The May Revolution: Years of Prosperity and Drought

This is an overview of the memoirs of Zain Alabideen Mohamed Ahmed Abdelgadir, a key player in the May Revolution of 1969. I will give a summary of the book then pose some questions for discussion about the author’s stance, the period of governance itself, and what we can learn from it for our current situation/government.

The book starts off with a brief overview of the author’s childhood, then his early days as an officer where he sets off right away to explain how, despite his social circle and general preferences being leftist, and despite his admiration of the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP), that he was never – ever – a member.
After the October Revolution in 1964 that overthrew Aboud, the author touches on the issue of the ‘Free Officers – الضباط الأحرار’, a secret pan-Arab organization within the army under which nationalist officers who refused their governments’ behavior came together, and how some of these had successfully overthrown their governments, such as in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Libya. At this point the author states that he and his friend Abu Alqasim Mohamed Ibrahim established their own organization inside the army called ‘The Modern Forces Organization – تنظيم القوى الحديثة’ – which later joined the Free Officers Organization – and started recruiting people, which ‘did not have a clear goal and was just a necessary preparation for tomorrow’. This later proved to be the seed for the May Revolution. He then goes on to tell about an unheard-of plot by Abdel Rahim Shannan and backed by Elsayed Ahmed Almirghani with funding from Kuwait to overthrow the democratic government in 1966. He was recruited by Shannan as a partner, but the latter was then appointed a minister and so the plot was apparently forgotten (?).
At this time the war in the South was raging on and the army was suffering in terms of supplies and political support, with several incidences occurring, including throwing the SCP out of parliament, and a general popular unease at the incompetence of the parties in managing the country. Here, a meeting is held which the author ‘just happens to be attending’, where the army discusses if and how they should get politically involved. It is to be noted here that there is a repeated mention of how the army’s job was to ‘uphold the constitution’ (which was hit with the SCP expulsion) and to maintain the country’s safety and ‘higher interests’ (which is at risk with the current behavior of the parties) – all justifications for the statements and actions that were to follow. During the meeting, the author told the audience that ‘if he were in charge, he would take over control until things calmed down and everything was organized, and then hand it back to the parties’. Basically, he’s saying that the revolution was his idea. This meeting was in August of 1967.

By 1968 the idea of taking over power has become more solid, and for the first time Nimeri enters the scene as someone who joined in the planning for the coup (which of course was not actually called a coup but ‘taking control’), and it is again stressed that all this was not being done for love of power but that it was the only way out of the current mess. Throughout this, there is no clear mention of how involved the SCP was, but by 1969 it is clear that while they weren’t calling the shots, they were still very much involved and actually more of a hindrance than a driving force, and eventually a split occurs when they insist on postponing the action for another year until they are ready, while a small group – including the author and Nimeri – insists they go ahead now. The timing of the coup is planned according to an annual training plan where a large portion of the army will be under their power in March, and is postponed until May when several high ranking officials are outside the country; therefore time was of the essence. Here and for the first time Nimeri appears as a leader of the group – the 6 officers who resign from the organization and decide to go ahead with the coup despite the others opting out – and Day 0 is set for the night of May 24th, 1969.
Chapter 4 describes the details of the coup which I won’t go into here, except to wonder how come everyone just agreed to go along with the plan and how smoothly it went, as described. Anyway, it happened, and everyone they needed to arrest was arrested, and they woke up Abdelwahab Ahmed Salih the radio presenter and brought him to the national radio station in the early hours of the morning (in his pyjamas ya Rabi?), and the country woke up to the military music playing over the radio waves and the declaration of the revolution announced at 6:30 am on May 25th, 1969, to which the people took to the streets shouting their happiness and support.

The Revolution Leadership Council is formed of which, of course, the SCP is a part. Here a rift occurs in the SCP between Abdel Khaliq Mahgoub and the others, although the author does not go into details of the disagreement except to mention that their choosing the SCP representatives without asking the SCP’s permission contributed to the rift. Also, Nimeri insists that those officers who executed the coup should be part of the council, to which the majority of the FOO members did not approve. The council is formed with 10 members/ministers and headed by Nimeri. To this point there is no clear justification for why Nimeri was chosen or his leading role in the coup; was he the most senior? The smartest? The strongest of will? What were his personal ideological preferences? Anyway the council is formed with 3 SCP members and 7 others, and the following period is described as one of perfect harmony and happiness and acceptance even from the Southern leaders who stated their approval of the new leadership and their preparedness for dialogue.
A year later it is clear that there is not much harmony at all, and the interference of the SCP is posing a threat, with a divide occurring between the 3 SCP council members and the remaining 7. Here the author touches on a few of the major issues that made the May era so hated by the people and places the blame squarely on the SCP since it was ‘their idea’; the nationalization and confiscation of property and the fierce ‘cleansing’ of the civil service from all those with party or right-wing alliances. Again, the non-SCP council members are noted for their pure and innocent intentions, not even opposing the removal of their own family members. Also, aside from the direct orders from the SCP, non-direct interference shows with several members assigning themselves as ‘advisors’ to each council member and their involvement in meetings and preparation of work papers.
An important event occurs in March of 1970, when the Ansar declare Jihad against the communist government, and 2 confrontations occur; one in Wad Nubawi where the mosque was hit and the Ansar surrendered, followed by the invasion of Aljazeera Aba (the stronghold of the Mahdiya) and bombing the Mahdi’s castle. The author insists that the Mahdiya were the ones to start the violence, that they tried to avoid using force and that the least possible damage was done, but of course the Ansar have their own side and version of the story.
Following this the SCP members start pushing everyone’s buttons by going around saying that the revolution’s success and continuity relies on the SCP’s political support, which in addition to their continuous disagreements with the non-SCP council members, eventually leads to their expulsion from the council. The author insists that this was Nimeri’s decision, and that things could have gone differently if a more lenient decision had been reached. On July 19th, 1971, the communists overthrew the government. 

The author describes the details of the coup and how he, Nimeri and one other were held prisoner in separate rooms in the Republican Palace, and how 3 days later army officials loyal to the May revolution managed to get hold of a couple of tanks and crash the Palace where Nimeri and co are being held hostage, and the communists (failing to gain the people’s support) then proceeded with one of the most painful atrocities in the Sudanese army’s history: the Guesthouse Massacre (مجزرة بيت الضيافة). The author describes the details – including naming the perpetrators – of this and the following events. This is an important issue since there is some denial about who did what and who made the orders and who pulled the trigger, because the only 2 or 3 people who survived the massacre and actually saw who shot at them only emerged years later with their evidence. Here – again – the role and activities of the SCP leaders are rushed through, mentioning only that Abdel Khaliq Mahgoub had escaped (when was he arrested to start with?) and was hiding in the Republican Palace (??). Also, there is no mention of his inclusion in the trials and what happened to him; he just drops out of the book.

This is the point that the author describes as the turning point both in the May Revolution’s progress, and in Nimeri’s personality and conduct to an arrogant and hot-headed man. It is also the point at which the author starts to be pushed out of power, and naturally shows his vexation. An investigation and study into the reasons of the communist coup was refused, a referendum was proposed and then conducted about assigning a president with solitary decision making authorities, and to dissolve the Revolution Leadership Council. Only here does the author start to describe Nimeri’s shortcomings and volatile personality through previous encounters, and that he – the author – had had a feeling very early on that if some disaster were to happen to the revolution, it would be because of Nimeri!
After Nimeri becomes president, gold diggers and opportunists start appearing and surrounding him so that the distance grows between the president and his previous comrades, and eventually the author and others are replaced and demoted, and eventually resign from government and from the Socialist party.
The country then takes on the socialist political system, which the author believes was a premature step and should have waited a few more years until the revolution was better established. He goes into details of the different offices, declarations and decision and the establishment of the Sudanese Socialist Union in 1972. In 1974 the Shaaban Events, driven by the Islamists, flared up and riots spread to all parts of the capital and some states. Not much detail is given here, except that a few months after this Nimeri asks the author to come back as Minister of Youth, Sport and Social Affairs, which he accepts, and goes into long details about the accomplishments in this field during his time there.

In 1975 a second coup – Hassan Hussein – is attempted, which fails almost immediately and turns out to be backed from outside the country by the opposition, and which the author insists had racial and tribal roots. Less than a year later, a third coup is attempted, backed by Libya and the members of the opposing political parties, namely Alsharif Alhindi and Alsadiq Almahdi. During this event, Nimeri disappears, and turns out later to have been hiding in his brother’s house. The mention of Alqathafi’s role here (he is described as some psycho with interesting ideas such as digging an extension from the Nile to Libya and marrying one of his officials to a Sudanese official’s daughter) also serves to highlight the issue of the Arab Union project between Sudan, Egypt and Libya, and the specific ‘brotherhood’ between Egypt and Sudan.
Next comes an interesting chapter about one of the controversial roles the May Revolution – with its Socialist ideology – played, i.e. property nationalization and confiscation. It comes with the justification of auditing bodies being setup to save the civil service from collapse, and punish banks and capitalists for corruption, smuggling and tax evasion. The author, while not questioning the process itself, notes that several limitations faced them: the new management could not maintain the international networks and relationships as the old, some of the reports on corruption justifying confiscation were actually untrue, and some of those given responsibility of managing the confiscated properties used them for their own personal means (which may have been a reason for the communist coup). Then, Nimeri suddenly decides to have a National Peacemaking Initiative and invites the opposition back to the country and the government, further alienating his comrades. Again, it is noted here how the author describes his disagreement which sounds more like jealousy than genuine distrust (subjective opinion).

Between 1972 and 1979 an important economic period unfolded, with good progress being made in the country’s infrastructure in all fields, which makes me wonder why little if any credit is given to Nimeri in terms of economic growth. Probably because of what happened later; failure to obtain funding for the projects and for buying stuff, and rising interest from debt, leading to pressure from the International Monetary Fund on Sudan to devaluate its currency for the first time in history – a decision which was made by the Socialist Union which had no technical expertise – and which caused an uproar. The Sudanese pound dropped from 3 USD per pound in 1979, to 1USD per 2.5 Sudanese pounds in 1985! Someone calculate this percentage please. Furthermore, people packed whatever foreign currency they had in their suitcases and siphoned it out of the country, draining the national reserve, and of course the black market flourished and inflation blew through the roof.
Then, after a lot more drama, came the September laws in 1983, which is a long story for another day; but just to mention that the abrupt Islamization of government rule was an almost solitary decision made by Nimeri in consultation with 3 obscure individuals he met somewhere by coincidence, and which was the last nail driven in the coffin of the revolution, which was overthrown by the people less than 2 years later.
The second part in this book serves to highlight specific incidences encountered by the author and what they meant to him and to the Revolution, and more or else serve to show how humane, patriotic and genuine the Revolution and its people were, and how they had always worked towards the greater good. Even Nimeri had good intentions but was ‘surrounded by bad people’. The third part is a collection of documents, declarations and letters (which I didn’t read).

The book:
It was well written but full of editing and typographical errors, unnecessary footnotes that serve no clear purpose, and much repetition. I blame this on the editing and publishing house, but understand that the book was published after the author’s death and so maybe they weren’t too keen on editing too much. Still not excuse for all the typos.

The writer:
I understand this is an autobiography of someone very well known for his role in an extremely controversial era of Sudanese history, so the defensiveness and bias is expected. He makes a point of clearly distancing himself from the ‘bad guys’; i.e. the communists, and from Nimeri himself after the latter had gone bad. He makes a lot of effort to show that the ‘true colours’ of the revolution were truly patriotic. He conveniently skims over details of several key issues such as the cleansing of the civil service, and discusses the confiscation policies in terms of their alleged justifications. No mention of how the government dealt with the leaders of the SCP, especially Abdel Khaliq Mahgoub. And there is no mention at all of the imprisonment and death of the father of Sudan’s independence, Alzaim Alazhari!
Also, I find the obvious dissatisfaction of being repeatedly distanced from Nimeri and others being made favourites to undermine his judgment and portrayal of what was really happening. His own summary of the reasons weakening the revolution are:
-          Downsizing the Revolution Council from 10 to 7 members (after ousting the communists)
-          The 1971 coup
-          The National Peace Treaty and inviting the opposition back into government
-          The September laws

-          In terms of socialist ideology, how well of a fit was this to the Sudanese context?
-          What is the communists’ side of this story?
-          What similarities and differences does the May Revolution share with the Inqaz?
o   Both were allegedly as a response to an unjust and inefficient rule. But that’s everyone excuse: between Independence and 1989 there were 9 coups/coup attempts: 2 by Shannan and a third later with Almirghani, Nimeri, Hashim Alatta, Hassan Hussein, the Libyan/opposition attempt, Siwar Eldahab, and finally the Al-Bashir/Al-Turabi. That’s quite a lot of dissatisfaction.
o   Despite being backed by two opposing ideological extremes, the army proved its incapability to either work in perfect harmony with its political brain, or to completely free itself from its hold, and hence to rule at all. Does this mean that a democratically elected civil government is a better solution for ruling the country?
o   At some point the same ridiculous excuses are given: Nimeri was a good person surrounded by bad people. Al-Bashir is a good person surrounded by bad people! Both were/are genuine at heart but corrupted by power and bad advice. But while Nimeri still had the power and strong-headedness to make his own erratic decisions, Al-Bashir is more of a puppet kept in power for other people’ use.
o   One key difference between the 2 regimes is the ideology and the popular base; while socialism as an economic drive may have had its positive points, it has proven no match for the emotional and theological blackmail in the form of the Islamist rule used by the Inqaz. It proves that you cannot buy the loyalty of the people no matter how much you do for them, but you can trap them in their beliefs that refusing your rule is refusing religion. Therefore the strength of the Muslim Brotherhood lies not only in their extremely organized and solid base and their having infiltrated every corner and niche, but in the ideological power they hold over the masses – something May did not and would never have had.
Were the factors leading to economic collapse the same in both cases? No; in May there was widespread and undeniable construction and establishment of key structures, which the author states as the actual reason behind collapse. Possibly better planning or better financial advice may have lessened the drastic effects of this? Another setback for having politicians and army officials in positions that need technical and educated brains. In the current case however, we have dismantling of the major structures such as the railroads, marine transport system, agricultural schemes etc and complete reliance on the lately discovered oil, and of course corruption. But for the sake of discussion let's leave the 'subjective' issues out and focus on the erroneous policies and what we can learn from them.


  1. Did the writer by any chance mention his role in the international Olympic committee and the corrupt payments he received along with other members?

    1. Nope, does that make it lying by omission?

  2. Did he mention his role in the olympics committee?

  3. Interesting to read your overview about the book, here I would barely want to reveal what comes to my mind when I was reading by, I think we as a Sudanese educated literate youth have to shed a light of this historical things to ensure all those military previous mistakes wont gonna happen again or take place of our future lifetime, In my own opinion education and awareness are the keys we were missing for the whole past 60 years, by doing what you kindly did here and more, I suppose we can achieve something good soon, so do your best and others gonna follow eventually.

    BTW, I loved the "economic collapse" conclusion thing, maybe this is the direct reason of what is all going on military coups and political elite greed... etc there were an evident known projections that allegedly say that top chief commanders of middle east armies had influenced by secretary of defense or secret service representatives of USA and USSR and may be also China (when other EU countries rely on politicans). so we can simply spot the similarities of the coup regimes tendencies or their corruption and linking it the economy because of the intense usage of these developing countries with the big giant economists.


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