear to hold power for a few days) unravel.
Both São Tomé and Príncipe’s 1995 coup and Sudan’s 1971 coup saw international actors undermine the coup regimes’ ability to hold power. It’s important to note that these response manifested in different ways. In the former case, international actors rebuked the coup by cutting off aid, publicly denouncing the new regime, and threatening intervention. In the latter, regional actors took on a more active role by deploying troops to oppose the coup, intercepting flights by would-be leaders and arresting them, and allegedly thwarting foreign efforts to support the coup.
Researchers would do well to conduct in-depth explorations of initial successes to identify not only when such events unravel but the process by which they do and the different roles that various actors - domestic and international - play in facilitating the coup’s failure.
Note: Details of Sudan’s 1971 coup attempt are taken from Coups and Conspiracies in Modern Africa, by Jonathan Powell and Salah Ben Hammou.
Welcome to the Arrested Dictatorship blog. Posts on recent events are periodically updated as more information becomes available. It is currently edited by Jonathan Powell and Salah Ben Hammou at the University of Central Florida.
Initial Success & Regional Reponses: Sudan's 1971 Coup.
S Ben Hammou.
The 1995 Coup in São Tomé and Príncipe.
Egypt's Free Officers Through the World's Eyes.
J Powell & S Ben Hammou.
Anti Coup Strategies & Civilians.
S Ben Hammou & Avery Reyna
Sudan's Leader Says..
S Ben Hammou
Civilian Participation in Military Rule.
Salah Ben Hammou.
Reflecting on Revolution, Counter-Revolution in Sudan.
Salah Ben Hammou.
Don't Forget the Coup Plots! Salah Ben Hammou.
Coup allegations in Djibouti. J Powell.
Conspiracy in the Congo? J Powell.
The Int. Community, Coups, and Electoral 'Attaboys. J Powell & Salah Ben Hammou.
Decolonizing Coup Data, Salah Ben Hammou.
Coups and Democracy, J Powell & Mwita Chacha.
Coups & Clickbait, J Powell.
Iraq 1936, Salah Ben Hammou.
Failed Coup...Successful Transition? Salah Ben Hammou & J Powell